why we love dystopia

At the Byron Writers Festival this weekend a late-afternoon session titled “This Book Changed my Life” incited considerable discussion about the influence of story. Chaired by Adam Suckling with Tracey Spicer, Susan Wyndham and the vivacious Barry Jones, each panelist in turn presented pivotal books from their childhood and adult-hood, followed by a recommendation for the Prime Minister, and then a tome they believe changed the world.

Amongst the socio-political manifestos and megaliths of literature, dystopian novels featured more than any other single genre, both in the panel and in contributions from the audience after. Surprising? Perhaps not. In recent years there’s been a noticeable trend toward dystopian narratives, in fiction, graphic novels, cinema and television. Classic masters such as Phillip K. Dick, Margaret Atwood and George Orwell are returning again and again to centre stage with screen adaptations, political goofs, and a growing suspicion that these fairy tales are not so far removed from reality as we think.

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when all the good shows are really books

My reading pile is lately skewing toward the violent-moss-growing niche of tv-adptations. This may be cause for alarm but I don’t seem to care.

Here’s the top five I intend to read, or re-read, before watching their small-screen counterparts. This is by no means a comprehensive list and you may notice a certain bias emerging. Lucky for you I have great taste.

1. American Gods, Neil Gaiman

A decade ago they would’ve said it couldn’t be done. Not just with the frequent and bizarre gratuity, but because it’s rather difficult to render Gaiman’s particular brand of weirdness onscreen. Good thing these days the tv-watching masses want nothing more than weird gratuity, as long as it’s in support of fascinating characters, a smart plot, and a bit of social irony. Gaiman has updated details to reflect technology and social trends, and with three planned seasons it looks like this could be one of the good ones. Producer Bryan Fuller (of Heroes and Hannibal fame) is well equipped to bring Gaiman’s vision to life. Plus Ian McShane as Wednesday. Brilliant.

2.  The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

A classic. And another novel perfectly suited for its time in the sun. Add ‘strong female lead’ to any pitch and you’re guaranteed sun time. (Not that I’m cynical about it or anything, I am a woman after all. But, well, at some point it begins to feel a bit like they’re filling a quota. Anyway.) This exceptional novel really does deserve its hype, and Atwood had the balls to graphically expose patriarchy, legalism and sexual oppression long before such topics became a Twitter right-of-passage. Elisabeth Moss as Offred is also a timely choice, and Yvonne Strahovski feels just right after her turn on Dexter. And the famously territorial show-runners even let Atwood in on the writing team.

3. Purity, Jonathan Franzen

Apparently not Franzen’s best work – at least not critically – but still a good story, they say. Pip is a weird girl with a weird mother, and along a strange meandering tale gets drawn into an even weirder secret organisation with ties to East Germany and global conspiracies. It’s the intricacy of the plot and its handling of the maze of online information that makes this narrative worth the effort. And the search for an unknown father, and the attraction to a mysterious older man. And when that older man is Daniel Craig, well.

4. The Terror, Dan Simmons

You don’t always need “Literature” in the making of a damn good story. Simmons is a remarkably popular author of horror/sci-fi/fantasy pulp, at one point likened to Stephen King. We’ve already established that weirdness is taking centre stage in tv appeal at the moment. Add in some historical context and you have yourself a winner (Outlander, anyone?). An arctic shipwreck, survival-crazed infighting, and a mysterious monster lurking in the snow? Please.

5. Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

Ok, you got me. But I had no choice. The show is polished and thoughtfully-executed, with undoubtedly the shiniest cast on this list. Nicole Kidman. Reese Witherspoon. Shailene Woodley. Adam Scott. And because of the much-hyped twist you really have to read the book first. I’m glad I did, because the Australian nuance in the novel is masterful and endearing. I understand why they moved the narrative from Sydney to Monterey for the show but it loses some of its soul along the way. I’m not a big fan of school-mum genre, but in this case I’ll make an exception.

While there’ve been a fair slice of original stories coming out on tv, the overwhelming majority are still adaptations or narratives based on real events. The same is true of cinema. Does this speak to the lack of originality in the screen world, or the superiority of the written word as a medium of imagination? Who knows. But at the moment everyone seems to be benefiting so let’s not think about it too much.



a rare month

“But no man’s a hero to himself.”

Nostalgia has never been rendered with such bittersweet whimsy as in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the only full-length novel written by speculative master, Ray Bradbury. The adjective-laden prose, nuanced with strokes of scent and shade and breeze, is beautiful in a uniquely poetic way. Even Stephen King, with his notorious hatred of adverbs, was an ardent fan of Bradbury’s genius, admiring his stories for their “resonance and strange beauty”.

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quaint: a bromance in narrative duologue

‘Ben, what is this swill?’

‘Mercutio! Well met, my coz.’

‘I’m not your coz, coz. My mother is no relation of yours, thank the gods.’

‘But could we not be coz’s all the same.’

‘By no gods shall we be coz’s.’

‘Not even by the god of wine.’

‘The god of wine? He has left this place, he is not to be found in these darkened hipster rooms. I wish the same could be said of your beard.’

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it didn’t have to be obscene

No enigma…no dignity, nothing classical or poetic…only this.

Lately I’m researching expressionism for my work. The turn of the twentieth century saw some of the most incredible advances in the arts, sciences and technologies. At the peak of the industrial revolution, with the convergence of breakthroughs in communication and social evolution, suddenly the world was not such a big place. Instead of the global stage being dominated by Western progress and exploration, trans-oceanic cross-fertilisation inspired a fusion of worldwide knowledge and appreciation.

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the end

He holds your hand in both of his, sitting on that cracked top step, his face grim and vulnerable with tender resolution. “It’ll work out. I’ll work it out.”

You stand before him, panic quickening your heart. “What are you saying?”

“I’ll move.”

He meets your eyes, his conviction exposed, and your breath is gone. But surely he knew?

Surely he knew this was the end.

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the (super)hero’s journey

What we can learn from the rise of the caped avenger.

The hero, it seems, will never die. From the ancient empire-creating adventures of Odysseus to the poetic quests of Sir Gawain, masterpieces that have truly stood the test of time have been tantalisingly heroic. Why? People like them.

Fast-forward a millennium or two and the narrative world is overrun with neon spandex and flying shields. Almost forty superhero blockbusters have been released since 2000. One has even made it into the top ten most popular movies of all time (according to the IMDb). Guardians of the Galaxyis already at 8.5 (at time of print) placing it on the same rung as Taxi Driver, American Beauty, even Citizen Kane. And this is a movie that features Bradley Cooper (two-time Oscar nominee) as a talking raccoon.

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an all hallow’s read

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Allhallowtide, Night of the Dead, whatever you call it and however you think it came into being one thing’s for sure, it’s become a majorly lucrative chocolate-selling and movie-renting business. This year why not save your consumerist fervour for Christmas and instead stay home for a quiet evening read, with a flickering candle and a glass of brandy or something. What to read, you ask? We have just the thing.

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

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fathers: the good, the bad, & the ugly

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of fictional dads that doesn’t lead with Atticus Finch, so here he gets a category all of his own. This guy had it all. A lawyer raising two kids, teaching them to be real humans (the audacious character of Scout alone is testament to his fathering abilities) and defending the indefensible from the vilest aspects of human nature, all the while dispensing ageless advice to his children on the front porch of their Alabama home.

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