A Dystopia That Wasn’t

“Can you write about the future these days without it being apocalyptic?” Jason Heller wondered after reading Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. Of course, you can, and people do, but in a very particular intersection of “literary fiction” and “science fiction,” the books that have gotten the most attention are dystopian. It isn’t that surprising, when we think about it: dystopian futures are defined by adversity, adversity creates challenge, and challenge generates drama. Where’s the dramatic tension in a world where everything’s worked out fine and we’ve all gotten everything we want, right? (At least, that’s how the easy logic works.)

Byrne sets her novel in a late 21st century that’s far from comfortable but, apart from an implied sea level rising due to global warming, isn’t all that much more dystopian than the world of 2014. The balance of political and cultural power may have shifted (“Africa is the new India, after India became the new America”), but the violent factionalism of Byrne’s world is indistinguishable from our own. The true crises in the novel are interior, emotional. When we first meet Meena, one of the novel’s two central characters, she’s fleeing from her apartment in Kerala and, believing that a terrorist organization is hunting her down, tries to kill herself by jumping in front of an oncoming train. After she’s rescued, she decides to head to Mumbai and, from there, makes plans to cross the Arabian Sea on foot to her Ethiopian homeland. That’s not as impossible as it sounds, because there’s a long string of hydrogen superconductors stretched out across the water, collecting energy; that said, it’s illegal and highly dangerous, and the journey will exacerbate Meena’s already unbalanced emotional state.

The novel’s other narrative thread focuses on Mariama, an escaped slave who meets some friendly caravan drivers and joins them on a trek across Africa, approaching Ethiopia from the opposite direction as Meena. Looking back at this journey from the perspective of her childhood, Mariama’s perspective is limited, and her experiences traumatize her in ways that she can recognize but not necessarily articulate clearly, even to herself. From the very beginning, Byrne hints that there’s a connection between her story and Meena’s, and you’ll likely be able to figure out just how the two arcs will intersect some time before both women’s lives spiral towards their unsettling climaxes.

Climaxes which, to circle back to my initial point, ultimately don’t rely upon the novel’s “dystopian” features for their narrative momentum. The setting is less important here than the emotional dynamics, and those dynamics could just as easily play out in contemporary settings. In that sense, then, The Girl in the Road is not a post-apocalyptic novel at all, but a contemporary drama with just enough futuristic flourishes that it can straddle the line between mainstream fiction and science fiction.

Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Station Eleven, does have a clear post-apocalyptic strain to it, one that may be familiar if you read Edan Lepucki’s California at the beginning of the summer. Familiar, but not derivative; besides the fact that Lepucki’s world was torn apart by extreme weather and Emily’s is ravaged by a superflu, Emily finds her own approach to making sense of a world where so much has been lost, and the survivors try to piece together a life with what remains. (Though, as the traveling caravan at the center of one of the novel’s threads paints on the side of one of its vehicles, “survival is insufficient.”) I can’t review Station Eleven because I’m actually not finished reading it yet, though I love everything I’ve read so far—but also because I know Emily just well enough that you might reasonably question my objectivity in recommending this book to you. Take that into consideration, if you’re concerned about such things, but then I hope you’ll go ahead and read the novel.

Back in April, writing about this year’s best novel shortlist for the Nebulas, I had some doubts about whether Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves should be considered science fiction—but, I emphasized, it was a fantastic novel, period. And the judges of this year’s Man Booker Prize agree: In the first year that American writers have become eligible to be nominated for the prize, Fowler is one of two to make it onto the shortlist. (The other is Joshua Ferris, for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.) Her book is the only one of the six nominees I’ve had a chance to read so far, though I’ve been hearing tremendous things about Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and am also very eager to read Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others.

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

10 September 2014 | read this |