Dystopian Survival – Where Reality Sneaks In


First published on The Bookstop – Dystopian Survival – Where Reality Sneaks In

I recently completed a new novel, only my second, which has survival after a cataclysm as its theme. I was drawn to write such a novel due to my dissatisfaction which the portrayal of such events, especially in modern film, and literature, where if it’s not zombies it needs to be vampires. I am not criticising the authors of such works or the readers who like the material, I just came away dissatisfied on several levels.

Firstly, the cataclysmic event itself, secondly, the progress of the cataclysm, and finally, the survivors actions to survive.The event itself is a matter for science, or fantasy, or ignored in some dystopias. For examples I turn to Mad Max (1979) or Waterworld (1995), as films, the change is ignored, likewise The Island (2005) or even back to Logan’s Run (1976).What changed in society or the world to make this happen? This is not explained, or thought through, there is little science in the Science Fiction. In my own book I have tried to explain the virus and also added how it has managed to spread so quickly. Where we have large asteroids Deep Impact, (1998) or apocalyptic weather change The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or alien invasion, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951 and 2008), I have been left with a feeling the writers and film makers do not go far enough. What happens next? In my own story the selection of the survivors is unknown because there are so few, as the disease I envisage is genetic and viral in nature, and already well underway by the time the Authorities notice. There is no Ark to save humanity, no time to find a cure. I use the AIDS example of long-term research well funded that has not found a cure – yet. Hollywood, and by implication the script writers, or the novels the script writers have based their stories on, tend to simplify the actions of Governments and other authorities when dealing with major incidents or disasters. Governments are not all seeing and pervasive, even in police states. They are all dependent on information fed to them and can only act on what they know and the probabilities of what might happen.

They may have political overtones in the policies they pursue, but events overtake them. In my story, the water and sewage issues may seem trivial, and never seem to be mentioned in other books, but the western developed world is used to clean, available hygienic toilets and fresh clean water, when this is not available I do not believe anyone fully grasps the impact. Typhoid in a major western city is a frightening thought. Likewise food distribution is so intricate in a modern society that food shortages would start very quickly. The collapse of the financial system is also skipped over in many dystopian scenarios. Currency is no more than an I Owe You note backed by a government guarantee. We all go to supermarkets to get our food, how would we get food if money is not acceptable. Barter, knowledge, work, sex, what would an individual have to exchange to get food and water.The progress of the epidemic or disease is skipped over in nearly all these events, unless it is the wham bang variety of action, which allows the CGI departments of Hollywood movie studios to show their talents. A notable exception is Contagion (2011) which certainly influenced me to research viral disease spread. The Day After Tomorrow focuses its human interest on the race to rescue New York survivors. There is a novelisation The Sixth Winter, but written after the event , or its non-fictional start as The Coming Global Superstorm (ISBN 0-671-04190-8), what was missing, I felt, was a novel that covered the progress; so I decided to try and write one. For many ideas the people issues become the centre of the plot, but the reactions of all seem to disagree with reality.

We only have major disasters to help us understand, as there has not been a cataclysmic event in written history. We have had many major disasters from natural impacts, but not on the scale imagined in these and my book. For the asteroid impacts, even the dinosaurs took millions of years to be wiped out; if that is what started their decline? For human reaction we have events like the holocaust, earthquakes, and tsunamis to guide us. Life goes on, and there were many earthquakes and tidal waves, famines, volcanic eruptions, floods. World wars and global epidemics impact only a few of the world’s population or specific geographic areas. In modern times if it is not reported, it did not happen. Two hundred years ago a viral infection in central Asia or Africa would not have been noticed, and for all we know, could have killed tens of thousands. The human pattern of surviving, despite the grief that is clearly apparent following a major disaster, has always been enabled and helped by other survivors. The bubonic plagues of the middle ages directly impacted the European populations leading to changes in society. In the case of the plague, and in my theory, it is the inability of society to cope that is the story. We are taught to believe that our government, society, community, or church, are blessed with extraordinary capabilities to solve problems.

To succeed these organisations depend on the technology and communications of the age. Without our modern encumbrances we would struggle. For an example from my book, Governments communicate their orders via networks of computers and phones. If one breaks they rely on network or telephone technicians to fix the link. What if there are no technicians left? Very quickly we would be back to messenger services that take time, but what about the messengers. Villages protected themselves in plague days by closing gates. If the plague was not in the enclosure when they started then they survived, if not they suffered.More in line with my own plotting are the two BBC Survivors stories based on 95% human population disappearing. The second series in two seasons ran 2006 to 2010 was essentially a re-make of the 1975-1977 original. The premise is of massive population loss; my dissatisfaction is that a secret government remains, why they are immune, is never explained.Jeremiah a Showtime TV series from 2002 to 2004 focus on survivors that were under the age of puberty. I will not go into the issues of plot that do not stand up, but suffice to comment that 15 years after the cataclysm the new adults seem to have skills they could not have learned before or during the epidemic that kills all the adults, apart from the secret Government adults that is. What I did like is that the survivors wanted to rebuild, which is the main focus of my story.

I Am Legend, I like for its scene setting especially the depiction of the decaying cities, in the 2007 film, but why would the hero stay in a deserted city centre, that is not explained, where is his water coming from and his power his sewage disposal, why be in an apartment up flights of stairs, good for defending against zombies but useless and impractical for survival. Of course the zombie plot, creates my dissatisfaction with the 1957 short novel as well as the 2007 film.

Survival becomes the main interest for me, how do survivors survive? How do they cope with loneliness and grief? Where do they go to the toilet, do they know how to dig a latrine? How about baking bread, but they would need yeast and flower and power in the form of heat? Where does the grain come from to make the flour? What does wheat look like, and how does it grow? How did the survivors find this out? Hundreds of years ago, the bulk of the human population were farmers or hunter gatherers. How many people in the world now know how to grow wheat? How many know how to catch kill and butcher a chicken or a fish? That’s if they know how to find one and catch one. Fuel may last, but it will become contaminated, and how many people know how to wire up a generator to a house? The numbers who have this knowledge in our current society are very small in percentages, and those that do have this knowledge do not have the ability to survive a genetic virus? For the survivors to survive they need knowledge, if we become totally reliant on the Internet for our manuals and books what happens when the Internet stops. Which book has the necessary information? Many people cannot wire a plug let alone a solar panel or wind turbine.

The plague in the middle ages attacked the rich and poor, many of the rich could escape because they could travel, the same was not true of the flu epidemic of 1918/19, which killed more people than the First World War it followed. As a western society we have become ever more interdependent and specialist. If we are manufacturers, we work in large factories where materials arrive and are assembled into other parts. How would the survivors start from scratch after supplies run out? These are the questions I wanted in my story and I wanted to try and answer.

The most important element though remains the human story, who would survive mentally, and how would they behave themselves and to each other? We do know from survivors in real life that human beings can do extraordinary things to survive, and immensely stupid things that prevent their survival. Is this Darwinism in action, intelligence, education, or just luck? I cover suicide and the bravery of individuals in my book, when there really is no hope, will many end their lives rather than burden others or suffer a long painful drawn out death. This goes to the heart of the euthanasia debate and the impact of modern medical science, where we can extend life, but cannot necessarily improve the quality of that life. Medication can prevent rapid deaths from disease, and in return the patient suffers an extension of life, but probably in pain and without their former capabilities. If medical treatment were not available, in my scenario, then what would a survivor do? As time goes on the reliability of remaining technology will reduce. An example, car tyres, how long do they last unused on vehicles or even in a storeroom? With no new manufacturing available, how long will any other technologies last? Electronics maybe ten years, engines maybe twenty, the long life examples we have in current society are reliant on modern spare parts or replacements. When there is nothing new in a showroom, or the stuff in the showroom has rotted and decayed, then what?

Is survival just about ruthlessness? How do the vestiges of the former society impact on the survivors, morally as well as practically? I have tried not to hide some of the brutal or morally agnostic elements in my fictional account. If surviving men are physically stronger will they exploit their power to the detriment of women? Will women accept subjugation in order to survive including rape and abuse? In my story I twist this, in that there are more women than men surviving; however, that will not stop some men. Society’s morals will be pushed, what was unacceptable, may have to be accepted in order to survive. In the end it is just that, it’s not a treatise on humanity, it’s a fictional story; I hope you enjoy it.

To The Survivors by Philip G Henley is published by Phenweb Publishing and is available on Kindle and Paperback