Like most people my age I read the ubiquitous ‘big three’ dystopian novels (Atwood, Huxley, Orwell) in year 9 English and wrote some execrable essays about characterisation in them. Thanks to the pre-internet generosity of my teacher (and because she suspected it might be a good way of weaning me off the pulp space-operas I ploughed through by the shelf) I also walked around with Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker in my vast hold-all. (I carried every book for every subject with me at all times because I was terrified of forgetting one). Perhaps the two which made the biggest impact on me – deep cuts from my newly-qualified teacher’s collection – were We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. The latter is a novel so spiritually horrifying that the author interjects towards the end to remind us that it isn’t real.
While I never intended to write one, the uneasy pleasure of dystopian novels has always been a part of my inner life. Bend Sinister, the first novel Nabokov wrote in English, is set in the fictional city of Padukgrad, wherein power has been seized by a new leader (Paduk) who promises to improve, if not apotheosise, the lives of ordinary people. The protagonist is a famous philosopher, Adam Krug, whose wife dies in hospital in the opening chapter. Krug is under institutional and political pressure to support the party and & endorse their message. He refuses, as Paduk gradually imprisons and eliminates his colleagues, friends, associates and eventually his young son, whom he accidentally murders. If I was trying to be topical I’d say it was a good novel for our time, but I don’t know. We seem to be pretty good at imagining the future without fiction. Naïve optimism for myself, totalitarian, technological and environmental apocalypse for the world. Also my dog survives.
In his later introduction, Nabokov dismisses the high concept stuff in favour of the beating heart: “The story of Bend Sinister is not really about life and death in a grotesque police state […] all of them are only absurd mirages, illusions oppressive to Krug during his brief spell of being, but harmlessly fading away when I dismiss the cast. The main theme, then, is the beating of Krug’s loving heart, the torture an intense tenderness is subjected to – and it is for the sake of the pages about David and his father that the book was written and should be read.” Nabokov is always particularly astute on the reasons his writing is better than anyone else’s, and it’s that sense of love as defiance which still screams urgently out of the novel.
In an initial draft The Transition wasn’t a dystopia at all, it was just set in the vague present, with the Transition’s remedial self-improvement scheme plonked into a fundamentally unchanged country. It’s probably worth acknowledging that it was written pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, and also that the novel’s paranoia is essentially inward-looking, endemic. It was a key early decision to pitch it further forwards, but only slightly – certainly not as much as ten years – because things needed to reach a more palpable crisis point, albeit one which is already a reality for many. Things don’t move that fast. I had no intention of competing with the visionary work of William Gibson, or with his cutting-edge present-day prognostications in the Pattern Recognition trilogy. It was surface stuff, really: driverless cars, little improvements to smart phones and tablets, self-replenishing smart-fridges and cupboards… I was more interested, I suppose, in two social factors.
The first was university education, an opportunity afforded to my father in the early 70s because, at 16, he was a genius at learning languages. Under similar conditions I, a genius at precisely nothing, wouldn’t have got a look in. Being part of the vast increase in access to higher education, I’m one of many who has/had expectations, of ourselves and of our opportunities. We also don’t have the kind of financial safety-net which the small previous generation of graduates had because (again, for the vast majority) our parents spent, sacrificed and gave up most of what they had in order to raise us and give us the chances we’ve been lucky to enjoy. There’s a kind of lower-middle class pattern where we graduate, try to leave home, screw up in several different ways, potentially bankrupt ourselves and then move back in with our parents to recuperate. And this made me think of the (perhaps increasing) majority for whom that isn’t an option either. What are you going to do? Turn down the wall-papered conservatory bedsit for £1,200 a month? These are people in their 20s and 30s with demanding full-time careers, earning salaries on which you used to be able to support a family. I think if it’s not possible to do that on, for instance, a teacher’s salary anymore (and it really, really isn’t), we need to ask ourselves what that says about us as a society, and what we value.
So the other issue to pitch forwards was, naturally, housing. It’s a basic economic fact that if food prices had inflated at the same rate as the income-to-house-price ratio, a loaf of bread would cost the best part of twenty quid. I hope I can say this without sounding stupid or bitter (some of my best friends are home-owners): Property ownership is going to be the single meaningful class distinction in the UK in the coming decades. We can pretend that it’s a generational difference in character, work-ethic, dental hygiene, but that’s window-dressing.
I hoped that I could write something which dramatized those conditions while simultaneously acknowledging my own sense of entitlement, privilege and self-sabotage. (And also steering clear of buzzwords like “millennials” which make my stomach churn). I didn’t want the aspirational elements of The Transition to seem dismissive. If your dream is to make millions designing tableware, that’s great, but it’s daft to pretend you’re not going to leave a lot of failed tableware designers in your wake. The scheme’s solution overlooks the fact that most of us are punters rather than providers; we have to be, otherwise the providers wouldn’t make any money. Just as any profit made on the stock exchange is someone else’s loss, someone else’s life-savings evaporating.
The bottom-line of creeping privatisation is large-scale disenfranchisement. An unspoken philosophy that if you are worried about the future of the NHS or state schooling, or welfare then you should make money, make money, make money. Opt out. Go private. Insulate yourself and those you’re responsible for and watch the whole thing go to hell from a safe distance. And god help those of us who are sick, or become sick, or have mental health issues. What were we thinking when we chose not to become wealthy entrepreneurs?
Words by Luke Kennard