***SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT***I have a bit of a liking for dystopian novels. I think it's partly that they're often so grim that whatever your life is like at the moment it's guaranteed to feel better after a wander through a broken world. Also some of the novels that have had the greatest impact on me have been from this genre. They can be upsetting, but they rarely fail to move you. Look, for example, at the brilliant Never let me go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which haunted me.
In a rather different way I was struck by the Drowned World of J.G. Ballard. My introduction to Ballard wasn't via his science-fiction novels but through the wartime epic Empire of the Sun in which a young boy, separated from his parents, struggles to survive in war-torn Shanghai, and then through a series of prison camps. For a child, I guess this sort of dystopian world is not really that different from the more clearly weird worlds of Drowned World or Never let me go. Children are remarkably adaptable to a changing environment, in the same way that the adult characters have to adapt to major changes in a dystopian novel. What's particularly fascinating about these two Ballard novels is that Empire of the sun was closely based on Ballard's own experiences as a child growing up in the Shanghai of the 1940s. And the shadow of that childhood underpinned the world of the Drowned World.
Where I think dystopian novels are at their most powerful is when you realise that they're actually not that far away from the life we live now. Everyday life in our everyday world can change suddenly and dramatically forever, and for me, I think it is this, that makes this type of novel so powerful when it's well written. It's not just about an alien world, it's about life as it is now. I don't think any dystopian novel does this quite as well as Julie Myerson's Then - a novel that actually gave me nightmares (you have been warned). It's bleak and troubling and difficult to read, yet it's also enormously rewarding, and very cleverly written.
The novel is told in the first person by an unnamed woman, who is struggling to survive in some kind of post-holocaust London. It's not clear exactly what has happened, except that life changed suddenly, probably in a similar way to Day of the Triffids, and that small groups of survivors are forced to band together against the violence and death that stalk the streets of what was once a great city. The central character has memory loss, and so her perception of events is often as muddled as the reader's, and it becomes hard to know how much you can trust anything she says, not least because she's not the most likeable of characters. However as the novel progresses, she does remember more; and this is where the novel ceases to be a simple tale of a dystopian future and reaches into the here and now.
It gradually becomes clear that immediately before the events that brought catastrophe to the city, there was a major personal catastrophe in the heroine's life. So.....what exactly are we reading about? Are we reading about a dystopian world of the future, or are we reading about a mental breakdown in the here and now, and the dislocation of reality that can cause? Is it an internal dystopian world, no less tragic and alienating to the person who's affected by it? Or is it perhaps a combination of both? Here, the likeability of the character becomes important too - is she truly unpleasant, or is this her own distorted view of reality?
What starts off as being a fairly run-of-the-mill if well written sci-fi story turns into something much more powerful, and all the more upsetting for that. The fact that it gave me nightmares actually says an awful lot for the power of this novel. It's strong stuff, but I don't think you will have ever read anything quite like Julie Myerson's Then. She has both a unique voice, and an unusual take on reality, quite unforgettable.