What with recent events and world political developments, it’s not really surprising that there’s an interest in dystopian fiction. Sales of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and of George Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed, and those are just two examples.
Dystopian fiction can show us the selves we don’t want to believe could exist. And, when it’s done well, it can provoke discussion, and bring frightening possibilities to a very human level. Little wonder that it’s found a place in literature.
There’s an argument that The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 could ‘count’ as crime novels. Certainly, there are crimes committed in both. But dystopia figures into other novels, too, including novels more generally considered crime fiction.
For instance, Isaac Asimov created a short series of novels featuring New York homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. He lives in a dystopian society of the future, where the population has grown, and people live in huge, domed cities that are more like fortresses than today’s cities. Everyone is assigned living quarters and other resources based on status. Everything is scarce, though; so, although no-one starves, very few people live really well. There are communal areas for eating, hygiene and entertainment, so there’s also very little privacy. And the number of children any couple is permitted to have depends on that couple’s IQ ratings, Genetic Value, and employment status. Baley and his wife have a decent standard of living, because they have high IQs, and Baley has a job with some status. Still, life isn’t easy. It’s against this backdrop that Baley and his police partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, investigate crimes. If you’re interested, the Baley novels are: The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn.
Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight tell the story of the Sutherland family. Andy Sutherland, his wife, Jenny, and their two children, are caught up in the global upheaval that results when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately cut off. When it first happens, the family happens to be scattered, and the members try desperately to re-unite. We also see how the family tries to cope in a world with no access to oil. Later, Jenny Sutherland becomes the leader of a small group of survivors who’ve made a home on a former North Sea oil rig. When the group learns that another group, living in London’s Millennium Dome, may have access to oil, it sets off a whole chain of events, some of them tragic.
Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman introduces police detective Hank Palace. In this trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble), the dystopia has resulted from an impending collision with a large asteroid. With certain destruction in the offing, world economies have collapsed, infrastructures are crumbling, and there’s very little day-to-day government. Most people don’t see the point of living a ‘regular’ life, since the asteroid is expected to hit in six months. But Palace continues to try to do his job. In this series, it’s interesting to see how people respond to the imminent catastrophe. Many local governments have simply ceased to exist, and there’s not an easy way to get ‘normal’ things done. Even as Palace investigates, there’s the question of why to bother.
In Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, we meet writer Tapani Lehtinen. He’s concerned about his journalist wife, Johanna, because he hasn’t heard from her in more than twenty-four hours. She was following a lead on a story, so at first, he wasn’t very worried. But now, a whole day has gone by with no word from her. Lehtinen knows he’s not going to get much help from the police, though. The Helsinki in which this novel is set has come close to descending into chaos. Climate change has meant that millions of refugees from other parts of the world have poured in. The police are badly understaffed, and can’t even do much to solve major crimes, let alone look for one missing person. In fact, the only real security comes from expensive and corrupt private security companies, which most people can’t afford. Gangs roam freely, and life has gotten so bad that everyone who can leave the city has done so, and moved north. With so little infrastructure, Lehtinen decides to try to find Johanna on his own. He believes that, if he follows up on the story she was investigating, he’ll be able to find her. That choice gets him into real danger as he uncovers the story she was tracking.
And then there’s A.R. Shaw’s Graham’s Resolution series. These novels feature former math professor Graham Morgan, who’s lost his entire family to a pandemic that killed all but 2% of the world’s population. In the first novel, The China Pandemic, Morgan is trying to cope with the loss of his family members, especially his father. He’s also trying to get and keep the basic things he needs to survive, without being killed by someone else who wants those things. Then, unexpectedly, he’s approached by a woman named Hyun-Ok, who’s near death from the illness that’s swept the world. She asks Morgan to look after her son, Bang, who seems to be immune. At first, he refuses, but she insists, and it’s clear that the boy has no-one else. Morgan finally agrees, and he and Bang set off to his father’s cabin, where he’s hoping he’ll be able to carve out a safer existence for him and the boy. With no infrastructure and desperate people, you can imagine that the danger they face doesn’t come only from the virus.
Dystopian crime fiction can take several forms, as authors explore different possibilities. Some novels have an added purpose of making a statement – a ‘wake up call,’ if you will – and some don’t. Whatever form a dystopian crime novel takes, it can invite the reader to reflect and think about human nature. These are only a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Miami 2017.