Category Archives: George Orwell

Que Bonita es Barcelona*

Writers are like everyone else: we are products of our times, and we live through events as the rest of the world does. And those events sometimes have a real impact on us. Well, they do on me, at any rate.

And therein lies the issue. Like millions of others, I am heartbroken about the loss of life and the devastation in Barcelona. I’ve been there. I’ve walked down its streets and explored its history (did you know that Barcelona is home to Europe’s oldest synagogue?). So, there’s a really personal sense of loss. I felt the same way about what happened in London before that. And in Charlottesville. And in Manchester, although I admit I’ve not been there. And in other places, too. This has been, so far, a terrible year in terms of the awful things people can do to each other.

The thing is, I’m a writer. Writers are, in general, observers. That’s part of what we do. And we can’t help seeing what goes on around us (am I right, fellow writers?). The question is, what do we do with it? How do writers cope with some of the awfulness of life that we can’t help seeing?

Some writers speak out about it. That’s what Margaret Atwood has done in The Handmaid’s Tale. She herself has said that everything that happens in that novel has happened, or is happening, in real life. She’s used those things as inspiration, and brought a lot of things to our notice. Perhaps this novel isn’t, strictly speaking, a crime novel, but crimes are certainly committed in it.

They are in George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, too. Like Atwood, Orwell spoke out about what he observed, and used what he saw to inspire his writing. And there’ve been many crime writers who’ve done the same. Attica Locke, Kishwar Desai, Antti Tuomainen and Sara Paretsky are only a few examples of authors who’ve been deeply affected by major issues like poverty, racism, and climate change, and have discussed them in their writing. I know you’ll think of many more.

Other writers have made other choices. For instance, Agatha Christie lived through two world wars. She was tragically familiar with wartime shortages, the loss of people she knew, and so on. In fact, she safeguarded both Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written during World War II, in case she didn’t survive it.

And yet, if you read Christie’s work, you see comparatively little discussion of the real costs of war. She certainly mentions war and its losses in books such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Taken at the Flood and some other work, too. But her stories really focus on the mysteries at hand, the characters involved, and so on. And in some books, such as Five Little Pigs, there’s no mention of the war at all, although that particular novel was published in 1942.

Christie isn’t the only author who didn’t really write about what she was living through at the time. The ‘Queen Team’ also wrote during World War II. Calamity Town, for instance was published in 1942. And yet, you don’t see a lot of discussion of war losses, shortages and so on. In fact, Calamity Town doesn’t really mention World War II at all.

Every writer is different, of course. Some deal with their sense of grief and loss and heartbreak through their writing. Others prefer to escape those sorrows and write other sorts of stories. Still others are motivated in different ways. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to cope, to be honest.

What do you folks think? If you’re a reader, are you comfortable with books in which the author explores the raw grief, anger and heartbreak that go with war, terrorism, loss, and sorrow? Or does that keep you too close to it all? If you’re a writer, do you deal with your sense of anger and grief at these horrible events by writing? Or do you use your writing to go (and take the reader) elsewhere?

As for me, I can’t answer that question right now – at least about the terrorism we’ve seen lately. It’s too recent. But just because I’m not writing about the heartbreak doesn’t mean I’m not feeling it…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Manuel Moreno. In English (my translation) the title means: How beautiful Barcelona is.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Antti Tuomainen, Attica Locke, Ellery Queen, George Orwell, Kishwar Desai, Margaret Atwood, Sara Paretsky

I Saw the Mighty Skyline Fall*

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.

29 Comments

Filed under A.R. Shaw, Alex Scarrow, Antti Tuomainen, Ben Winters, George Orwell, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood