What is dystopian fiction?

New-York-Ruins_Extraordinary-End-of-The-World-Inspired-Artworks

I get rather frustrated by how many times I see people misusing the word ‘dystopian’ (sometimes wrongly called ‘dystopic’). I thought it might be worthwhile putting down a definition for those who are interested in learning more.

Let’s start with the basics. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a ‘dystopia’ as:

An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding about the word, as though it relates to a world where things are merely bad, or even just different, or set in the future. Readers and writers should ask themselves what kind of book they’ve read recently in which something wasn’t bad. The nature of fiction and drama is rooted in conflict. Therefore the protagonist will always find themselves in a ‘bad’ situation. That’s what fiction is about.

A dystopia is an extreme example of this. Think of “The Hunger Games”. This series for young adults is set in a future where the world is a wreck, where society has largely collapsed, where the majority of people live in oppressed poverty and a few live in perfect luxury. This is a dystopia. Things are really bad, all the time. It may be set in the future, or in an alternate version of today, or in another world altogether. A classic example is “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, where people are oppressed by a totalitarian regime and in some cases don’t even know it, or have forgotten. (When the book was written in 1949, the year 1984 was the future). People are always watched, and their very thoughts are monitored. Dissenters are harshly punished. Similar novels are “Fahrenheit 451” (or you may have seen the great film “Equilibrium”), or Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta”.

Contrast with, say, a novel about war. War is very bad, but the world is not a dystopian world. It’s just an unhappy place with some hellish things going on. But imagine a world where war covers everything, where there are no safe places to hide, where there are no governments or civilizations left. That’s a dystopia, like the future world of the “Terminator” film series.

For a deeper understanding, we can look at the source of the word. It comes from the ancient Greek words for “bad place”. It is the opposite of a utopia, which actually means “not place” – because it refers to a perfect, ideal world that doesn’t exist. It may have been confused with a similar-sounding Greek word for “good” – eutopia, not utopia. There aren’t many books that are about true utopias because – as I pointed out above – fiction requires drama and conflict to be interesting and worthwhile. A perfect world would probably be pretty boring! And so often a dystopian world comes from a supposed utopian society, where certain people consider the world to be perfect, but actually underneath things are terrible. The world of “Nineteen Eight-Four” is actually a broken utopia, which in many ways is the same as a dystopia.

Dystopian societies are often ones that encourage people not to feel, or to speak out of turn. In the real world we recognise this as being silly – feeling is a part of being human – but philosophers around the world acknowledge that much of the bad things in our world happen because of emotional reasons. A science fiction writer might want to describe a ‘perfect’ world in which emotions or wrong words don’t cause offense, unrest or wars. Many dystopian novels address the issue of identity, and what it means for that to be suppressed. Invariably though, the characters in those books rebel. They want the freedom to be human. These worlds are often therefore bubbling underneath with violence waiting to happen.

Here are some great examples of dystopian fiction:

  • The Iron Heel, Jack London
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • Judge Dredd, the comic 2000AD
  • V for Vendetta, Alan Moore
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick
  • We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  • The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
  • Divergent, Veronica Roth
  • The Drowned World, J G Ballard

In film, you could watch:

  • Robocop
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Blade Runner (based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”)
  • Divergent
  • The Hunger Games
  • I Am Legend
  • The Matrix
  • WALL-E
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Terminator Salvation
  • Equilibrium
  • V for Vendetta

Dystopian fiction is a great way to not only tell a great story, but also to highlight the things that are wrong with our world today. It might be how we rely too much on technology, or how corporations are running the world, or about how we are destroying the planet. Many dystopian fiction books feature ecological disasters that have made the Earth almost unlivable, making life hell for everybody. Sometimes this is a freak of nature, but often it’s a man-made problem. The books are holding a mirror up to our world to remind us what we’re doing wrong, and make us try to change things before it’s too late.

Feel free to comment with other examples of dystopian fiction, or to ask questions!

—db

How to fail at writing a novel (pt.2)

writers-blockA few weeks ago I asked struggling writers to get to grips with their genre before attempting to tackle the arduous, intimidating task of writing a novel. You can read part 1 of my ‘how to fail at writing a novel’ series here.

This month there’s a lot of ‘news’ in the literary world about E.L.James’ forthcoming bestseller, “Grey”, the companion to her “Fifty Shades” series. This time she’s telling the story from her male protagonist’s perspective.

I considered pre-ordering the book, for about a whole minute. I would love to see James flourish into a competent author, in much the same way as I saw J.K.Rowling’s writing mature and improve. Then I remembered how utterly, irrevocably shit “Fifty Shades of Grey” was, and I couldn’t bear the thought of slogging through another 500 pages of ill-written tripe. I would dearly have loved to read “Grey” so that I could express, from a first-hand perspective, how awful it is, just as I did with “Fifty Shades” (Yes, I’ve read it, and no, it’s not worth the minimal energy expenditure it takes to open the cover, let alone read to the ‘end’).

Instead I realised that it was an opportunity to talk about a key issue in literature, and something that should be everyone’s foremost concern at every stage of writing their masterpiece.

2. Don’t be original

“Fifty Shades” and its pointless sequels are a perfect example of doing a novel wrong. Of course, E.L.James is now a millionaire, despite single-handedly destroying feminism, diluting the self-publishing pool with the trash she inspires, and being yet another person who is famous for being talentless. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. These three issues worry me greatly, particularly the first two.

I have no intention of retreading old ground by talking about the appalling pacing, terrible writing and laughable dialogue, or inept characterisation. Not to mention how painfully un-erotic the whole venture is. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent case study for the originality issues that surround this incredibly lucrative piece of radioactive cowshit.

E L James, Grey, 50 Shades, Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele

“Grey”, E.L. James – “Fifty Shades of Grey” as told by Christian

There are two angles to this multi-pronged assault, both related to originality. The first is the matter of knock-offs in the self-publishing industry.

Working in editing and ghostwriting, I see fiction from a lot of would-be authors who would like their work appraised. Some are disappointed – occasionally offended – when I point out that they have failed to meet the number one criterion for worthwhile fiction: originality.

“It’s a bit like Fifty Shades,” they’ll tell me, “but different.”

When I challenge the author to tell me how it’s different, I get little by way of a response. The reason is that if you write an erotic book about a domineering, super-rich handsome guy seducing a naive and sexually-inexperienced girl presented in the first person, then you’ve just written “Fifty Shades”. Congratulations are due for the many who actually wrote a book far better than the one that inspired it. Condemnation is also due, however. When I ask the author why they bothered to write the story, the answer is invariably one of two: “Because I wanted to” or “Because it will sell.”

If you work for the latter reason, good for you. You’ve found an industry. Sadly it’s the arse-end of the doomed publishing industry, which produces only the most banal and saleable fiction as a result of the lasting economic downturn, lack of interest in worthwhile literature, and the advent of online stores and ebooks. This is what I call the shitmill, and if you want to be part of it, good luck to you. It’s possible to make a lot of money in exchange for your sub-literary offal.

If you work for the former reason, “because you want to”, then this is more admirable. it also promotes a mindset that is not conducive to writing a successful novel, because chances are you haven’t considered originality. You’ve just written (I’ll add that this is no less of an achievement). Who wants to read the same book over and over again? How are you innovating to stay fresh and needed in the current market? What are you bringing to the table, besides more of the same – a flavour that loses its appeal with every new sub-standard e-novel that is released?

The vast amounts of so-called erotic fiction available through self-publishing platforms, by its nature, obscures original talent by drowning it in unoriginal pap. There may well be some excellent bits of erotic fiction out there, but how can we find them amongst the derivative stuff? E.L. James has managed to create a whole sub-genre of erotica, casually called ‘billionaire romance’. It’s a sad revelation that so many women fantasize about being subjugated by a violent male whilst being ‘looked after’ and showered with lavish gifts. I may well write a separate post about how erotica is devastating to equality and gender expectations.

Unoriginality is a sign of poor imagination, which often comes with lack of talent. Even if this is only a perception, do you want to be perceived this way? Would you really happy being a rich but derided author? Before you answer, remember that your chances of becoming rich writing trash are far lower than you might even think.

The second angle of attack is something that I shouldn’t even have to point out. James is being unoriginal even within her own body of work. Why should “Grey”, which tells the “Fifty Shades” trilogy from the male protagonist’s perspective, even exist? What is it showing us that’s new? I can only assume that it will reproduce slightly summarized scenes shared by Christian and Ana, plus a few extra scenes in which Christian privately broods privately over his awful childhood and the false dilemma of whether he can have a meaningful relationship with this vapid little girl.

I’m sure fans can’t wait to speculate that there is more of Christian’s disgracefully cliché ‘dark past’ to be revealed, which raises another issue: If it takes you four novels to tell us what your main character is about, you have failed. Authors, you can take that away as a bonus lesson on how to fail at writing a novel.

Originality is the life and soul of literature. Without it, the publishing industry would have decayed long ago into a skeleton of its former self, catering only for readers of text books and biographies. If you want to be ‘a writer’, then this should be at the front of your mind every time you brainstorm. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I read this story before?
  • Is my character behaving predictably?
  • How can I differentiate this from other novels? Is that differentiation convincing?
  • Did the story come to me without having to think much about it?
  • Have I just reproduced this character from somewhere else, and simply renamed him/her?

A simple exercise can be to reverse everything. Let’s say you’ve just accidentally rewritten “Fifty Shades”. You should hopefully by now realise why it feels staid and boring. But what if you swapped Christian and Ana’s characters around? What if the man is the sexually-inexperienced goofball and the woman is the S&M master? Already you’re far more interesting than the rest of the derivative stuff out there. What if your Christian is actually desperately poor instead of unrealistically wealthy? How could he ever entice a young girl into his life of depravity and violence then? What if Ana were ten years older than Christian and experienced in relationships? What if Christian is the one who wants to adjust, and Ana is the one enamored with his domineering sexual preferences.

As a final note, if you really must regurgitate another author’s material, why regurgitate something that was diabolically awful in the first place?

I beg authors to strive for originality. If for nothing else, remember that publishers and agents are looking for something fresh, something that they’ve never seen before. They will undoubtedly prioritise you over someone else in your genre who was ‘inspired’ by existing fiction.

Keep reading, keep writing, never surrender!

—db

God in Fiction: Is it time for literature to leave religion behind?

God is fictionMany novels feature characters whose religious beliefs shape their ideals. An example might be To Kill a Mockingbird, which tops many lists of “best novels ever”, such as Time Magazine’s. The strongly moral Atticus Finch raises his children in a decidedly Christian manner – and, perhaps significantly, is considered a modern exemplar of ethical behaviour. It’s perhaps not coincidental that I see The Chronicles of Narnia high on these lists also, arguably the best example of religious propaganda for children ever (note “arguably” – I do love the books myself and feel strong that C.S. Lewis had the best intentions).

It would be fair to say that religious characters, or at least non-ostensibly atheistic ones, were always likely to inhabit the bulk of our fiction. After all, it’s only historically recently that the world has begun to shift towards science as the source of their answers instead of faith. Distressingly, I read that in a fairly recent study published on Gallup that 40% of Americans believe in Creationism in the strictest sense. A more recent and significant study by San Diego State found that our current generation of teens are the least religiously observant ever, and not as a result of being “unsettled millennials” as previously suspected by the skeptical. It strongly suggests an actual cultural shift away from religion.

For decades, writers of science fiction and fantasy in particular have embraced science theory (go here for a good explanation as to why “theory” isn’t a word that can be used against science in the defense of faith) and speculative science as vehicles for engaging fiction. However, many writers simply can’t help but bring religion back into the mix. Is this because it’s so engrained in our society that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without it (just as many would say, foolishly, that a novel is ‘incomplete’ without a romantic element) – or even simply as a concession to the faithful? It’s almost as though writers feel unable to generate a proper feeling of awe and reverence in their narratives without making reference to god.

Going back a while, The Matrix film series was a good example of taking something which would have been just as spectacular without its heavy-handed Christian symbolism. Its philosophy is actually a clumsy amalgam of messanic, Zionistic, Platonic and Eastern beliefs, a composite that didn’t seem to strengthen the narrative in any case. Watching the end of the cinematic adaptation of Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader makes me decidedly uncomfortable, with its monotheistic longing for material obliteration and ham-fisted allusions to the leonine Aslan actually being Christ in the world of Narnia, rather than a symbolic literary figure.

The arguments against religion and even faith in general have been expounded by far greater writers than I (love them or hate them, the works of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris are essential). Any one of them, I suspect, would strongly advocate the eradication of any meaningful inclusion of religion in fiction. This would be on the grounds that it reinforces mass belief in destructive and antisocial delusions, and that as a go-to for a sense of “spiritual” awe detracts from the pre-existing (and tangible) wonders of the material world. As symbolic references or colourful similes, writers get a lot of mileage out of the old Greek gods, for example. This would be fine. But in 2015, shouldn’t we be exploring more relevant aspects of our universe instead of the tired play of faith and spiritual redemption?

My Western novel, The Gun of Our Maker, makes little reference to religion outside of the title. The key theme is the expectations we place on others and ourselves. It is very interesting to me that the heroes of the Western genre, in literature and in cinema, are often godless. This is despite such characters existing in a faith-based society (regardless of what the American Constitution says) and several of whom were created by contemporary or at least anachronistically-conscientious authors. With the notable exception of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider, why is it that so many protagonists are ostensibly without faith (even the nameless, murderous “Preacher” in Pale Rider seems entirely scornful of Christian beliefs). Westerns often seem to inhabit a decidedly god-forsaken landscape.

Examining mainstream literature, I’m frequently baffled by the constant allusions to faith as noble and worthwhile. The troubled hero, at the inevitable point of hopelessness on his/her quest, goes to a church to pray, or kneels in the downpour to beg god for a sign. Sometimes they are rewarded with a light, or the sudden appearance of a mortal saviour, who inevitably pulls them back from the brink and sets them on the right path. Religious experiences of this kind are always presented as a ‘seeing the light’ moment (best exemplified, tongue-in-cheek, by an early moment in The Blues Brothers), accompanied by sureness and renewed strength. A skeptic would wonder why this should be so, when in reality organised religion has often stymied the pursuit of science, art and freedom – a comparative Dark Ages.

I accept that our perhaps-indelible inclinations towards the gnostic (or agnostic) will always influence our writing, but why does it so often take the form of existing religious structures, such as Catholicism or Buddhism? Is there not enough wonder in the world already? As my beloved Douglas Adams said, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

As a writer, I don’t object to seeing references to faith in fiction. But why stick with it, when the modern world is providing us so much more material to work with? I congratulate films such as the recent Interstellar, which put us in awe of natural cosmic phenomena, or  writers like Charlie Kaufman, who posits that the complex beauty of orchids should be enough to write a two hour screenplay around.

I challenge writers to abandon god and religion as an element in their fiction. What else in our universe can inspire, clarify, reform, motivate, cultivate, or invigorate? In the endless search for a semblance of originality, this would be a heavenly place to start.

—db

[‘The Gun of Our Maker’ is available now from Amazon here, and Smashwords here.]

On the Western front

seraphim-falls

Back when this was the “Spinning Lizard” blog, I mentioned that I was working on a Western story.  Here’s the original post, from two whole years ago.

Eventually I fleshed out a solid revenge tale and called it “The Gun of our Maker”, which I worked on prior to my jaunt to China and tinkered with since.

The market for Westerns is smaller than a prairie dog’s arsehole at the minute, so I’ve decided to polish it up and release it as an e-book for the fun-sized price of 99p.  Look out for it in the coming weeks or months if you like your grit true and your vengeance bloody!

To whet your whistle, here’s the official blurb for “The Gun of our Maker”, coming soon:


Minnesota, 1859: a man is executed for skimming
from a silver mine to provide for his family.

Arizona, 1877: the sins of the father catch up with the son

Six weeks later: a man on horseback scales
the forests of the Mogollon Rim. He is
searching for Bill Hawken, a renowned gunsmith.

Vivian Culhane is far from a typical hero. Crippled by a
childhood illness, he is weak, blind – yet unstoppable.

Together they will build an instrument of vengeance
that will be known across Arizona, New Mexico and
Texas – a revolver that produces red smoke,
with a limited supply bullets and a thirst for justice.


—db

Celebrating Chinese New Year 2015

I have a bit of an uneven personal history with China.

I grew up with a love for Asian culture, which matured into solid appreciation for Chinese and Hong Kong cinema in particular, as well as literary fiction from the likes of Ha Jin (“Waiting”) and Jung Chang (“Wild Swans”).

In 2012 is visited China and Hong Kong as part of a tour of South East Asia, and spent several weeks traveling East from Chengdu to Shanghai, seeing such popular highlights as the Terracotta Army and the Great Wall.  It was amazing, and cemented my love for certain aspects of Chinese culture, history and art.

The attraction was so strong that I moved to China last year to work as a TEFL teacher in the ancient city of Xi’an.  As readers of this blog will know, that didn’t pan out.  Recent sudden success with my editing and ghostwriting business, but mainly aspects of my British personal life that I can’t bear to be without, has put the TEFL life on the back-burner for the time being.  I’m sure that I will visit China again in the future, however.

It’s with great joy that I wish all my past and present friends in China a grand Happy New Year, with much prosperity and joy in the year to come!

To celebrate, I’m releasing a special collection of China-related short stories for ebook readers, which will be available within the next few hours from Amazon (here) and Smashwords (here).


Love is an Eye coverIn celebration of Chinese New Year 2015, these short stories by David Brookes are released as a collection for the first time. Set in China, three fables of a romantic and philosophical nature show us the inner worlds of three troubled individuals struggling with love, loss and memory.

Also includes a narrative article, “Chasing the Dragon”, in celebration of Chinese New Year.


Please take the chance with 99p (or 99c) for this special little collection and let me know what you think.

Thanks again for your continued love and support!

—db

All Things New: 2015

Fireworks over the Thames in London, New Year's Eve 2015

Fireworks over the Thames, London – New Year’s Eve 2015


Happy New Year for 2015!

A lot of people are asking what I’ve been up to since my brief misadventure in China a few months ago.

It’s been a tough few years, between an awful corporate job in 2012, to landing back in the real world after six months traveling India and Asia, and my TEFL training and subsequent awryness (I’m MAKING it a real word) last year.  I flew to China; I came back.  I had the option of beginning the cycle again by getting another crummy job in another  office, neither employing my qualifications or creativity for a basic minimum wage in an environment I couldn’t stand.  I chose not to take that option.

For the last year or so I’ve been taking the occasional bit of work editing.  A lot of this business came via word of mouth and my clients were mostly foreign students who had essays and dissertations to hand in and wanted a bit of help with their written English.  Sheffield is blessedly cosmopolitan and its two universities has students from all over the world.

Since I got back to the UK I decided to begin freelancing full-time, and have since had a lot of success.  Editing and proofreading has been a handy constant, from education, academia and journals, to resumes and even fiction, poetry and love letters.  I’ve also developed a reputation for ghostwriting fiction and articles, and have taken commissions in various genres with plenty of repeat business.  Lastly, I’ve managed to flog a few of my own humble fiction and screenplays.  I’m surprised by how quickly it’s all taken off.

It’s strange that after years of hard work and mixed success, I’m suddenly able to legitimately call myself a writer.  It’s a very strange feeling to have pretty much realised my oldest dream.

I’ve also had a fascinating education these last two months.  Either from editing various papers or by researching for my own writing/ghostwriting, I’ve made plenty of deposits into my Bank of Useless Information.  I’ve had The Bank for years, much to the bemusement of my friends and family.  Recently I’ve developed my knowledge of:

  •  Ophthalmology (that’s eyeballs to you and me)
  •  South African culture
  •  Pheonicia
  •  Middle-Eastern mysticism
  •  Current trends in erotica
  •  The Armenian art scene
  •  Scientific psychological experiments involving monkeys
  •  Species of cats
  •  The state of the Chinese housing market
  •  South American folklore
  •  Jewish holocaust poetry

… And they’re just the ones that I can tell you about without betraying confidentiality (which I take seriously).  It’s been a wild ride, accentuated by the occasional bouts of panic that are probably common amongst the self-employed.  The good news is that I’ve had some incredibly flattering feedback from all my clients so far.  Hopefully I can continue that trend into 2015, whilst TEFL and salaries take a back seat.

It seems a little redundant to have a blog about my exploits ‘abroad’ now that I’m more-or-less permanently based in the UK for the forseeable future, but I think I’ll keep the title.  Consider me ‘abroad’ on the ocean of discovery as I see where my new life takes me!

All the best for the New Year, and much love,

David Brookes
Freelance Writer & Editor