'Against the Dying of the Light' - Jean Harrison

When what are loosely called 'Science Fiction' writers step into the near or far future they are obliged to do so speculatively. Their invented realities are necessarily 'alternative' in the sense that they (and we) cannot know which way existential signposts will hang in the wind; the legends such signs bear remain hieroglyphs until they clarify over time. Imagined futures are informed by an acute recognition of the dangers of the present, and it should be no surprise to find that very many narratives are mixed and darkened on a dystopian palette. The process of transference may be unconscious, or automatic: the anxieties of the present may shape a writer's perception of the future so conclusively that he or she is oblivious of wider allegorical connotations.

But more often, an insightful writer is fully aware that his or her narrative embodies a profound 'warning'. Orwell's 1984, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, are all cognizant of the dangers of fascism, as observed, if not experienced, contemporaneously, and all draw the reader into a near-plausible totalitarian future world. More recent storytellers are also influenced by common cultural anxieties, but of a different order, more reflective of the fears we harbour in our present. Visions remain dystopian, but 'future world' in the modern novel is frequently post-apocalyptic, describing nuclear winters or scorched landscapes, irregularly peopled by psychotic and feral survivors.

Local author Jean Harrison, who will be appearing at Settle Stories' forthcoming Writers Meet Up event to talk about her new novel On a Wandering Planet, bucks the fatalistic trend we find in so many other modern writers. Set in a strange, but oddly recognisable, time, her story engages with a world whose eco-balance has been tipped towards redundancy by generations of human misuse. We are guided through this landscape by a woman with an instinct for survival, who embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Jean picked up on the story in a recent interview:

Q.  Hello Jean, and thank you for talking to us. To what extent is your story an allegorical reading of the perils of climate change and ecological abuse, or more properly, of the pressing need to redress them ?

A.  Originally the novel was simply the outworking of a daft idea that rose from the difficulties of parking in North Watford where I lived and also In West Hampstead where a friend was living, especially West Hampstead.  This is an area of four storey Victorian terraces. All of them have been flatted which gives the possibility of four cars per property. It wasn’t quite as bad as that but did lead to extreme problems in finding a space. It did seem that there wasn’t enough space for both houses and cars. I always enjoy playing with daft ideas, but of course, as the story opened up there were things that needed explaining. What on earth would induce a whole population to give up their houses?  You would need a really charismatic leader – and then things began to slip sideways and I followed my own leanings towards conservation. Gavin owes some of his charm to David Attenborough, but is a political fanatic on top of being a gifted naturalist. As the story developed, the horror of this new world became apparent and it became more and more clear that people really need nature. This aspect became more and more important. I would not have wanted deliberately to set out to write any sort of allegory. To me that is a distortion of what a novel really is, but that aspect became more prominent so that when I finished I felt a bit that I had dealt my own little blow on behalf of conservation .

Q.  The genre of fiction you have chosen for your novel must rely very heavily on conjecture. Owing to the lack of tangible material to work with, what form did your research process take ?

 A.  This book relies heavily on guesswork – what is likely to occur in particular circumstances. For example (the first version of the book was written more than twenty years ago) I described an incident of road-rage and read a first-hand account of it in a newspaper several years later. A lot of other things are simply exaggerations of what was already happening – expansion of the road system, the wonders of Spaghetti Junction. I’m not a scientist but there’s a lot on TV and magazines that provides hints and my family is heavily into science. In some places, such as the new building materials for houses, I cheerfully invented. The only real research I did was to investigate a couple of websites for camper vans to be clear on their layout and consider how it might be exaggerated!

Q.   Many of your themes, or should I say approaches, are startlingly original: the paradox of a complete abandonment of the natural world yielding 'restoration' is a counter intuitive but persuasive conceit. Did the direction your novel finally took arrive in your imagination as a complete idea, or is your writing process organic and mutable ?

A.  The idea of complete separation of people and nature is partly the result of my own, rather foolish, tendency to get hot under the collar about nature reserves. Of course they’re a good idea but so often people find a place that was getting along perfectly well on its own, full of interesting animals and plants. They adopt it as a nature reserve, move in picnic tables, build tree walkways for children, let their dogs roam – and all the shy creatures move out.  I’m still inclined to think there should be places where people are simply not allowed. I didn’t set out to let this into the novel but when I got writing it came out. I’m not great on planning.

Q.   There is hope in your central protagonist's growing sense of self-realisation. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of humanity ?

A.   I don’t really know, wobble between the two.