Anne Charnock‘s first novel A Calculated Life (47North) is one of seven nominated works for the Philip K. Dick Award 2013. It was originally self-published. Anne’s journalism has appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune, and Geographical. She was educated at the University of East Anglia, where she studied environmental sciences, and at the Manchester School of Art. She travelled widely as a freelance foreign correspondent and spent a year overlanding through Egypt, Sudan and Kenya. In her fine art practice, she tried to answer the questions, What is it to be human? What is it to be a machine? Ultimately she decided to write fiction as another route to finding answers.
by Anne Charnock
Among the books I’ve read and films I’ve watched, I can pinpoint one dystopian encounter that set the course for much of my reading and writing life. I guess I was around 10 years old when I watched the film animation of George Orwell’s satirical story, Animal Farm. I doubt I knew the word ‘satire’ at the time but my child’s mind recognised this film as a story about bullying. And I was terrified!
Animal Farm set an early pattern for me; film adaptations of dystopian fiction prompted me to search out the original novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four – a British television adaptation of the Orwell’s’ novel (starring Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell). Then Fahrenheit 451, a film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel (written and directed by François Truffaut and starring Oskar Werner and Julie Christie). And Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott, based on Philip K. Dick’s brilliantly titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (The film stars Harrison Ford, Sean Young and Rutger Hauer).
The first dystopian novel I read by a female author was, not surprisingly, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and subsequent stand-out narratives for me were Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of A Survivor, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and Maggie Gee’s The Flood.
However, the title of my first novel, A Calculated Life, refers to a much earlier example of dystopian literature – We, by Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin. This novel is the diary of mathematician D-503 who discovers love – an emotion long-forgotten in the rule-bound world of One State. Beyond the glass boundary walls of One State lies the ‘irrational, chaotic world of trees, birds, animals’ and savage humans.
When I first read We, my own novel was in draft form and I was still searching for a title. I had simply typed ‘JAYNA’ at the top of the manuscript – the name of my main character. I trusted that inspiration would come sooner or later. Here is the sentence in We that snagged my attention and instantly gave me the title I needed:
But a thought swarmed in me; what if he, this yellow-eyed being-in his ridiculous, dirty bundle of trees, in his uncalculated life-is happier than us?
My main character Jayna represented the opposite extreme to this ‘yellow-eyed being’ so the title, A Calculated Life, was perfect.
We is a satire on totalitarian regimes and it only appeared in a full Russian edition during the glasnost era. Earlier, however, it was translated into English (1924) and although difficult to find, George Orwell managed to get hold of a copy. He wrote a review for Tribune in 1946, and came to the conclusion that We was a better novel than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Controversial stuff.
Of course, dystopian literature comes in many guises. I like post-apocalyptic tales as much as the next reader. To name a few favourites: Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Blindness by José Saramago, World War Z – An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (if I’m allowed to include a zombie novel), and Wool by Hugh Howey.
Specifically for my writing, however, I’ve been drawn to those dystopian novels depicting dysfunctional or totalitarian regimes, and those near-future dystopias that depict how political shifts or technological change might impact our society. And I have a definite preference for Earth-based stories. I’m won over by beautifully written novels such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, with its unreliable narrator Cathy, Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine and Maggie Gee’s witty, character-driven novel, The Flood, which I re-read this year.
I decided to set my own novel in a late 21st Century corporate world. At first sight, I’ve created a fictional society that might seem utopian, but the story reveals the ‘dystopia within’. It’s an exploration of where we might find ourselves if we adopt advances in genetic engineering and take opportunities to enhance our intelligence. And I present this world through the eyes of Jayna, a genius, who gradually comes to realize that her charmed corporate life isn’t such a good deal.
And I feel a weird sense of completion that my novel’s title nods to the political satire We. This seems to reconnect me, back through the years, to that terrifying childhood encounter with Orwell’s political satire, Animal Farm.
(If you would like to investigate the origins of dystopian writing there’s a fabulous anthology I can recommend: The Faber Book of Utopias edited by John Carey.)