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Friday, May 7, 2021

From dystopian ‘Year Zero’ to ‘Animal Farm,’ who are the authors capturing the zeitgeist of our time?

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Writing fantasy isn’t easy, but writers are hard to come by when your genre has traditionally been associated with science fiction.

Many of the hot new titles are sounding a more realistic note, or, at the very least, sounding more realistic-ish. Take Jack Thorne’s “The Car Man,” the story of an ordinary man called Dougal who suddenly finds himself as an “impresario” in an empire dominated by orcs. Or take Fred McCarthy’s “The Underbelly,” a wickedly funny satire of London business and power. His protagonist’s boss is a powerful agent of “The Cheese Scheme,” a sinister cabal of malign multinational corporations out to “dismantle the rights” and “disintermediate the cheese” of London, from which he and his boss derive their profits. In these books, as in science fiction, the plotting and the characters have a strong edge of bleakness and pessimism, and the setting not much different. Most often, the cynical view is offered as a critique of corporate greed, after all.

Perhaps the most compelling new voices have been those from a different branch of science fiction. In “Year Zero,” Dennis Lim recounts the first days of Singapore when the government instituted a strict environmental regime in an attempt to convert its starving population to a greener lifestyle. “Today, the limits of the Third City and the future of the earth are on trial and, if lawless powerful interests can win they will replace it all with a nightmare. Singapore is the gatekeeper to a new dystopia — the dystopian city we will only fail to resist.”

Dennis Lim. Credit: Pak Yan De Liu/ National Geographic Through, “Year Zero” and many other new SF titles, readers are beginning to explore what the familiar space and fantasy novels mean as metaphors for modern crises. Take Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods,” for example, a magnificently weird story in which a dying Midwestern man teams up with some ancient gods to overturn the injustices against them and thwart an unjust system of government. You can’t help but see this story as a warning about populism, racism and authoritarianism, all of which seem to be sweeping Europe.

You also can’t help but see George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels as an indictment of the market economy and government oversight that have fallen so horribly behind the pace of technological innovation, environmental change and humanitarian need. Or consider the haunting observation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”: “With close observation, more closely than all other animals, we can see, that the pigs, the horses, the bulls, and the steer are as much alike as the characters in that great modern novel ‘1984’ were opposed to each other.” Some of us might like to see Trump/Pence’s first election as a reaction to the tensions between profit and people that Orwell describes in “Animal Farm.”

That all seems far-fetched, of course, but there are plenty of science fiction writers who are struggling to capture the current zeitgeist and still manage to be convincing and relevant.

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