Friday, 18 November 2016

Dystopian Fiction or Scary Reality?

Did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth?  The OED gives this definition:
Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief
Yep, it seems that we’ve arrived in an era where subjective feelings have more clout than actual facts and where anyone can make whatever fanciful claims they like so long as they garner enough public support to stifle debate.*
That’s pretty depressing.
So, like I’ve often done when truth is freakier than fiction, I switched off the TV and the internet and buried my nose in a couple of novels.  One of them was the dystopian thriller Cell 7 by Kerry Drewery, and the other was Morton Rhue’s international bestseller The Wave.  Both of them are teen fiction and both of them prove that “teen reads” can be as memorable, compelling, and capable of provoking thought as any other novel.  
So first let me tell you about Cell 7.  It is set in a UK which seems a lot like the one we are all familiar with - except that this UK has taken a different direction following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965.  Drewery tells us that some years later - by popular demand - the death penalty is reinstated.  But this time, there is no criminal justice system and there are no judges - there are only daily episodes of a reality TV show called Death is Justice.  The decision of who is guilty and who is innocent is placed directly into the hands of the viewing audience.  Death Row is available to paying subscribers as a 24-hour live feed and the dull formality of sifting through facts in order to present a fair trial has been replaced by emotional manipulation, glitzy TV presenters and voyeuristic audiences.
To use a new word, it’s all very post-truth.  Sixteen year old Martha, the book’s central character and death row inmate, says of those who will decide her fate, ‘They don’t want to know the truth, they just believe what’s fed to them.’
This novel is also so entirely plausible that it’s terrifying.
And what a tremendous read!  I really like the way Drewery chops the text up with different voices and different viewpoints.  It’s like we’re watching Martha through multiple camera angles; which, of course, we are - just like the audience of Death is Justice.  The sequel Day 7 is out in June.  I’ll be tuning in.
And then I read The Wave. 
Crikey.  This was not a relaxing experience either. 
I first read The Wave when I was about 13.  I remember borrowing it from Felixstowe library and thinking ‘Oh my God – this book is brilliant.’  Unlike Cell 7, the scenario is not a parallel or future dystopia, it’s one based very much on real life.  In 1969, a history teacher in a California school attempted to demonstrate to his class how Nazi ideology was able to infect an entire country.  His teaching was too effective.  Within days, this teacher had turned the entire school into one collective movement of chanting, flag-waving followers - and anyone who questioned the majority or dared to be different was treated with suspicion, victimized and intimidated.  This is Morton Rhue’s fictionalised account of that real event.  It’s a very short read and simply told but it packs some powerful messages.  At one point, a worried parent tells her daughter, ‘… just remember, that the popular thing is not always the right thing.’
Wise words. 
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.  And post-truth is so illogical that it defies basic commonsense.  Michael Gove recently scrapped a load of A levels including Creative Writing and History of Art because he thought they were useless.  He should have read Cell 7 and The Wave.  If ever there were a couple of novels that might prove that art helps make sense of the world, then these two would be them.

 *Um... 350 million pounds a week to the NHS anyone?

The giveaway from my last blog was won by Sally in Worcestershire and Caroline in Westchester, NY.  

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