Nik Wallenda walking on a tightrope from Medieval fare to Wonder Mountain at Canada’s Wonderland. Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevint3141/
Over the last twelve months or so, I’ve found myself getting more and more interested in dystopian fiction. My first short story collection ‘Exire’ (due out with Wrecking Ball) imagines a future where people are experimenting with their right to die – I won’t say too much about it at this stage, but the disturbing, parallel world of the collection has occupied my mind for over a year, becoming a net for anxieties about the present and short-term future, anxieties amplified by political events. I’ve also been working on ‘Austerity Circus’, a sequence of dystopian poems. ‘Bartek’, a piece commissioned by Poets & Players in Manchester, imagines an immigrant’s right to stay being determined by a risky circus performance, a high wire walk above the ring.
Hearing about the tragic deaths in London yesterday, I was dismayed by the small part of me that viewed the footage from a kind of distance, as if it might not be real somehow. A lot of the time, we enter a dissociative state when faced with things that are threatening or traumatic. When I got home, I re-read a fascinating piece by the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick about dystopian visions and their prescience:
“It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.”
As he goes on to explain, the question is by no means an intellectual one:
“….because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups — and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.”
It sometimes seems like we’re all living in a Philip K. Dick novel. In the article, Dick explores an uncanny episode where he experienced life as mimicking art, detailing an encounter which he felt he’d somehow already predicted – the eerie experience of writing something into a novel believing it to be fiction and then discovering it to be ‘true’. I’ve long been interested in the fictionalising we engage in (quite literally) every time we recall a memory and blogged about this frequently on ‘Poetry on the Brain’ and his words reminded me of that:
“Speaking for myself, I do not know how much of my writing is true, or which parts (if any) are true. This is a potentially lethal situation. We have fiction mimicking truth, and truth mimicking fiction. We have a dangerous overlap, a dangerous blur. And in all probability it is not deliberate. In fact, that is part of the problem. You cannot legislate an author into correctly labeling his product, like a can of pudding whose ingredients are listed on the label… you cannot compel him to declare what part is true and what isn’t if he himself does not know.”
It might be a ‘dangerous blur’, but as writers we might feel have no choice but to continue to explore it.