‘Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected’ is a TV series I associate with the late ’70s, although apparently it carried on until 1988. Since I didn’t watch much telly in the ’80s, this might explain why I think of it that way. The general idea was that each self-contained episode would end unexpectedly. This could be seen as bad writing. It’s kind of like deus ex machina – the trope in classical drama where an apparently unresolvable situation would arise in the story which would then be sorted out at the end by a god turning up. This would generally, I imagine, provide an upbeat ending and the difference with Dahl’s series, and by the way I don’t know to what extent he was involved in the writing, is that the ending would normally be shocking or horrific.
This may be unfair. I only remember two episodes clearly, and before you ask, no, I did not see the one where the bloke eats too much royal jelly and turns into a bee. The ones I’m thinking of are one in which a crooked antique dealer who makes his money from persuading gullible people that their stuff is worthless and then going on to sell it for a tidy sum comes a cropper when he insists a particularly valuable commode is cheap trash and he only wants the feet. The sellers find that it won’t fit through the door, proceed to saw the legs off and present him with them. Here the god of justice enters through the narrow door and exacts his revenge, but to be honest it doesn’t seem to have come out of nowhere because we have a clearly established greedy and dishonest character to whom just desserts are served, and the ending seems to proceed pretty neatly from the rest of the story. The other episode involves a connoisseur with a weak heart being murdered by someone who ruins a valuable bottle of wine by letting it breathe for too long, which come to think of it is a rather similar story. Okay then, maybe it did just ring the changes on the same basic idea and existed in a rather posh world of its own where people have ironic misadventures visited upon them, which is of course very Dahlesque, but neither of those episodes exactly involve a meteoric denouement striking the plot from outer space. Then again, I may not be remembering it very well.
The last few days in my life have been characterised by two different things. One is the delightfully fluid application of finishing touches to my novel, which I’ve found most enjoyable. The other is the appalling event in Manchester and its aftermath. When confronted with such horrific events, it seems to be natural for people to try to fit it into their view of the world, often also in quite dramatic and emotive terms, which however may be inappropriate, and to be honest I’ve felt completely powerless about it, not just in terms of what should happen because of it, but also out of concern that I will react inappropriately and insensitively. This can happen very easily and even if the reaction is honest and well-founded there can be unintended consequences. In order to avoid them, all I’m going to do is present the bare facts, which is that a lot of young people and their parents were killed and seriously injured by a suicide bomber. Note that I use the word “suicide” there without the usual squeamishness of using a term for a criminalised act, because in this case there seems to be little doubt that the act was deliberately cruel.
I’m not even going to try to enter into a discussion of the situation and its possible wider significance and consequences, except to say that it was an evil act among many other evils in today’s world, which is uncontroversial. Odious comparisons could be made with suffering and death elsewhere on the planet, perhaps in a misguided attempt to provide context and perspective, and I’m not denying the reality of those other evils. Nor am I interested in theorising right now. There is a basic baseline of humanity here which almost everyone can agree on that it was an atrocity, standing alone and considered as such, and a terrible instance of how wrong things are in the world right now. Explanations can be offered but this is a vivid personal bereavement and loss.
These two experiences seem difficult to reconcile. On the one hand I’m spending a lot of my time living in a fictional twenty-fourth century setting where the last major conflict of this kind took place over two centuries previously in 2096. To them, such events are as remote as the French and American revolutions. Children might learn about them in history if they’re interested or they might be studied in more detail at university, but although they can be learnt from in the same way as we might learn from the history of the French Revolution, followed by the Age Of Terror, or perhaps more positively as an early example of a fully secular state, they are remote from my protagonists’ lives. Their lives are far from perfect of course, or it would be difficult to come up with an interesting tale, but the difficulties so far are largely non-political and more to do with the likes of frustrations in relationships and practical difficulties of coming to terms with having become a physical being when one was previously simulated. On the other hand, the personal is political and there are political elements in those relationships and situations which also strongly suggest a history of struggle.
One novelty for me in trying to imagine this world is that it is very much still scarcity-based. Most of the human Galaxy is still capitalist, with a couple of minor exceptions. Mega-corporations still exist although not on the world-dominating scale often portrayed in Blade Runner and cyberpunk futures. There is still a gap between the availability of resources and apparently limitless human need. This sits rather uneasily with me because I believe passionately in abundance. I believe that scarcity is manufactured as a result of the psychological need of the wealthy to keep others in poverty. Nonetheless I do feel quite positive about the setting and also quite comfortable in it, since it is still a better world, or more precisely nine better worlds, than the one in which we currently live, partly due to a generally higher standard of living and technological solutions to many of the problems we face today. From a political perspective the unification of humanity has meant the end of war and the motives for insurrection have been defeated without interfering with freedom of any kind. People simply have enough and are not motivated to resort to violence.
In the timeline involved, the last major war was in 2076. This is easily within the lifetimes of perhaps hundreds of millions of people alive on Earth today. It’s less than six decades away. Projecting that backward, people aged sixty today in Western Europe and North America were already being born into a world with rock music, satellites, television and computers, but more importantly also with nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the Vietnam and Korean wars, and more positively in most people’s views, democracy, the welfare state, the UN and the Geneva Convention.
How do we get from today’s world, with its Manchester suicide bombing and continued sense of threat in this country, to a world in less than six decades with perpetual world peace?
Mysteries, I’ve heard, are written backwards. You decide on a solution, test it for plot holes, then work your way through to the shocked relatives finding the dead body in the locked room and calling in the genius detective. You know the ending already and fit the rest in. I still have minor problems of this nature with my story. One particular difficulty was that I’d assumed there was no unskilled manual labour left on Earth but one of my characters was unable to find renumerative work doing anything else. This I solved by inventing an Amish-like network of closed communities who believe human fulfillment maxed out in the 1950s and seek to recreate such a world in various small towns, one of which is Letchworth Garden City. There are still small gaps and plot holes which I’m currently plugging, I hope fairly elegantly and credibly.
I would defend futuristic positive science fiction as providing a sense of vision and a goal. Just over the hill, if we want it and if we can raise our sights high enough, there can still be a gleaming utopia, because when it comes down to it there is simply no practical reason for anyone to be poor, unfulfilled or exploited and it’s scandalous that these are still realities in 2017. Another thing which is scandalous, just to remind ourselves, is the fact that someone saw fit to murder and maim scores of children in Manchester this week. These two things are connected, and the question is, how do we get from here to there? How do we get from a world with suicide bombers in it to a world, to quote Al Stewart without the irony, “that’s finished with war” or war which is pursued by other means?
Maybe by working backwards in the same way. This is our locked room mystery. We need to say to ourselves, isn’t it remarkable that within our children’s lifetime, perhaps even in ours, we will be living in a world where war, famine and poverty are no more? And then we need, urgently, to say to ourselves, not how fanciful and unlikely that idea is, but to write the next six decades of future history backwards. We know where we must be. There’s no choice but to be in that situation by then, because otherwise pretty soon we simply won’t be at all. Having eliminated that impossibility, we have to concentrate on working out our route, because we know deus ex machina is a purely dramatic device and that the machines as such cannot deliver that, or they would’ve done already.
The invention of nuclear weapons necessitated the invention of a different way of living which would mean they could never be used. Nowadays there are many other risks, created for example by the easy availability of plans to build bombs on YouTube. Hence the question now is what that exciting invention, changing the way we all behave towards each other, will be. We will have the completed jigsaw by 2096 and we’ll be sticking the last few pieces in by 2074. Today, we apparently have a daunting heap of unconnected pieces, but we have the picture on the front of the box. What we need to do now is to put those pieces together. We need to find the corner pieces now, then in a few years’ time we’ll find the edges. Maybe we’ll be defeated for a while by an expanse of blue sky, but we know we’ll make it in the end because we know where we’re going. We don’t know how to get there yet, but we will. And we can’t allow ourselves to imagine it’s impossible, because it’s not.