The irony of all this, and it hasn’t left me in all the days since this started – plenty more than the 33 I’ve noted up there; it goes back to the start of the year – is that one of the projects I’m working on at the moment is a novel set in the near future where governments are proactively reducing the surplus population and skimming of the surplus individuals that sort of, hang around.
It’s not a new idea, I know that, but a writer who looks for a new idea will probably either spend his or her life looking or slide into the delusion that they’ve actually found something that no one’s ever done before. Personally I find it’s better on the morale to recognise that there’s a million brilliant ideas out there and many, many better than mine. But the belief that I carry is that they’re not mine and so they can’t ever quite be the idea that I want to get across and definitely won’t do it the way that I intend to. That is a very reassuring train of thought, I think, and it keeps me writing.
So the idea is that I don’t do anything so brash as to deny the existence of any similar ideas and reinvent the wheel with my stories, but that I work alongside these the great stories and great writers and learn from them, maybe contribute a little of my own uniqueness to the whole narrative. Walt Whitman said it best when he considered the conundrum. His answer:
That you are here – – that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
I thank Mr Whitman for that, among many other things, and I thank Harry Harrison for ‘Make Room! Make Room!’, the 1960s sci-fi novel that explores the inevitable problems of over-population and at the same time popularised Malthusian theory: the idea that human demand for food will soon outstrip supply. These are not new ideas but they’re increasingly relevant and utterly terrifying.
What this current crisis has done is illustrated the fragility of supply networks that we have in these super-efficient consumer-driven times and how the slightest deviation from projected models or twitch in habits can have very real and quite shocking consequences. A tiny rumour that there might be a lock-down and toilet-roll disappears from the supermarket shelves for a fortnight. A shared message that we will die if we don’t keep our hands clean and sanitiser can’t be found anywhere. For a writer and general observer of human behaviour it is fascinating and fertile ground for inspiration and motivation.
What I’m getting at mostly, though, is the very important idea that it is happening here and now. If a writer can get that impression across then there’s a winner in the making and I really mean that, because all of these great novels – these famous tales of disaster and change and significance: they all seem to happen somewhere else. ‘Make Room! Make Room!’ is in New York; ‘The Day of the Triffids’ is in London; earthquakes and aliens always hit California and so it goes on. And that’s fine; there’s a lot to be said for the recognisability of a place and this can bring credibility and seriousness to a story. It is undoubtedly true that an event in London is going to pull a much bigger audience than the same event in my little town in the Midlands. On a broad average, a reader is probably more likely to come from the capital than any other town in England. But what’s also true is that most people don’t live in London or New York or California and I have this niggling idea that the more this can be reflected in real writing, the more depth it might reach.
I’m determined to create a literature for people like me. For readers like me who live fairly ordinary lives in utterly indistinct towns where nothing extraordinary ever happens. I feel that this is the perfect feeding ground for good fiction because people like me appreciate the tiniest alterations in the everyday routine so that there is no need for the extraordinary – just a desire for the ordinary to be done extraordinarily well.
My story starts in a retirement home in a town very much like mine. These places are popping up everywhere at the moment and in this town alone five have popped up in the last four years. Just to give you an idea of what it’s like here: it was front page news when a crane was erected in the construction of the latest of these homes because its height exceeded that of the church spire – and that had never been done before.
The government has issued a new decree: all citizens, once they reach the age of 65, regardless of wealth, gender, status, health or whatever else, will receive on their birthday, a letter containing two things:
- A cheque for £150,000
- A form
The cheque is a gift. It’s tax-free and it’s for the recipient to do whatever they want with. The form is mandatory and a legal requirement. It demands a date of departure. Within two weeks of their 67th birthday, each person will be euthanised as part of their contribution to the human crisis.
I’ll leave that with you. I’ll be back tomorrow.