Author Niall Bourke explores why we turn to books about disaster to find some solace in life.

Niall Bourke

IT MAY SEEM strange to seek solace by imaging the worst, yet that is often what draws readers to speculative fiction.

The broadness of the term aside, speculative fiction often seeks to imagine a worse future by reinventing our present. And lately it seems wildly popular.

Many of the novels which have really embedded themselves into the public consciousness might be described as speculative: Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange, The Road, Bird Box, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, Blade Runner, The Purge – and that’s to name but a few.

But why do so many people enjoy spending time in worlds which are markedly worse than our own?

An element of schadenfreude must play a part.

Readers, it seems, like to revel amid the mess in which the protagonists of future (or parallel) worlds find themselves; seem to enjoy the characters’ sufferings as comeuppance for being irresponsible enough to allow their world to become whatever it has become. And readers get to live vicariously through these characters too, of course – maybe some even finding the fate of an imagined world edifying enough to make them consider preventative action in the real one.

After enduring the pandemic for so long, are readers really going to have an appetite for wallowing in more imagined disaster? Are audiences, having lived through something hard to imagine even a few years ago, still going to want to holiday in imagined hardship?
Time will tell, but my money is on yes.

My personal solace in speculative fiction derives from more than just schadenfreude and vicarious moral lessons. There is a scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where the protagonist, a man trying to instil morality in his son despite living in an amoral world, discovers a basement filled with a fetid and manacled mass of people being ‘farmed’ by cannibals.

This scene has long stayed with me, but not because of its obvious horror – it’s stuck with me because it seemed to be asking a question that is fundamental of the best speculative stories: at what point are we forced to accept that society is no longer worth persevering with?

In The Road, society is so irreparably damaged there is no hope of saving it, no chance of the world ever returning to something even approaching civilisation. In a world so antediluvian, where cannibalistic gangs daub themselves with woad before hunting down people for food, qualities such as empathy and compassion are millstones around the necks of anyone scrabbling to survive.

So, for The Road’s protagonists, the question is not how to save the world because the world is already beyond redemption. The question is how long the protagonist will persist with his foolish charade, that of insisting his child learn the moral code of a forgotten world, before succumbing to the inevitable logic of barbarous nihilism. And for me, it is this tension which will keep readers returning to speculative narratives. Because if the pandemic has revealed just how flimsy the barrier dividing altruism from atavism, then speculative fiction continues to reveal the consequence of taking it down.

My novel, LINE, tells the story of Willard and Nyla who live in an endless Line (or queue, if you prefer). The Line has existed for generations, so long that people have long forgotten why they (or their ancestors) ever joined. What is at the top of the Line has become but a myth, a fireside fable told to little children.

But, whatever is at the top, everyone agrees it must be good – because after waiting so long, how could anyone dare think otherwise? Having invested so long in waiting, no one can possibly now countenance leaving. They are in the blood of waiting so deeply steeped that giving up is even more tedious than going on.

To leave the Line now would dishonour not just their own sacrifices but also the sacrifices of all those gone before, all those who waited patiently so that my characters could have their place. They are tethered to their place in the Line by the weight of their ancestors.

Now, I’m not sure whether bringing out a novel about an infinitely long queue at a time when people are utterly jaded by rampant pandemic-induced queuing will prove a blessing or a boon. (And spare a thought here for fellow debut author, Oana Astride. Her excellent debut novel Under The Blue, was published in March – and revolves around a global pandemic!).

I’m not entirely sure that I’d describe my novel as speculative. It certainly does have moments of wild speculation – and more – but as Pat Carty pointed out to me recently, isn’t all fiction speculative by its very definition? And although it has a dystopic vision of the future (of sorts) I’m not sure I’d describe it as fully post-apocalyptic either.

But pandemic begotten uncertainty or generic quibbling aside, my hope is that LINE can continue the best traditions of the speculative genre.

My hope that my novel, like all good speculative tales, will insist on asking readers more questions than it will seek to give them answers. And I particularly hope that it will keep asking readers the question of at what point, if society is ever on an irreversible downward arc, do we decide to simply pull the plug on it all rather than foolishly persist.

But my biggest hope? My biggest hope is this: that LINE might unsettle readers when they are forced to admit their answer.