Sunday, 17 November 2019

A Guest Post About Nothing: David Turnbull

On 29th November, we’re having a belated birthday party for Nothing, an anthology of short stories I edited for Hic Dragones (writing as Hannah Kate). In the run-up to our not-quite-a-launch party, I’ve invited some of the authors whose work is included in the book to tell me a bit about their story.

Today’s guest is David Turnbull, author of ‘Traps’, one of the stories in Nothing.

Happy belated birthday to the editors and all the authors featured in Nothing.

My story in the anthology is called ‘Traps’. It’s about the traps the main characters set and the traps they get caught in. It takes place in the bleak, ash covered landscape of a post-apocalyptic world.

I have a penchant for post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, both reading it and writing it. I could cite dozens of influences, ranging from iconic works by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley and more recent classics by Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy.

But I wanted to take this opportunity to sing praises of a reasonably well-known author who is not widely recognised as being one of the pioneers this type of fiction. Namely, Jack London.

As a fiction writer, London is best known for nature-driven adventure novels such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang. He is equally known as a political essayist and campaigning social commentator, particularly with The People of the Abyss, a 1902 exposé of poverty in London’s East End.

He is lesser known, however, for his forays into what would now be considered the science fiction genre. The two Jack London novels I want to mention here are very much precursors of how later writers would develop the post-apocalyptic and dystopian themes he explored.

The Scarlet Plague is a short novel first published in the London Magazine in 1912. It’s set in San Francisco in the year 2073 and takes place in the aftermath of a global pandemic which has depopulated the world. The main character is a former English Professor who survived the scarlet plague and is travelling through an overgrown and transformed landscape with his 2 grandsons. He attempts to recount what life was like in America before the coming of the plague, but this all seems extremely far-fetched to the boys who have grown up in a primitive society with limited language skills and no access to technology.

Released 4 years earlier, The Iron Heel, is also set in San Francisco.

A much longer novel than The Scarlet Plague, its structure is quite unique in that the main story takes the form of a manuscript introduced by a scholar living in a socialist Utopia in the year 2600. The manuscript itself has a female protagonist, Avis Everard. It depicts the struggles of herself and her husband in the underground resistance during the terrifying rise to power of a totalitarian right-wing dictatorship in the two decades from 1912 to 1932. Like his contemporary H.G. Wells had managed in novels such as The Shape of Things to Come, London in The Iron Heel eerily predicts events that would actually come to pass. The rise of Fascism, Japan’s conquest of South East Asia, and Indian independence to name but three.

Given both these novels were written over a century ago it’s both surprising and frightening that their central themes are so close to our gloomy present-day reality. Both novels have stood the test of time and remain enjoyable and thought-provoking reads.

So, if you are looking to go back to the beginning and trace the lineage of both post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, I would recommend giving Jack London’s classic science fiction outings a read. Who knows? They may inspire you to either predict your own bleak version of the future or even destroy civilisation in some unique and original manner.

David Turnbull hails originally from Scotland, but now resides in London. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of anthologies, magazines and online sites, as well as being performed at live events such as Liars League, Solstice Shorts and Alt Fiction.

The Belated Birthday Party for Nothing is on Friday 29th November, 7pm, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester. It’s a free event, with readers from the authors and launch party discount on the books. For more information, or to book a ticket, please click here.

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