Being part of the original Star Wars generation, I have always known a dark future. (And, yes, I say Star Wars and future in the same sentence, fully aware of the thing about “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But these movies have blasters and space ships and robots, so if we’re going to argue about when Star Wars takes place, let’s do it later, over pizza and beer.) Anyway. The future. The dark, dark future. A future run by a brutal, Captain-Antilles-choking, Alderaan-obliterating, carbonite-freezing, hand-amputating, authoritarian government. You don’t think it’s a dystopia? Just look at Grand Moff Tarkin’s uniform. You don’t see jodhpurs in a utopia.
If Star Wars wasn’t enough to prepare me for a dark future, there was the Planet of the Apes franchise, conveniently repeated for me in Los Angeles on KABC’s Channel Seven 3:30 movie. Apes enslaving humans! Mutants with boils and an atom bomb! Ape riots in Century City! They killed baby Caesar’s parents!
More examples: Logan’s Run. The Cylons blowing up that “PEACE” flowerbed on Caprica. The “Days of Future Past” storyline in Uncanny X-Men.
As a kid, I didn’t need to be convinced the future promised peril and oppression, so when I started thinking up the middle-grade science fiction novel that became The Boy at the End of the World, it seemed only natural to build the story around a dark vision of the future. In my book, civilization has nearly destroyed itself. All that’s left is an underground bunker where a few hundred humans remain stored in cryosleep, waiting for the day when the planet has recovered from centuries of war, abuse, and environmental mayhem. But as I mentioned, this is a dark future, and this last bid for survival goes awry. When our hero, Fisher, wakes up in the bunker’s blasted wreckage, he finds himself the last human left alive. He faces cold, starvation, loneliness, and really big rats with thumbs.
It being science fiction, I also felt the book should pose some philosophical challenges for Fisher, since science fiction is just as much about philosophy as it is about technology. So, beyond throwing survival challenges at my character (in the form of giant killer terror parrots, violent weather, electric eels, piranha-crocs, and weaponized prairie dogs), I also asked him to grapple with the realization that the world wasn’t created for him, that he is not central to it, and that an insentient planet can’t care one way or the other whether he lives or dies.
Maybe a little dark for a kid’s book.
But not unrelentingly so. Because, honestly, I don’t see much point in telling tales of unrelenting grimness. As a reader I tend not to get too much from tales of unrelenting grimness. In an early draft, I had Fisher come upon the domed city of Phoenix, Arizona. It’s a dead city. Literally. The cars are stopped dead on the roads, and they are filled with dead people. The shopping malls are littered with mummified corpses, still clutching their shopping bags. My editor had some objections. What was I trying to say with this scene, she asked? And what I was trying to say is that people are pretty stupid, and they’ll just keep on driving and shopping, even while those activities are killing them. She asked me to examine this sparkly thought, and to think about those who are, even now, finding alternatives to the ways in which we are currently killing ourselves, and to consider their stories as well, and that, even if they fail in the goal of getting us to wake up and stop destroying ourselves, they are fighting with wisdom and determination. That’s not unrelentingly grim.
And there are some ancient verities about the human condition that are not unrelentingly grim. Friendship, for example. Which is why I wouldn’t let Fisher wander through the dark wilderness of the future alone. I gave him companions: a broken robot and a cloned pygmy mammoth. I gave him moments of pleasure, such as when his raft constructed of junk skims along the currents of the Mississippi. I gave him moments of triumph and moments of laughter.
None of these were designed to tell some lie about clouds and silver linings. None were designed to let the reader off the hook. They’re there because, in my heart, I believe in moments of grace. Even choked in darkness, I believe we can find light, even if we have to rub sticks together for three hours to make a fire. I don’t believe these moments are a cheat. I believe they are a truth, and I think all readers, and especially kid readers, have the right to all truths, both light and dark.
But let’s not forget Tarkin’s dystopian jodhpurs, either.
Greg van Eekhout writes books for adults and kids. His novels include Norse Code, Kid vs. Squid, and the forthcoming The Boy at the End of the World. He’s currently writing a contemporary fantasy trilogy for Tor Books. You can find out more about Greg at Writing and Snacks.