I don’t read that many novels. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, it’s that I never seem to have enough time for reading and when I do there always seem to be works of non-fiction that are more demanding of my attention. When I do get drawn into one, however, they can quickly take over my life. Such was the case last week when I picked up and read Dreamland, a dystopian novel by Rosa Rankin-Gee. I shall refrain from saying much about the plot because that would spoil it for any potential readers, but I would like to comment on two aspects on what I think an excellent and thought provoking read.
The first is personal – the book’s setting, Margate. I was born and brought up in Margate and know many of the locations described in the book intimately. I can remember the town when the guest houses were full of holiday makers, and can remember these same guest houses being converted to cheap flats for ‘London overspill’ (as it was termed at the time) when the holiday makers decided to visit Spain instead and avoid the joy of sheltering in the cliff top shelters when the weather turned wet and the wind decided to blow. In recent years, when I have visited, I have been shocked and saddened by the gradual decline of the town, and, with the exception of a very small area in the old town, have failed to notice its much talked about resurgence. All the emotions associated with these memories were easily rekindled by my reading, and added a deep intimacy to the narrative.
The second is the book’s slow journey into dystopia. From a social arena not far removed from where we are at the moment we are led on a slow and gradual path to a place that, on arrival, is not only deeply disturbing, but is made all the more so by the characters not really being aware of what was happening until they arrived there. In terms of climate change, one of the main themes of the book, this echoes a problem described by the sociologist, Antony Giddens – that people will not take the threat from climate change seriously until the effects are ‘in their face’, but by the time they are it will be too late to do anything about them. Mean global temperatures are rising and are set to overshoot the 1.5 degree maximum agreed at the Paris conference and confirmed at last weekend’s G7 conference of ‘world leaders’. The ice caps and glaciers are melting now. Sea levels are rising now. By the time our coastal towns are experiencing the floods described by Dreamland it will be too late to turn back the tide.
Another aspect of this slow descent into dystopia is that the people who really need to take the threat seriously (most politicians and business leaders) lightly dismiss it with an air of optimism. Yes, they argue, such a scenario makes good fiction, but in the real world all will be well. Whilst they are happy to admit that the dystopian state is a possibility, they prefer instead to focus on the possible utopian outcomes produced by technologies yet to be devised and inventions yet to be made. This is an example of what the philosopher Roger Scruton called ‘the best case fallacy’: given a range of possible outcomes we tend to focus on the most favourable and develop a faith that that we will achieve it. This dismissal of the worst case outcome not only makes us feel better, it also stops us working to prevent it. There is a strong argument here for pessimism. But who is going to vote for politicians who describe a future that may not come about but which, they argue, we should take seriously and actively work to prevent? Most people prefer a happy ending. They want to believe a whole range of positive fantasies told them by politicians. They don’t want to believe in the possibility of an unhappy ending.
And talking of endings, I want to know what happens to the lead characters after the closing scene of Dreamland! So Rosa Rankin-Gee, what about a sequel? Or better still, why not make Dreamland the first part of a trilogy? I would love to read the story from Franky’s perspective in the second part, whilst the third part could tell the story of Blue. Or is this just an example of me wanting a happy ending?