Living our grandparents’ dystopia

EVENT: Writing the Post Apocalypse (Saturday, 24 September; Lobby Books)


Steven Amsterdam (Things we Didn’t See Coming) and Julie Myerson (Then) discuss their most recent novels.

On a beautiful sunny Heritage Day in Cape Town – the kind of day we’ve been dreaming about all winter – it’s rather a juxtaposition to make a leap of imagination into the apocalypse of authors Julie Myerson and Steven Amsterdam.

The discussion of their novels starts with a reading by both authors. Julie’s novel, Then, was inspired by a BBC weather story she read that looked at the freezing over of the Thames. Using this as the base for her novel’s apocalypse, Julie aims to make the familiar strange, envisioning an unrecognisable London. Intriguingly, she is reluctant to classify her work as post apocalyptic, but rather a manifestation of anxiety born from everyday reality.

Steven’s work follows a quite different trajectory. His novel consists of nine connected stories, tracing the narrator’s journey across the various scenarios he finds himself in. The story takes place against the backdrop of the aftermath of Y2K, which many believed would happen: the envisioned nightmare of the mass failure of the digital world, but which did not, in fact, happen on any large scale.

What then connects these novels? It is the familiar-turns-strange theme that runs through both. Despite Y2K being a virtual nonevent, it was a defining episode for our generational cohort in terms of the turning point it was thought to be and the panic it caused, while Julie’s cataclysmic London is based on actual historical occurrences, employing hyperbole to lay the scene.

Steven captures this fear of the world falling apart: “We are living our grandparents’ dystopia. What people feared 30 or 40 years ago is now our reality. Dystopia quickly becomes normality.” This idea is expanded on when the conversation inevitably turns to 9/11 and its quasi post-apocalyptic aftermath. He speaks of how quickly people adjust after a catastrophe like this, like the LA riots and the London bombings. He tells his own anecdote of going to a supermarket in New York after the attacks and experiencing the absurd normality of buying a tin of fish and a bottle of water. Mere days after the attack, the lingering smell in the air became normal, the overwhelming police presence no longer noticed.

Julie expands on this, speaking of her own experiences after the 2005 London bombings. To her mind, events like this may not affect everyday routines, but rather our relationships to everything around us, reminding readers of the precariousness of life. It’s the little things that stick after a traumatic event, she says, recounting someone telling her about noticing seagulls after the bombings, watching them pick at the pieces and cling to buildings affected by the bombs. It’s small but harrowing details like this that reflect how people try to make sense of traumatic events.

Ultimately, it is the uncertainty surrounding these events, and natural disasters too, that these novels are responding to. Steven goes so far as to suggest that both books are less post apocalyptic than a response to this uncertainty and anxiety ever present in society. Indeed, looking at the scenarios he presents in his novel, this seems to hold true as he explores a world that has not yet fallen apart completely. He examines how the remaining partial structures – governments, institutions, hospitals – continue to operate under these conditions, allowing readers to imagine these scenarios with disturbing propinquity.

But why, precisely, is post-apocalyptic fiction so popular?

While the popularity of novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road have contributed tremendously to the surge, both Steven and Julie recognise the cyclical nature of dystopian novels. To an extent, this genre of fiction reflects global consciousness. Thirty years ago, post-apocalyptic fiction imagined nuclear calamities. Today, the end of the world as we know it is envisioned as a consequence of weapons of mass destruction, chemical warfare or medical epidemics. What new disaster lies in the future?

Steven quips that that next apocalypse will be the result of the debt crisis.