Eight people still breathing in a Dead Zone - how many can cheat Fate twice?
Egg, staffing his children’s ward; Daze, dossing in her Gothic crypt; 80 year old Annie, housebound on the 20th floor of her tower block: all find themselves curiously immune after a terrifyingly swift pandemic has raged, leaving corpses and suspicion in its wake. All are trapped in the same city Isolation Zone with the same harrowing ultimatum – believe the media and report to a ‘quarantine centre’ for treatment, or believe their own eyes and attempt escape…
Fear of Misery is a vivid urban dystopian thriller, set in a London of the near future where resource shortages, overpopulation and climate change have seriously impacted the fabric of society. Follow the achingly portrayed band of everyday survivors on their dark, nail-biting journeys through vacant streets, disturbing questions, desperate losses and redeeming loves.
Would you make the same choices to save yourself or others, never sure if you are riding out a viral apocalypse or a mass murder conspiracy?
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The genesis of Fear of Misery was a thought experiment. I conflated two issues so huge that individuals and communities globally are unable to process them, and I spotted a seam of dramatic gold lancing through it all that I couldn’t resist mining.
The first elephant in the room is the fact that the mammalian species, Homo sapiens, is out of balance with its environment. I get strange reactions when I remind people that we are just animals and like any other animal that overpopulates – creating problems for itself, other living organisms, and their environment – it’s logical to expect that we are ripe for a fall. We recognise that in other species this will mean diminishing resources, disease outbreak, and a boost in predator populations, but apparently humanity feels itself strangely immune to this natural law. We possesses curious blinkers, yet our perpetual fascination with an impending zombie apocalypse speaks volumes.
This book’s title is taken from a treatise on the problem (of overpopulation, not zombies) by Thomas Malthus, in it he outlines the fact that war, famine and disease are the unavoidable and necessary results of unchecked population growth with a lot of misery involved along the way. Which bumps us against the second elephant in the room: the increasing power that governments, banks, and multinational conglomerates (not necessarily in that order) have over the rights and lifestyles of the average person. The people, that is, who have the capacity to steer societies around the globe towards action that would avoid the misery. Sadly, it’s an ill wind that blows no-one any good.
We have always been manipulated by, and coped with the fall-out from, the actions of the controlling human parties on Earth. Parties usually uninterested in, or insulated from, the consequences for the average person on the street. Conspiracy theories abound as to how far these parties will go to have their way, many credible if you consider the money and power battles that lie behind much in this life. To what lengths are the people in control of economies and politics prepared to go? What if, I asked myself, motivated by the Malthusian fear of misery, ‘They’ felt motivated to reduce the population without the contingencies of war? Would a scenario ever arise where a viral apocalypse hit, but no-one could ever be sure if it was a Malthusian solution - created, encouraged, or condoned? Would ‘They’ do that to us?
What if, unlike most End of Days political-medical thriller, some kick-ass kung-fu, psychic chick in leather, or ex-military, grizzled lone-wolf bad boy weren’t there to discover the plot, and save the day at the last gasp? What if the sickness scenario ran its course? Well, then the story is all about the person on the street dealing with the aforementioned fall-out. And if you are that person, what does it mean? You don’t care about conspiracies or balance of power or changing society. No. You care about saving your own skin. And sometimes, the hides of others too. That is the story of the Fear of Misery: what would you or I do if we woke up on the wrong side of a line drawn spuriously in the sand?
I found my cast from the ordinary, everyday people inhabiting the spectrum of class, economy, and city geography. But, since I believe that every individual is extraordinary in some way, in my world a story about ordinary people is always going to go somewhere interesting. Where did all the characters come from? Well, this story was conceived for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), a writing challenge which I fly by the seat of my pants, beginning with only the barest of concepts. In this case it was my little disaster scenario with ordinary people endeavouring to escape death twice.
Most just stepped out of the scenery as I began writing and panned the camera around in my head. Egg, for instance, came out of nowhere but became, for me, the embodiment of a working class hero, a man who, through upbringing and life experience, is compelled to take responsibilities that others might shirk, as a matter of personal honour. He gives everything. I willed him to succeed but was never sure how, or how many of his unit would make it. The kids came because when society collapses there are always children present. Children as little people, that is, not murder victims or curiously precocious psychopaths. Children contribute, mirror, shape adult action, and challenge hope. In crisis conditions, boundaries must sometimes be crossed and ideals are mown down. Little tragedies hurt too.
The inspiration for Annie, however, was not new, she had lived in my head for years. I love Annie, and had tears in my eyes when introducing her.. We routinely marginalise, demean, and dehumanise old age – Annie is symbolic of my belief that we all have something to give, right up to the end. She is inspired by an elderly lady featured in a UK documentary that I saw years ago. Housebound, and very much alone in a top-floor flat of a council high-rise, she started the day recalling the words of encouragement her recently deceased husband used to give her. She was brave. The everyday type of brave; you don’t brandish a sword and no-one gives you a medal. Thus inspired, weak as she was, Annie went forth to meet her destiny with a steadfastness of spirit that we should all covet. If anyone remembers that documentary with The Lady in the Tower Block, please let me know, I would like to record her name.
I have no idea where Marta and Pete came from and there was no intention that they would end up together. The only conscious thought behind their materialisation was that we all frame the same experience differently. Some of us are damaged, or not blessed with the robust brain circuitry, adrenal systems, and self-awareness necessary to cope heroically in extremis. And like poor little, tough little Daze, for some people the landscape shifts but the struggle simply continues.
Bertie Farthingale was the last main character to enter the stage, also unplanned, but I found his voice coming to me through the ether as a privileged outside observer. Bertie symbolised Luck in all it’s forms; in him I found showmanship and benign narcissism (which many people with plenty of money possess) running up against morbid fascination and struggling with the consequences of compassion. Caty, by the way, was an unashamedly Northern Lass, whose strength of spirit defied me, and a watcher became an actor at the last.
The pressure was on, the stakes were high, but for me the heart of this story is the heart of the individual pitched against The System: loves and losses, willpower and solutions, survival, faith in teamwork, and belief in the best side of human nature. And hope. Because we all need hope.
On its way...
On its way...