‘Other World’ Fictions: Dystopia And The Short Story by Rachel Connor

Exit Earth winning writer, Rachel Connor explores dystopian fiction and the short story in advance of June’s Northern Short Story Festival. Rachel will be part of a panel discussing ‘The Short Story and Our World’. You can book tickets here.

In an article in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian, claims that we are living in a time of ‘radical pessimism’.  In this context, it is no surprise that the appetite for dystopian fiction is on the rise, something which Professor Susan Watkins discussed in her recent article for the Leeds Big Bookend.

Although projecting into the future, dystopia, of course, coalesces around anxiety about the present day – amongst other things, rising fear about global political developments and impending environmental disaster.  The origins of dystopia lie in the roots of concern for world or nation (the original meaning of the word is ‘unhappy country’).  Lepore suggests that in its modern definition ‘a dystopia can be apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic, or neither, but it has to be anti-utopian, a utopia turned upside down, a world in which people tried to build a republic of perfection only to find that they had created a republic of misery.’

A panel at this year’s Northern Short Story Festival will explore this dynamic between pessimism and optimism, hope and despair.  Representatives from Comma Press and STORGY Books will discuss the place of the dystopian in contemporary literary culture, in particular in the short story form.  Last year, STORGY Press released Exit Earth , an anthology of writings which undertakes a ‘haunting exploration of the sanity of our species…past, present and future.’

The twenty-four contributors to Exit Earth approach the possible end of our species in varied and multiple ways, showcasing the elasticity of the short story from. Jess Bonder experiments somewhat with form, creating in her story ‘Ken’ a narrative that emulates the work of artist Cindy Sherman, who uses female mannequins arranged in pornographic poses to interrogate masculinist discourse. Duncan Abel’s ‘Don’t Go to the Flea Circus’ examines the implications of population explosion through an imagined scenario of mass starvation. Abel writes of wanting to capture unspecified time or place, as a way of allowing the reader to recognise their own situation, town or country – a ‘potential problem faced by us all’.  Joseph Sale focuses on how we find beautiful meaning in the face of something huge – the frightening political and environmental situations we find ourselves in. My own story, ‘How to Curate a Life’ asks questions about matter and the soul: is digital data material matter? How does it construct our identity in a virtual realm? And once the body has expired, is our online footprint a repository of the soul?

The stories in Exit Earth don’t just outline a possible bleak future world, they explore the nature of humanity.  In this sense, they don’t fit neatly into a category of ‘dystopian.’  In her survey of recent ‘golden age’ dystopian fiction, Lepore argues that ‘dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness.’

It is here that short fiction can play its part, just as much as the novel, in reflecting on current cultural and political issues.  The short story, according to William Boyd, is ‘an aesthetic daisycutter bomb of a reading experience’; it wrests the reader from her/his current state, doing its work of transformation with ‘ruthless brevity and concentrated dispatch’ . The short story may be short but it is, in the words of A L Kennedy, ‘small in the way that a bullet is small.’  Violent as this image might seem, it demonstrates the political, as well as aesthetic, possibilities of short fiction.  In the context of ‘the dystopian’ or ‘the post-apocalyptic’, it allows us to explore, perhaps in more concentrated and powerful ways, how as human beings we navigate past, present and future selves – as individuals and, collectively, as a planet.

Rachel Connor is Course Director of English with Creative Writing at Leeds Beckett University and leader of the Practices of Writing research strand for the Centre for Culture and the Arts. She is a novelist, dramatist and award winning short story writer.



Panel Event: Sunday 3 June 2018
The Short Story and Our World
1.30-2.30/ £4. Book your ticket here.

The short story and our world: STORGY and Comma discuss the political and out-of-this world possibilities of the short story, featuring EXIT EARTH winner Rachel Connor.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

You may also like...