Speculative fiction? It's already here

Opinion - Books Monday, 03 June 2019

Jem Tugwell has set a crime novel in the near future. How to classify it?


Writing my debut novel, Proximity, I wanted a future setting to add another dimension to the crime story. The world of Proximity allows an examination of how our lives might look in the near future. The positives and negatives. The moral dilemmas. It's interesting to hear people's different perspectives on it, and see where their own personal boundaries lie.

When I have to name the genre of the novel, I struggle. Stuart MacBride must have had a similar dilemma in 2010 with his book Halfhead. Calling Proximity cross-genre just confuses the issue.

So Proximity is speculative fiction? Well, Proximity fits the theme of imagination, but speculative fiction is such a broad category and includes superheroes, magic, supernatural powers, etc. It's almost a catch-all genre for all the stuff that's difficult to badge. My real problem with the label is the double meaning of the word "speculative". The first is fine: based on conjecture. The second is not: involving a high risk of loss. The negative connotation, even if subliminal, puts readers, agents and publishers off, I am sure. Who wants to take an unnecessary risk?

Proximity is science fiction? No. To me, sci-fi is about spaceships, aliens, etc. Great books like Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time.

So is Proximity crime? Yes, but not solely. Dystopian? No, there are positives and well as negatives in the world of the novel. Near-future sci-fi? Yes to the near-future part, but no to the sci-fi.

The closest fit is to put Proximity in near-future under the crime genre, or better still as a genre on its own - alternate future. But these genres don't exist in bookshop shelves, Amazon categories or BIC codes. There should be a new genre, with its own code, like the FM code for fantasy.

Channel 4's drama series Humans averaged 4 million viewers per episode. Black Mirror is hugely popular, as were films such as Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and many others, but it's hard to see books being compared to these film and TV hits. Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me is classified as "science fiction alternate history" on Amazon - which doesn't really position it as mainstream fiction.

The great thing about alternate near-futures is that the author and reader can feel a connection with the world, as it is so close to their own experiences. It adds another sense of threat. As with psychological thrillers, there's a "that could be me' sensation.

Proximity's world has a technology that provides the convenience of no keys, no identity theft and no passwords to remember. Because the government knows where you are all of the time, they can solve nearly every crime very easily. Murders, muggings, stabbings and thefts drop to nearly zero when you are guaranteed to get caught. The government also controls and taxes your intake of calories, alcohol, fat, etc to make you healthier, and so the NHS runs better with much less demand.

So, is it speculation? Not as much as you might think.

We already have Swedish and US companies whose employees have embedded RFID chips, and phone tracking is definitely possible now. Governments are experimenting with facial recognition software. My dog has a chip. My car has a tracker so it's easy to find if it's stolen. What is stopping us finding a lost child in the same way?

There are fitbit-type devices that stream blood sugar levels via Bluetooth to help diabetes patients and their families. We have sugar taxes and calls for mandatory vaccinations. The Mental Health Act allows patients with anorexia to be sectioned for compulsory treatment.

We are told there is danger everywhere, with signs that flash warnings at you, and health and safety directives that treat us as if we are stupid - like the announcements on the Tube to hold the handrail on the escalator.

We save our files to the cloud. Our photos, perhaps a letter from the bank or doctor or social services. They are safe from a hard-disk crash, but they are not secure. There is an ulterior motive to a company giving us cloud space for free. We are the product. Our searches, purchases and preferences are already "data" to be used and sold. Our privacy is an illusion.

It is clear that much of the world of Proximity already exists. But would you really want a separate embedded chip for your home, work, car, bank, credit cards, and each shop or website? Your arm would be overcrowded. One centralised chip makes most logical sense. It would give consistency. Then who runs it? The government would seem more secure than a company, but what else might they use it for?

Proximity's near-future could be just a few steps away. Almost an alternate now - a world where "You can't get away with anything. Least of all murder." Hopefully, it doesn't act as a design template for our politicians.

Whatever the genre badge, I think that the near-future or alternate-future is an extremely rich space to examine all sorts of social, economic and political issues. I wish that more books explored it, especially when wrapped up in crime fiction.

Proximity (Serpentine Books) is available in paperback, ebook and audio on the 6 June.

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