Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dystopia is scary enough without politics

A couple of weeks back, I finally got around to turning a birthday gift card into books. I came home with Fleishman Is In Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner; Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman; and Lights Out In Lincolnwood, by Geoff Rodkey. All three were table finds, books that caught my eye enough to pick up and read the back and maybe test drive the first few pages. The first two I'd heard of before. Lights Out was new to me. Turns out it was new to everyone, as it was only released earlier this month.

Having slowed to a crawl on the book I was reading (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand), I was open to starting something new. Lights Out leapt to the top of the pile and sucked me right in. The premise, a suburban family of four--dad, mom, two high schoolers--is going about their day in typical suburban fashion, when suddenly the power goes out. All the way out. Not just electricity, but cars, trains, airplanes. Everything stops in its place and/or falls from the sky.

Dan Altman, the dad, has to walk eight miles home from where his commuter train into NYC stopped. Chloe and Max drift away from school once their teachers realize the lights aren't about to flick back on. And Jen, the mom, hits the vodka, which is pretty much what she would have been doing anyway.

Over the course of four days, their upscale New Jersey suburb descends into chaos, as water service is cut to all homes. The Altmans survive on peanut butter and tuna fish, and the cookouts staged by their next-door neighbors, the Stankovics, who they don't actually like. Chloe falls in love, Max searches for a nicotine substitute, Jen drinks herself into oblivion, and Dan wonders why the newly formed town militia won't recruit him.

It's a fun and fast read (even at 529 pages long), but it also sort of scared the hell out of me. I can see too many of my neighbors wanting to sign on for that militia. The cosplay soldiers who could finally feel free to roam the streets with their assault rifles and pretend to be the good guys. Rodkey notes that when he started writing the book he never imagined a pandemic and a disputed election would bring his dystopia so close to real life. But here we are, and the thought of having to line up for rations doled out by heavily armed jackwagons has me wondering how many cans of soup I can stack in my basement.

I don't tend to include politics in my fiction writing. For one, I spend way too much time thinking about stuff like that in real life. A novel should be a place to escape it. In fact, one of my first considerations these days when I contemplate a new story is when to set it. Because if you want to even pretend to be realistic, you almost have to avoid 2019-21. Maybe anything since 2016. I don't want to divide my characters up into Trump fans and sensible folk. I'd rather they populate a world in which he never came to power. Just because I can't live there anymore doesn't mean they shouldn't get the chance.

Lights Out In Lincolnwood never brings up any politician or cult leader by name. We might all be able to guess who Eddie Stankovic voted for, but Rodkey leaves that bit out. Dystopia is frightening enough without it.