A while ago, I joked about having jumped on the dystopian bandwagon. But the truth is that post is a little disingenuous, because I don’t think A Single Stone is really a dystopian narrative. The furthest I would go is to describe it as “speculative fiction with dystopian elements”.
Oh, what’s the difference? Why split hairs?
In the first place, because if ever there is a hair to be split, I will pierce it with a fine-gauge needle. It’s just what I do.
And in the second, because the difference is important.
A true dystopia is exactly as it sounds, an anti-utopia, a “not-good place” to coin a literal translation. And I can categorically say that no world I ever write will be either utopian or dystopian. Because those terms imply a certainty about what’s good and bad, and those definitive, clear-cut divisions aren’t at all interesting to me.
What’s interesting to me are the shifty shades of grey, the ambiguities. I am categorically not interested in categorical statements, worlds, or characters; I want the stories that crawl out of the spaces in between, a world whose value system balances on their edge.
A couple of young readers have asked me whether the Mothers are meant to be good or bad. And while I try and answer helpfully, I suspect my replies are frustrating, because to me that can’t possibly be a question … because what do those words actually mean? Is good/bad about intent or outcome? Whose outcome? How much responsibility does someone bear if they genuinely didn’t realise what they were doing? Or if they did but were guided by a deep-seated belief in the rightness of it, the for the greater good-ness. These are ethical questions that arise repeatedly in the real world and which I wanted to gesture at here. These are the questions I’d love young readers to get to, and which I try maddeningly to nudge them towards when they email me – not Are they good or bad? but What makes them who they are? Why do they act as they do? How can this be read when we spin the lens this way? And that?
In many stories of dystopian flavour, there is a clear Big Bad – an individual who is actively concealing information or hoarding resources, an organisation or company perpetuating an unjust system, consciously inflicting suffering on others in order to tip the scales in favour of their own survival or status.
I like some of these stories, but there’s no way I could write one. I can’t do Big Bad. No matter what I might plan, once I start writing, I get lost in the cracks, in the shades of doubt and the maybe this? ooh, but maybe that? As much fun as evil characters might be, they’re fundamentally one-dimensional; by their nature, they shut down questions rather than opening them up. And opening things up, getting readers to step off the solid ground they take for granted, is something that’s quite important to me. In my own work, I have no interest in moustache-twirling villains, in characters of any stripe who show no evidence of internal conflict, of any tussle with the self.
This is perhaps why I’ve been struggling with my thoughts about a sequel. I’ve found myself scribbling all-caps admonitions-to-self, as if I’m enrolled in WriteGood101: WHAT’S THE THREAT? WHO’S THE ANTAGONIST?
There isn’t really an antagonist in A Single Stone. Or if there is, it’s not an individual but a way of thinking. And the overarching threat comes from the self, from within. So … are the Mothers good or bad? Both and neither, in the same way we all are.
Shifty shades of grey. Maddening. Compelling. To me, at least. To readers, hopefully.