“Dystopia Is Too Easy”: Laurie Penny’s Tomorrow

Penny Side by Side Crop

If the British journalist and author Laurie Penny is known for one thing, it’s her astute, incisive, and often provocative writings on politics and society. She’s the author of several works of nonfiction that explore questions of class, gender, and sexuality, and the numerous ways in which they intersect. In works like 2014’s Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution, Penny’s engagement with culture, her refusal to have her views easily categorized, and her awareness of history make her work an essential guide to some of the most vital and contentious issues of our time.

Her latest book, Everything Belongs to the Future, represents something of a shift for Penny. For one thing, it’s fiction. Science fiction, even, set late in the 21st century, decades after a scientific discovery allows for the human lifespan to be dramatically extended — at least for those wealthy enough to afford the treatment. In this short novel, Penny explores the array of ways in which this single innovation might transform the world–from a shift in perception of the arts to a change in how global warming is addressed. Her story turns on a small group of characters haunted by the way that income inequality has extended to lifespan inequality, and vows to do something about it.

I talked with Penny via email about the genesis of her novel, the way that writing fiction has affected her nonfiction, and how to invent a future that reflects and comments on social disparities without falling into a number of dystopian cliches. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. – Tobias Carroll.

The Barnes & Noble Review: Everything Belongs to the Future shares a number of concerns with your works of nonfiction. Have you been writing fiction alongside your work on politics and society all along, or was there something specific that prompted you to expand your focus?

Laurie Penny: I’ve always written fiction in bits and pieces but only started to take it seriously and show it to other people three years ago. We had a death in the family, and I found myself unable to write about the news, which is my bread and butter- but for my sanity, I still needed to write. Then I honed my technique at the Clarion West workshop in 2015. I’ve always been a critically conscious reader so it’s a struggle to get out of my own way and not analyze every aspect of every story for its political fitness. Human stories are always more complicated and problematic, and that awareness has fed back into my journalism.

BNR: Is there a specific way that you’ve found that writing fiction has changed your nonfiction?

LP: Oh, a huge amount–I find myself thinking a great deal about how to represent different voices, in a literal rather than metaphorical sense. Non-fiction is all about developing your own voice. Fiction is ventriloquism.

BNR: Did you find that the experience of working on this novella was relatively similar to the nonfiction work you’ve done, or did it take you to markedly different places as a writer?

LP: Fiction still flows far less easily for me than non-fiction. This story went through about ten rewrites, and I fussed and fretted with it a lot as I expanded it to novella-length. Honestly, I’ve stared at it so long that I have no idea anymore if it’s even any good. I’ll leave that to readers to decide.

BNR: The idea of a drug that allows the wealthy and powerful to stop aging is at the center of this novella. What prompted the decision to put that at the heart of the future in which this story is set?

LP: I’ve a good friend who’s a researcher in this area who challenged me years ago to write a story about the social implications of anti-ageing tech, so I’ve been cooking the idea for a while. Then I took a course in the history and consequences of biotechnology, which gave me a zillion terrifying story ideas–that’s why science fiction is such a vital part of political discourse. It’s where we sketch out future scenarios and try to figure out coping strategies.

BNR: The worldbuilding of the novella has a number of interesting complexities–social stratification has become even more heightened, but climate change has become more of an active societal concern, and the economic position of artists has been improved. What was your process for fleshing out this future society?

LP: I’m very interested in fictional futures that don’t involve total social collapse- futures that may be grim, but aren’t actively dystopian. Dystopia is too easy.

Anti-ageing opens up a whole world of possibility in terms of world building- after all, if people with great wealth can suddenly see themselves living for centuries, there’s a new incentive to stop mining the future for profit and actually take care of the planet. This is a world where climate change has been slowed but not stopped. Britain, with its temperate climate, has not been drastically affected, but there have been true disasters elsewhere. And Oxford was a perfect place to set it–I write a lot about London, where I was born and live, but I studied at Oxford for three years, and it’s a bizarre, twisted cultural microclimate where time really does seem to move differently–perfect for a story that is fundamentally about time and privilege.

There are all sorts of Easter Eggs in there for anyone who’s from Oxford–Hasan’s food truck is a real thing, as is HiLos, a rum bar where I used to work. The breaking-into-Magdalen-Ball scene is straight-up lifted from a stunt I tried to pull with some friends in second year, although we got caught.

BNR: In your novella, a mold found in Scotland is at the center of the drug that can extend human lifespans. Were you looking towards any real-world science for inspiration here?

LP: Oh, no. It’s totally made up handwaving magic science, which is going to annoy my actual science friends no end- apart from a very, very veiled nod towards the issue of biological prospecting. But I was a little bit pleased with the idea that in a hundred years we’re bioprospecting in the *Republic* of Scotland.

BNR: How much worldbuilding and extrapolation of future history did you do that didn’t end up making its way into the finished book?

LP: Huge amounts. I had a lot in there about What Happened To California, where one of the characters come from–it’s become a little in-joke in a lot of my fiction that whenever I worldbuild, I destroy San Francisco offstage. There was also a great deal of waffling about what life extension technology would do to the Piketty equation which only made it into a few lines.

BNR: There are a number of critiques of privilege that are subtly worked into the narrative, in terms of race, gender, and class. Were those there from the beginning, or was the adding of that layer something that came as you edited and revised?

LP: Subtle? That’s a compliment. I thought I laid it on with a trowel. The most important thing here is that the central love-story–if you can call it a love story, given that it features an undercover cop who’s using his activist girlfriend for information–is based on cases that really happened in the UK, where police were given fake identities and encouraged to form deceptive relationships with women in left-wing women, sometimes even having children with them. I wanted to be sensitive and upfront in how I handled that. The inquiry into those abuses–and they are abuses, make no mistake–is still ongoing. My first readers told me I was too mean to the cop, and some of them were anarchists with no love for the police. It’s partly about how privilege and state power interact with our ability to form relationships, and partly about how some men justify awful behavior in the name of love, but writing it from the point of view of a cop was a real humanizing challenge

BNR: Early in the book, there’s a party inspired by what the narration calls “a weird old racist novel” — which, from the description, sounds a lot like H. Rider Haggard’s She. Were there any other works of fiction about immortality that you were either influenced by or wanted to critique with Everything Belongs to the Future?

LP: Yes, that’s the one ! I’ve always been interested in the portrayals of immortality in Gulliver’s Travels–but I’m also a big reader of Vampire stories, which are the main popular delivery-vehicle for ideas about extended life and its costs right now. It’s fascinating how vampires, who are essentially unsubtle stand-ins for unscrupulous aristocrats, have become totally rehabilitated in popular culture. Everyone wants to be a vampire, or be seduced by one, and we’ve almost forgotten that they’re supposed to be horrible monsters. Sure, they kill a lot of people, but it’s worth it if you get to be rich and sexy forever. right?