In both film and literature, tales of dystopian futures remain as popular today as they ever have. Undoubtedly, the inspirations behind today's ventures into the genre must be attributed to three novels: Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, and Orwell's vastly important 1984 From witnessing the birth of Stalinism, to the global affects of WWII, the authors of these three works took an idea from the social changes of their times, and extrapolated them into stories that carried the clear warning: “we must not let this happen”.
Sadly, it's this kind of integral message that is often missing from dystopic stories written today, especially in movies where any social comment takes a back seat to special effects. In The Guardener's Tale, Bruce Boston delivers a novel that not only holds a sound story, but also a solid vision of a society that, conceivably, we could be heading towards.
Set in a future where humanity has survived near total destruction, The Guardener's Tale takes place in a sprawling city, which is ruled by a totalitarian state. Every registered citizen is monitored and modified by a series of cybernetic scans that identifies potential personality defects. Once the defects have been discovered, a person is then ‘conditioned' to behave in a way that adheres to the state's vision of a perfect society. Scattered among the citizens are the Guardeners, law enforcers who protect the city's equilibrium, and are ever vigil for Aberrants - those who have deviated from their conditioning. And it's through the testament of retired Guardener Sol Thatcher that this story is told.
Thatcher's account concerns Richard Thorne, an average citizen living an average life with his ‘chosenmate' Diana. She is ambitious and a model example of state conditioning; he is secretly disillusioned and sceptical of the hierarchy's integrity. Thorne's dissatisfaction leads him to the slum areas of the city, where he mingles with the ‘unconditioned' proletariat. Here, he strikes up a dubious friendship with like-minded deviant DeLyon. However, Thorne doesn't appreciate at first that his new friend cleverly hides questionable motives, and he is already under Thatcher's suspicion as a potential Aberrant.
Trouble brews when Thorne meets DeLyon's half-sister, Josie. Josie is a prostitute, living in the slum areas, and the daughter of an infamous revolutionary. She introduces Thorne to many pleasures forbidden by the state, such as old literature and narcotics. Slowly, Thorne falls in love with Josie, and this brings many complications, not least of all for his relationship with Diana, his chosenmate. Things come to a head when Thorne discovers that Diana has been keeping secrets of her own; in return for promotion, she has relented to the carnal, and illegal, advances of her boss, Coopersmith, a high-ranking official.
By this time, Thorne is already deep into rejecting his conditioning, and is rapidly becoming unhinged. He sets out to confront Coopersmith, but this only makes for worse trouble; Coopersmith's word and stature are total, and no one would believe him capable of the aberrant behaviour that Diana has accused him of. The outcome of the confrontation quite cleverly leads to the downfall of everyone embroiled in the situation, including Sol Thatcher himself.
Boston tells The Guardener's Tale with a solid prose. His smooth blending of first and third person narratives, along with varying character perspectives, are very easy to follow. With the third person, we are injected into an uncompromising vision of a future that Boston presents with clarity. The characters are well drawn and complicated, and their situation is realised with depth and poignancy. There are no cheap thrills or easy answers to their dilemmas; they are slaves to a social structure that cannot be beaten.
The novel's masterstroke, I feel, is the first person narrative, which is used to present Sol Thatcher's testimonies. Through his accounts, Thatcher comes across as a beaten man, whose system of belief has been shattered. His narrative becomes predominant in the last third of the book, and with this method Boston gives the story a certain something extra that very nicely slants towards old-fashioned storytelling. These varying techniques hold together a heavyweight mixture of plot and action that will keep you hooked until the end.
However, if I could draw any real criticism to The Guardener's Tale, it would be two minor points. Firstly, it is implied that at some point Earth succumbed to nuclear catastrophe, but there's not much detail. We hear of a place outside the city known as “Dead Lands”, a place which may not be as poisoned by radiation as the state would have us believe. But at the story's conclusion I found myself wanting more information on how our civilisation actually fell from the world we know to the bleakness of Boston's future.
Secondly, there is a moment in the story where Thorne is attacked by a mugger with a gun. The set up to this scene is very atmospheric, and the table is quickly turned on the mugger when Thorne wrestles possession of the gun for himself. This sequence reminded me of the scene in Camus' The Outsider where Meursault kills the Arab. But instead of taking Meursault's lead, Thorne let's the mugger go, and I can't help wondering what kind of impact it would've had on the story if he had pulled the trigger.
But these criticisms shouldn't serve to detract from what is an engrossing and solid piece of work. Like any good dystopian story, it's the subtleties of The Guardener's Tale that gives it its strength and depth. Boston has taken a good look at western society, and used what he has seen to great effect. It's what we hide and don't say that's most important, but we're steered towards covering the truth with a façade that creates the idea of a perfect picture. As long as we're told things are OK, we feel safe, and this applies to media and politics alike. The Guardener's Tale suggests that democracy's greatest trick was to give us the illusion of real freedom and choice.
THE GUARDENER'S TALE is now available from AMAZON