Top 10 Dystopia Survival Lessons

The past few weeks have become increasingly weird and with them has come the question:

Does this remind you of [insert dystopic novel/film] here?

The main distinction between the films and books we’re referencing is that the present situation doesn’t involve zombies – or a specie of the zombie family. I have a bullet-proof Zombie Escape Plan (it’s progressed beyond the ‘run to my parents’ attic and kick the ladder away’ strategy I concocted after seeing 28 Days Later).

Without the zombies to fight outrun, I started thinking about what the novels I’ve read could teach me about how to stay afloat. So instead of a Top 10 Books this sort of reminds me of, I decided to write a list of Top 10 Survival Lessons.

Spoilers abound!

1. Think of the kittens

In The Dreamers (Karen Thompson Walker), Sara and her sister Libby have been putting up with their apocalypse minded father for years. He’s been gradually stockpiling the house and turning an blind eye to the reproductive habits of Daisy the cat. But the sisters have always understood that,

When it happens, he has said, they’ll have to get rid of them [the kittens]. There won’t be enough food or water to share. He will do it humanely, he’s said. But he might have to shoot them…Sara’s throat grows tight…She and her sister will have to convince him not to do it.’

What kind of a monster would even think of shooting kittens? Father Scaremonger and Stockpile succumbs to the sickness but Sara is still feeding the cats by the end of the novel. If he’d just stopped trying to take control of everything he might have a lived a little.

The lesson here? Think of the kittens and the cats will take care of themselves. Boom.

2. Keep blogging

Towards the beginning of Severance (Ling Ma), Candace mentions her blog, NY Ghost. Photographing New York and posting them to her blog keeps her going as a new resident. By the time Shen Fever empties the city, Candace continues to keep the blog going, prompting this riveting chat with a cab driver:

‘I like to walk around the city and take pictures, I offered. I post them on my blog.

Oh yeah, what’s your blog? Maybe I’ll look it up sometime.

It’s called NY Ghost. It’s mostly just –

He swivelled around. No Kidding. I’ve been on your site before…It’s very nice what you’re doing, keeping people informed.’

The frequent NY Ghost postings help the band of survivors find Candace, just as she starts to lose hope. (The fact that they turned out to be an unhinged bunch will be dismissed for the purposes of this point.) So, no pressure, but the blog helps as a location point, a source of information and a way for Candace to have some purpose in life.

I vow to post more frequently than once every six weeks from now on…

3. Work together and for the greater good

In Station Eleven’s post-virus world, the Shakespearian actors tour and seem like a nice group. But not everyone reacts well to civilisation being threatened wiped out. Cue the prophet who is hell-bent on bad stuff that he propagates through his cult. The most powerful bit comes when we realise what Kirsten and the prophet have in common:

‘The prophet, the only other person she’d ever met who had been in possession of Station Eleven.’

Even though they have the same source material one character represents an optimistic social future and the other – well, doesn’t.

I can’t remember what a 2-pack of toilet roll looks like. I’m taken aback each time I walk into a ransacked supermarkets. I can’t believe the number of shopping related fights uploaded online.

There’s nothing coming to get us, except each other. Working against each other is frightening and it goes nowhere.

4. Smoke. Smoke a lot if you have to

Robert in I Am Legend (Richard Matheson) is under a lot of pressure, what with the vampires that have already destroyed civilisation calling him out night after night. He’s now self-sufficient, lives off the land but is clearly struggling with the isolation. So he drinks, And he smokes. He smokes a lot.

‘…a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, trailing threadlike smoke over his shoulder…’

‘He tossed the hammer on the living-room couch, then lit another cigarette and had his midmorning drink.’

‘He worked in silence, lips pressed into a hard line, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his eyes staring at the bit as it gnawed away the wood and sent floury dust filtering down to the floor.

Four-fifteen. Four-thirty. It was a quarter to five.’

Years ago, I did a quiz to find out my relationship with cigarettes and it transpired that I saw them as a friend. I’d imagine Robert would get the same result. He copes by smoking, because it’s something to do and it keeps him busy.

Somehow this man became the cure. I mean, the New Order killed him for it, but they probably only just beat the cigarettes to it.

5. Stick to a routine

As bad as President Snow was, the oppression really hit when Katniss was stowed away in District 13. At least in District 12 Katniss was a badass who was fighting the system from the inside. But by Mockingjay, she’s another body in a compound that shouldn’t exist. It must get dull.

‘Now the citizens live almost exclusively underground. You can go outside for exercise and sunlight but only at very specific times in your schedule…Every morning you’re supposed to stick your right arm in this contraption in the wall. It tattoos the smooth inside of your forearm with your schedule for the day in sickly purple ink. 7.00-Breakfast. 7.30-Kitchen Duties. 8.30-Education Centre, Room 17. And so on.’

I’ve been trying to develop a routine for the past few years and read those ‘amazing bedtime rituals’ articles through the eyes of someone in denial of their identity. Right now, I’m trying to fit a semblance of my normal working day to the new template, and nothing’s really working.

If you’re having the same problem, it might help that despite the routine advice Katniss ignores the instructions and does what she wants. This refusal to comply leads to her decision to be the Mockingjay.

6. Engage with nature

Toby joins the God’s Gardeners as an escape route. She can’t do much compared to the others – sew tightly or make lotions. She meets Pilar, who knows everything about nature with specialist knowledge of bees and mushrooms and gradually equips herself for life after the Waterless Flood.

‘Now Toby spent all her hours with Pilar – tending the Edencliff beehives and the crops of buckwheat and lavender grown for the bees on adjacent rooftops, extracting the honey and storing it in jars…Thus the time passed. Toby stopped counting it.’

I know little about gardening. It intimidates me. It would be useful to grow my own vegetables. If this means having to learn about soil fertility and…stuff, then so be it. I could happily live off courgettes and cauliflower and onions and carrots. And if it led to a relationship with nature anything like Pilar’s epitaph, I’d be a very happy woman.

[Toby to the bees]

‘Pilar is dead. She sends you her greetings, and her thanks for your friendship over many years. When the time comes for you to follow her to where she has gone, she will meet you there.’

7. Work out who’s creating the narrative

In Player One (Douglas Coupland) Four strangers meet at an airport bar and the world ends. My second survival lesson from this novel would be ‘watch the windows’ as someone starts shooting into the bar, but I hope we’re not at that stage yet. The excerpt below feels more pertinent for the times we’re living in:

‘Our curse as humans is that we are trapped in time; our curse is that we are forced to interpret life as a sequence of events – a story – and when we can’t figure out what our particular story is, we feel lost somehow.’

I deleted Twitter from my phone a few days ago because I was driving myself mad with it. I sort of hate Twitter but find it useful for updates instead of waiting for the news. Then the London lockdown rumour started and it was time to delete.

It feels as though people want to live in a post-apocalyptic story where we lose our freedom and have to physically fight to survive. This is the exciting narrative. The reality is watching the European countries and trying to imagine for a few seconds what that really feels like. Maybe it will come to a point that we are told to stay in, but I’d rather have that meted out than announced on social media to induce a free-for-all.

8. If someone is supposed to have left your house, check they’re really gone

Malorie is holed up in the strange house with people who were strangers not so long ago. She and Olympia go into labour at the same time. That alone is tense, but at least Gary the weirdo who seems to want people to see, is gone – right?

‘”Gary,” Malorie says…”You’ve been hiding in the cellar.”

Someone has started a group in my street to offer help to anyone in need. This means treading the line of speaking to strangers which is dangerous. Because we blush when we accidentally make eye contact and practise a thousand yard stare while walking down the road. (I’m not sure if the ‘we’ relates to English people, Londoners or introverts).

I don’t think my neighbours would sneak into my home and hide – I don’t have a cellar for starters. And the aim is to socially distance ourselves. But this situation will require us to trust people in a way we might not have had to before. Just remember that for every Tom, Jules, Olympia, Frank and Malorie, there’s a Gary.

9. Appreciate the people you care about

Edgar is a normal man in the 21st century. Normal in that we live around families that we assume will be there and fit in around everything else we fill our time with. And then, following the huge global disaster, he gets separated from his family.

‘She was trying to talk to me. She was trying to tell me, one last time, not to do it, to stay with my family. But I had ignored her, and now they were gone.’

If Edgar had appreciated the security of appreciating the people he lived with, he might have avoided having to run from Scotland down to Cornwall. It wouldn’t have been such a good story, but he would have saved himself a lot of muscle pain and blisters.

10. Appreciate history

Samuel Pepys was a naval officer during the 1600s and he had the forethought to keep a diary. I enjoy his diary as he was based in Greenwich and he mentions the area and the surrounding towns. Because that’s where I live and it doesn’t get name dropped nearly enough. The diary ends with the Great Fire of London (1666) but starts with the plague coming to London:

‘In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the city.’

‘The town goes very sickly, and people to be afeared of it – ‘

The plague has always scared me because it was highly contagious and fatal. But people lived around it and lived normally until they couldn’t any more. That’s what the past week and a half have mirrored. When Coronavirus arrived in London, the first thing I thought of was the plague and that it took the Great Fire of London to stop it. That’s not ideal. So I read a little more as I started to wonder how a fire in a single city (on an island) stopped a pandemic. From my research (reading things on the Internet), it’s most likely that the plague dropped due to quarantining.

The last couple of weeks I’ve seen a few ‘this is the end of the world’ comments online, my manager includes the closing sentence ‘We are doomed’ in every email he sends me (not sure if he means our company or humanity) and I’ve had a few comments from my mother about end times. Is it helpful? No, not at all.

History teaches us that these things have happened before and were contained. Technologically, medically, legally and politically we’ve progressed. The constant is the human propensity for fear. I was reminded this morning that God is for us, not against us.

If you’re struggling with watching what looks like the world falling apart, the world has fallen apart before but it gets stitched back together. History shows us that!

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