China virus

Oversleeper by Matt Mountebank (Stewart Ferris)

Is the premise of Oversleeper coming true?

The virus outbreak in China has been declared a 'global health emergency'. Did Oversleeper predict this? The backstory of the novel is uncannily familiar. A new virus hits the population in China. Flights are grounded. Travel is banned. Millions in quarantine. The virus is deadly and untreatable. After China it scythes through country after country. Global travel is banned. Trade stops. Whole regions of the planet are quarantined. The west has its back against the wall, waiting for the plague to hit its shores. In desperation, governments conspire to save themselves, but they can only do so at the cost of their humanity. An act of unimaginable cruelty and evil is the only way they can save their people, and having unleashed their defences the survivors are brutalised, living in fear that the virus will one day reappear among the weak, spreading to the strong. History has shown again and again that a desperate population will turn to extremes. Poverty and fear chose Hitler, Brexit and Trump. And in the novel, people have designed a political and social system that gives humans the best chance of making it through another outbreak, but the survival of the race requires the sacrifice of the individual.

The novel Oversleeper throws its New Yorker hero, Iggy, into such a world. He’s been sick, and wakes from a decade-long coma to find everything is different. The population has been put on an evolutionary fast track, each person regularly tested to ensure they are fit to remain. Text messages containing physical challenges are sent at random to citizens. The police are always watching, ready to shoot down anyone who fails to complete their challenge. Becoming old and slow is no longer an option.

The brutality of Iggy’s world is like an omnipotent force punishing people in real time instead of in the afterlife, Orwell’s Big Brother teamed up with God Himself, society tailored mercilessly towards the survival of the fittest, Darwinism in overdrive. With no functioning Internet, only one television channel, and a depleted population too afraid to speak the truth, Iggy struggles to find answers.

Of course, no country would choose to automate its government and give the green light to extreme inhumanity. But we’re automating our homes and our cars. So what about our governments? Do we really need people to run things? Those corruptible, fallible men and women we call politicians who make our laws: could their roles be replaced by software? Where might that take us? Towards a heaven on earth, or sliding inexorably down into a vicious dictatorship? Could it all go horribly wrong and plunge us into a dark dystopia?

In Oversleeper, Iggy finds there’s even more going on than just the cruel aftermath of the virus. The reason for his coma was that he had the virus, but his genetic make-up gave him the biological tools to recover from it. He is unique on the planet in that respect. While he remained comatose, doctors have been breeding hundreds of thousands of children from his sperm in an attempt to strengthen the world’s population against another outbreak of disease. This creates a new political dilemma: when those children grow up, they will look to Iggy for leadership. He has become the world’s most powerful politician by default. This puts him in renewed danger. For this there is no historical precedent, but it makes sense. Anyone commanding that much loyalty is surely a threat to the establishment. Just as things start to go well for Iggy, he comes to this realisation and must go on the run again, and this time he cannot return unless he is ready to take on the might and the cold indifference of the automated regime.

Iggy’s dystopian world is only a decade away. It’s a future that feels like the past, because with so much of the world taken out by the virus, we’ve lost the factories that make the technology on which we’ve come to rely. Instead of smartphones, people are using the brick-style analogue phones of the nineties. Writers have become smallholders, because a hungry society has no need for new books. Power is limited and rationed. Horses become more common than cars. Only the military has enough fuel to take to the skies. Properties are worthless, because there aren’t enough people to fill every home. Life is short and miserable. Yet there are pockets of resistance that keep alight the flame of hope. No regime can last forever, however murderous or repressive it may be. It just takes someone to make a stand. Iggy’s an ordinary guy, a clerk in an elevator repair company. He never wanted to save the world. But he realises that every hero starts out normal. He simply has to make the right choices. Yet, when the power ultimately rests in his hands, he’s faced with the responsibility of choosing life or death for millions of people, and he realises that choosing life isn’t as easy as he’d thought…

Oversleeper by Matt Mountebank is published by Headline Accent.

The Dali Museum

The Dali Museum, Figueres, Spain.

Digging up Dali

So they dug up the embalmed body of Salvador Dali in the week that The Dali Diaries was published. Delighted as I am to ride on the coat tails of this free publicity (I was there amid the media circus in Figueres as the builders carried in scaffolding and lifting gear, and later as the forensic scientists arrived with an empty casket) I can’t help feeling sorry for the man. Having been lovingly preserved in 1989, he has been lifted from his marble tomb at the centre of his museum in northern Spain and been subjected to intrusive procedures to extract parts of him for DNA analysis – reportedly this includes teeth, hair and bone marrow. The lower half of the body casket was wheeled out of the museum after midnight without its lid, loaded only with medical equipment. Dali’s body parts appeared to follow in a cardboard box. These samples are going to be returned to him when the scientists have completed their work, but the disturbance seems a shame considering the care that went into his preservation 28 years ago. He was reportedly found to be in such good condition that his moustache was still intact and pointing up at the edges in his trademark fashion.

    Local people have told me that they think the paternity suit is spurious. The woman claiming to be his daughter has been paid handsomely for media interviews, and even though she must bear the cost of the exhumation if her claim is negated, people think she will nevertheless have profited from this affair. Experts on Dali’s life also think the result will be negative: Dali described himself as ‘impotent’ and, despite his long marriage to Gala, was known for his aversion to intimate heterosexual relationships.

    The quest to find conclusive DNA to settle a paternity case has nothing to do with my novel, but it is uncannily close to the plotline of the next book in the series, The Chaplin Conspiracy, which is centred around the search for the bones of the notorious millionaire French priest Berenger Saunière in order to prove descendance and to claim the inheritance of the fortune many believe him to have hidden away.

    But Dali’s fortune is not hidden. He left his entire legacy to the Spanish state, and its eye-watering value is obvious and understandably tempting for anyone who might have a claim against it. The night they exhumed Dali there were large crowds gathered at the museum, dozens of television cameras and armed police. A canopy was placed over Dali’s resting place to prevent drones filming the exhumation through the glass of the museum’s geodesic dome roof. Museum officials stood at the entrance, looking annoyed and excited in equal measure. It was a surreal event, and, despite the indignity of it all, perhaps that surrealism is something Dali would have appreciated.

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