The scene is Europe, about 40 years from now. Climate change has turned the Netherlands into a swamp and Portugal into an economic powerhouse, thanks to wave-energy plants paid for by wealthy Brazilian investors.
Across the continent there are fears about Christian fundamentalist terrorists carrying out arson attacks on abortion clinics. Europol use walkable holograms to recreate crime scenes, and swarms of drones patrol the streets of Brussels, the administrative capital of an EU recently expanded to 36 member states.
Britain, however, is still part of the bloc of nations. Because, although Margaret Thatcher is by now only vaguely remembered as an “English separatist from the 20th century”, the joke for anyone reading Tom Hillenbrand’s sci-fi thriller Droneland now is that Brexit still hasn’t happened.
“One basic rule of dystopian fiction is that the future should be worse than the present,” said the German novelist. “But in this case it turns out I was a bit too optimistic.
“In my book Britain has actually worked out how it wants to leave and the EU is preparing a new constitution as a result. The real Brexit is actually much more dystopian.”
Since Droneland was published in Germany to critical acclaim in 2014, two years before the EU referendum on EU membership, a new micro-genre has flourished in the country’s publishing industry: dystopian fiction about Brexit Britain.
This April there was the publication of GRM: Brainfuck by the acclaimed German-Swiss author and playwright Sibylle Berg, whose black-humoured novel starts in Rochdale around 2010 and ends in a dystopian London of the near future. In May came The Shelter, written by Regine Bott under the pseudonym Kris Brynn, which imagines an English state trying to stem the spread of an antibiotic-resistant disease by dividing survivors into a strict tripartite class system with tiered access to healthcare.
Hillenbrand followed up Droneland last year with Hologrammatica, a hard-boiled thriller that provides some comfort to Leave voters: by 2088, England has definitely left EURUS, the recently joined federations of Europe and Russia.
“Science-fiction writers always love a lab scenario, where you can try out different outcomes of the future,” said Hillenbrand. “And there is definitely a feeling here that Britain after Brexit will look very different from what it looks like now. Everything seems to be up for grabs: it’s a fantastic blank canvas for any artist.” His two post-Brexit novels are not purely pessimistic about the outcome of the divorce. In Droneland, the greater threat is posed by the new EU constitution, and the steps the commission is willing to take to guarantee its ratification. In Hologrammatica, England has found unexpected wealth after buying the Maldives, now renamed New Albion, and building the world’s first “spacelift” there.
The only downside is that the union and all old-fashioned nation-states have been dissolved as the global populace scrambles for liveable space on an ever-heating planet.
Regine Bott’s and Sibylle Berg’s novels make for less flattering portraits. Both novels predict that Britain’s post-Brexit future will only exacerbate what they see as the UK’s social ills of excessive privatisation and mass surveillance.
In The Shelter, as-yet-uninfected citizens inside the protective dome are all fitted with miniature wrist tablets that live-stream their biological data straight to a National Health Service that is no longer free at the point of delivery: the cost of medication, dispensed at self-service points across the city, is only partially covered by the state. “The largest chunk is debited directly via the wristband to the carrier’s account.” For Bott, Britain used to be “the country of my dreams”, a place she visited every other year and whose literature she studied at university.
Berg’s GRM, currently seventh in Der Spiegel’s fiction bestseller list, is less diplomatic. The novel follows the odyssey of a group of disaffected teenagers from Manchester to London, where a universal basic income beckons for those who agree to be chipped like pets. That plot twist apart, most of the misery and deprivation is realistic rather than fantastical.
“For me England is the model country in the western world when it comes to the triumph of neoliberalism and digital surveillance,” said Berg. “You can find poverty in every one of the collapsing countries of the western world, but the unsentimental removal from sight of an entire part of the population because it is no longer of use in the value appreciation chain – that is unique to England.”
For GRM’s protagonists, only modern British music provides solace and comfort in a cold and soulless world – something the book nods to in its title. In April, the 57-year-old novelist collaborated on a reading tour of Germany with British Grime artists T.Roadz, Prince Rapid and Slix.
Painting modern Britain as a dystopia, Berg said, did not require a particularly vivid imagination.
“All the technologies I describe in my novel already exist,” she said. “Automised job appraisals, AI-generated scripts, micro-housing, the coupling of surveillance and insurance, the burning council estates: it’s all already here. You just have to look at it and join the dots.”