Mark Cantrell, Author

For an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy and a touch of horror...


CITIZEN ZERO: Living The Prequel

Posted by Mark Cantrell on March 29, 2013 at 8:05 PM

The future is what we make it

Every novel has a 'backstory', an idea of what came before the opening page; the dystopian science fiction thriller Citizen Zero is no different, only we appear to be living through its history right now. That's why, explains Mark Cantrell, he's taken to tweeting links to news and current affairs stories - they show the 'real life prequel' unfolding all around us 

SOME years ago, when I was touting my novel, Citizen Zero, around publishers, one of them dismissed the manuscript with the words (try to imagine your best Paxman sneer here): "Unemployment, that's soooo 1980s!"

This was in the 'feelgood' 'Noughties, when New Labour's 'things can only get better' classless society hadn't quite lost its lustre, and the boom times were supposedly on a perpetual roll [1]. Given that, I suppose I should forgive the nameless respondent who dismissed my work.

In any case, it wasn't the worst response I gained in those days. One bright spark rather sniffily informed me: "Sorry, we don't publish children's books." But that's another story. The story here, for the purposes of this blog, is less the cautionary tale narrated in Citizen Zero, and more the story that precedes it; the unwritten prequel, or the story of how the Britain depicted in the novel came to be. And that's the story we're living today. More or less.

I say unwritten, but in fact this story is being written and recorded every day; digitalised and televisualised, thrashed out in policy, acted out in the politician's austerity huckstering, and fought tooth and nail in protests and discontent. We are in the grip of a running battle to shape the future, for the benefit of the few, the detriment of the many, even vice versa; the prize is the kind of society we'll find ourselves inhabiting tomorrow.


Then is now

The outcome of this struggle is far from certain, though the prognosis is predictably grim. The news and current affairs media are awash with the raw material out of which might be constructed some kind of history for Citizen Zero. Follow me on Twitter, or visit the novel's Facebook page [2], and you'll see the flurries of links I post to point to these 'backstory' items; anecdotes of the 'real-life prequel' as I often call them.

These snippets cover a lot of ground. Over the years, and in no particular order, we've had concerns raised about privacy in the face of new technologies. In a similar vein, we find concerns that the UK is "sleepwalking" into a surveillance society; not just in terms of rising use of CCTV, but in a whole variety of techno-societal changes that give rise to a fear of an emerging 'Big Brother' state. We've got facial recognition and radio frequency ID chips; we've got smartphones and global positioning, Google and Facebook, all nefariously - or reasonably [3] - keeping tabs on our comings and goings.

Coupled with this, the last decade or so has seen huge concerns over the dangers to civil liberties born out of the perceived threats of organised crime, international terrorism, and so forth. And not just from these shadowy overseas foes or the 'enemies within', but from the actions of legislators and the security forces themselves to combat these perceived threats, whether through legislation that grants extra powers to the security services, or sets new limits on the freedoms and rights we've hitherto taken for granted.

The State - increasingly in cahoots with private sector commercial partners - is a pervasive presence; some might argue it has long been so, but new technology and legislative processes are adding a sinister new twist to the oversight of civil society [4].

Manu-fracturing a broken society

Far from Britain being a broken society, it is being dislocated and fractured so that it might be reshaped. Welfare reform is one of the primary engines for this reshaping of the social structure, and one of the most pertinent here for the way it is effectively turning support mechanisms on their head.

This isn't the place to go into all the arguments involved [5], be they for or against this transformation, but suffice to say, the Coalition Government has embarked on a major programme of reform, with far-reaching consequences. A system of social support is - for all intents and purposes - being transformed into something far more punitive. Poverty and destitution are expected to be only some of the outcomes of this austerity project; another might be to reinforce corporate and oligarchic privilege over civil society.

Ironically, going back to that earlier dismissal, Citizen Zero isn't about unemployment per se, but it is about the unemployed and the system for managing unemployment. Moreover, it's also about the low-paid who remain incarcerated in the 'social security' welfare regime, be it the one we know today, or the regime depicted in the novel. And through them, it's about every one of us who might today regard ourselves as part of the hard working but 'squeezed middle', who might yesterday have happily embraced the cosy catch-all that 'we're all middle class'. Like it or not, the benefits regime has a watchful eye for all of us too, either the direct gaze of scrutiny, or a warning glare to behave, or else.

For a good many people the "financial independence of work" (as Gordon Brown once billed it in a speech) has turned out to be anything but: low paid, and faced with ever-rising costs of living, they remain under the unforgiving eye. Working hard for their living, nonetheless these 'strivers' remain very much 'skivers' to be treated accordingly. For these people, work in no way sets them free from the disapproving eye of the State. And so we begin our journey into the hinterlands of Citizen Zero.

There's nothing new as such in the current Government's rhetoric on benefits and the language it uses to slander the poor, but it has certainly risen to a shrill intensity that I can't recall witnessing before. Under the guise of 'deficit reduction' and of 'protecting the most vulnerable', Ministers and their pet thinktanks have strived (sic) to create an enemy within, and they have invited us to turn our suspicions and anger on those around us, all in 'defence of the realm', of course [6].

Enemies of the State

Somebody once asked the question, via a review of Citizen Zero, how the unemployed came to be so criminalised in the book. My answer would be to direct people's attention to the rhetoric around welfare reform and worklessness; the Government's ongoing narrative of 'dependency', of 'strivers versus skivers', of their - frankly - Orwellian misuse of 'fairness' twisting social support into something quite sinister in its potential.

Beneath these intertwined themes of welfare and surveillance, civil liberties and social control, the beating heart of the novel is the notion of social justice; or rather it's lack.

The book was written as a cautionary tale - a cry of defiance, indeed - warning of the catastrophic consequences that may befall a society that abandons large swathes of its population to social deprivation. More than that, the novel represents a condemnation of any society that embraces - indeed, institutionalises - inequality and social injustice as ours is doing today. Sooner or later such regimes reap what they sow and earn their downfall with interest. The question for our society, this real non-fictional world we dwell in today, is how far are we prepared to go - and in what direction?

On the surface, Citizen Zero presents a prosperous consumer society, but scratch beneath the glossy facade, and it is a society bitterly divided between rich and poor. It points in a sobering direction: the emergence of a dictatorial government, maintained by a state apparatus built to defend the 'haves' from the 'have-nots'. The ultimate gated community, as it were.

In the novel, we find a society where civil liberties were surrendered for the sake of a perceived security. The 'stakeholders' in this society, the middling ranks are encouraged to look to the Government - the State [7] - to protect them from the a range of perceived threats to their well-being, be they from crime, terrorism, or the 'scrounging' presence of the so-called 'zeros'.

'Zeros' is a derogatory term for an excluded underclass numbering millions. They might well have had their origins in today's welfare reforms: they are the unemployed; they are the poor, the homeless and the destitute, pushed to the fringes of society to eke out the barest existence.

Essentially, as you can see, 'zeros' are people who have no status in society whatsoever. Often as not, it means they have no stake in it either. The 'zeros' are a manufactured 'enemy within'; their purpose is to be despised by citizens, but also feared - as a source of crime, as a threat to everyday social order, as a threat to livelihoods, but their existence also serves as a warning: behave, be a good citizen [8], or you too might find yourself deprived of status.

At its simplest level, then, Citizen Zero explores the amalgamation of the welfare state with the mechanism of the State's security apparatus. In the story, the long process of welfare reform has created a welfare system that is an integral and essential element of the surveillance state that monitors, observes, and ultimately controls not only the 'zeros' - but the citizens. The objective is a state of low-level fear and distrust that keeps the population passive [9]. Ultimately, it's all about power and control.

Back to the future

When I was writing the novel, naturally I gave some thought to the circumstances that preceded the story, but these were the largest of brushstrokes; the detail was lacking. Nevertheless, I envisioned an amalgam of crisis: crime and terror scares; overseas military actions; violent social disorder at home, arising out of a major economic crash (and, yes, including mass unemployment); a government crippled by incompetence and squabbling, not to mention a lack of concern for the plight of the common folk.

In the background, agents of the 'shadow state' were fanning the flames of rebellion and discontent, undermining the government still further to serve the power-play of a Prime Minister in waiting. Alexander Carlisle, a minor but ambitious politician, untouched by the malaise gripping the government, stepped into the limelight to promise stability and prosperity (albeit for a price). He used the crises to seize power in a constitutional 'coup' and became a dictator in all but name [10], and he used the divide and rule of 'citizens' versus 'zeros' to bolster his rule.

So much for fiction, back in the real world the bankers trashed the global economy in 2008, provoking a set of crises that still rage today [11]. Then in 2010 the Conservatives and the LibDems negotiated the current Coalition Government [12]. Austerity was the order of the day, the onslaught on our social fabric began - suddenly it seemed Citizen Zero had found its time.

A New Beginning

In many respects, Citizen Zero is a late 90s novel; that's when the bulk of the writing took place. The manuscript was finished in May 2001, so I guess I should admit that in some respects the everyday tech depicted is rather dated, but even so it was a novel waiting to come into its era.

We are, give or take a certain suspension of disbelief, living through the prequel now, experiencing the 'real-life history' of how the surveillance state regime of Prime Minister Alexander Carlisle came to be, witnessing the emergence of the unforgiving 'welfare' apparatus that monitors and controls the life of the protagonist, the 'zero' David Mills.

For better or worse, current events over the last few years have brought the book of age; I don't know whether to thank or curse the Tories and their LibDem assistants for that, so excuse me when I post those flurries of media links that proclaim the novel's 'living history'. They're the spirit of the age; the novelist's claims for relevance in these gloomy times.

Above all, I'd urge the reader not to despair: hey, it's just a story. In the book's 'narrative causality' we might be doomed to find ourselves living in a pitiless world of political tyranny and socio-economic inequality; the fight for tomorrow already lost, but beyond the pages of the novel we live in the real world, where events are in flux.

The future is what we make it. The rest, as they say, is history - the history of my novel. We're living it now, in a roundabout kind of way.  

 Mark Cantrell,


24 March 2013

 Copyright (c) March 2013. All Rights Reserved.


1. Before the events of September 11, too, if I remember right, and the subsequent onset of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

2. I also post them to a Tumblr page I created (mostly) for that purpose.

3. Depending who you listen to.

4. There are plenty of commercial drivers pushing us towards this brave new world too. Take, for instance the growth of quasi-public spaces such as shopping malls, and more recently developments of controlled space in commercial developments such as Liverpool One, or around the Olympics venues. This is private space, subject to private rules, posing as public space where civil society freedoms are left at the gates and only 'consumer rights' apply.

5. But for the record, I don't agree with the cruel regimes that are being implemented for those with disabilities, for example, or the crazy 'bedroom tax', or the workfare regime, to refer to but a few elements of welfare reform.

6. Incidentally, the Labour Party is no stranger to this game either.

7. Rather an amalgam of State, quasi-state agencies, and corporate contractors working together in an interwoven public-private partnership.

8. Don't aggravate the boss, none of this trade union nonsense, that kind of thing.

9. No system of social control is perfect, of course; the surveillance state is - as I put it in the blurbage - "blind where it matters most". That's another secondary theme, the over-reliance on technology that creates a false sense of security.

10. On the face of it, Britain in Citizen Zero remains a democracy. Citizens still have the vote, but some people have more votes than others, according to wealth, status etc. And via his control of the state security apparatus, the Prime Minister manipulates the political system to ensure he remains in office.

11. Just look at Cyprus.

12. Since none of them actually won the election.


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