Mark Cantrell, Author

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BLOG: The Year of Citizen Zero

Posted by Mark Cantrell on May 1, 2016 at 7:30 PM

 The time has come to set a date

 Mark Cantrell explains why he's decided to take his novel out of a perennial near future and root it in hard time...


WHEN I first wrote Citizen Zero it felt appropriate to keep the novel's place in time vague, but now it feels right that the events depicted in the story take place in 2070.


Indulge me while I explain.


Back in 1994, when I first began to write the novel, I was only 25 and (obviously) immortal so I wanted to keep the timeframe in something of a perennial near future.


For one thing, there was the Blade Runner scenario to avoid. If you're a fan of the film and the book, then you'll know its set in 2019. The story has already run into its own timeline with the inception dates for the replicants.


But look around, here in 2016, and there are no replicants or attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, unless NASA is not telling us something.


Okay, so it rains a lot these days, but that's the English weather for you.


Sooner or later, every future-set novel is going to run into itself, but there was another reason for why I wanted to avoid pinning the book down into a set of diary dates. In a sense, you might say I was waiting for society to catch up.


Citizen Zero's backstory is predicated on an economic crash, austerity, fears of terrorism, and crucially the transformation of welfare from a social safety net into a mechanism for social control; part of a wider system of oppression and surveillance.


Back in the mid-90s, before the rise of a certain reality TV show, we'd call this a Big Brother state. Nowadays, we call it the surveillance society. But for want of a quick metaphor, the social security system has become part of a Stasi or KGB policing operation, one that doesn't just keep the inmates in their place, it's a stick to beat everyone into submission – behave or this could happen to you.


So, welcome to the world of Citizen Zero; it's a society broken by austerity, pieced back together by a dictatorial Prime Minister, with the divide between rich and poor ringfenced and reinforced by a lot more than CCTV cameras.


In many respects, back then, plenty of the themes present in Citizen Zero were already bubbling around in the background, but the book itself was still 'waiting' for them to happen. I kind of figured they'd come into being (in terms of poetic licence, at least) sooner or later, so I was reluctant to apply a hard and fast dateline to the book.


And then things did indeed begin to happen.


In 2008, we had the financial crash. In 2010, the Conservative-led Coalition Government took office and began a programme of austerity and welfare reform, both of which have provoked much hardship and controversy. I won't bore you with the details here, but the welfare system has certainly come to resemble the origins of the kind of oppressive system presented in Citizen Zero.


So, with all this in mind, it now seems timely to root the novel in a more defined period. I should also add that among the comments my editors made to the manuscript, they sought to raise the matter of the timeline. This, then, is my attempt to oblige.


But why 2070? Well, it provides a generous window of time to elapse from the hear-and-now until the book's fictional era, when the real world will begin to clash with this imagined world in the manner of Blade Runner. Or indeed, George Orwell's nightmare depiction of 1984. But there's another reason too.


In 2070, I'll be 101 years old – or, to put it more realistically, I'll be long dead. I won't be around to worry that Citizen Zero has 'run out of time'.


The year also allows for a nice little nod to 1984 – if you recall the number of a certain room where Winston Smith finally had all his illusions of defiance shattered. Yes, that would be Room 101, for the hard of remembering.


The clock's ticking then, T-minus 54 years and counting. The year of our future is 2070.


Mark Cantrell,


29 April 2016


Copyright © April 2016. All Rights Reserved.



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