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There is a palpable mood of foreboding and anxiety around the book shelves in 2019.
From grim warnings about climate change and rising pollution; startling studies about the impact of demographic trends; and — of course — Brexit and all its possible meanings and consequences, there is a lot to fret about when looking down the list of what awaits readers this year.
But before anyone gets too miserable — and, besides, pessimism and alarm has long been a mainstay of the publishing industry — look at it another way: challenging times can also make for interesting, even great writing. Some of the biggest names in English-language novel writing have looked to the big, often scary issues facing us and used them for their work. We are now seeing the results.
John Lanchester kicked off the year with The Wall, a dystopian vision of Britain in the near future. It tells the story of young conscripts sent to guard a wall erected around Britain after a climate catastrophe to keep out the “Others”. Tapping the spirit of earlier generations of dystopian writing — Huxley, Orwell — it also looks unflinchingly at some of the biggest current problems. The FT’s reviewer described it as Lanchester’s best novel yet.
An alternative reality is also the preferred setting for Ian McEwan’s new book, Machines Like Me, which is out in April. It tackles the subject of artificial intelligence in a Britain not quite how we know it (the Falklands war was lost; Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power).
Contemporary concerns sit at the heart of two much-anticipated titles due out in coming month: the next instalment of Ali Smith’s Brexit quartet, Spring and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein which promises to “breathe new life” into Mary Shelley’s great gothic horror through issues of identity, technology and sexuality.
Later in the year we will get new books from two of great storytellers, both of whom well versed in dystopian tales: Margaret Atwood and Robert Harris.
September sees the publication of Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the chilling story of life in a totalitarian America where women are oppressed and violently abused that in the world of #MeToo has acquired renewed relevancy. The follow-up is, she has said, inspired by “the world we’ve been living in.” The Second Sleep by Harris promises to take readers back to the Exmoor of the late 15th century and a world where faith is tested to destruction.
Thriller lovers will also be well-served in 2019. April brings Metropolis the final book in the Bernie Gunther series of detective stories spanning Weimar Berlin, Nazi Germany and postwar Latin America written by Philip Kerr, who died last year. A month later, James Ellroy returns with This Storm which takes us back to 1940s LA and his familiar cast of corrupt cops, nasty mobsters and conflicted officials.
Back in the real — non-fiction — world, the great tech backlash continues as evidenced by two standout books that kicked off 2019. Shoshana Zuboff’s weighty Surveillance Capitalism directs a forensic eye at the economics of many of the titans of Silicon Valley, in particular Google, detailing how our data are monetised and the longer-term consequences of this new form of capitalism for society. It is already been talked about as a book on a par with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in terms of how it might change the debate.
Meanwhile in Zucked, Roger McNamee, a seasoned tech investor and early backer of Mark Zuckerberg, offers a scathing account of how he believes Silicon Valley and social media lost its way. McNamee, who has since lent his support to activists lobbying to fundamentally change the way the tech operates, argues that the time has come for more regulation.
Anand Giridharadas also finds fault with America’s broken system, particularly in its preferential treatment of its wealthy elites. Winners Take All is an unsettling critique of the business of philanthropy. As Edward Luce noted in his FT review: “In his view, we live in an age that enables the rich to keep more and more of their gains, many of them ill-gotten. Then we flatter them for money and advice.”
Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, also applies a sharp focus to the economics of how we got to where we are in his book The Third Pillar, out in February, that seeks to explain how markets failed communities.
For those keen to escape all the gloom, the nature writer Robert Macfarlane promises to take readers on an unusual journey in Underland, (April) an “epic exploration” of the subterranean world. And for those who prefer the certainties of the past to present woes, William Dalrymple’s history of the rise of the East India Company, The Anarchy, is due out in October.
One book that may — or may not — see the light of day in autumn is David Cameron’s political memoirs. Long-promised, often delayed, it is the former UK prime minister’s account of his time in office and how and why we got to Brexit. While not formally billed as a dystopia, readers may chose to see it differently.
Frederick Studemann is the FT’s Literary Editor