In this short clip, D.D. Johnston talks about finding light in darkness while writing about the apocalypse.
He identifies a process of crisis and positive change that can be applied to the lives of individuals and to wider society. Terrible wars, revolutions and disasters sometimes result in positive change. The same is true for personal tragedy; it can cause important personal development. This isn’t necessarily to say that all crisis lead to good things (they absolutely don’t!), D.D. just suggests that some difficult times can lead to better things. This sentiment is the foundation of Disnaeland, a novel which inverts dystopia and creates a utopia of sorts.
Author D.D. Johnston tells us how his ideas for Disnaeland were really a reaction against various apocalypse media.
In apocalypse stories, humans are often presented as awful and savage. Without the boundaries and rules that society sets for us, humans seem destined to destroy each other. In Disnaeland, Johnston takes a different perspective. He’s inspired by the likes of Emily Mendel’s Station Eleven. Also, notably, Colin McCarthy’s The Road, because it’s a book that says things about belief and faith that he wanted to demonstrate in Disnaeland. A difference is that The Road might suggest there’s only two good people left in the world. In contrast, Disnaeland presents all people as capable of goodness, even if they fail or are bad to start with.
D.D. tells us that his creative journey with Disnaeland began in 2014, and was marred by writer’s block until the birth of his son in 2020. For this project, the symptoms of writer’s block were often external.
The idea of Disnaeland originally came from the early 2010s’ cultural fixation with the apocalypse and disaster fiction. The idea of writing an apocalypse that wasn’t so, well, apocalyptic was appealing to D.D. He wasn’t quite sure of how he’d execute it. He fixated on a paradox – we were so occupied with the apocalypse, yet we did not care to write fiction about stopping it, or creating something good from it.
And then, in 2020, the world had its own apocalypse of sorts. Mike tells us of a memory from February 2020. He was on a train, travelling through rain. Lands were flooding because of Storm Kiera and Storm Dennis, and people were all staring at their phones. The voice overhead told them all to report anything that looks suspicious. It occurred to D.D. that this scene would not be out of place in a dystopia novel. This reignited the spark for Disnaeland – it was not to be a book about building up to an apocalypse, it would be about surviving the one we’re already in.
His editor asked D.D. to write the book again, once it was done – something still wasn’t quite right. In the summer of 2020 his son was born, and that proved to be the final thing that shattered his writer’s block. There was a new urgency to Disnaeland, because the issues it explores wouldn’t only effect D.D., but also his son.
Ultimately, Mike’s journey to overcoming writer’s block was waiting for the right moment.
D.D. Johnston tells us about how he fleshed out his characters and gave them nuance in Disnaeland.
He admits that at first, his characters were mostly satirical. It was his editor that encouraged him to flesh them out. To create these characters, D.D. drew on aspects of himself – even the most heinous characters in Disnaeland are informed by parts of him.
He recalls that Gustave Flaubert, when asked who the eponymous character of Madame Bovary was based on, replied, ‘Madam Bovary is me!’ D.D. tells us it’s important to think sympathetically about unfortunate or unlikable characters.
There are several tools at an author’s disposal when it comes to creating characters. Using description and dialogue can convey personality. Having your characters engage dynamically with the world around them is another vital step. If all D.D.’s characters responded to the apocalypse in the same way, they wouldn’t be rounded or fleshed out.
Disnaeland has taught D.D. Johnston that he’s unashamedly sentimental. This truth is at the heart of his not-so-wee novel.
He dwells on gentle moments, such as the last time his characters turn off an electric light. In short, Disnaeland taught him that he has a stubborn belief in the goodness and warmth of people.
Apocalypse fiction often presents people as cynical and savage. Through this lens, humans become barbaric without the confines of society. Your neighbours become your enemies, and they’ll kill you if they have to… or would they?
D.D. doesn’t deny our capacity of savagery and Disnaeland doesn’t shy from it either, but his novel does find an enormous capacity for kindness within people.
In this clip, D.D. Johnston explores the nature of writing in non-standard English, the way characters would actually speak. a native of Edinburgh, he speaks about writing in a Scottish venacular, and its place in his novel Disnaeland.
Disnaeland is set in the fictional Scottish town of Dundule, but D.D. tells us this story is universal. It could be set in working class communities throughout the world. Ultimately, Disnaeland is a heartful message about humanity’s capacity for cooperation.
However, it gains a unique power from its Scottish setting, and no better is this communicated than through the use of Scots dialect and accents. It’s very title, ‘disnae’ means ‘does not’. This world disnae work for the people, disnae bring them happiness or joy, and maybe disnae need to exist in this monstrous form.
D.D. tells us that unlike many regional dialects of the British Isles, Scots dialect has roots in a real written language, Scots. He could draw from standard spellings from this language to write Scottish vernacular. It’s a strong, beautiful language and D.D.’s thankful for the resources available to him.
We’re proud to share that the British Science Fiction Association took on My Brother the Messiah, Martin Vopenka’s provocative sci-fi that combines technology, religion and human nature itself. It’s a stellar review that you can read in full here
‘The style and tone of this novel contrasts significantly with some dominant voices in English-language SF. It’s instructive comparing Vopenka’s style with recent US utopian novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future (2020) and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017). The moral universe of the US novels seems broadly far less ambiguous than the one presented in My Brother the Messiah.’
This final statement is deserving of some elaboration.
In The Ministry of the Future and Walkaway, the salvation of Earth’s people lies in technological advancement. The Ministry of the Future advocates geoengineering, which means altering the planet with technology to fight climate change. In Walkaway, highly advanced 3D printing undermines the power of an oppressive oligarchy.
This technocentric worldview is common in western Europe and America, I think – particularly when we conceptualise the climate crisis. We’re bombarded with information about harnessing green energies, and developing ever-improving recycling or waste apparatuses.
In My Brother the Messiah, such optimism is gone. The technocratic governments are ineffective or exacerbate the problems of Vopenka’s dying world. What’s striking about this is that it’s not pessimism, it’s grounded realism; technology hasn’t always been our salvation. The very mission of creating a utopia has caused some of our darkest days in history.
Modern sci-fi writers sometimes craft future worlds that are almost ‘post-religion’. Often, religion is used as a metaphor for complacency or ignorance; it’s conceptualised as the antithesis to technological progress. This couldn’t be farther from the case in My Brother the Messiah. Here, the spiritual movement centring on the ‘messiah’ Eli is multifaceted. It explores conviction and doubt, science and faith. It explores the internal dynamics of the religion and its public perception. Technology and religion are inextricably intertwined. These people have found faith not because they have betrayed rationalism, but because rationalism has betrayed humanity.
My Brother the Messiah challenges the entanglement of technology and salvation, and undermines the dichotomy of science and religion. This greyness is the fabric of our world today; that’s what makes this speculative sci-fi so special.
by George Biggs
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