I’ve been busy this month, traveling to Minnesota for work to make a video, which explains the extra week between episodes of New Books in Science Fiction (and next month is busy, too, so I’m planning another three week gap).
The episode dropping today features C.A. Fletcher and his new novel, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, which takes place several generations after a pandemic has turned humans into an endangered species.
For Griz, the adolescent narrator, life is bounded by his family, two dogs, and the Outer Hebrides island where they hunt, fish, and farm.
When Brand, a lone sailor, shows up, Griz is mesmerized by his stories of adventure. But when Brand steals one of the family’s dogs, Griz gives chase.
As Griz and their other dog journey through the ruins of our world, they explore the limits of loyalty while learning a lesson in human cruelty.
“If you’re not true to the things you love, what are you?” Fletcher tells me, quoting Griz. “That’s when you stop being human.”
In our conversation, Fletcher discusses the research that informs the novel’s vision of a “soft apocalypse,” the difference between writing screenplays and novels, his father’s wise words about dogs, and the real-life terrier behind Griz’s canine companion.
Here are some highlights (edited for clarity).
RW: What happened to create this world where Griz and his family are living by themselves on an empty island?
CAF: I don’t go into too much detail about precisely what happened but in general terms something happened to humanity that they called the Gelding. Essentially people stopped being able to have kids and families got smaller and smaller as everybody died off. It was a kind of soft apocalypse. So the world didn’t die in a great zombie holocaust or a nuclear exchange or some terrible bioweapon. People just stopped being able to have kids and humanity in the macro sense did what humans in the micro sense do, which is it just got old and tired and died off and the world ended with a sigh, not a whimper or a bang, and only zero point zero zero one percent of humanity escaped the effects of the Gelding, which means that a world of 7 billion people dwindled to maybe 7,000 people across the whole planet.
RW: I love that term soft apocalypse. It’s very evocative. I read an interview in which you said that creating the setting wasn’t really a matter of world-building but world erosion.
CAF: It wasn’t world-building, it was world subtraction because you look at the world as it is now and then you think, “Well, what happens when the workforce disappears, when electricity goes down, when planes no longer fly, when cars no longer work, when gas and oil are no longer pulled from the ground, when the nuclear power stations have to shut down? What happens when we have no power? What happens when the Internet disappears? What happens when people stop able to travel? when they stop being able to talk to each other across the transatlantic phone lines or satellites?
When all this stops, humanity comes to this very gentle halt and, of course some bad things happened along the way to that moment, but essentially, from a writer’s point of view, the fun thing was looking at everything around us and saying “Okay, what what disappears?” I was very informed in doing that funnily enough by listening on the radio over here on the BBC to a man called Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist who coined the phrase the Anthropocene.
He’d written a book called The Earth After Us that I immediately went and bought it on Amazon and read it except I hadn’t remembered the name of the book correctly, and I hadn’t remembered his name at all. So instead I bought a book called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which tackles the same problem from a much less geological point of view, but a much more interesting point of view to me as a world-builder. The book is a thought experiment: What happens if all of humanity disappeared today and aliens came down on the planet in 10 years, in 100 years, and 1,000 years, in 10000 years? What would remain of us? how quickly would our infrastructure and our mark on the planet disappear?
RW: What drew you to this story of a kid who runs into the unknown world to track down the thief who stole his dog?
CAF: I was an only child. I remember the morning of my fifth birthday being taken down to the kitchen in the larder to find something and there was a dog. That dog was my dog until I was 22 and was–it sounds hoke– but it was like a family member, like the brother or sister I didn’t have, and if someone kidnaps your family member you go after it. You don’t think about it. And so the connection with dogs has always been there.
My dad, who was not necessarily a very emotional man, wrote a fantastic letter to me when my dog finally died at 22 and he said “If you’re lucky, you get two great dogs in your life: you get the dog that you grew up with as a child and the dog you watch your children grow up with. And he was writing because he was enormously sad have seen the dog I’d grown up with died. And that sort of stuck with me because it was A, an unusual letter, and B because it seemed to be bang on the money and then as we had children they had a dog that grew up with them, I realized the absolute truth about dogs. Dogs have walked the long eons of history beside us in a way no other animal has. And my wife has had exactly the same experience of dogs in her life. So we’ve always had dogs around us and they’ve always been important. If someone stole my dog I would I would definitely take off after them.