Project Fear: The Novel that Never Was
- July 13, 2020
All writers know that not all their ideas get off the ground. Sometimes you come up with an idea that you think has potential, but then your agent or publisher says no for all kinds of reasons that you don’t anticipate. So here’s what happened with a pitch that I failed to launch a while back. Consider it a salutary tale, or just one of those little setbacks that can occur in any writer’s life from time to time. Anyway, this is the conversation that ensued when I made the following pitch to my editor, full of enthusiasm, and convinced that it had huge potential:
Me: I’ve got this idea for a dystopian sci fi political thriller. It’s the story of how a midranking country with serious but not insurmountable social & economic problems is fatally undermined by a combination of hubris and epic political manipulation.
Editor: Interesting. Go on.
Me: So what happens is this: The PM of the ruling party agrees to have a referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU. It’s a party management strategy…
Ed: Not the most gripping intro. Remember, you lose me and you’ll lose the reader
Me: Wait! So the PM assumes he’ll win of course, but then things don’t go the way he plans, and a whole range of characters and political forces comes into play that our PM – let’s call him ‘David’ – didn’t anticipate. You have this toxic combination of charlatans, nationalist extremists from within his own party, dodgy data mining campaigns, some of them funded by a foreign power that wants this country – let’s call it Brexitannia – to leave the EU. And this lot – let’s call them a gang, a cabal, a conspiracy – they convince millions of voters that the EU – a trade bloc and set of transnational political arrangements that Brexitannia voluntarily entered into – is actually a dictatorship.
Ed: Haha. I see the comic potential…
Me: Yeah, but it’s not really funny haha, but funny peculiar, because why would a sensible and rational country believe something so ridiculous, right?
Ed: Why indeed?
Me: Because the cabal – let’s call them ‘Leave’ – tell the population all kinds of stuff. Lies that in normal circumstances you wouldn’t believe.
Ed: Such as?
MeE: Such as there are too many foreigners here who don’t speak our language & take advantage of us because of the EU. Foreigners are stealing our fish because of the EU. We don’t have manufacturing industries because of the EU.
Ed: And people are supposed to believe this?
Me: Millions do! And then the Leave cabal – let’s call them liars – also says that we (you’ve probably guessed which country I’m talking about, ed!) will have loads of money when we leave. We’ll sort out every problem we have. We’ll be a great country again – let’s call it Great Brexitannia…They tell us day after day that leaving is going to be the greatest thing, the best thing that ever happened to us. It’ll be great and we’ll be great too. We’ll have something called ‘sovereignty’. There won’t be so many foreigners. And we won’t have to listen to foreigners telling us what to do. We’ll rule the waves – like Sir Francis Drake! And all this will e so easy, they tell us. Because greatness is just like riding a bike…and once you’ve done it, you just get back in the saddle. Because you hold the cards, while you’re riding your bike, and sailing the waves and –
Ed: Stop. You know I don’t like mixed metaphors.
Me: Ok, so there is another side in this. Let’s call them ‘Remainers’. And they point out that there are huge risks involved…They warn again and again that what ‘Leave’ is promising is not going to happen, and that there are a whole range of downsides in leaving that haven’t been anticipated that could destabilise the economy and impoverish the population, not to mention taking away a whole load of rights that we currently enjoy. So the Leavers call this ‘ProjectFear’, which is my title btw
Ed: Catchy. I like it.
Me: Thanks! So anyway, what happens is that Leave win the referendum! Shock horror! The country is plunged into turmoil! And still Remainers keep on with the warnings, and so Leave start to get nasty, and say that Remain is ‘the elite’ and it’s ignoring ‘the will of the people’even though most of the ‘people’ didn’t actually vote for this. And it goes on like this for 4 years, day in day out, and as the date that Leavers call ‘Independence Day’ approaches, it becomes clear that there really are serious downsides to leaving the EU that Leavers have deliberately ignored and never seriously prepared for…
Ed: Intriguing. So is this satire or a morality tale?
Me: Satire always has a moral message. So anyway, the country goes absolutely tits up, it becomes the laughing stock of the whole world, but then Leave keep getting elected and they get this massive majority so they don’t care & they don’t change course…
Ed: You’re aware that satire has to have some basis in reality, right?
Me: Stay with me. So this government – let’s call the PM ‘Johnson’ –
Ed: Silly name. Is that the best you could do?
Me: So even when reality is turning out to be totally different to what ‘Johnson’ said it would be, the government charges ahead, threatening to tear up agreements it’s already signed and collapsing negotiations with its former allies in order to bring about what they call ‘no deal’ or ‘clean Brexit’. And then, realising that actually does all kinds of negative implications, they say that they never said it would that great after all! And they tell the people who voted for them ‘we always told you there would be winners and losers’ even though they didn’t!
Ed: Dark. Nice twist
Me: Thanks. And meanwhile, the gov is engaging in massive nepotism, handing out contracts to its mates and in-crowd rightwing/libertarian lobbyists. It’s concealing evidence of foreign involvement in the referendum. It’s launching a fullon attack on the civil service and other governmental institutions and imposing a hardright revolution led by a man known only as ‘Dom’.
Me: Never mind. And all this is happening in the midst of a pandemic!
Ed: Say whaaat???
Me: Like I said –
Ed: I know what you said, but –
Me: Bear with me. I know it sounds weird. So there’s a pandemic – a new disease that nobody’s seen before. It’s spread across the world. In Bexitannia it’s killed more than 40,000 people, partly because the government is more focused on Brexit than in protecting the population. It’s insane. You’ve people dying in droves in carehomes and the government won’t even join EU schemes to get ventilators and PPE or vaccines. Of course the pandemic shuts down society, wrecks Brexitannia’s economy, threatens to put millions out of work for good.
Ed: So at this point this ‘Johnson’ chap calls for a delay or something, the country comes to its senses, and starts taking pragmatic common-sense decisions to protect the population and safeguard the economy, and negotiates with the EU over how best to manage a way through the perilous months that lie ahead, both in respect to its population and also internationally, since both these things are inseparable?
Ed: (Pause) How do you mean, ‘no.’
Me: The hardright revolution cracks on. No delay. Clean Brexit. Lorry parks in Kent. Videos sent out to the population to tell us how wonderful it’s all going to be. New laws to reduce the powers of the devolved governments. It’s like Poland or Hungary or something. Ok, it’s like Ruritania.
Ed: And what’s the response to this? From the opposition?
Me: There isn’t any response.
Me: There isn’t any. Because the main opposition party is frightened. It doesn’t want to be seen as ‘anti-Brexit’. And the left doesn’t care and never has. So there is no response. Even when the government fails to ask for an extension, the opposition is mute. There’s no outcry. Nada.
Ed (even longer pause): And what happens then?
Me: The country collapses into chaos! Breaks all agreements it has signed. Sinks into irrelevance, ruin, and bitter acrimony. Supply lines break down. Factories and financial companies up sticks. It all turns out exactly like Project Fear said it would, except that Leave blame Remain for all this and say that it’s actually their fault. And meanwhile the Russian ambassador boasts that ‘We crushed the Brexitannians and it’ll be decades before they rise again’ and…
Ed: Stop. I’ve got to stop you there.
Me: But –
Ed: You’ll have read out list, right?
Me: Of course.
Ed: So you’ll know we don’t publish fantasy.
Me: But, this isn’t –
Ed: Yes it is. So my advice to you is think again. Try to come up with plotlines that are rooted in reality. Please don’t come to me with anything like ‘ProjectFear’.
Me: (Puts the phone down). Damn! And I even had the perfect cover…