How I’ve helped to craft a Dickensian dystopia

An unexpected delight of the past year has been editing Kid: A History of the Future by Sebastian De Souza, better known as an actor in The Great, Normal People, The Borgias and Skins. The job went a long way beyond the usual copy-edit and was an absolute joy. Sebastian made some kind comments in his acknowledgements, which I share here.

‘Gargantuan thanks must go to John Garth who took that bowl of literary scrambled eggs and – as editor, brainstormer, and occasional co-writer – turned it into the three-course meal that you have just devoured. Without John’s wisdom and intelligence, his tireless work with me on the plot and his almost extraterrestrial attention to detail, it is unlikely that we would have published this book and, even if we had, it would have been a completely different story and nowhere near as good a read.’

Kid: A History of the Future is a novel set in London of 2078, a city left derelict and almost deserted thanks to climate catastrophe, pandemics, terrorism, and other factors. Chief among these is the lure of an easier, safer life in purpose-built homes where people can effectively live online in a massive virtual-reality universe called Perspecta. The megacorps behind Perspecta has become the dominating force on the planet, with only a tiny minority of dissidents determined to struggle on in the infinitely more challenging offline world – the real world.

As an author, Sebastian wears his heart on his sleeve; and this is a book with a passionate message about a real peril.

The life of these dissident Offliners in Soho is wonderfully evoked, and Sebastian has really hit the nail on the head by describing his book as a ‘Dickensian dystopia’. It’s also laden with nostalgia for the post-war era up to about now – the era the Offliners call the Golden Dusk, when people moved freely and made great music and had great fun together. All this was conceived before Covid 19 and turned out to be amazingly prescient of the pandemic year.

Upping the ante marvellously, he imagines what it would be like if someone from this future could send a message to us now. Protagonist Joshua ‘Kid’ Jones, a 17-year-old simmering with verve and angst, discovers he can communicate with the past – with 2021. There he makes contact with a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Isabel Parry, a tremendous brew of physics nerd and Kardashian fan who is equally troubled in her own way. A lot of fun is had with how each assumes the other is some kind of hoaxer … and when they get over that, things get even more interesting.

The book is marketed for a Young Adult audience, but really it’s for anyone who enjoys a vivid, exciting, intriguing page-turner set in the now and near future. I’ve been dipping into it again recently to put together the teasers and recaps for the audio series (currently being podcast every Sunday). I’m constantly pinching myself to realise I’ve been part of a story that’s so funny and touching and thrilling.

Sebastian is far too modest about his own work. In fact his dialogue is perfectly pitched and his eye is keen for scenery; he has a tremendous fluency for bringing these to life in engaging characters and vivid settings; and he has a gift for plot and scenario that beautifully mix the ordinary with the extraordinary. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has a cinematic talent.

I’ve done what a good editor should, which is to make the book speak as clearly as possible. It was also fun working out some of the mechanics: synchronising different timelines, imagining a scifi method for communication between decades, compiling a glossary and character list, and sketching the maps to be redrawn by a professional artist.

Beyond all that, I ended up brainstorming problems with Sebastian, helping him to come up with creative solutions, and even making my own contributions to the writing.

That was the ultimate thrill. My own past attempts at fiction have foundered very quickly from a lack of sustainable plot and characters – or perhaps just because I haven’t had enough patience and self-belief. But with Kid, Sebastian had already come up with all of that. I discovered I could take his characters and situations and run with them – and thoroughly enjoy every minute of it. There were some intense discussions about particular ideas of mine, one or two of which ended up on the cutting room floor, but mostly (I’m delighted to say) Sebastian was enthusiastic. I think the end result is seamless – and I’m looking forward to helping on the sequel.

Meanwhile Kid: A History of the Future is available from your source of choice. Do give it a spin. You won’t regret it.

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