Winner of the Arthur C Clarke award in 2013, Chris Beckett specialises in breathing fresh life into science fiction tropes. In Two Tribes, he presents a dystopian future in which the grim political and ecological landscapes of 23rd-century Britain are shown as logical consequences of what is happening now.
Set in 2266, the story is narrated by Zoe, an archivist for the Cultural Institute, set up to “reconstruct the past”. When she discovers the 2016 diary of Harry Roberts, an architect, she decides to write a historical novel based on its events. The diary describes the collapse of Harry’s marriage following the death of his two-year-old son from meningitis, and how he finds himself torn between two women: Letty, a London arts administrator; and working-class Michelle, a Norfolk landlady. These two women come to embody the two tribes of the Brexit debate following the EU referendum.
The metafictional structure serves the novel well, with the horrors of the future juxtaposed with our current dilemmas. In 2266, the EU no longer exists; nor do cars, hot and cold running water, or democracy. Zoe lives in a surveillance society, “a crowded country, too poor to import food”, in which people use “shallow punts” to get around the flooded streets. This is the result of The Catastrophe, a climate change event that transformed the world. With alarm, she notes: “Harry was driving himself, as people often did then, in a metal car … that consumed a litre of refined oil every ten minutes.”
As we pedal between Harry’s troubles and the harrowing future, it is gradually revealed that a war caused by the intractable cultural and class divisions of Brexit devastated the country. After this came a period of Chinese rule, while all along “The Catastrophe was unfolding. The air was getting hotter.”
Brilliantly and chillingly imagined, Two Tribes warns against Manichean positions, illustrating how history is never kind to them. As Zoe observes, Harry is unable to see ahead: “The idea that British politics might degenerate into civil war would have seemed to him far-fetched.” Time teaches us that nothing is.
• Two Tribes is published by Corvus (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.