When writing becomes reading: notes on The Occupants

I was thrilled to learn my story The Occupants had made it into the top three of the London Short Story Prize in 2016. I was also surprised that this somewhat off-the-wall story, written guiltily when I was trying to finish of another project, should make it so far. Whenever I enter competitions, I generally expect to hear nothing back. A piece is never quite right and with each rereading I find some cringeworthy word or phrase that calls the story out for a poor imitation of someone else’s highly revered work.

But it wasn’t just the fact the story had (almost) succeeded that surprised me. It was the judges’ responses. The mirror they held up to me showed a picture of the story I had not seen during the writing process. They categorised it as a “nicely disturbing piece of Sci-Fi”, “an unnerving, intoxicating dystopian nightmare” and a “piquant, unsettling, dystopian tale”. (Their full comments appear at the end of this blog.)

They were right, of course. The Occupants is a dystopian story, and by definition is quite unsettling. Yet, up until the point of reading these comments, I hadn’t thought of the story in any sort of category. I certainly hadn’t ventured to construct a tale in any of the moulds reflected back at me by the judges (which I think are brilliant, by the way!).

This probably speaks to my inexperience as a published writer. I’ve never had anyone else describe my work in any sense at all. Sure, I have particular styles of writing that I admire and steal from (I was a massive JB Ballard fan in the late 1990s, for example, which might explain why I sometimes err towards dystopian writing). But I’ve never consciously aligned myself with a particular school, whether it be sci-fi or minimalism or romance. Whatever I have produced has been far more intuitive and has been an expression of a mood or feeling about the world, obviously using the tools that I have assimilated over years of reading and writing. Borrowing from an idea from Ballard, my fictions seem to be enunciations of how I apprehend my lived experience.

When writing this story I was conscious of a few things in my immediate environment. Food waste. The rise of robots. The inexorable spread of low and mid-rise housing across South East London, where I live. My kids’ school being developed to the point where each child has less playground space than that required to meet the standards of being a free-range chicken. Those were the issues at the back of my mind.

But really what I set out to do was write a piece of flash fiction – a story of under 500 words. I failed within a day of writing (the story is about 3,000 words), but this aim alone meant that temporally the story moved along quite quickly and I tried to avoid superfluous details. In an odd way, this gave the story a fairytale quality and if anything I was writing to that genre over any other. A fairytale complete with the sense of menace and horror that is part and parcel of that genre.

Pretty soon, character took over. Danny, whose point of view the story follows, has very little awareness of himself or the world around him. His lack of self-awareness was something I played with, sometimes to the point of absurdity (I was a massive Harold Pinter fan in the early 1990s). After he gruesomely disposes of his father’s cadaver by sliding the body out of his apartment window into a large rubbish bin waiting below, Danny’s first thought is to worry that his sister will be distressed to hear he’d lost his job at the local supermarket. Irrational. Absurd. Comical.

Dystopian fiction is a wide category and each story from this genre presents a different vision of the world – post nuclear or climatic disasters, or the apocalypse of the self, a typically Ballardian form where affluence leads to strange behaviour, using in relation to technology or within gated communities. Dystopian fiction is a form of speculative fiction, often where an element of the present world is exaggerated. What would happen if, say, the world was flooded (as in Ballard’s The Drowned World) or humans hooked into cyberworlds (as in William Gibson’s Neuromancer).

In The Occupants Danny’s milieu is overtly dystopian. He lives in a city of uniform apartment blocks (like the 500 Barrett apartments being built near where I live in Catford) and lives in a fractured society. If I were to put a label to this dystopian world, I’d say it was a post-epiphanic world.

Scripture presented the original epiphanies. Joyce then introduced to secular epiphanies. Now twitter has reduced the notion of epiphany to a type of pornography. The narrative build up to the moment of epiphany has been stripped away, leaving just its shell, devoid of any real meaning. Self-awareness is bankrupted – many people now frame everyday experience as a potential tweet – seeking a potential moment of fame as they strive to create the most appropriate epiphany for that second in time. Danny’s is a world where this habit has run its course and has robbed the world of meaning, secular or otherwise. Not just in terms of question about our purpose on this planet, but also about our everyday existence – how we get money to buy food. He comes close to experiencing epiphanies – of glancing through a window into some deeper meaning about his life – but they are never fulfilled.

I suppose that was part of my dystopian vision for this story. And it’s quite dark…

Judges’ comments

AL Kennedy says: “The Occupants by Aaron Cox is nicely disturbing piece of Sci-Fi, doing what Sci-Fi does best, using metaphor and altered reality to produce deep resonance.”

Irenosen Okojie says: “The Occupants is gloriously dark. A surprising, tautly written tale full of slow horror. An unnerving, intoxicating dystopian nightmare. Fearlessly holding a lens up to life’s bleaker moments. A compelling read.”

Juliet Mabey says: “Aaron Cox has created a piquant, unsettling, dystopian tale. Here is an immersive grey world of displacement, hunger, and want, with surprising twists and an incongruously resilient, almost cheerful hero who is oddly out of step in this strange setting. A thoughtful, discomforting story.”

The Occupants will be available in the summer of 2017 as part of the anthology of the short-listed stories for the London Short Story Prize 2016.