Let’s begin at the end. On the final page of Kenneth Steven’s novel 2020 there is a significant Publisher’s Note which states, “Difficult though it may be to believe, the novel was not directly inspired either by the Brexit referendum or by the more recent events in Europe, the USA and around the world.” It is an interesting addendum, and understandable as there is little doubt that many would jump to the conclusion which it refutes. The reason being that Kenneth Steven has written a novel which so fits the here and now that it feels like his 2020 could be just around the corner.
I write this review the day a general election has been called, one which promises further division and increasingly extreme reactions to events and statements as people are preoccupied with individual political issues rather than along party lines, and it needs only a small leap of imagination to think that what transpires in 2020 could become prophetic.
In 2020, Britain is divided along lines where traditional politics are no longer fit for purpose. The novel centres around a terrible event which is used by some to ignite simmering tensions in parts of the country which are all too recognisable, and the rise of an individual who comes to represent a place and a group of people who think themselves ignored. It put me in mind of Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta and Louise Welsh’s current ‘Plague Times’ Trilogy. They all deal with events whose cause is not clear in terms of the details, but which is in turn used for political, and at times personal, gain, and the human cost be damned.
Steven’s novel is less extreme in terms of plot and point of view than those other books, but that only increases its power and effect, and its potential prescience. This is accentuated by the style and structure. Steven uses a series of talking heads – interviews with people who have been directly affected by, or have some link to, the events and the people who are under investigation. The short sharp sentences of everyday speech give what unfolds a directness which carries with it real emotion. There are simple words and phrases which are repeated throughout, such as “fighting”, “political correctness”, “law” and “justice”, which become loaded terms when given context by an individual, their meaning changing on a voice-by-voice basis.
Steven’s decision to structure the novel as he does is clever and challenging. He manages to make each voice recognisable, individual and, most importantly, believable. It means, you are faced with such an array of viewpoints that your own will be challenged and you are left to examine your preconceptions which inevitably come into play. It also means that trying to get to the ‘truth’ of the events, should such a thing exist, means looking past the prejudices and pride of those speaking and attempting to separate them from what is really being professed. However, Steven never allows you to lose sight of the bigger picture even though the focus shifts continuously.
2020 may not be a response to any one particular event, vote or election, but it certainly reflects aspects of modern Britain both in the specifics and in a more general manner. Political fiction of this kind has been all too rare in recent times, which is odd considering the raw material available. There have been the odd exceptions such as Craig A. Smith’s The Mile, and Philip Miller’s latest All The Galaxies, but 2020 could not be more appropriate and necessary. An honest and at times horrific view of the state of the nation, but run through with humanity and ultimately hope, Kenneth Steven has written a parable for our times, and one which we would do well to take note of.