Andrew Hunter Murray on hard choices, realism in fiction, and sheer dumb luck

Sylvia Bishop: I’m delighted to be talking with Andrew Hunter Murray, author of Sunday Times best-seller The Last Day. Andrew, for readers who aren’t familiar with the book, could you give us a precis?

Andrew Hunter Murray: The Last Day is a story set a few decades from now in a world like our own but with one catastrophic and enormous difference - the world has stopped turning. It’s set in 2059, and for thirty years now, after a heavenly body passed close by the earth and disrupted its orbit, the same side of the planet has faced in towards the sun, and the other side has faced outwards towards the cold, dead universe.

As you can imagine, things have changed substantially. The sunlit side of the earth is far too hot to inhabit in many places - the ‘Coldside’ is uninhabitable in just the opposite way. Life clings on in a narrow, sunlit ring - a kind of Goldilocks Zone - which takes in parts of Europe, including the United Kingdom, where the story is set.

That’s the big sci-fi idea behind it – but really it’s a story about human nature in a world which is starting to change dramatically, and where nations have retreated to look after only their own citizens rather than looking outwards. And, as it’s a thriller, there is an extremely exciting plot about the story’s hero, a young scientist called Ellen Hopper who has discovered a few breadcrumbs leading towards an earth-shattering secret.

Sylvia Bishop: Yes, I loved the ‘human nature’ aspect. “The Stop”, as its known, creates a politics of scarcity - not everyone can live.

I was reminded of that horrendous scene in Day of the Triffids, when one determined philanthropist is chaining the few people who can still see to huge gangs of the newly-blinded. But it’s more complex here than in Triffids, because there are a range of sustainable responses, you don’t just have to let everyone die…

Did you start with a firm sense of what would be right and wrong in the world you created? Do you have one now?

Andrew Hunter Murray: What an enormously flattering comparison - I think Wyndham is the absolute don of this kind of book, and there are still brilliant writers exploring these kinds of potential changes today (people like Naomi Alderman in The Power, for example). I think I started only with the sense that human nature operates within certain set bands, but that those bands encompass an extraordinary range of altruism and cruelty.

I don’t think I had a set idea of what the ‘right’ course of action was in this book - because the countries which have faced The Stop have all faced genuinely appalling choices, and carried out genuinely appalling actions in response. I’m always interested when sci-fi presents people with unpalatable, impossible decisions, to see which side characters will fall on, and that’s what I was trying to do here.

Sylvia Bishop: Ah - so it’s more about exploring what’s psychologically likely or possible, than about moral questions in the abstract?

Andrew Hunter Murray: I think it’s about making concrete some of the choices that many of us (fortunate people living in relatively affluent countries, for example) feel that we don’t have to make, because these decisions are already being made for us. Questions about the world we live in and how it operates are often tidied away unless you really determine to inform yourself – to give a crude example, it’s a lot more fun eating meat if you simply assume the animals you’re eating have been treated well or lived good lives, which may not be the case.

I think the world of the novel is one where every single person alive has found themselves on one side of a barrier or another – simply due to the brute force of geography – and I was interested in seeing how the people on the fortunate side of the barrier reacted to their good luck, how they would behave, and how they would justify those choices, or attempt to ignore the choices that had been made for them.

Sylvia Bishop: Interesting! I imagine people inevitably draw parallels with the climate crisis, reading a book like this - but it seems that for you, these decisions are already part of our politics? Was the climate comparison on your mind as you were writing?

Andrew Hunter Murray: All the way through, absolutely - it sounds rather worthy to have written a novelisation of climate change, but it’s one of the central questions of how our species reacts to this century and so I think it’s worth having a crack at. In terms of the decisions that are made for us, and how they inform our politics, that’s exactly right.

It was completely out of my power whether I was born in Britain or in the Maldives - but the accident of my birth in the UK meant that I can, if I choose to, ignore climate change for far longer than if I had been born in the Maldives. These accidents and how we frame our own responses to them - what we and our governments choose to see and ignore - are a big part of life today, especially a life where you can (if you choose) make yourself aware of absolutely every single moral dimension to everything you do, or where you can ignore those dimensions, if you are lucky enough to be able to do that. So there’s a choice we are all making there too.

Sylvia Bishop: Your hero makes the choice to disengage, but she’s gradually drawn back in. Is that a personal reflection?

Andrew Hunter Murray: It’s just her story, really - she’s definitely not an attempt to sneak my own personality into the novel. But yes, Ellen is completely disengaged from her country at the start of the novel (Britain itself has cut itself off from its near-neighbours in the years of the Slow and the Stop, in the name of self-preservation). In fact, as the book opens she is living on a converted oil rig, wanting no more to do with her homeland - and yet she is drawn back in and begins a process of thawing out, re-engaging with her past as well as with the present. So maybe there is a bit of personal reflection in there too!

Sylvia Bishop: I loved that oil rig. 100% my dystopic accommodation of choice.

Let’s return to the central premise of the Stop. It’s an incredibly rich central event for a dystopia, because the range of knock-on effects on the planet’s functions are staggering. I can’t imagine how you even began researching it - how do you know what you don’t know, with a topic like that?

Andrew Hunter Murray: I did a fair bit of research - I’m a researcher for a living so it was no hardship - and I asked a few experts for their advice too. An astrophysicist, a couple of ocean current specialists, that kind of thing… and I spent the first six months simply creating the world of the book, imagining every aspect I could and how it might change if something like this happened.

There will, of course, be lots I have got wrong (one of the ocean scientists in particular didn’t quite twig I was writing a novel and told me this sort of mad theorising would make a subject for a rather fanciful PhD but nothing more). If something like this really happened, I think the odds of there being a narrow habitable ring are pretty slim - so I also subscribe in a very self-interested way to the School of Disbelief Suspension, and hoping the reader will meet me halfway. I was trying to write a world where you can absolutely believe it, once you have accepted the enormous and unlikely sci-fi premise.

The other thing I like to say is that I think everything I describe in this novel - rising climate migration, some countries retreating to militarism and barrier-building, and so on - everything in the novel has a good chance of happening. The earth probably won’t stop spinning, but I think lots of other things I describe have a reasonable chance of occurring over the next half-century.

Sylvia Bishop: Yes, everything felt very prescient. Would it be fair to say, then, that relevance is more important than accuracy for dystopian fiction?

Andrew Hunter Murray: I think so! There’s a wonderful book called The Death of Grass by John Christopher, which describes a plague wiping out almost all grass crops. Goodbye staple foods. Now, that is very, very unlikely to happen. But that novel reveals a lot about human nature. And on a personal note, I love stories which do that kind of thing - which allow the author’s creativity free rein while simultaneously breaking through into our own world in certain ways.

Sylvia Bishop: Yeah, I’m inclined to agree. That attitude allows you to take on much bigger premises too, I suppose? There’s a wonderful passage in The Last Day where we’re told, in dialogue, by an exhausted scientist, about all the other effects of the Stop on the planet that we aren’t even considering in the bulk of the book. I sensed an exhausted researcher behind that paragraph…

Andrew Hunter Murray: Ha! There was a lot I left out. At some point you have to decide whether this is going to be a rattling yarn or a TED talk, and I wanted to end up with the former. There is a tendency among some novelists - naming no names whatsoever - to carry around the learning like a battering ram, and it becomes a mite tiresome living inside someone else’s research notes when what you want is a story. So I tried to keep the balance.

Sylvia Bishop: And you did! Which brings me to ask, on behalf of eager fans everywhere, if there’s anything we can know about the 2022 release?

Andrew Hunter Murray: I thought you’d never ask! Yes, the second novel is not a direct sequel to The Last Day - it’s a kind of cousin-book, really.

It’s set in another slightly tired, slightly dingy version of our country, one which has elevated a lucky few people to paradise and left the rest behind. It’s about a young man called Ben, a painter to the wealthy, who gets the chance to leave the grimy mainland behind him and visit the beautiful island home of the man who made the entire country what it is today.

The man on the island is called Sir John Pemberley. He’s a charismatic, charming billionaire, and it’s entirely possible he’s entirely benign, of course, but there may be something more going on under the surface… It’s going to be called The Sanctuary and I’ve literally just finished writing the blurb this morning.

Sylvia Bishop: Wonderful! I look forward to reading it, always assuming the planet keeps turning and grass keeps growing. If the world as we know it collapses, I can only promise I’ll do my best to find a copy.

Thanks so much Andrew – it’s been a delight to talk all things dystopic.

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