While a Master’s student at City, University of London, I submitted one of my dystopian short stories for the Orwell Society Fiction Prize 2019. The story, named ‘Bad Harvest’, was commended as one of the shortlisted entries in the competition. Way to go!
Can you imagine a world in which human beings don’t have time to breed?
Today’s society thrives in instant rewards and gratification, constantly immersed in technology. Though that is not always negative, our personal time is increasingly valuable. What if someday we will find the technology to enhance our productivity beyond natural human limits? What if we were required to work 20 hours a day? What if sexuality is repressed in a new Dark Age, and children can be purchased in retail stores?
Those are the kind of questions I tried to answer in Bad Harvest, a dystopian short story I submitted for the Orwell Society Fiction Prize 2019.
A month later, Bad Harvest was shortlisted as one of the commended entries in the Orwell Society Fiction Prize.
The full story is 3000 words. What follows is a short excerpt.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading it, as much as I enjoyed writing about Magdalene and her conflicts.
Bad Harvest – Excerpt
The Peace-Cameras above the front door registered my arrival just in time. I sprinted through the threshold as the Shepherd concluded his solemn message on my Mirrors. ‘Remember, my dears: time is precious, but even more so is virtue.’
I stopped inside to catch a breath, looked at the watch on my lenses: nine o’clock. My shift started in ten minutes, but we all had to be at the Happy Garden earlier to get ready for the day.
I put on my Harvest Assistant uniform, name badge in plain sight on my breast. I didn’t mind the shade of coral on my clothes; better than the awful dark-blue all men had to wear, anyway. Besides, whoever didn’t want to speak to a woman went to a blue uniform straight away. Less fuss for me and the girls.
The Happy Garden opened at half past. Twenty minutes for us Harvest Assistants to get everything ready for the day. They might not sound a lot, but when your leader is watching through the Peace-Cs of the store – well, they become more than enough to get everything done.
I rushed to the Yield Room to get a few bottles for the front shelves. Those shelves were the first anybody saw and had to be spotless from the get-go. Didn’t matter if the rest of the Garden was unsightly – it was our job to sell it to our guests.
My Mirrors highlighted several First-Class Seeds and a few Second-Class. Top-notch, best in town. To attract the richest men in the country, or more likely their wives. I shoved them in my trolley and raced to the front of the store. I caught a glimpse of the other assistants running around the Garden, but the front window was my section. The leader had assigned it to me, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.
I settled all the cylindrical bottles on the shelves, one at a time, Seeds facing the entrance. They were repugnant. We all knew that. But it wasn’t our job to judge.
Someone knocked on the front window. I jumped. One of the bottles wiggled on its round base, fell on one side. My glasses made me visualise the bottle’s trajectory before my eyes. I rushed to grab it before it rolled down the shelf, spreading bits and pieces all around the floor. I peeped at the Peace-C right behind my back: it was studying a blue uniform, Alan, our new Harvest Assistant. I sighed in relief.
I turned around to see a guest already creeping outside the front door. A line of five to ten people behind him, waiting for the grand opening. I looked at the watch on the corner of my Mirrors and reassured them with a big smile. ‘Two minutes!’
I hated those spoiled pricks. Some of them were too rich to have known hard work once in their lives, most believed money could buy anything. And it mostly could. But all those who walked into the Happy Garden were despicable in the same way.
They all came to buy human lives.
I called Alan to help me open the two sets of front doors. The crowd of guests rushed in. We all welcomed them with a big smile.
‘Welcome to the Happy Garden!’ I greeted one of the first couples. ‘What kind of baby angel are you looking for today?’
Noon. The glass skyscraper in front of the Happy Garden shattered the sunlight in tiny crystals along its surface. The first rush was now having lunch. I swallowed my sleep suppresser daily pill, a concentrate of caffeine, sugar – and a little bit of cocaine, some believed. Nobody cared, anyway. It kept us going for 23 hours, just in time to get our well-deserved hour of sleep.
The Happy Garden hushed. As usual, a huge screen on the tall building alternated cheerful images of food with gloomier pictures: grave news on natural disasters, thousands of people dying of skin cancer around the world. More and more frequent news by the day.
As I waited by the front door for any guests, I felt the look of my Leader right on my back. A chill scuttled down my spine every time she studied me through the Peace-Cameras. I dared not turn around: I didn’t want to be called in the office again.
‘Maggie!’ I heard. It was a new voice, the voice of someone who still had to learn the hard way how things worked. It was Alan’s. And of course the guy had to stop right next to me.
Don’t speak, I thought. I wanted to shut him up, if anything to avoid him trouble. But there was no way to warn him without being seen by the Peace-C on the back wall. And then I’d be in trouble as well.
‘Geez,’ Alan said, ‘that was a big rush. I’m so excited to finally work here with y’all! Wanna make my Leader proud.’
Keep talking, you idiot. You’ll see how proud she’ll be.
Then, as he was rambling about some dream of his I frankly didn’t care about, it happened. Just as expected, right from the Garden’s general speakers.
‘Alan Brown is requested to the Leader’s office at once. I repeat: Alan Brown…’
Alan hushed. He was a good guy, but he should have known better: “Harvest Assistants must not engage in conversations with a different-colour uniform.” Rule number sixty-seven of our guidebook, just as important as the first one.
The face of First-Class Leader Luz popped onto my Mirrors. ‘Well done, Magdalene,’ she said through the glasses’ speakers. She always called me by my full first name. ‘Glad to see you finally learned.’
She assigned me some tasks I “clearly” should’ve thought about while the Garden was quiet, then disappeared from my field of view. Poor Alan.
I sighed as my heartbeat eased back into normal rhythm. Luz was busy, so I could finally relax a bit. I spotted Karen working on the back wall with some shelves and joined her to give a hand. I recognised a few O-Class Seeds. She placed them on a shelf with a tiny white tag, saying: “If you are short in greed, an Omega-Seed is all you need!” Another tag, smaller than the first one, warned in capital letters: “Chance of defect: 70%.”
Omega-Seeds were the remains of the genetic experiments giving birth to all other seeds in the Greenhouses. If someone was short on money but desperate to grow a baby, that was usually the Seed they’d go for. There was a much higher chance of genetic flaws compared to other classes – but Omega parents couldn’t afford any better.
My eyes mirrored on the liquid in Karen’s bottles. A Seed the size of a bean floating inside, peaceful. Unscathed. And for a moment, just a moment, I wished I could go back to that state. Not giving a damn about what was around me.
‘Magdalene, what are you doing?’, Luz’s voice asked from the speakers, making me jump. I then noticed that one of the Garden’s Peace-Cs was looking right at me. I apologised and rushed back to work, head down. A moment later, Alan shuffled back on the shop floor.