Ever Dundas’s second novel is a stirring, mordant commentary on the methods by which the contemporary citizen is rendered passive or ‘blissful’ by science that has been harnessed by political structures. Structured around the narratives of Jane Ward (Company CEO) and Dr Icho Smith, HellSans is written in such a way that it does not matter whether you read Jane or Icho’s story first – both culminate in the blistering finale. Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman astutely connects this to Ali Smith’s How to Be Both and, more broadly, the recurrent trope in Scottish fiction: the doppelganger.
Set in a dystopian future UK, the HellSans of the title is a typeface which is deployed ubiquitously by the government in order to ensure people are kept ‘happy’ – or passive and easily controlled. Within the populace there is a subset who are allergic and for whom every word they read is excruciating. Whilst those who are privileged enough to be ‘blissful’ live a life of luxury and perceived freedom, those who are prone to a bodily reaction remain segregated in ghettos, corralled, isolated and reduced to vagrancy and begging on the streets just to survive.
Dundas has stated there is a political point to this plot, describing how:
The minority who are allergic to the typeface are treated the way disabled people are treated now under a Tory government: deviant and marginalised. It’s my way of exploring the dystopia disabled people have been living in for ten-plus years. The Tories were investigated by the UN for human rights violations against disabled people – that can’t be ignored. HellSans is also a reaction to damaging mainstream disability narratives, often written by non-disabled people.Ever Dundas, interviewed by Alasdair Braidwood in SNACK Magazine, September 2022
Such an honest and blistering position is admirable for its frankness and willingness to engage with the possible interpretations that future critiques of the novel may well draw. In the above interview the author describes the novel as ‘a sci-fi thriller, with lashings of body horror’ and the visceral and visual imagery deployed as bodies decay and ‘flesh and technology collide and converge’ with unapologetic frequency is enough to leave a firm imprint on the mind of many readers.
Jane Ward is CEO of a disquieting entity known only as ‘The Company’ (possibly nodding to Martin MacInnes’s faceless employer in Infinite Ground) which provides drones who act as concierges. Known as Ino or, at the more advanced level, Inex, these machines provide a one-stop shop of facilities for the commitment-rich but time-poor citizen, but they also retain a copy of your memories and recollections. Ward’s life has brought her riches and fame for her business acumen but this soon begins to fall apart – figuratively and literally – when she is diagnosed with the allergy and faces a future living with other HSAs (HellSans Allergics) in the squalor and degradation at the margins of society.
Dr Icho Smith is a scientist who is working on a cure for the allergy to HellSans. She identifies Ward as having the allergy and sets about trying to find her in order to provide a solution which will alleviate the symptoms, if not cure them. Both Smith and Ward go on the run, separately to begin with and then together, which leads to a sexual entanglement which feels neither forced nor out of synchronicity with the intensity of HellSans. Think of a thriller with all the tensions of a physical subplot between the two protagonists and you’re in the right territory. To complicate matters there is a third strand to this narrative: the Seraphs, a group who represent terrorism or liberation, depending on which shade of the font you’re on.
At one point, Jane Ward’s acceptance of her recently diagnosed condition leads her to living in a series of hostels and ghettos where the HSAs are disenfranchised and trapped, away from societal scrutiny. This is a particularly challenging sequence in which the language Dundas uses to depict their physical and emotional confinement and dehumanisation is reminiscent of a genocide.
At numerous points the novel moves into the territory of metafiction whereby the Inex start to write the narratives of the characters themselves and this is interspersed with the main plotline. It’s difficult to ascertain whether this is for comedic effect, or if Dundas is adding a sophisticated layer to a novel which already deals with a number of significant social issues. With the Inex’s discussion of technical detail and witty interplay as to the structure a novel needs I’m inclined to think it is a parodic moment.Dundas has a gifted and compelling voice which stands alone in its creativity. This is a majestic work and I would be not merely surprised but shocked if it fails to receive the acclaim given to Dundas’s debut novel, Goblin.
HellSans is published by Angry Robot Books