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'Britain has pride about not succumbing to fascism in the 20th century - I'm suggesting it could happen in the 21st'

In his debut novel The Last Day, QI Elf Andrew Hunter Murray writes about a world that’s half in shadow, half in light.

THE EARTH HAS stopped on its axis. One side of the world is in the freezing dark, one in the light. Britain and America are trying to come to trade agreements. The ruler of the UK is a nefarious despot. 

Oh, and the future of humanity lies with a scientist who has stumbled upon a secret that the government will go to any lengths to keep hidden.

Welcome to the world of The Last Day, the debut novel by writer and QI elf (that’s one of the researchers for the TV show QI and the podcast No Such Thing As A Fish), Andrew Hunter Murray. In The Last Day, he’s conjured up a world that bears some eerie similarities to today, with its tales of refugees, poverty, climate disaster and inter-country dealings. His science-based eco-thriller takes place 40 years in the future, after a solar catastrophe slows the planet’s rotation. 

When we speak, The Last Day is in the bestseller list for the second week running, “which is the most amazing feeling”, says Hunter Murray. “I didn’t expect to be in the bestseller list at all, so it’s really nice.”

It’s not just the bestseller list he’s reached – he also signed a major deal for the TV and film rights for his debut novel that is said to be in the ‘high six figures’. Clearly – and unsurprisingly – there’s a hunger out there for dystopian fiction. You know, the kind of fiction that feels more like documentary these days.

‘It was a strange feeling’

Like many people, Hunter Murray knew that he wanted to write a book one day. “I thought I wanted to write something funny,” he says – something inspired by his heroes like PG Wodehouse. But then something happened.

“It was a very strange feeling. I was walking along the road and I can’t remember what I had been thinking about before, but suddenly, not even an idea, a main image appeared in my mind of the world hanging in space divided permanently between light and dark,” he recalls. “I didn’t even realise it was a book at the time. I thought: that is interesting. My first thought was what would happen to politics, to geography, to the climate, to agriculture, to all of it – I just wanted to know more.”

As you’d expect from someone whose entire career is based on research, Hunter Murray set out to investigate what this frightening world could be like.

“The thing is that it has never happened before,” he laughs. ”So there was a bit of, as you say, artistic license but I was very lucky to know an astrophysicist, a friend of mine. I asked her about it and she consulted her colleagues and she came back to me with an amazing list of options about how you would crash the planet to a halt. I picked my favourite and we went from there.”

Hunter Murray read a lot about the climate and about climate migration while writing the book, as he “really wanted to get those things right”.

“It’s important when you have this huge idea of crashing the planet that you are as plausible as possible so the reader is not thinking ‘how on earth can you do this?’ on every page,” he says. But there was a balance, too, between showing how much research he’d done, and fitting in a solid plot.

“I had a real fear and horror of just giving pages and pages of information without any interesting plot moments or character, so I tried to really space out the explanation of how it happened,” he says. “I like books that drop you in their world and don’t explain it.”

He wanted people “to be able to read the book just as a pure story if they wanted”, but to give them something deeper too.

“There is so much in the air at the moment, people are wondering what the next 50 years are going to look like and people are starting to be told stories about scarcity and people coming to take things away from them,” he says.

“And that’s very politically powerful and dangerous, so I wanted to reflect some of that in the book: how would countries behave when presented with a lot of people who are less fortunate?”

Brexit

The Britain of The Last Day is ruled by a desperate despot (before you ask, no – Boris Johnson was not in power when he started writing it).

“He wasn’t even prime minister when I came up with this duplicitous power-hungry tyrant, but the book is going to have to be moved to non fiction if we continue where we are,” jokes Hunter Murray when asked about Bojo’s influence. He did come up with the idea six months after the Brexit vote, however.

“The idea of Britain drawing away from its nearest neighbours was paramount in my thoughts. In the book, Britain has done a lot better than its neighbours. It’s not me saying I think that’s what’s going to happen in our world but there’s an element there of countries joining together in suspicion and fear. I think everything in the book could happen – aside from the central thing of the planet stopping.”

The book is about divides – the divide between the part of Earth under the glare of the sun, and the dark side of earth; between the haves and the haves nots; between superpowers; between government and people.

“So much of this was not really in the air when I started writing the book and since then we’ve had things like the Windrush scandal and all of these other stories, so I think there are parallels. But also I hope it’s not a simple allegory,” says Hunter Murray.

“I don’t want people to think [the prime minister character] is so easily understandable – the joy of fiction is you can be a bit less responsible and create strange new worlds with people.”

One of the books that inspired him in terms of creating a dystopian world where terrible things felt familiar was Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. “Britain has a real pride about not having succumbed to fascism in the 20th century and I am positing it could happen in the 21st. We don’t have a unique vaccination in the sequence of fascism,” says Hunter Murray.

Another book that inspired him was PD James’ novel The Children of Men, which is about a world where no children have been born for two decades. “I’m a huge fan of books which describe a world not that has ended but that is looking at its own end coming up – it’s not apocalyptic, there are not volcanoes going off everywhere, but a world confronting its own mortality is of real interest to me.”

How do people feel in post-Brexit Britain? Hunter Murray is reluctant to sum up the mood of an entire country, but does say: “I think the dominant feeling is exhaustion, which is tricky because I think there’s a lot more of it [to come]. There is a government decree not to use the word Brexit again because people are so sick of hearing it. Whatever side you’re on, people are so exhausted. And this is only the beginning, it is a bigger commitment we’ve made.”

Hunter Murray’s job as a ‘QI Elf’ sounds like a dream one – he and the other elves get to spend all week researching unusual facts for the show. They used to end up with such a surplus that they hit on the idea to create a podcast with the leftovers – No Such Thing As A Fish now has 1 million downloads per episode.

Hunter Murray’s start in the industry came early. “When I was at uni someone introduced me to John Lloyd, the great comedy producer behind Blackadder, and the inventor of QI,” he recalls. “He told me I could do a bit of work experience once I finished my degree. That was my first job and I’ve been here 11 years working on QI, making books, researching the tv series, and making the podcast. And then through a similar stroke of luck I got some work experience at Private Eye.”

“I’m a lucky lucky pig… because I get to work with very interesting people as well,” says Hunter Murray. 

He maintains though, that his job isn’t that unattainable. “All you need is an internet connection or a book and time on your hands – we are not doing something an ordinary person can’t do. We are simply curious and we are given the luxury of time to be curious.”

Is there much craic in the QI elves’ office? “The craic levels are a bit out of control – almost too much craic,” jokes Hunter Murray. He adds: “There is this whole community around the world of geeky people who love learning new stuff. It’s been a privilege for the past six years.”

How easy is it to hit upon an interesting fact? “You sit and read, and every so often you’ll find something surprising. And you follow your nose, you try find out more about that surprising thing. Then suddenly you find yourself with more interesting things.”

His favourite fact? He says it’s hard to pick one – but he’ll never forget discovering that for a very long time, people could drive any direction they wanted around Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. Sounds like the makings of another dystopian novel. 

The Last Day by Andrew Hunter Murray is published by and out now. 

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