Kay Dick’s recently rediscovered dystopian masterpiece, They (1977), has arrived at a jarringly nose-on period of time, punctuated by cuts to arts funding and political repression of creative practices, the humanities, and personal expression. Voiced by an unnamed narrator, They imagines a world in which art is directly attacked by a faceless, homogeneous group intent on reforming society away from ideas of the self and towards a future of sameness, through extreme violence, intimidation, and eradication of feeling. Stalking first through larger cities and central regions, ‘They’ now come to the countryside and coastal towns – the last safe havens for poets, sculptors, painters, singers, writers; the childless, the queer and gender nonconforming. All of whom are attempting to maintain their crafts and freedom and to escape the threat of sinister ‘cures’ in detention centres, or worse.
With a brilliant introduction from Carmen Maria Machado, Dick’s work not only stuns in its prose – sweeping, storm-like storytelling that holds onto the things that define us as feeling beings and captures them with crystalline simplicity and unashamed horror – but also in its sense of stark resilience, one that has historically defined the arts world. Told through short chapters that jump from one mournful situation to another – paintings being burned, artists murdered or maimed, animals and pets killed, strangers entering houses soundlessly to take writings or books and smash up life’s works – They explores just how intrinsic and necessary art is for humans, regardless of wanting or available audiences.
In a work that projects dark, desperate warnings for the future, They asks artists to hold on in the face of repression and abuse; to create, as a mode of living and of caring for others, and as a means of rebelling against violent systems. Speaking to all creatives past and present, Dick shows us the destruction of society through the lens of some of society’s most sensitive individuals – exposing us to an enemy that views your very thoughts as extinguishable.
They was published by Faber Editions in 2022. Originally published in 1977.