They is a lost dystopian novella, first published in 1977, about the suppression of identity and art, as a mysterious ‘they’ start to curtail freedoms to stop non-conformity. Subtitled ‘a sequence of unease’, They moves through a number of scenes, connected but not entirely, probably with the same unnamed, genderless narrator, to show the eerie dread of this new Britain, the horror of what you might lose and how people’s selves might be taken from them.
This edition has been republished by Faber with an introduction by Carmen Maria Machado, which helpfully positions the book in its time and gives a sense of what to look out for. The atmosphere is very much the “unease” of the subtitle, an eerie pastoral vision, like a dystopia for the Arts and Crafts movement, and as Machado points out in the introduction, you shouldn’t think yourself definitely not part of “them”, whoever they are. The novella explores this complicity, this taking of identity (after all, we barely know the characters, and hardly the narrator, if the narrator is one person) and the physical taking of both artworks and the means, both in terms of body and object, of making them.
I found this a subtly terrifying book that asks more questions than it answers, and shows that dystopia as a genre doesn’t have to always be about very obvious comparisons and worldbuilding, but instead something creeping and ominous. It feels a bit like it should be an old 70s BBC drama, but it is also very interesting how well it works reading it today, maybe because of the ambiguity and sparseness of it.