In Ask a Prophet, we use our alien probes on the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers.
This week, we spoke with Alexandra Oliva, whose debut novel The Last One combines dystopia with reality TV.
Where did this concept come from?
I wish I had some great spark of inspiration story, but I honestly, I was living in Brooklyn at the time and I was on the subway and I was like, “What if someone was on a reality show and when a huge disaster happened, she just thought it was all part of the show?” I’ve always been interested in survival stories and anything with any sort of dystopian element and adventure and hardship. And reality TV is everywhere and seeped into my subconscious, so I combined the two.
Did you do much research for it?
I didn’t do too much official research on the reality show side; I read a couple Reddit AMA’s with former contestants or cast members on shows like The Colony. I did a lot more research when it came to the survival skills side. I was always interested in wilderness survival skills — I had taken a couple of classes just for fun — and when I had the idea for this book, I realized that if I wanted to write it with as much realism as I wanted, I had to get more hands-on experience. So I did a two week wilderness survival course with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School in Utah, which was a crazy intense trip — hiking water source to water source without any food for days; learning all the skills it would take to survive and thrive in that kind of environment long term. Having that hands-on experience was really helpful.
Why do you think dystopia is having such a popular moment right now?
It’s really interesting because I grew up loving this kind of story. I read almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy as a kid, and a lot of it isn’t technically apocalyptic or dystopian, but I was always drawn to this idea of a character I loved being put through hell and just having their world destroyed. There’s a lot of ways you can destroy a character’s world — anything that alters their sense of identity and disrupts everything. And the apocalyptic and dystopian settings are the most literal way to do that.
What were some of your sci-fi and fantasy books growing up?
I was obsessed with Terry Brooks from second grade probably through fifth or sixth grade. And then from there, my favorite book was By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey. It was the first fantasy novel I read with a kick ass female lead who didn’t fit into the stereotypical princess mold. So those two, when I was really young, were the foundation of my love for genre.
And are there any you’ve particularly enjoyed recently?
Science fiction especially is getting really interesting now. People are crossing genres and becoming more “literary.” Justin Cronin is a huge inspiration. When I read The Passage back when it first came out, it was just this clarifying moment of, “Look what beautiful things people are doing with the genre premise now.” It was just really inspirational and exciting. I’m also a big fan of China Miéville, and Blake Crouch has a new novel coming out soon called Dark Matter, which is really twisty and exciting, but grounded with this really wonderful emotional core that I love.
As sci-fi and fantasy is permeating the culture more, are there any sci-fi or fantasy shows that you watch?
I enjoy Game of Thrones. I’ve also been a fan of The Walking Dead, I think it’s an imperfect and ambitious show that I really enjoy. And then whenever I need to unwind I’ll just put on an episode of Buffy or Firefly.
What excites you most about the where the genre is going?
The most exciting thing about it is this greater openness in crossing genre lines. When we don’t focus so much on how we categorize something, there’s a lot more possibility with what we can create if we’re more open-minded about that kind of thing. There’s room right now for people to be doing some really exciting things and putting new twists on classic genre stories.