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Slipstream Dreams

Two new works of Australian speculative fiction were on my mind when 2016 was declared the hottest year on record, after the world’s meteorological agencies had said the same for the previous year and the one before that. People under thirty have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. And this was during the summer that came after Melbourne’s wettest October on record. The CSIRO projects more intense rain events to come. The world is heating up; the skies are pouring down.

We are burning. We are drowning. This is no metaphor but the literal reality of our changed climate. Science-fiction is becoming science fact. James Bradley wrote in the Sydney Review of Books earlier this year, ‘climate change, habitat destruction, extinction, pollution [are] transforming our world in ways that would have seemed unimaginable only a generation or two ago’. I want novels that relate to, and anticipate, this new world disorder. In an introduction to Crash written 20 years after its 1973 publication JG Ballard described non-fiction, and its rising popularity, as a ‘reasonable response’ – perhaps even the inevitable reaction – to an environment we increasingly experience as strange. But I’m drawn to novelists seeking more fantastic forms to express our altered state.

Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck and Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink are two such titles: stories of (dis)connection set around changed and changing climates. These novels are each about the endings of known worlds, as well as what might emerge. The coming catastrophe is closely watched – in Rawson’s book, by the beings whose planet has been invaded; in Doyle’s, by humans, who keep an eye on live weather feeds that record rising sea levels around Pitcairn Island. These authors aren’t just returning our attention to the wrecked environment, they are turning their attention to our fascination with that wreckage, and our fear of what might come next.

For Rawson’s unnamed alien, the worst has already happened: ‘she’ is a refugee from another world who’s escaped to our shores. The heroine of From the Wreck has lived a lifetime deep in the ocean – as a cephalopod, rock, sand and fish – before emerging to live among humans. First, as a woman called Brigid, then as a cat, and finally as a boy’s birthmark. In all forms she is homesick for a world long gone, shifting shapes as she searches for signs of her own kind – along the way meeting characters so sympathetically drawn (an unconventional grandmother; her precocious young neighbour) that they seem universal souls, cast adrift in what could almost be called historical fiction were it not for the weird and wonderful conceit at the story’s core.

The inspiration for From the Wreck came from the tale of Rawson’s shipwrecked ancestor George Hills, but the author has extended his experience well beyond the historical record. Imagining what might have happened during the eight days after his ship went down, when he clung to debris while others around him drowned, she uses an encounter with the extra-terrestrial to explore trauma and its impact. The speculative trope helps her express what it might be like to become crazy. Or, perhaps worse, to be seen that way and still be sane. For George isn’t the only one who encounters the visitor aboard the wreck; the complex, compelling stranger we finally recognise — from the diverse points of view Rawson deftly draws — as the only nonalienated character in the novel. ‘She’ alone knows what she has lost (her whole world), and what she must find (her kin).

For Doyle, the end is still nigh. The title event of The Island Will Sink may be a natural disaster, but the rising tide is the result of human behaviour. This event – which is, actually, really possible – is as impossible for her characters to comprehend as it for readers in the real world: climate change, or any of its catastrophic consequences, may change nothing, may change something, or may change everything, as her characters say. The story starts with Doyle’s anti-hero, Max, recording a prescient vision for his next blockbuster disaster film: a tsunami. The making of Max’s last immersive extravaganza propels us through the narrative, towards a watery event horizon. Like Rawson’s fantastic idea of an alien visitor in our distant past, Doyle’s future deluge is a generic concept, made to work here as a literary metaphor for (and in, genre world–wise) something else. There is no doubt that it is what Max has repressed that will return: an avalanche of emotion; a meteor of memories.

No one I’ve talked to about Doyle’s novel claims to have the story straight – the ending is open to interpretation – but everyone stresses that isn’t the point. It isn’t a ‘straight’ story. From the Wreck, once one accepts the speculative set-up, is written and reads as literary fiction. The Island Will Sink sets itself up in the science-fiction camp but its tent is pitched at the boundary of that genre. Habitual genre readers may be frustrated by the lack of resolution or clear conclusion. Doyle performs and reforms aspects of other genres too. In some ways The Island Will Sink follows in the footsteps of amnesia thrillers: Max has a brother in a coma, or thinks he does – Max cannot remember; he’s outsourced his memories to a living archive long ago (why, we don’t know). But now his wife has put him in touch with someone who wants to work with him to establish a connection between the siblings. We are curious. We are skeptical. As, indeed, is Max.

Like a moviegoer watching one of Max’s films, the reader becomes desperate to experience a dénouement. Let the sinking be televised. Let the sinking be repeated, revisited and revised. We are drawn in – if not to a world that mirrors our own as it is now, then certainly into one where we recognise some of its darker aspects, reflected and distorted.

From the Wreck and The Island Will Sink show us places that are like – and yet not-like – ours. They echo our relationship to the world around us, which is altering at an unprecedented pace. It’s easy to conceive of archeologists finding records of an ancient alien preserved among fossils; new stories are constantly emerging about the intelligence of octopuses and their advanced cognitive evolution. Harder to believe that rising sea levels are imminent.

The idea of a recognised–unrecognisable reality reminds me of Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s description of a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’, which he forged when studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining on communities in New South Wales: solastalgia. A sense of nostalgia for a place that once provided solace (but doesn’t any more). It’s an apt description of the aching homesickness, for a world ravaged by forces beyond one’s control, that washes through Rawson’s work. Doyle’s book too is suffused with a sense of desolation. Her convincing creation of a near-future that is disturbingly familiar, but disquieting ‘unhomely’ – for her estranged characters as well as us – means we, the reader, find ourselves lost in Max’s (un)emotional state.

These speculative titles, which combine science-fiction craft with literary art, demonstrate the way in which the novel– with its long-term perspective and varied possibilities – can communicate macro concepts via micro moments. As befits a literature of the Anthropocene. Fictions that abandon the conventions of realism are rarely only about un-real stories. Fantastic forms have always been a way to explore issues and ideas about identity, community, technology and otherness. Speculative literature goes further, bridging worlds – birthing new ones – in its form as it brings together popular/populist genres and literary fiction: the plots and motifs that drive genre meet the intentional aesthetics of literary fiction. The best speculative fictions embody a kind of trans-genre: they are experiments that resist binaries. Which is what I want to read (and write) as a ‘reasonable’ response to a reality that I find strange enough even without extinctions of whole species or isolated geographies.

Of course science-fiction itself arose at, or out of, an intersection: the nexus of information and storytelling, as the methodical study of the material world was put through the wringer of narrative. And that tension lives on its hybrid name. Literary fiction is a similarly telling term, communicating an emphasis on fictionality as the premier category, literariness as a qualifier. Once upon a utopian time stories of perfect worlds were written as tall traveller’s tales coming from a different place, but within the same universe. It was only when the early maps started to fill that authors needed space in which to exercise their imaginations, and otherworld-building became so essential – in terms of writing style, as well as story setting. That tradition endures in Doyle and Rawson’s stories, which are each mapped onto real places: Pitcairn Island and a specific site off the South Australian coast. The wreck was real, even if interstellar travel is (probably) not; our rising sea level is all-too-real too, even if it’s not being filmed in the way Max does (yet).

Sci-fi has always spawned brave new genre worlds but I’d like to suggest – only partially playfully – that speculative fiction, seen by some as the latest generic offshoot of science-fiction, may actually be the ‘superset’ rather than a(nother) fictional subset; a new genus which, in a Derridean process of ‘invagination’, is the boundary set that has – Tardis-like – come to form an internal pocket larger than the whole. Isn’t all literature essentially speculative? Wasn’t the first story a myth, a fantastic fairy tale, and don’t the latest science-fictional forms appear, as Brian Aldiss puts them, on that same continuum: ‘the search for a definition of man [sic] and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge’?

Whether spec-fic is the latest branch of science-fiction – achieved by splicing sci-fi with lit-fic – or the original root of all literature, nova concepts from popular genres have always (re)appeared in literary not-so-novel works. Unique mutations spring up in the margins of mainstream publishing, which is just where literary presses tend to find themselves at home, so we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s publishers like The Lifted Brow and Transit Lounge that have brought these two new titles into circulation.

There is another more specific heritage shared by From the Wreck and The Island Will Sink — and that is female-authored future fictions. Many dystopic works by women don’t focus on external conflict – rape, murder or cannibalism (though, weirdly, the latter appears in both these books) – as much as the interior landscape of catastrophe. The threat of forgetting. The hell of remembering. For these authors, the end is a foregone conclusion: the boat, the island, have already sunk … but what will happen next? Will we remain the same — or are we already changed?

Back in 1988 Bruce Sterling coined the term ‘slipstream’ for the then–new genre that he saw ‘doing the job’ of science-fiction. (A ‘genre’ that was not yet a ‘category’, according to his need to differentiate between a self-identifying, self-respecting association and something more cynical. Pity the poor bookseller who had to decide where to shelve such experimental titles.) While he didn’t expect anyone to take up the name, and I’m not saying we should now, his article is worth revisiting for the list of examples it ends with – which includes the famously non-genre-identifying Margaret Atwood. The quantity, as much as the quality, of the works he cites suggests science-fiction was not sick or dying at all but had abandoned its own planet to piggy-back off — for the most part — award-winning, bestselling literary fiction: ‘A contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality.’ Books that do exactly what I want; make readers feel very strange. Speculative fiction then, according to Sterling, is literary first, and speculative second.

It’s true that now our world itself is so strange contemporary speculative fictions like From the Wreck and The Island Will Sink seem less a literature of estrangement – to use Ursula Le Guin’s conception of science-fiction’s ‘characteristic gesture’ – and more a literature of (discomforting) recognition – as China Miéville described realist, prizewinning literary fiction. Despite being colloquially called ‘weird fiction’, I read and recognise books like these as a ‘real’ response to our current reality: strange, but true. I view elements of my world and am given a place from which to review it.

From The Wreck and The Island Will Sink, then, are not the latest sci-fi, with literary motifs. But nor are they simply lit-fic, with fantastic aspects. I wonder if they might work as exemplars of an Australian Anthropocene. While calling names (new or otherwise) never solves everything, it might help us see a newly emergent genre. Might help it be. Might help me – as a writer, and once-publisher – emulate and replicate it. What better way to engage with the effect we are having – on the environment, in the devastation of whole ecosystems, as well as the geological evidence we are laying down in the strata record itself – than by conjuring a possible past and calling up the far-too-near future?

Both these titles wear the vestments of genre. Their covers nod to readers of literary fiction and commercial sci-fi – but they each also wink to customers in the next aisle along. While Rawson’s atmospheric image of a girl, hair melding with rock, positions From the Wreck as a literary work, the blurb reveals the otherworldliness of her heroine – ‘a woman from another dimension’. Which would be a spoiler, of sorts, if this were a classic science-fiction genre tale. As it is, it’s more of a warning for non-genre readers. Doyle’s book, on the other hand, bares its science-fiction associations via the requisite blue image and smaller B format. But the slick design, clever type treatment and edgy white border of The Island Will Sink badge it as indie/experimental rather than mass-market.

Of the two works Doyle’s is closer to sci-fi’s heart, with its smart speculations, tight plotting, and complex building of a concretely imagined world – down to the detailed tech specs of self-driving cars and temperature-regulating rooms; there’s even a school project that charts history (including ours) as a ‘timeline of misconception’. The Island Will Sink  is an extremely clever work, even seeming to self-reflect on its own introduction of a giant baby sloth in naming the creature Hope. The meta-fictional topic too – of forgotten memories and false rememberings, emotions endlessly archived and compulsively reviewed and deleted – is a classic interest of literary fiction. ‘Immersive entertainment’, which constitutes a real facsimile of feeling, echoes the act of reading, and writing, in a perpetual mise en abyme of un-/real experience. So Doyle uses the techniques of two not contradictory but actually complementary genres to draw readers in to a Ballard-esque play of surface versus depth, literal versus virtual. In the end establishing that there is nothing to choose between them. No uncontaminated genres to choose between.

Ultimately The Island Will Sink and From the Wreck refuse to give us the answers we are after (having manipulated genre modes to generate those expectations in us): not only in terms of what happens next, which is common enough, but also with regards what has – or hasn’t – happened already. So far, so slipstream. But the authors’ shared interest in a climate, changed – in mutations and adaptions, as well as themes of disconnection and alienation; and a ‘collapse culture’ obsession – identify these visions further as works of the Anthropocene. Not literary, and certainly not realist, first and foremost.

Speculative titles that put our changing climate at the centre of their stories have been called ‘cli-fi’– though many authors resist that label. Mireille Juchau summed it up in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘I love novels of ideas, where the ideas take centre stage, but I felt here I wasn’t trying to convey one single message, one particular thing to get across, but rather involved myself in the complexity of these questions.’ Such has always been the case against categorisation. That it is less of a stage, more a cage.

James Bradley, another writer whose work has been classified as cli-fi, has argued in The Australian that ‘it’s probably not surprising our literary culture has become suffused with narratives about the end of the world, or that so many of them have an environmental element’, given the increasing incidence of flash floods, fires and drought. At once he claims the cli-fi subgenre as ‘literary’ and identifies the trend as a scarcely-fictional response to our newly emergent reality – which makes a case for Australia’s particularly close affiliation to or ownership of the genre. Bradley queries the usefulness of such a classification (and the same question could be asked of claiming these books for the Anthropocene): ‘to speak in terms of genres or categories is to mistake the wood for the trees’. To read From the Wreck and The Island Will Sink as examples of genre-crossings that have historic roots and futuristic shoots is, for me, to home in on the trees (and the spaces between them, which are sometimes narrow and sometimes wide) that make up a forest too pressing for me to see.

It’s one way of trying to comprehend the incomprehensible big picture: via un-comprehensive small details. A way, let’s say, of not so much politicising as galvanising our reading – as well as our writing. Where I began, then, and will return when I finish writing this; looking for like books and books I like. That, in a nutshell, is the utility of terms like cli-fi, speculative fiction, slipstream and the Anthropocene: to let bookstores know who they could be handselling to, and how; to show reviewers who might read a book and where they might write about it. Or, from the point of view of publishers, to convince one to stock it and the other to cover it. Changing the realist lit-fic landscape one planting at a time.

Afterword

The Island Will Sink was published late last year, by The Lifted Brow. From the Wreck was launched in March, by what was originally a poetry press but has since established itself as a literary publisher. I have some connection to all these parties: Transit Lounge published my first novel; The Lifted Brow has a residency at RMIT, in my building, where Briohny also teaches; and Jane and I met at a Victorian Writers Centre book group – where we read The Swan Book, which is as good an antecedent as any for an Australian Anthropocene aesthetic. When it comes to genre communities, the sci-fi/spec-fic one may be famously close – with readers who are writers, buyers who are also producers – but so is publishing, and the small press network is alive and thriving in Melbourne.