Dystopian times at the end of the world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­orge Wil­liams,

Aus­tralia is an ex­cel­lent place to set the apoca­lypse. The Mad Max films and books such as Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach are well­known ex­am­ples.

Two lo­cal writ­ers, James Bradley and Daniel Find­lay, have joined this suc­cess­ful cam­paign to boost our rep­u­ta­tion as a lo­cale for end-of-the­world spec­u­la­tive fic­tion.

In Bradley’s The Silent In­va­sion all liv­ing mat­ter is un­der as­sault from a mys­te­ri­ous alien in­fes­ta­tion. The en­emy is un­known and in­vis­i­ble, and at­tacks with­out warn­ing by al­ter­ing DNA. Once af­fected, people and an­i­mals man­i­fest sub­cu­ta­neous phos­pho­res­cent spores that slowly trans­form the host into a grotesque new form.

The in­va­sion from the north has been halted in Queens­land, caus­ing so­cial dis­lo­ca­tion and tides of refugees to pour south. There is lit­tle sense the bat­tle can be won. It seems only a mat­ter of time be­fore hu­man­ity faces its demise. Alien spores are in­fect­ing the wa­ter, and people are be­gin­ning to change long dis­tances from the front­line.

The re­sult is a ter­ri­fied and au­thor­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety. Quar­an­tine in­spec­tors pa­trol the streets, whisk­ing off the in­fected to an un­known fate.

Bradley is a well-known writer of lit­er­ary nov­els such as The Res­ur­rec­tion­ist and most re­cently Clade. This book, pitched at the young adult mar­ket as the first in­stal­ment of a tril­ogy, takes hold and does not let go.

The story be­gins in Bradley’s home town, Adelaide. Callie, 16, is grief-stricken and hol­lowed out by the loss of her fa­ther many years be­fore. At odds with her step­mother, she forms a deep at­tach­ment with her young sis­ter Gra­cie.

When Gra­cie be­gins to change, they flee north in the hope of reach­ing safety in the Zone, a place that lies be­yond the reach of the quar­an­tine in­spec­tors.

This is a straight­for­ward, well-ex­e­cuted story with en­gag­ing char­ac­ters and a strong premise. There are ex­cit­ing pur­suit scenes and an ever present sense of threat. I rec­om­mend it highly and think read­ers will be keen for the next book.

Year of the Or­phan also imag­ines a dystopian fu­ture, and a deeply bleak one at that. Find­lay’s de­but work is harsh and un­remit­ting in ex­plor­ing a world that is rem­i­nis­cent of the one in­hab­ited by Mad Max. Aus­tralia is a place of dust and deserts, where wa­ter is a prized com­mod­ity. Scav­engers eke out a mis­er­able ex­is­tence by scour­ing the rem­nants of a past civil­i­sa­tion.

This post-apoc­a­lyp­tic en­vi­ron­ment is evoked through a strik­ing use of lan­guage. The writ­ing is raw, as are the char­ac­ters and set­ting. This style is there in the open­ing words: ‘‘There were a heat. Air hot­ter’n blud. Baked her skin as she moved. Dint carry much. Evry­thin she had weighed against how far itd have to go.’’

The story fo­cuses on an or­phan girl who flees across the desert from a mys­te­ri­ous stranger known as the Reck­oner. The or­phan has had a hard life, hav­ing lost her fam­ily and be­ing sold as young child. She is a strong and re­silient char­ac­ter who bears se­crets of the past that will de­ter­mine the fate of her com­mu­nity.

Year of the Or­phan is an orig­i­nal, strik­ing story of a dev­as­tated Aus­tralia. There is no doubt­ing the qual­ity of the work or the crafts­man­ship and am­bi­tion of the au­thor.

It’s a novel, how­ever, that may di­vide read­ers. Some will find them­selves im­me­di­ately im­mersed in Find­lay’s cre­ation. For others, my­self in­cluded, the book is not easy to en­joy. The gritty, spare lan­guage is hard go­ing and at times off­putting. The ma­te­rial is of­ten dense, with para­graphs some­times run­ning to three or more pages.

Rather than this be­ing a fast-paced tale, I found my­self hav­ing to take a step back to de­code the lan­guage and reread ma­te­rial. There’s a con­trast with the sim­pler and di­rect sto­ry­telling of the The Silent In­va­sion, but then this is a novel for adults. Fin­lay’s world is per­haps too au­then­tic in pre­sent­ing a vivid pic­ture of the fu­ture, in­clud­ing its thick di­alect, that can make it a bit in­ac­ces­si­ble.

dean of law at the Univer­sity of NSW, is a devo­tee of sci­ence fic­tion and fan­tasy writ­ing.

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