Dystopian times at the end of the world
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.