The Saturday Paper
Sean Rabin The Good Captain
The eponymous “good captain” of Sean Rabin’s second novel is Rena, previously known as Idu, Margit, Nina and then Karen. She has never lived on land; proximity to the stench of it makes her retch. People don’t thrill her either. The ocean, however, is as familiar and dear as a lover, and she reads everything from its multiform waves to its submarine topography like a book.
But it’s the second half of this century, 11 billion people are crowding the planet and the ocean is fast becoming a wasteland ruled by jellyfish and plastic. Overfishing threatens to kill it completely – unless Rena and the crew of the boat she pilots, Mama, can stop the trawlers. There’s no time left for legality or public relations, just torpedoes to blow the bastards out of the water, and a special mission involving a kidnapped former Australian prime minister referred to as “the cargo”.
The Good Captain belongs to the growing genre of climate fiction. Its pages pulse with righteous anger and urgency and demand the reader consider what is needed to save the planet. The futuristic technologies that power Mama – and her enemies – have roots in cyberpunk, steampunk and biomimetics. And yet, if Mama has organic elements such as nerves and a swim bladder, the characters of the international crew seem at times to be mechanistic assemblies of quirks and technical genius.
They use one another for consensual sexual satisfaction like cats use scratching posts. They mourn the death of one of their own but commit mass murder of fishermen with scarcely a twinge of conscience. “The cargo”, meanwhile, is a self-interested, venal, lecherous and foul human being and a climate criminal. Wink-wink references abound to “captain’s calls”, the gratuitous donning of hard hats and so on. Throw him overboard. Who cares? He’s just cardboard. And that’s a problem.
The Good Captain is a thriller that pivots on the question: what if politics as usual has failed and civil disobedience is not enough to save the planet? The swirls and surges of Rabin’s prodigiously inventive technical jargon and action-saturated narrative and the pure villainy of its villains obscure another pressing question. Does the survival of the planet really necessitate the extinction, if not of humans, of our humanity? If we lose our humanity, don’t we lose everything? Mama has submarine capabilities. It seems fair to wonder why The Good Captain couldn’t dive any deeper.
Transit Lounge, 368pp, $29.99
Ennis Ćehić has done something remarkable – in a book of 50 stories, only one of them reads like filler. Sadvertising feels complete, well rounded and carefully planned and structured.
The experience of reading this collection is like being completely immersed in a mind as it interrogates creativity, career and a person’s place in the world. It wanders off on delightful tangents – telling stories about related facts or drifting into the nightmare equivalent of daydreams. While the strength of individual works does wax and wane, the distance between the highs and lows are small – and the impact of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Ćehić moves between protagonists with ease. There’s the copywriter who creates the world’s greatest banner ad and an influencer who moonlights as her own PA. There’s an alternate reality Kendall Jenner navigating the fallout from her ill-advised Pepsi ad, and a woman who writes a bestseller during the many pointless meetings she is forced to attend. The people we see most are office workers – in particular those working in advertising companies. We watch them driven mad by office culture, coming to the realisation that their dreams have been shrunk and ambitions tamped down.
The stories bleed into one another thematically, but for the most part the plots remain discrete. Ćehić relishes the opportunity to experiment with structure and tenses, injecting the surreal into his stories to different degrees. He zooms in on the mundane and twists it, exposing the ridiculousness of so many of the day-to-day things we normally take in our stride. The unexpected turns at the end of some of the stories usually are highly effective but on occasion feel a bit too left-field. His use of future tense, peppered throughout the book, is one of the most striking techniques, placing both reader and book in a strange limbo almost outside time and reality.
This feeling is furthered in the three “Meta Ennis” stories used as Sadvertising’s scaffolding. Each one is very different but, as the titles suggest, include the collection’s author in some way. Across these three stories Ćehić probes the line between truth and fiction, using his own presence to lend his critique and insights extra depth.
Each story is succinct, with some just over a page long. They work like the way ads do – drawing you in with a (literally) bold first line, getting straight to the point, then offering a relatable idea or image or truth. Most make you walk away with a question – Is my job stifling my creativity? Is social media taking up too much space in my mind? Are the things I think are important actually deeply, profoundly, shallow? – while the others serve to colour in the world around them.
Sadvertising will make you laugh, it will make you pause – and maybe it will make you quit your job.
Vintage Australia, 304pp, $32.99