The word ‘dyschronia’ means a perceptual disorder: confusion about the concept of time. It also conveniently sounds like ‘dystopia’. It’s an appropriate fit for Jennifer Mills’ third novel, Dyschronia (Picador), which follows the fate of an isolated Australian country town called Clapstone. It is a dystopian future; the town is all but abandoned by its residents following the closing down of the town’s main employer – and polluter – Apsco Asphalt. While there is nothing new in the idea of a small Australian town collapsing in the wake of a manufacturing shutdown, something different is happening in Clapstone. One morning, the sea inexplicably retreats: ‘The light isn’t shimmering off the sea like it’s supposed to. The light is bouncing off hard, still sand, and something else, many things, slick and lumpish things.’
Sam, the novel’s main protagonist, suffers debilitating migraines that leave her crippled with pain, confined to her bedroom and shut away from light and noise until she recovers. Her headaches are accompanied by visions of Clapstone’s future; portents of unimaginable and terrible events. Sam is bewildered as past, present and future blur and time seems to bend: ‘As if nothing ever passed into history, as if everything was only another layer of now, sticking over and over itself like old wallpaper. The past kept showing through.’ She slips into what she describes as ‘double-time’, her visions of the future colliding with reality, scattering memory into a blinding flash of deja vu.
‘Time’s like a road, see?… And now’s like a car. It goes straight along in one direction. You can’t jump around on it willy-nilly’.
Sam’s mother, Ivy, is sceptical about her daughter’s prophecies; she suspects they are simply dreams or hallucinations, or otherwise symptoms of a medical condition: ‘Time’s like a road, see?… And now’s like a car. It goes straight along in one direction. You can’t jump around on it willy-nilly.’ Ivy’s search for a medical explanation of her daughter’s mind tricks fails, as does her bid to keep Sam’s affliction secret from their neighbours. Once the word is out, Sam is at first shunned as a freak, a witch – but is later embraced when it seems her ‘gift’ might be special, might be harnessed to turn around Clapstone’s fortunes. Mills skillfully explores conflict, trust and dashed hopes in this small town incubator, ‘always growing towards its own decay’, themes explored in her earlier novels, Gone (2011) and The Diamond Anchor (2009) as well as some of her short stories. Mills lives in urban South Australia, having grown up in Sydney, and is an acute observer of small town life.
While Clapstone has endured failed farming attempts, droughts and floods, a fortuneless gold rush, and the ebb and flow of an ephemeral river called Luck (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), the sea’s abandonment is the final insult; it leaves the former coastal town as a ‘shell crumbling at the edge of a dry plain’. Mills’ novel could easily have used the alternate title of solastalgia, for its lament of a town ruined by an apocalyptic climate change event.
Clapstone, we learn, is but a microcosm of a world wracked by widespread climate change. All the birds are gone; cuttlefish are disappearing from the ocean; people are being displaced from other towns. The price of oil is rising and the Arctic melting. Our view of these wider ecological and societal shifts is only ever peripheral, learnt through rumour and the second-hand accounts of the occasional visitor passing through town – a technique that echoes other apocalyptic speculative fiction such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God.
While the world burns, we languish in our existential dissonance. How do we see what we can’t imagine? How do we come to terms with such immense change?
This myopic view is well suited to exploring climate change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, as it mirrors our own chronic short-sightedness and self-interest when it comes to imagining the planet’s ecological future. In the world around us right now, cities like Cape Town are running out of drinking water, the Larsen C ice shelf is collapsing in Antarctica and the biomass of the world’s bugs are disappearing at a catastrophic rate. While the world burns, we languish in our existential dissonance. When the sea disappears from Clapstone, the townsfolk struggle to comprehend it: ‘How do we see what we can’t imagine?’ they ask. How do we come to terms with such immense change?
Indian novelist, Amitav Ghosh calls this ‘the great derangement’: our willful ignorance and inability to grasp the future. What little public policy conversation we have about climate change continues to be partisan. Mills and other Australian writers such as James Bradley, Jane Rawson, Sally Abbott and Mireille Juchau are nudging climate change out of the realms of science fiction and into the literary mainstream.
In his Sydney Review of Books essay Writing on the Precipice, James Bradley explains the difficulty of squeezing climate change into the container of a novel. Climate change has a global economic and historical context, while novels tend to be articulated through an experience ‘for individuals and individual landscapes.’ This tension is exacerbated because narrative drive in a novel works most effectively through catastrophic events, while much of climate change is incremental. As the residents of Clapstone reflect: ‘It’s surprising how fast you get used to things’.
Mills is a conjurer of evocative language and fantastic imagery…some sections of the novel looping time scales to create surreal dreamscapes.
Mills is a conjurer of evocative language and fantastic imagery with a unique and poetic writing style, some sections of the novel looping time scales to create surreal dreamscapes. The novel’s cover features a cuttlefish and the book is laden, perhaps a little too liberally, with marine metaphors and imagery (continuing what seems to be a fascination among Australian women speculative fiction writers for marine invertebrates – see Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace and Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck). This floating other-worldliness is juxtaposed with sections of realism and a drift into satire in the novel’s second half, when Clapstone’s residents are subject to a commercial relationship with a mysterious corporation. There is a jarring stylistic gear shift that is dislocating, a temporal slipperiness that mimics Sam’s dyschronia, disorienting the reader. A lighter touch here would have made this more effective and less confusing to follow.
The perspective in Mills’ novel shifts between Sam’s third person point of view and the first person plural ‘we’ of the town’s residents. This gives the novel an, at times, disjointed experience akin to watching a super-8 film flicker in and out of focus, skipping through grainy frames, and setting up an emotional distance from the reader that undermines an otherwise inventive narrative trajectory.
While Mills’ novel is a little shaky on execution, is it ambitious and deserving of a wide audience. Perhaps her biggest achievement is to focus the lens on Clapstone to highlight the myopic way we view climate change. Clapstone is not futuristic; it is strangely familiar, eerily like any small Australian country town. We recognise ourselves in its residents. Perhaps as Sam is an oracle for Clapstone’s future, writers like Mills and her contemporaries are our soothsayers, painting a bleak picture of an ecological, social and economic future that we are blind to, while it unfolds right before our eyes.