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Monday musings on Australian literature: Dystopian fiction

June 6, 2016

For some reason, I’m often drawn to dystopian fiction. In my younger days I read Nevil Shute’s On the beach (probably my first book of this ilk) and then, of course, George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s A brave new world, moving later on to books like Margaret Atwood’s A handmaid’s tale and Cormac McCarthy’s The road, to name a few. But when I look at this list, and think about my reading, I realise that very few are Australian. Perhaps we are indeed “the lucky country”! Hmmm …

There are, in fact, Australian dystopias. Nevil Shute’s novel is set in Australia, and my latest read (to be reviewed this week), Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things, is also. But, in researching this topic, I was surprised to discover that by far the greatest number of dystopian novels written in Australia seem to be Young Adult (YA) novels, and that they’ve really gained in popularity since the 1980s. John Marsden’s Tomorrow, when the war began series – some of which I read and enjoyed with my children – is an example. But there are many others, such as Isabelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series (loved by my daughter), Victor Kelleher’s Taronga, Ruth Park’s My sister Sif, and they keep coming apparently with increasing frequency. Says something surely about the current zeitgeist.

However, while YA fiction is popular and worth exploring, I want to focus here, because it’s what I read, on adult fiction. So, I did a bit more delving and came across a few books and articles, such as Roslyn Weaver’s book Apocalypse in Australian fiction and film: A critical study and Russell Smith’s article “The literary destruction of Canberra: Utopia, Apocalypse and the national Capital”. I was only able to scan the works I found but between them, they have come up with several “types” of Australian dystopias:

  • effect of white colonisation on indigenous people
  • futuristic dystopias, including post-nuclear and apocalyptic scenarios, technocratic stories, government collapses
  • ecological thrillers (including some cli-fi fiction, I’d add)
  • fear of invasion
  • fear of the outback

RawsonWrongTurnTransitFor those who just want a quick starter list, here are a few that I’ve read, know of or have come across in my research:

  • M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and tomorrow  (1947, a controversial novel in its time, set in the 24th century, and only published in full – as Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – in 1983)
  • Andrew McGahan’s Underground (2006, commentary on the “war on terror”)
  • Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013, my review)
  • Annabel Smith’s The Ark (2014, my review)
  • Andrew Sullivan’s A sunburnt country (2003, Sullivan was – still is? – an expert in Bushfire Dynamics at the CSIRO!)
  • George Turner’s The destiny makers (1993, about overpopulation, food shortages and economic collapse)
  • Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and light (2014, my review, includes a dystopian longform story in its central section)
  • Sam Watson’s The Kadaitcha sung (1990, Roslyn Weaver writes that “Watson has reworked the notion of a dead heart [of Australia] … by populating the land with the spirits of murdered Indigenous people and also presenting the landscape, and particularly Uluru, as the sacred setting of power and restoration”)
  • Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things (2015, review coming soon)

The two main characters in Steve Toltz’s Quicksand engaged in a lot of satirical repartee. One example I quoted in my review included the statement that:

‘You know how while we’re enjoying reading dystopian fiction, for half our population this society is dystopia?’

Toltz’s character is not talking about climate change, or terror attacks, or other apocalyptic scenarios. He’s talking about ordinary lives that are tough, lives that made the Sydney Morning Herald describe Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review) as a “domestic dystopia”. You don’t have to look hard, in other words, for dystopias!

At the 2013 Perth Writers Festival, there was a session (not that I was there) on “The Rise of the Apocalypse”. The question posed in the program was: “Is the recent increase in dystopian fiction due to our concern about what lies ahead with global warming and other environmental catastrophes or does it just make really good fiction?”

Do you read dystopian fiction, and if so, do you have favourites?

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51 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2016 11:53 pm

    Border Force, bequeathed us by Tony Abbott, and their black military uniforms, secret and arbitrary arrests under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’, the present is already so dystopian it hardly needs fiction.
    My favourite author in this vein is William Gibson – Mona Lisa Overdrive, Neuromancer, Idoru and so on. Other great authors, JG Ballard and Doris Lessing (Mara and Dann), might be categorized rather as Post-Apocalyptic (as might On the Beach). I’ve read too little Australian SF to comment intelligently, though I have to mention Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter series about slave-driven ‘wooden’ computers in post-climate change northern Victoria.

    • June 7, 2016 8:25 am

      Fascinating Bill. I’ve never heard anyone mention Sean McMullen before. I’d heard of him through personal contacts, and Googled him, but have never had anyone mention reading him, partly I suppose because he is fantasy & sci-fi, which are not my area.

      • June 7, 2016 8:56 am

        A friend/neighbour who worked with him brought McMullen’s books home as soon as they were published. I only have one (#2) on my shelves now but it is signed to me and teacher son from the author. The whole family loved and discussed those wonderful machines.

        • June 7, 2016 11:47 am

          Very nice, Bill. The machines certainly sound like a great “invention”.

  2. June 7, 2016 6:49 am

    Unlike you, I am not much of a fan of dystopian fiction–probably because I can get gloomy if I think about the state of the world.

    • June 7, 2016 8:38 am

      Trouble is, Guy. I’m fundamentally an optimist. Can’t help it, l think it’s in the genes! So, while I’m also a realist, I can take dystopias on board as warnings rather than forecasts! Does that make sense?

    • July 3, 2016 6:04 am

      I think that Max Barry qualifies as Dystopian Fiction, no? Especially Jennifer Government.
      And he’s Australian.

      • July 3, 2016 8:56 am

        Ah yes Emma. Thanks for this. I haven’t read Barry. In fact, it it hadn’t been for Guy doing a guest post here on him a feu years ago, I suspect I still wouldn’t know of him. For some reason, he has a very low profile here. (After Guy I did buy one of his books for my husband, but haven’t read it myself.)

  3. ablay1 permalink
    June 7, 2016 7:02 am

    I’m with Guy – enough to deal with reality. But I came across a fascinating article on why we read speculative fiction:
    https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/05/31/neil-gaiman-the-view-from-the-cheap-seats-bradbury/?mc_cid=4c052b899a&mc_eid=b606bb71d9

    • June 7, 2016 8:41 am

      Oh, I’ll read that Anna, thanks. I’ve just replied to Guy re where I see myself re dystopias. I guess I’d call myself a positive realist!

    • June 7, 2016 9:11 am

      Great article! Well worth the time it takes to read it WG. “Fiction is a lie that tells us true things over and over.”

      • June 7, 2016 12:28 pm

        Yes, thanks Anna. I of course love the quote Bill has chosen – it’s a central tenet of mine. But I also love Ursula Le Guin’s opening paragraph. Exactly what dystopian fiction is about, I’d say.

  4. June 7, 2016 8:20 am

    Such an intriguing topic for your Monday Musing. I really enjoy the occasional dystopian read- either adult or YA. I too loved On the Beach and Tomorrow, When the War Began (although I’ve only read the first one, and not the series, I’m not so good with series reading). I really enjoyed The Natural Way of Things and will be interested to read your thoughts. I’ve read some YA dystopia, it really did kick off recently after The Hunger Games, and perhaps there is a bit too much…

    • June 7, 2016 8:48 am

      Thanks Louise. I’m not much into series either, but I did manage 3 of the Tomorrow books, and I made it halfway through the third Harry Potter. Hunger Games, which I haven’t read or seen (am I the only one?) has certainly had an impact though I think the dystopian wave had well and truly started rolling by the time it came around? I suspect you and I have a fairly similar, generally speaking, world view?

  5. June 7, 2016 9:57 am

    One of the earliest distopian Australian novels is William Lane’s White or Yellow: The Race War of 1908
    http://www.lulu.com/au/en/shop/william-lane/white-or-yellow-the-race-war-of-1908-ad/paperback/product-16341043.html
    The title tells you everything you need to know about it!

    I think the general problem with distopian fiction is that it tends to be so polemical, without the saving grace of being cheerfully Utopian. I could feel the power of Charlotte Wood’s writing, but for that very reason couldn’t bear reading it.

    • June 7, 2016 11:51 am

      Welcome learnearnandreturn (what a blog name). I haven’t read that – it doesn’t sound like a novel from the title, does it! But I have read William Lane’s Workingman’s Paradise which I enjoyed. And nearly mentioned it as on the edge of my topic.

      That’s an interesting point about dystopian fiction being polemical. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I don’t mind polemical writing if it’s good – great characters, good language, interesting ideas. I’m an optimist at heart, perhaps that’s why I don’t need my reading to be “cheerfully Utopian”!

  6. Meg permalink
    June 7, 2016 10:50 am

    I am a fan of dystopian novels, but I don’t generally look out for them. I read them occassionally and probably read more Young Adult ones because of my grandsons. I loved On the Beach, George Orwell novels, and Ray Bradbury novels. I liked The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood but disliked her Oryk and Crake, and The Yar of the Flood. I loved Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro; and of course The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I did not like The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood.

    • June 7, 2016 11:54 am

      That’s about me too Meg. I don’t seek them out but I embrace rather than shy away from them when I they cross my path. I loved Handmaid’s tale, but while I have Oryx and Crake and Year of the flood on my pile, I somehow don’t feel in a hurry to read them. I like Never let me go – great set up – but it’s not my favourite Ishiguro. Loved The road – so beautiful (despite the devastation).

      As for The natural way of things – well, that’s my next review. Hopefully tomorrow!

  7. June 7, 2016 1:14 pm

    Overnewtyn!! Yeah!!

  8. June 7, 2016 1:36 pm

    I don’t hunt out dystopian fiction but loved The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, James Bradley’s Clade (which I think fits to this category) and Jane Rawson’s Wrong Turn, very much. Am reading new Australian release Watershed by Jane Abbott (disclosure: she’s a good friend) and it’s dystopian and violent and grim, and certainly adds to the local body of work. Am planning to catch up on all the Atwoods that I haven’t read, so it’s not about avoiding or not being interested in the genre, it’s just prioritising I suppose, like everyone else.

    • June 7, 2016 5:05 pm

      Another one Jenny. I agree as you’ve probably realised by now re the Atwood, McCarthy, and Rawson. I’ve heard a lot about Clade and it intrigues me. Haven’t heard of Watershed. Just prioritising is it, I agree. So MANY books …

      • June 11, 2016 7:48 pm

        Clade was a book that I didn’t hugely love when I read it early last year, but it has grown on me a lot since then. A strange experience, to have it grow in my esteem over more than a year like that, on one reading. I found my mind kept returning to it. Would be interesting to re-read I think.

        • June 11, 2016 8:15 pm

          I’ve had books do that Jenny … It is strange, I agree, how some books just niggle at you.

  9. ian darling permalink
    June 7, 2016 6:52 pm

    It is utterly understandable how popular dystopian fiction is particularly with young people and that is a great quote from Steve Tolz. It used to be a talking point about which dystopian novel offered a more ghastly future: 1984 or Brave New World. A mixture of both seems to be convincing with a whole new set of nasties for us to have nightmares about!

    • June 7, 2016 10:12 pm

      I’ve never heard those discussions Ian – perhaps because I read them at quite different times. In fact I didn’t read 1984 until 1984! Thought if I was going to do it I’d better do it then!

      It’s interesting though to think about how the “nasties” are changing, or being added to – with all the climate change scenarios appearing now.

  10. June 8, 2016 5:58 am

    Dystopian fiction makes me feel nauseated. Unfortunately, it keeps coming to me — the choice in book clubs, and so forth.

    • June 8, 2016 7:51 am

      Oh dear, GrabTheLapels. That’s a bit sad if you can’t avoid books you don’t want to read. Though I suspect that does happen in reading groups. I think it happens to some people in ours but while there are books I don’t want to read, they are rarely the sort we choose, so I’m pretty safe.

  11. June 8, 2016 8:26 am

    I grew up on dystopian fiction (the 1980s Cold War/threat of nuclear Armageddon era) but it was mainly British or American, aside from On the Beach. I quite like reading them now, if only because they remind me of the thrill I used to get as a teenager reading these kind of doom laden books (I’m a pessimist by nature). Strangely, I don’t find them depressing though; it’s more a case of thank god things in the real world aren’t quite as bad as the fictional.

    Australian dystopian books I’ve read in recent years include Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, Steven Amsterdam’s Things we Didn’t See Coming, and Honey Brown’s Red Queen.

    • June 8, 2016 9:46 am

      Thanks for adding Amsterdam and Brown, Kimbofo. I hadn’t seen them in my research. You must be an optimist like me!

  12. June 8, 2016 3:17 pm

    Like many, I too love dystopian novels. My favourite has to be “Mockingbird” by Walter Tevis, Other dystopian novels not mentioned above are “WE” by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which was a major influence for 1984, “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi, “Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban and “The Children of Men” by PD James. I could go on and include just about every Science Fiction novel I’ve read.

    • June 8, 2016 5:52 pm

      Haha, Anne, I bet you could! I saw a mention of Windup girl in one of the lists I cam across. I hadn’t heard of it – or him – at all. And not being an aficionado I didn’t know about WE either and its relationship to 1984. Thanks. James’ The children of men has intrigued me since I first heard of it. One day, perhaps.

  13. June 8, 2016 7:56 pm

    Not usually a fan of dystopian novels but the Mockingjay trilogy was a very enjoyable exception to that rule. Jane Abbott’s Watershed is also on my bedside table (I’ve not met Jane but she was a Hardcopier from the year before me so I’ll read it in a spirit of solidarity!) Love your Monday Musings – thanks.

    • June 8, 2016 10:28 pm

      Thanks Michelle. I was just telling my friends today about you and Hard Copy, and what fun it was to meet. I totally understand the solidarity point, and hopefully it will be a good dystopian book too!

  14. June 9, 2016 5:34 am

    I do enjoy a good dystopian novel! 1984, Handmaid’s Tale, Year of the Flood trilogy, Neuromancer by William Gibson is rather dystopian, The Water Knife by Bacagalupi, Never Let Me Go, The Stand, Station Eleven. Currently I am reading The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson that takes place in San Onofre California a number of years after the US was destroyed by neutron bombs. It’s good stuff! I read a book with a zombie apocalypse once but it was pretty gruesome and I have forgotten the title in an attempt to forget I ever read it to begin with.

    • June 9, 2016 8:28 am

      Ha ha, Stefanie. Perhaps you should try to remember it to make sure you don’t read it again! I knew you’d appreciate this post and would add suggestions. Thanks.

  15. June 9, 2016 2:22 pm

    Good to see Clade and Things we didn’t see coming getting a mention in the comments. I’d add Alice Robinson’s Anchor Point (though it’s such a close future maybe it doesn’t count as dystopia any more), Meg Mundell’s Black Glass, Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle and George Turner’s The Sea & Summer. Oh, and The Swan Book, of course! And probably a million more…

  16. June 9, 2016 2:28 pm

    The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn and A Small Free Kiss in the Dark by Glenda Millard are good Australia dystopian novels for young adults (am currently studying YA).

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