The doctorBertram Wainer inspired a young Tim Flannery to take on the establishment
In the not-too-distant future of Briohny Doyle’s debut novel, the first published under the auspices of Melbourne-based literary magazine The Lifted Brow, Pitcairn Island is on the verge of collapsing beneath the ocean. We know it’s the future because self-driving, methane-fuelled cars rule the roads and Pow-Pow the Power Saving Panda, an avatar of the EcoLaw, monitors every drop of water used, and we know it’s not too distant because the texture of daily life feels all too familiar to a reader in the panicky, media-saturated present.
Max Galleon, our shifty narrator for most of the book, watches the island’s EcoEvent 24-hour live feed along with his family: efficient daughter Lilly, mopey son Jonas, enigmatic wife Eloise. Like everyone else, they are hooked on the spectacle of disaster. Max makes a living from it, in fact: he is the world’s foremost director of immersive virtual-reality catastrophe blockbusters.
Here he is at work:
I’m sitting in my haptic chair, sandwiched between two images, two lives. On one side of my body, the archive shows a real-time recording like a mirror, exposing me in wretched full-colour. On the other, I compose and recast. I steal people’s memories and inhabit them as my own. I am the camera and the subject. This is total visibility. Total war.
Max is also having a midlife crisis, of sorts. He has outsourced his memories to an external archive that he edits incessantly, his marriage is in trouble, he barely knows his kids, and he worries he’s a sellout. When a mysterious – yet alluring, naturally – doctor proposes that Max undergo an experimental mind-meld to help his estranged brother, who has turned up in a coma, Max leaps at the chance and plot ensues.
Doyle’s future looks back to the SF avant-gardists of the 1960s and ’70s: ecological crisis and doom-lust from JG Ballard, games with memory and reality from Philip K Dick, a totemic island from John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. If there is a central concern it’s what Fredric Jameson has called “reduction to the body”: Max and his audiences want to become untethered from history, to escape an intolerable present on the crest of a perpetually surging now. One sympathises.
And if a colour-by-numbers sci-fi trope turns up, if a plot gear grinds occasionally, not to worry. The 1970s novel that The Island Will Sink is perhaps most reminiscent of – in its baffled mood and its grasping at big, slippery ideas – is Ratner’s Star, an oddball mathsy book that disintegrates in its second half but augured better things from its author, Don DeLillo. So keep an eye on Briohny Doyle.
The Nation Reviewed
Society The doctor
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