Former attorney-general Christian Porter has once again sought to have his side of the story prioritised, with a Federal Court judge agreeing to his lawyer’s demands that sections of the ABC’s defence against his defamation proceedings be kept confidential until a later hearing can determine whether they should be struck out altogether.

Vice grip: ‘The Virtues’
Shane Meadows’ astonishing series stems from a late reckoning with his own childhood abuse

I think I’ve now seen the screen’s greatest monster. It’s not Ridley Scott’s Alien, or any of Cronenberg’s grotesqueries. It’s not King Kong or Godzilla. It’s the large bottle of cider that Stephen Graham’s Joe anxiously holds on a park bench in Shane Meadows’ drama The Virtues.

The scene occurs at the end of the first episode, and is as powerful as it is for what’s gone before: Joe’s strained, laconic acceptance of his ex-partner and young son’s imminent move to Australia; his subsequent fall from the wagon; his waking in a state of abasement and shame.

The episode’s unsentimental realism is driven by Graham’s astonishing performance, so convincing in its embodiment of trauma that I’ve wondered the psychic cost to the actor. Perhaps most astonishing is the episode’s second act, when Joe arrives alone at a pub, but quickly ingratiates himself with strangers with drinks he can’t afford. Joe’s avuncular charm is desperate and volatile, and he must know that the relationships it breeds are for one night only – which is fine, because it’s oblivion he seeks, not intimacy. With fleeting friends, he sings, sculls and snorts lines in the toilet, before he’s shepherded, staggering, from the boozer.  

Later he wakes on his flat’s floor, bloodied and covered in vomit, having missed a scheduled call with his son in the airport departure lounge. We suspect that, despite Joe’s obvious tenderness towards his son, this is just the latest in many broken promises. When he finally does take his son’s call, he explains that he’s been in hospital after a fall. Meadows understands the cascading shames of addiction – the shame of the behaviour, then the shame of the lies enlisted to conceal it.

If little, plot-wise, happens in episode one – there’s a quiet dinner, a dramatic bender, a ferry ticket bought – then much is suggested: that Joe’s relationship has broken beneath the weight of his drinking and fickleness; and grainy flashbacks, which serve less as explication for the viewer and more as a representation of the splinters of intrusive memory, suggest a history of sexual abuse.

And so, the park bench and the cider. Savagely caught between his desire for the bottle and his shame, Joe’s mere twisting of the cap is dramatically weighted, transgressive and filthy. He hesitates. He looks over at a nearby father pushing his daughter on a swing – and his self-loathing is magnified in their image.

This profound reckoning – between oblivion and recovery, between surrender and resistance – happens invisibly even to those just metres away. A biblical concentration of suffering writhes, anonymously, on a park bench in Sheffield.


The Virtues is some of the best television I’ve ever seen, and it derived from its director’s late reckoning with his own childhood abuse. Assaulted by teenage strangers during a bizarrely stressful period – Meadows’ father had just been wrongly accused of murder – he successfully repressed the incident. But every five years or so, throughout adulthood, he experienced acute periods of depression and anxiety attacks.

In 2017, he was diagnosed with PTSD and underwent Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy. It painfully clarified memories – Meadows “stormed out” of early sessions – before he could own them and the feelings they generated. “[The show] was a chance for me to create a safe space, to face my abuser,” he told The Guardian in 2019. “All I wanted was to be able to sit down with this guy, via Stephen Graham. I’ve always been honest about where my stories come from, how personal they are. It would obviously have been easier for me not to talk about this one, but I’m not making an exception. I’m not scared or ashamed any more. Plenty of people have been through far worse and they’ve told their stories. What happened to me is the reason the series exists.”

The Virtues is just four episodes long, and for the first three you don’t much “see” the writing – the story is slow, natural and the dialogue semi-improvised. By the final episode, though, a symmetry emerges between Joe and another character’s storyline. You can “see” the plotting. A fine line exists between elegance and artfulness, but so poignantly and patiently observed are the characters that my faith survived the neat, but unsubtle structuring – and the parallel arcs that emerge from it are overwhelmingly dramatic.

The self-consciously brilliant stylist Martin Amis once said that: “An awful lot of modern writing seems to me to be a depressed use of language. Once, I called it ‘vow-of-poverty prose.’ No, give me the king in his countinghouse. Give me Updike.”

I watched The Virtues not long after I had finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent novel Klara and the Sun, told from the perspective of a domestic robot – an Artificial Friend – on whom artificial intelligence has bestowed awesome powers of observation, but whose grasp of the pained contradictions of human motivation remain limited, though perhaps no more than those observed.

Ishiguro is unusual in being a first-class author who writes almost exclusively in first person, and Klara and the Sun resembles his most famous book, The Remains of the Day, for the touching unreliability of the narration.

And its plainness. In writing from the perspective of the naive, repressed and guilty, Ishiguro waives the bright and lavish expression so beloved by Amis – and finds something much deeper.

Similarly, Meadows has created something uncommonly touching by his restraint. In The Virtues, there are depths to inarticulacy – and to the things never said.  

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

Read on

Cover image of ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Body language: ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Echoing folktales and fables, Krissy Kneen’s memoir contemplates the body’s visceral knowledge of inherited trauma

Cartoon image of man standing on chess board

Reality is irreversible

The systems game and the need for global regime change

Image of Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol in Made for Love

Can’t get you out of my head: ‘Made for Love’

Leading April’s streaming highlights is a subversive black comedy that takes coercive control to its digital extreme

Cover image of Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby

The powerlessness of one: ‘Gunk Baby’

Jamie Marina Lau’s dreamlike second novel explores what, if anything, the individual can do to tackle structural issues


Where has the government’s walk-back of its confounding travel ban got to? Here is what we know, following today’s collection of contradictory, blame-shifting statements. Repatriation flights won’t resume before May 15, but the chances of them returning after that date are “looking good”, and in the meantime there is capacity for medevacs, in the case of emergencies.

A legal challenge to the federal government’s India travel ban has been filed in the Federal Court by Marque Lawyers, with an urgent application quickly heard and expedited this afternoon. According to reports, the case – Gary Newman v.

Body language: ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’
Echoing folktales and fables, Krissy Kneen’s memoir contemplates the body’s visceral knowledge of inherited trauma

In her 2009 memoir Affection, Krissy Kneen recounted her cloistered upbringing, first in Blacktown, New South Wales, then in Bororen, Queensland, where her family ran a tourist attraction called Dragonhall. As a child, she experienced a deeply sensuous inner life marked by an intense sexual precocity. As an adult, she retains a predilection for crushes on strangers: there is her bookshop colleague Christopher and then his friend, Paul. When Kneen unexpectedly spends an evening exchanging messages with Paul via Facebook, she knows what is coming: “[a]lready, right up front, he feels like family to me.”

Kneen’s second memoir, The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen, traces the lineage of this desire for kinship and belonging. “I know I am compensating”, she writes, “for the emptiness I feel when I am with my own maternal family.” Rather than imparting a firm sense of identity, the extreme closeness of the household in which Kneen was raised – she lived with her mother, aunt, sister and grandparents – has engendered a sense of amputation. Dominating all their lives is her formidable grandmother, who “ensured we had no friends, no community, no other family. All we had was her.” She is known to them as Lotty but was born as Dragica in territory now belonging to Slovenia.

After Lotty passes away, Kneen finally feels at liberty to examine the questions that have pulsed away in her mind for a lifetime. Contemplating her family tree at the outset of this journey, she is reminded that “all the tangling branches leading away from me are bare and fruitless and they stretch into a mysteriously empty past”. While attempting to bring her questions to a resolution, Kneen lays her grandmother’s ashes to rest. The first of the titular burials takes place at her family’s home in Bororen; the second in the Slovenian town of Miren; and the third in Alexandria, Egypt, where Lotty lived among the Aleksandrinke, a community centring on generations of Slovenian women from the Goriška region who, from the 1860s to the 1950s, found employment as nannies and domestic workers to wealthy Europeans in Egypt.

Most families tell myths about themselves, but for Kneen the sense of the fabular in her ancestry is particularly acute. To her child’s eye, her family home resembled Baba Yaga’s house: “[a] house with chicken’s feet surrounded by impenetrable woods”. Thanks to her grandmother, her imagination is populated by figures from Central European folklore, including the Krivopete, with their backward-facing feet and their habit of telling secrets minus the crucial facts. Kneen weaves these elemental creatures into her narrative, and this touch of magic renders her own journey as a kind of fable.

While Kneen catches glimpses of traumas experienced by her grandmother and great-grandmother, she has ultimately been left with only the barest of reference points. “I know there must have been horrors in my grandmother’s history to make her so aggressively frightened of the world”, she acknowledges, “but she never told us the true stories.” Like the Krivopete, Lotty’s telling of fairytales was punctuated by deep, echoing silences, which perpetuated lingering mysteries. Kneen ponders her grandfather’s olive skin, which belies his possession of a British passport. And what of her grandmother’s insistence that the witchcraft that runs through the family skips a generation, or her memories of Lotty attempting to draw away the pain of her migraines in childhood?

Kneen’s journey is filled with the kinds of serendipitous meetings and unlikely coincidences that often prevail in family history research, and she displays an uncanny ability to sniff out kin. After befriending her colleague James in Brisbane, Kneen is swiftly adopted by his family. As her embeddedness in their lives continues, she slowly realises that they are, in all likelihood, blood relatives; James’s family is from a town close to where her grandmother was born. Further chance encounters unfurl as her research progresses: a long-lost cousin contacts her on Facebook, and an Australian literary critic who happens to be living in Egypt emails Kneen about one of her novels, which sparks a new friendship and spurs Kneen’s trip to Alexandria. 

Rubbing up against her research odyssey is modern science. But in Kneen’s account, science and magic are twinned, and she steers the narrative away from the reductive trap of biological determinism. While Kneen considers herself a deeply scientific person, she has the distinct feeling that her grandmother – and her grandmother’s traumatic experiences – live on in her own body. “My grandmother shifts in my gut. She feels large and muscular, coiled up and around herself … The moment she senses me flexing my own will, questioning things, bucking against the rhythm, she flexes her one long muscle and sinks her teeth into my intestines.”

Kneen understands that science is now attempting to account for this kind of visceral knowledge through the emerging field of epigenetics, and the potential of a concrete, biological explanation for some of her struggles is alluring. Reflecting on her decades-long battle with her weight, Kneen writes: “Perhaps if I had some scientific answer, an understanding of the genetic switch that flicked on in my body when I was still a dream inside a dream inside my grandmother’s starving body, then I would learn to accept the body I am now in.” Ultimately, however, this piece of the cosmic jigsaw remains elusive. Travelling to Slovenia does not alleviate her feeling of being a “square peg”, and a DNA test, which Kneen takes to see if she has Jewish heritage, raises more questions than answers. To her credit, Kneen never loses sight of the role stories play in shaping human consciousness; it is ultimately her grandmother’s telling of them, with their concomitant silences, that has made her who she is.

Traditionally, fairytales ended darkly, with their (mostly female) protagonists paying a price for having their wishes granted. Kneen is aware that investigating her family history may be a double-edged sword. She knows that the results of the DNA test will “chain me to a family that I would have to accept as my own”. But it is hard not to feel that Kneen has paid a price for most of her life, haunted as she is by a hollow feeling, which at times she attributes to a “creeping horror that fills the space left by secrets”. Kneen is able, however, to live with her family’s legacy of trauma by embracing the secrets of her body, its intuition and its pleasures. Following her grandmother’s recipes, she finds a satiation that exists in tension with her abiding sense of emptiness. She rediscovers the ful medames (an Egyptian dish based on fava beans) that her grandmother cooked for her during childhood. There is alchemy in cooking, in its ability to conjure the happier memories from childhood, and in families nourishing their members for generations; it allows Kneen to salvage what she can of her family’s past. It is fuel for her and her adopted family members, as she bravely treads “a fragile path towards who I really am”.

Amy Walters

Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog The Armchair Critic, and her reviews have appeared in Right Now, Kill Your Darlings and Meanjin.

@CouchCritic18

Read on

Still from Shane Meadows’ ‘The Virtues’

Vice grip: ‘The Virtues’

Shane Meadows’ astonishing series stems from a late reckoning with his own childhood abuse

Cartoon image of man standing on chess board

Reality is irreversible

The systems game and the need for global regime change

Image of Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol in Made for Love

Can’t get you out of my head: ‘Made for Love’

Leading April’s streaming highlights is a subversive black comedy that takes coercive control to its digital extreme

Cover image of Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby

The powerlessness of one: ‘Gunk Baby’

Jamie Marina Lau’s dreamlike second novel explores what, if anything, the individual can do to tackle structural issues


The Morrison government has today backed further away from its India travel ban penalties amid mounting backlash, while nonetheless leaving them in place. It’s an awkward semi-backflip that leaves the government’s position hard to read. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has insisted that it is “highly unlikely” anyone will be prosecuted under the sanctions, claiming that the Biosecurity Act penalties – which the health minister made a point of flagging in his late-night press release – are nothing new, and that no one has yet been prosecuted under them.

Reality is irreversible
The systems game and the need for global regime change

Have you heard the one about the original creator of the game of chess, this wily mathematician who submits his invention to the ruler of the country? Asked by the delighted queen what he wants by way of reward, the mathematician requests to be paid in gold. He proposes the queen place a single coin on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second square, four on the next, eight on the one after that, doubling the number of coins on each successive square up to the sixty-fourth.

The queen, perplexed that the mathematician would ask such a meagre reward for his creativity, nonetheless orders her chancellor to total up the coins. In disbelief, the chancellor calculates that this simple sequence of sixty-three doublings has the queen owing the mathematician 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 coins. The coin stack on the sixty-fourth square will reach a little over nine trillion kilometres from earth, nearly a quarter of the way to Alpha Centauri.

Variations on this story are sometimes told in maths classes to give students an idea of how rapidly a system undergoing exponential growth will punch a hole through the ceiling. To understand what it means for us right here and now, imagine the chessboard expanding invisibly to cover our battered old planet, and instead of coins let’s travel back in time a short distance and play the game with metallic ores. Iron ore, bauxite, copper, nickel, every tonne of it. 

Start in the year 1901. The anti-colonial Boxer Rebellion in China reaches its bloody conclusion, the parliament of Australia sits for the first time, and welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse reports on appalling conditions in British concentration camps in South Africa. Drop about 150 million tonnes on the first square of the chessboard – that’s the total estimated figure of metal ores mined, shipped and smelted by the world economy in that year. Call it the queen’s first coin.

Jump forward a quarter of a century to 1925: the first public demonstration of television transmission is given in London, and Adolf Hitler publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf. Total metal ores mined and traded: 326 million tonnes. Two coins, give or take.

Twenty-seven years and a shattering world war later, we drop four coins on the next square. It’s 1952: the US government successfully tests the world’s first hydrogen bomb, and the Mau Mau launch a guerrilla uprising in Kenya. We’re up to 620 million tonnes.

The next doubling to 1.2 billion tonnes drops in 1967: it’s the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury, Suharto takes office as the second president of Indonesia, and the Israeli military occupies the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War.

Sixteen coins in 1995: the year in which the World Trade Organization is established, and Typhoon Angela slams into the Philippines and Vietnam.

Thirty-two coins in 2009, the booming globalised economy now trading more than 4.8 billion tonnes of metal ores in the year the United Nations COP 15 climate negotiations end in failure in Copenhagen.

Smooth out the zigzags of global commodity markets, peer past the dust and dinosaur forms of colossal pieces of mining equipment and bulk freighters the size of city blocks. This is what a mild-sounding 3 per cent annually compounding growth rate will do. An increase of 3 per cent a year will double the number of coins on each successive square about once every quarter-century. Non-metallic mining – that’s all the limestone, sand, gravel and whatever – has grown slightly faster since 1901, doubling every twenty years. Coal, oil and gas are a little slower, doubling about every thirty years. You get the idea.

The simplest explanation for this explosive growth is that it coincides with the rapid and unprecedented expansion in human population – from a little over 1.5 billion people in 1900 to more than 7.8 billion at the time of writing. But simple explanations are sometimes wrong. World population growth hit an inflection point in the late 1960s and began to decline as women’s literacy and access to primary healthcare improved across the Global South, and reductions in child mortality led to smaller family sizes. Nobody suggests our population is set to double again; barring catastrophe, it appears to be headed for a plateau later this century. But there is no indication that the material consumption of the world economy is slowing, by any measure. If anything, the growth curves for key commodities have become even steeper over recent decades.

A better fit for the accelerating growth in material consumption can be found in something non-material: money. If you add up the total monetary value of all the goods and services produced in a country in a year, you arrive at a magic number called the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.

The world’s combined GDP has been growing at about 3 per cent a year, doubling more than five times since 1901 and almost perfectly tracking the surging growth of the industrial tonnage out on the chessboard. Is this correlation, or causation, or just coincidence? Answering that is harder than it sounds, but for the moment the key thing to notice is that one of money’s main functions is just to multiply itself. And because it only exists as symbolic transactions between people and institutions, it is free to multiply into infinity like the mathematician’s imaginary coins.

The physical flows and fabrics of a living planet are not so free. Between 1901 and 2015, the human infrastructures of mining, farming, factories and quarries processed a staggering 3.4 trillion tonnes of raw materials in total. By the unyielding mathematics of compounding growth, in fourteen decades’ time we’re expected to churn and burn through that amount every single year.

GDP figures accurately track the one-way consumption torrent of the modern economy: from mine to landfill, with a brief pause in the hands of people this kind of economy calls consumers. When particular flows or commodities or workforces buckle or collapse, the doubling shifts somewhere else. To the financial system, the physical flows are almost beside the point; they are simply intermediaries, carrier waves for the duplication of money.

In the glossy annual reports, all the focus is on the input side: tonnages ripped and shipped, board-feet slabbed and chipped, gigalitres pumped and burned, annually compounding metrics of a planet in liquidation.

The architects of this locust economy never sought to design waste retrieval and recycling systems for this growth machine, so it piles up on the edge of town. We’ve brought materials into circulation that have no known disposal path – an ocean of plastics, incomprehensible new chemicals and murderously long-lived radioactive isotopes. The one that is raining scorched leaves onto the chessboard, the one we can’t even see, is the invisible pollution from coal, oil and gas combustion: a careless elbow in the face of the planet’s highly strung thermal regulation systems.

These are the coins of the Anthropocene, and this is what they buy us. Our present political and economic leaders are unswervingly determined to deliver the next stack twice as high on the next square, no matter what. Anybody who suggests that this is an impossibly dangerous way to organise our economy is treated like a freak.

That’s a problem. In the 1990s, US public-policy thinker Joseph P. Overton introduced an idea that would end up carrying his name. He proposed that public debate is characterised by ideas that are considered reasonable and worthy of discussion. These ideas lie safely within the Overton window. Outside this window lie all the ideas considered extreme, ridiculous or outright unthinkable.

The assumption that coin-doubling growth is good and necessary and normal is so mundane, so beyond question, that most days it’s all you can see through the Overton window. There do seem to be some freaks outside, banging on the glass about extinction or something, but because the window has become so firmly fixed in place it’s hard to understand what they are on about.

Joseph Overton suggested that over time, cultural and political tides can move the window, with activists and innovators bringing ideas previously considered extreme into the range of matters that sensible centrists feel comfortable talking about. But today things seem askew: everyone knows something is horribly wrong, but the window refuses to shift.

We were checkmated the moment we bought into the mathematician’s coin-doubling scam. Across much of the industrialised world, the consequences of endlessly doubling down now infuse popular culture like background radiation. Dystopian premonitions hover at the intersections of documentary and science fiction, an annoying cohort of doomers and whole sub-genres of apocalypse porn flirting with the aesthetics of global collapse. A few billionaires are even proposing to go and set up colonies on Mars, but as much as we might wish they’d just fuck off and live under a plastic dome millions of kilometres away, it wouldn’t stop people from being crushed under the next drop of their coins. The window seems to be jammed, stuck somehow, and so rather than continue trying to shift it politely, maybe it’s time we put a brick through it.

Sometime between this coin-doubling and the next, the chess game ends because the board is on fire.

While we’re thinking about that, here’s a different game, one that’s played with only one rule. It works pretty well with about two dozen people; you just need a little bit of space. Here’s how it goes. Everyone stands in a circle, facing inwards, about an arm’s length apart from one another. Each participant has to choose two other people at random – silently, without letting on who they’ve chosen. Ready? Okay – here’s the rule. When the game starts, you have to move so as to stay an equal distance from the two people you’ve chosen. You don’t have to stand directly between them, just try to keep the same distance away from both of them at all times.

That’s it. That’s the rule.

Go.

I first came across this game years ago. It was introduced as part of a workshop series on nonviolence and civil disobedience, co-hosted by American author an anti-nuclear campaigner Joanna Macy. In addition to practical techniques for locking down equipment, dealing with police and understanding your legal rights, Joanna Macy stirs in a measure of deep ecology, Buddhist philosophy and something I’d only tangentially read about before, something she calls systems theory. Instead of dropping a bunch of academic papers about chaotic attractors and scale-free networks on us, she starts with this game.

The moment she calls “go”, the circle dissolves. The two people you’re following, now they’re moving too, trying to keep an equal distance from the two people they’ve chosen. In your peripheral vision you’re trying to keep track of where your people are, avoiding collisions with others, aware that everyone is now weaving and careening around each other in a complex, unpredictable and strangely hilarious dance. Give it a few minutes, and unplanned crowd dynamics will arise; the tempo will slow, or everyone will begin to bunch up, until someone makes a move that drags two other people out of the flow and suddenly you’re all in wild motion again.

Just one rule, everyone in the game applying it as best they can in real time.

No supercomputer will ever be able to predict where we’ll all be standing when Joanna calls “stop”. Nobody is in charge of where we end up. We’re all exercising a certain amount of agency, but none of us is completely free of the influence of those we’re bound to. Everything that happens in the game depends on everything else that is happening, and trying to orchestrate or direct a particular end state would seem to be formally impossible. My enduring memory of all the times I’ve played the systems game is of the intangible collective presence that arises: a larger, fleeting something emerging from the moment-to-moment interaction of the crowd’s individual players.

The search for a theory that would explain these dynamics – and the emergence of that something – takes us all the way back to the 19th-century study of thermodynamics, with a handful of scientists and inventors struggling to improve the efficiency of the first generation of steam engines. Through slow trial and experimentation, they were stumbling towards some profound understandings. In his one and only publication, Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, in 1824 French physicist Sadi Carnot put it like this: “We may therefore state the following general principle: The amount of motive force in nature is unchanging. Properly speaking, it is never created and never destroyed; in reality it [merely] changes form, that is, assumes one or another form of motion, but never vanishes.” This observation ended up being formalised as the first law of thermodynamics, the law of conservation of energy. Energy in the universe is never created or destroyed; it merely changes form.

But changing form carries a cost that you never get back. This second law, flowing from the first, would be of more immediate use to the makers of these machines. Heat dissipates until everything is the same temperature; water flows downhill; friction bleeds energy out of moving machinery and disperses it as waste heat. You’ll never see a cold object spontaneously transferring heat to a warmer object. The whole universe is falling inexorably towards thermal equilibrium – cold and dead and empty and pointless and dead, as though a Morrissey album has founded its own branch of physics.

The second law gave rise to the evocative concept of entropy. This term was coined by German mathematician Rudolf Clausius in 1865 as the measure of disorder in a closed system, which only ever goes up until equilibrium is reached. As energy dissipates, entropy increases, and this is always and forever a one-way ride. It means these bearded imperial nerds will never be able to build a steam engine with anything like 100 per cent efficiency. The moment they light up the coal in the furnace is the moment high-grade chemical energy begins its cascade into low-grade waste-heat, never to return. “Reality is irreversible,” as Russian biophysicist Mikhail Volkenstein put it.

It is in the dissipation that everything interesting happens. Carnot and Clausius and the others may be laying the theoretical foundations for a world lit by coal-fired electricity, but they are writing their treatises by the light of gas mantles and candles. Look closer, at the dance of one of these small, perfect flames. Closer: to see what is happening as the superheated gas boils off the melting wax. The fastest, most efficient way for the candle to dissipate this energy is through a teardrop-shaped flame. Entropy is increasing, heat is flowing from a highly concentrated source to gently warm the surrounding air, and while it lasts, this ephemeral structure will float there, illuminating the room.

Heat a pan of water until it begins to boil, and the water will self-organise into bubbling convection cells – hot water rising, dissipating heated steam into the air, cooling and falling back towards the bottom of the pan. The same overturning convection structures can be observed on the surface of the sun, or in a bowl of hot miso soup. At the scale of the whole planet, slow-moving ocean currents and the largest-scale weather systems are in ceaseless overturn, dissipating equatorial heat towards the poles.

We may all be sliding towards the eventual heat-death of the universe, but the structures and standing waves that form as energy tumbles from high-grade to low have shaped everything we see around us. The study of such “dissipative structures” is one of the tributaries that led, in the mid 20th century, to the development of what is known as general systems theory.

Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy went looking for a unifying theory that would describe any complex system with constituent parts; he probably would have enjoyed the swerve and flow of Joanna’s game. In 1946 he wrote: “It seems legitimate to ask for a theory, not of systems of a more or less special kind, but of universal principles applying to systems in general.”

A quick search turns up this definition of system: “A regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole”. Any discipline that seeks to formalise the universal principles of “systems in general” would seem to be hopelessly ambitious in scope. After all, we could be referring to the solar system, or the immune system, or an ecosystem. Or, for that matter, the phone system, the criminal justice system or the global financial system. This is a word that really gets around, and when it shows up it usually means things are getting complex.

Over the decades, this quest for simplicity has ramified into dozens of disciplines and sub-disciplines, elegant propositions and empty dead ends. The cybernetics people, with their feedback loops and ballistics tables. Game theory types, with their bounded rationality and prisoner’s dilemmas. The chaos theory school, wielding strange attractors and infinitely self-similar fractal geometries. More than metaphor, it seemed the stirring of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon might really trigger a storm in the North Atlantic.

It’s not immediately obvious why Joanna would invoke any of these abstractions at a civil disobedience workshop for a few dozen middle-class kids learning how to shut down logging operations. Or, for that matter, their relevance to people working any dimension of the larger struggle against a coin-doubling economy that has clearly lost its mind. Most of us don’t have the time or the faintest flicker of interest in bringing graph theory or nonlinear dynamics into any part of our waking lives, so, as fascinating as these things might be to some, what is the pitch here, exactly?

By the 1990s, students of what would come to be termed “complex adaptive systems” were turning their minds to questions that had previously been squarely in the domain of political philosophers and revolutionaries. Lines of inquiry that had begun with steam engine efficiency were somehow casting light on patterns of social contention, and the stratification of classes, and outbreaks of industrial action.

Across widely diverse contexts, some researchers clocked the recurrence of a fourfold cycle of innovation and conservation, collapse and renewal, operating at scales from local to global. Named it the “adaptive cycle” and began to see it all over the place: the beginnings of a theory of how natural and social systems undergo regime changes. Ecologists put forward a name for the complex interplay of fast and slow adaptive cycles that sometimes collide with spectacular effect: they called it panarchy. Thermodynamics won’t help us find the people throwing children into the water: that’s a political journey. But ever since I first played the systems game, I’ve wondered whether a theory of collapse and renewal might be valuable when we do finally meet our monsters face to face.

 

This is an edited extract of Scott Ludlam’s Full Circle, published by Black Inc.

Scott Ludlam

Scott Ludlam is an ICAN ambassador and a former Australian Greens senator for Western Australia.

Read on

Still from Shane Meadows’ ‘The Virtues’

Vice grip: ‘The Virtues’

Shane Meadows’ astonishing series stems from a late reckoning with his own childhood abuse

Cover image of ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Body language: ‘The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen’

Echoing folktales and fables, Krissy Kneen’s memoir contemplates the body’s visceral knowledge of inherited trauma

Image of Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol in Made for Love

Can’t get you out of my head: ‘Made for Love’

Leading April’s streaming highlights is a subversive black comedy that takes coercive control to its digital extreme

Cover image of Jamie Marina Lau’s Gunk Baby

The powerlessness of one: ‘Gunk Baby’

Jamie Marina Lau’s dreamlike second novel explores what, if anything, the individual can do to tackle structural issues


Who is responsible for the highly controversial, constitutionally questionable decision to criminalise Australian citizens attempting to return home from India? The government would have us believe that the decision – announced in the early hours of Saturday – was not of its own making.

The drums of war – as Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo phrased it in his controversial Anzac Day remarks – are beating. Pezzullo was referring to China, though it’s not clear who, exactly, is doing the beating. But here at home, there’s no doubt the drums of culture war are being given a workout.

Can’t get you out of my head: ‘Made for Love’
Leading April’s streaming highlights is a subversive black comedy that takes coercive control to its digital extreme

Cristin Milioti as Hazel Green-Gogol in Made for Love

The messianic excess of big tech makes for stinging absurdities in Made for Love (Stan), a subversive black comedy about a couple who really do see eye to eye after he inserts a surveillance chip into her brain. After spending 10 years inside her CEO husband’s futuristic home/research facility/fortress, Hazel Green-Gogol (Cristin Milioti) decides she has to leave. Even the couple’s pet dolphin, Zelda, thinks it’s time. But Hazel’s great escape is undermined by the swift revelation that her spouse, Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen), has secretly chipped her with his latest product, the Made for Love implant. She literally can’t get him out of her head.

Adapted from Alissa Nutting’s 2017 novel, with the author as one of the creators, Made for Love is a delicious feat of half-hour architecture, layering expansive ideas across intimate character humour. An occasional grifter when Byron took her on their first date in a holographic cube, Hazel can’t really run from a man who can monitor her senses, track her location and study her emotional data. By verging on near-future ludicrousness, the eight-part series makes coercive control a palpable digital possibility. As head of a company that has Google’s data-mining capability and Apple’s hardware, Byron is a deluded narcissist convinced that he can win Hazel back if he can just give their relationship a software update like one of his other products.

The show has a discombobulated rhythm and a burbling electronic score, but it dials down the ramifications to let thoughtful revelations emerge. When Hazel flees to the backblocks home of her widowed father, Herb (Ray Romano), she finds him living with a sex doll named Diane. That leads to a study of loneliness and companionship, and a way into the fraught father–daughter dynamic, instead of a barrage of cheap gags. “This is going to change the world,” Byron tells the scientist, Dr Fiffany Hodeck (Noma Dumezweni), who develops the titular neural device (and her own plotline), but the dangers of such grandiloquence are disconcerting and amusing. Big tech aims to scale up, but Made for Love scales down. Led by Milioti’s vivid but unsentimental lead performance, it’s a welcome prototype.

In telling the story of serial killer Charles Sobhraj, who hunted young Western travellers on Asia’s hippie trail during the 1970s, The Serpent (Netflix) manages to impressively sidestep most of the pitfalls that commonly befall true crime dramas. Tahar Rahim’s Sobhraj is a chilling sociopath, but he’s depicted through the eyes of his terrified friends, his girlfriend and accomplice Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), and the dogged Dutch embassy attaché in Bangkok, Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), who, along with his wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), put together a case when local authorities won’t. Writer Richard Warlow and director Tom Shankland derive maximum tension from Sobhraj’s machinations, but this study of evil – with roots in France’s colonial history – avoids being exploitative.

Shot with a cinematic sheen by filmmaker Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), the new take on Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast (Apple TV+) is a middling thriller that refuses to explore its wider social underpinnings. Inventor Allie Fox (Justin Theroux, Paul’s nephew) is that familiar American agitator, someone whose gifts lead them to disavow the system that has nurtured them. But Allie’s motivations, or possible crimes, remain unclear even as he takes his wife, Margot (Melissa George), and two children into Mexico to avoid arrest. The risk, somewhat implausibly, escalates, and while Theroux expertly embodies a seething, destructive superiority the seven-episode run sags. Peter Weir’s 1986 film adaptation, with Harrison Ford playing against type as Allie, remains the better option.

In brief: Supernatural period fantasies are a Netflix mainstay, but Shadow and Bone is by far the best iteration the streaming giant has produced yet, with immersive production design and exterior sets that offer a magic-infused version of Tsarist Russia, an intertwining plot that mixes court and criminal intrigue, and a heroine, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), who avoids the “Chosen One” clichés the genre favours. The Tailings (SBS On Demand) is a promising Tasmanian-made micro-series mystery – six episodes in an hour – about a teenage girl (the excellent Tegan Stimson) and a young teacher (Mabel Li) living on the margins of a small town in thrall to the local mining company. The ABC’s detention centre drama Stateless was one of the best series of 2020, and now that it’s available via Netflix it remains an evocative study of a system that breaks those on either side of the razor wire.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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The powerlessness of one: ‘Gunk Baby’

Jamie Marina Lau’s dreamlike second novel explores what, if anything, the individual can do to tackle structural issues


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