Margot McGovern finds four reads that reimagine life as we know it.
This past month my reading has favoured the apocalyptic. I’ve been seeking out visions of our world destroyed and remade. On a macro level, our world is in a state of turmoil—we’ve developed mind-boggling technology (I can carry a WHOLE LIBRARY in my pocket!!!) and made huge medical and scientific leaps. But log onto any news site and things look grim. Politicians take luxury helicopters to party fundraisers while the people they govern are often denied basic services due to funding cuts. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, many still refuse to believe climate change is a thing because, like, it’s cold. The Internet has placed thousands of years worth of knowledge at our fingertips and put us in touch to expand and debate this information, but a large percentage of web traffic (no one knows quite how large) is logging on for the porn and our forums, chat rooms and social media newsfeeds have become playgrounds for trolls.
Looking back on the dystopian classics of the early-to-mid twentieth century—George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Malcolm Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962)—they seem rather quaint.
On a more hopeful and personal level, I’ve recently moved cities—started over in Perth, a place shaped by ocean, sky and desert. Even inland suburban gardens are full of sand. It’s warm enough to wear t-shirts in winter and the sunsets are like nothing I’ve ever seen; every night they set the sky aflame. The nearest capital city, Adelaide, is more than 2,700 kilometres (~1,700 miles) away. Some days being here feels like living at the edge of the world. I’m enjoying the challenge of making a home in this alien place, and I’ve been seeking stories of those who are also in a state of rebuilding—narratives of upheaval, adaptation and resilience.
In my bookish travels, I’ve stumbled across four such narratives. Each approaches the idea of new worlds from a different perspective. In Catie Disabato’s The Ghost Network (2015), a secret society plots to reshape civilisation, while in My Real Children (2014) Jo Walton offers two alternate histories of the twentieth century and the story of a woman who lives between them. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) reflects on what is left behind when 99% of the world’s population is wiped out by a flu pandemic, and Kirsty Logan’s The Gracekeepers (2015) offers a lyrical vision of a world reshaped by climate change.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The night the world ends, Arthur Leander suffers a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. A paramedic-in-training rushes up from the audience to perform CPR while Kirsten, a child actor playing a ghostly apparition of young Cordelia, watches from behind a pillar. Within a month everyone else present at the Elgin Theatre will be dead.
Twenty years earlier, Leander’s first wife, Miranda, sits up late after a dinner party coming to terms with the end of her marriage and working on Doctor Eleven, a series of graphic novels about a physicist living on a damaged space station that once resembled a scaled down Earth.
Twenty years later, Kirsten, still in her Titania costume, flees from a cult town into the forest with the Travelling Symphony—a knife at her belt and two tattered Doctor Eleven comics in her backpack—to begin the long journey to the rumoured Museum of Civilisation.
My Real Children by Jo Walton
Patricia is, according to her medical chart, ‘very confused’. A long-sufferer of dementia, she’s passing her final days in a nursing home. But it isn’t only memory loss that has her muddled. The nursing home appears to morph around her. One day there’s an elevator, the next there’s not. Sometimes the toilet is to the right of her room, other times it’s on the left. And in her moments of clarity she remembers living two very different lives.
In 1948, two years out of Oxford and working as an English teacher at a remote boarding school in Cornwall, Patricia receives a phone call from her fiance, Mark. He hasn’t got the marks he needed to continue on to postgraduate studies and pursue an academic career as he had hoped. Instead, he’s been forced to accept a low-paying teaching position and if Patricia still wants to marry him, it’s now or never. In one life, Pat says ‘never’. In another, Tricia says ‘now’. It’s a choice that will change not only the course of Patricia’s life and the lives of those she draws close to, but a decision that sets in motion a butterfly effect that changes everything from the legalisation of gay marriage to who kills JFK and which superpower wins the space race.
Walton’s fiction brims with subtle magic. She takes the world as is and gives it a half turn towards the fantastic and the speculative. My Real Children is a heartbreaking story of parallel lives that asks that most overwhelming of questions: ‘What if…?’
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
Years later when the girls are grown, the landlocker, Callanish, lives in exile as a Gracekeeper in the Doldrums, watching over the dead and dreaming of the life she’s left behind. Meanwhile the bear girl, North, is betrothed to the ringmaster’s son, whom she does not love, and prepares to leave her coracle to start a new life without her bear on land. However, each woman carries a secret and when fate brings them together once more they begin to understand that their lives are inextricably linked.
The Gracekeepers is a fairytale for the twenty-first century, and like all fairytales, there is great depth of meaning behind the magic.
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato
The world’s most famous pop star is missing, another woman is dead and a third is in prison for bombing a Chicago train station several years earlier. All are connected by their knowledge of a secret society that may or may not still exist.
When Molly Metropolis disappears before a performance in Chicago on the eve of the release of her second album, Cause Apocalypse, struggling music journalist, Caitlin Taer, teams up with Metro’s former assistant, Regina Nix, and close friend, Nicholas Berliner, to solve the mystery of her disappearance. The clues the trio find in the notebooks, maps and artwork Metro leaves behind will take them deep into Chicago’s underground, and none of them can foresee just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Catie Disabato’s debut novel, The Ghost Network is an ambitious thriller, drawing together fifteenth century cartography, the ideas of French Marxist theorist and founding member of the Situationist International, Guy Debord, and contemporary pop culture.
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