Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of articles with international concerns. Today’s article, “All Futures Are Possible,” by Patrick Allington, was originally published by the SRB on December 5, 2022.
Early in Grace Chan’s novel Every Version of You, Tao-Yi and her partner Navin pass a monument erected at Melbourne’s Federation Square that commemorates the deaths caused by a US airstrike in 2041 – the attack, by now, a distant memory. At one point in Joan Fleming’s verse novel Song of Less, a character called Cousin Groundpigeon says “Remember countries?”
These two speculative works offer visions of the future in which the earth is devastated. Each involves humans living disrupted, transformed lives – defying or redefining extinction, carrying on, muddling through.
In Every Version of You, Chan grapples with the acceleration of technology, especially the promise of virtual reality as a grand salve, a creator of something heaven-like. In Song of Less, survival involves the completion of basic daily actions in the face of dust, wind and heat, the rituals of life and death, the pondering of what love can now mean. Both books are entertaining, even fun –notwithstanding the pointed absence of anything resembling “they all lived happily ever after.”
It is an accident of publishing schedules – here’s to 2022 – and my haphazard approach to my reading pile that I happened to read these books simultaneously. For me, they are now interwoven. But I could have just as easily juxtaposed either work with Alexis Wright’s brilliant novel The Swan Book or Lisa Jacobson’s wonderful, watery verse novel The Sunlit Zone or Steven Amsterdam’s wild Things We Didn’t See Coming and so on and so on. In the great neglected stack of twenty-first century Ozlit, invented futures are piling up. They are not yet as ubiquitous as gum trees or strange happenings in small country towns, but a tottering tower of futurism is under construction. May it grow taller yet – if any of us last that long.
In Every Version of You, set in the 2080s, a young woman called Tao-Yi is a member of “the lucky generation – born into motion, soaked with potential, cresting the wave of change.” She works as an authenticity consultant: “We then strip you down to your base avatar.” Born in Malaysia, she lives in Melbourne with Navin, who has had a kidney transplant and endures bouts of illness. She maintains close friendships with Evelyn and Zach, and frets about her mother, Xin-Yi.
The extent to which humans have messed up the earth is evident as Tao-Yi goes about her days: the Yarra River is a “dried-up fissure.” To go outside, or even to open a window at home, she needs information about air quality and heat. Once, while returning home after visiting Xin-Yi, she sees two possums: “She hasn’t seen an animal in years. There are no trees left.”
As with the majority of people – the disaffected and have-nots excepted – Tao-Yi moves between two worlds. There is “meatspace”– or what we might call, with ever-decreasing confidence, the real world. And there is a virtual reality world known as Gaia, a place for working, socializing, making and viewing art, eating, and so much more: “In Gaia, all things are possible.” And yet it takes its lead from the real world: it is both “Nostalgic and futuristic.”
Meanwhile, humankind is reliant on technology in everyday ways, via machines that clean, cook, organize, manufacture food, and provide healthcare and aged care. For the reader, all this will sound familiar, even if the technology in Tao-Yi’s time is more advanced, more embedded. And as Tao-Yi navigates this technology-addled world, inside and outside of Gaia, her preoccupations are familiar: career, love, family, friendship.
All this – the changed world, the introduction of Tao-Yi and the people closest to her, the push and pull of meatspace versus Gaia, the descriptions of technology – leads to some info-and-context dumping in the novel’s early pages and periodically thereafter. But these scattered chunks of text are necessary – and, for the reader, best brushed aside. They help enable the balance between ideas and emotions that gives Every Version of You its distinctiveness.
Early in the book, people move back and forth between the real world and Gaia – even then, Tao-Yi does so with skepticism and a critical eye for what is absent from, or different to, the virtual world – especially taste and touch. She resists investing in Gaia real estate. And at one point she says to Navin, “You want to blow thirty thousand bucks on a digital chair?”
When new technology makes it possible for people to move permanently to Gaia – by downloading their brains and abandoning their physical bodies – Tao-Yi’s reticence towards the virtual world grows more overt. In contrast, the decision to move permanently is easy for Navin, as it soon is for Evelyn and Zach and so many others. Navin tells Tao-Yi that he believes living permanently in Gaia is the only the only way to survive the environmental crisis. And in Gaia, he can transcend illness and pain: “I’m twenty. I don’t want to feel like an old man.”
Chan captures Tao-Yi’s perspective on her changing circumstances with depth and care – her inner-life wrestle about what she will lose from resisting Gaia, especially as the real world begins to empty and shut down, versus what she might gain. When Navin chooses his own path, he and Tao-Yi agree that she will follow when she is ready. Even as they drift apart physically, emotionally and intellectuality, even as Navin begins to change in profound ways, and even as tension inevitably builds between them, there is no sense that either is wronging the other. Similarly, when Tao-Yi and Evelyn fight about Gaia, Chan does not make Tao-Yi the hero and Evelyn the villain. This is typical of Chan’s approach: she avoids pat dichotomies of right and wrong.
At the core of Every Version of You is Chan’s poignant and revelatory depiction of Tao-Yi’s relationship with her mother. Xin-Yi has lived a troubled life. Tao-Yi thinks she has two mothers: one “clear, fierce, protective” and one in need of, but resistant to, help. Tao-Yi receives regular updates on Xin-Yi’s physical and mental state:
Vital signs within normal limits. Early warning signs emerging over last 48 hours: sleeping more than 12 hours per day, reduced facial expressiveness, movements slowed by more than 10%, shallow breathing, tearfulness, decreased accessing of social networks.
In one delicately written section, Tao-Yi visits Xin-Yi for Qingming Jie, a Chinese day “for sweeping tombs and spending time with the dead.” On arrival, Tao-Yi appraises Xin-Yi’s wellbeing by the cleanliness of the apartment – and is pleased. Xin-Yi makes soup and boiled chestnuts – real food. They talk in a mix of Cantonese and English. They pay their respects to Tao-Yi’s grandmother. They eat. When Tao-Yi asks how Xin-Yi she is going, Xin-Yi reacts with fierce deflection. But before Tao-Yi goes, Xin-Yi gives her a special gift. There is depth and poise to all this – Chan does not render Xin-Yi an anachronism but gives her agency to prioritize her life as she wishes. Xin-Yi honors the past but does not view it idealistically. Despite the fact that she is aging quickly, she expresses no interest in moving permanently to Gaia.
The power of Every Version of You does not lie in Chan’s vision of the future. It does not lie in the plot, the trajectory of which is evident from early in the story. It lies in Tao-Yi’s personal navigation of her world. It lies in what she says and how she acts and thinks, and in the questions she asks herself: how can she live in a rapidly changing world? How can she uphold her way of living without untethering herself from Navin, her friends, almost everyone she knows? How can she honor her mother’s wishes? How can she reconcile the past, present and future in her mind? When is a human no longer a human? What is life and what is death?
This is a novel that is teeming with ideas, even as it is mainly about one woman getting on with the art and slog of living. Chan offers big questions without descending into earnestness or overreach. Her storytelling is unsparing and sometimes bleak. And yet it is gentle, open-hearted and wry.
In Joan Fleming’s preface to Song of Less, she takes readers to the end of the 2019 UN Climate Conference in Madrid – which Fleming summarizes as “another moral failure on the part of those who could have made change.” She depicts herself tidying up the labor hall that had been used by activists during the conference – and deciding what she should do with a “giant papier-mâché head of a grandmother,” made by First Nations activists. She hears voices: “From somewhere offstage, a misery of voices begins to murmur in the scrounge.”
In a time after society has been utterly broken, and the earth seems barely habitable, Song of Less depicts a handful of people making a community of sorts. Most of them have new names for their passage through this dire new world: Cousin Twig, Cousin Frogmouth, and so on. On good days, they seem to foster, and desire, a communal spirit. At other times, they are individuals bumping together, forced into the familial: “Bad days, they tangle.”
Fleming shifts the narrator from person to person (and she also, briefly and brilliantly, gives non-humans a chance to speak). In combination, the human narrators tell a fractured story of tense companionship and the longing for connection, desire, sex and its consequences, death, loss, discord. And they describe their daily activities, practices and rituals. There is tenderness, there is brutal self-absorption. The individual and collective lives are underpinned by various forms of scrounging – for roots, for memories, for new meaning, for intimacy.
Their best asset appears to be Grandmother, who deploys practical and spiritual guidance to aid their efforts to survive. On her guidance, they sing to remember or forget – for they are first generation survivors. Grandmother makes them a mind-altering paste for them to ingest. They dodge “devils” that come at them. Day after day, they scrounge for roots in a dry riverbed, and they wrap the dead and lay them to rest in trees. They endure a never-ending hot winter – destructive winds, a perpetual state of half-light – and they get “rashed” and blistered.
In this stripped world, this compromised way of being, technology is near-absent. There is no electricity – not a kettle in sight to boil poisoned water – and no housing, no infrastructure, and certainly no government they seem aware of – besides Grandmother. They have “the Instrument” to play when they sing. At one point, they find a wheel, in which they can build a fire, and a couple of rusted car doors suitable for blocking the wind. The idea that R&D will save humanity has ceded to what Cousin Frogmouth calls “a wood age stone age blister age.”
Fleming orchestrates the different narratorial voices – Yana, Cousin Twig, Cousin Butcher, Cousin Groundpigeon and Cousin Frogmouth – with poise and purpose, revealing their inner worlds and deepest thoughts, revealing, too, the extent of the damage within them. The narratives, in combination, become a mosaic – a fractured portrait of competing observations and feelings. The narrators share a common vocabulary, and a language readers will find familiar but strange, but their voices, like their personalities, are distinctive.
The narratives move back and forth between the present and the past. Yana remembers the city of her past: “I remember the taps. How they ran.” She remembers the man she loved in her old life. She also holds close her memory of “the child”– a girl who was once a member of the group but who is now dead. Yana seeks meaning, asking Grandmother how she can learn to belong here. But on another occasion, she says “What I long for is waste, extravagance, decoration.”
Cousin Twig tells a story one dominated by exacting details of her pain and longing. She recounts that the others had often said to her, “might you stop your crying now.” But one day, “Cousin Groundpigeon came up and put his hand on me”:
and he said hey,
well, I can’t cry
and they can’t, so you just go ahead.
There is a stunning tenderness to this moment – although Cousin Groundpigeon’s act also leads to an unrequited longing in Cousin Twig.
Cousin Groundpigeon’s way of carrying on involves an effort to be a solid citizen. He appears distant at times, although he cannot necessarily sustain it and he may not even believe in it:
My heart these days, it feels edible.
The rest of me: a knot against cessation.
A schoolteacher in his old life, he thinks back to his students’ and his own entitled thoughts and behavior. He describes, with some weariness and distance, witnessing “The End.”
Cousin Butcher explodes off the page, making himself his principal subject. His voice is aggressive, his thoughts self-absorbed and self-congratulatory. He describes his companions with disdain. But he is also grief-stricken and overwhelmed, as if he can arrest his personal collapse with bravado.
Readers come to know Grandmother’s thoughts and instructions through the accounts of the others: “Grandmother says that now is the time to ask ourselves what we are, other than ourselves,” Yana says; “well, Grandmother says pain makes confusions of us all,” Cousin Twig says. Cousin Groundpigeon offers sober analysis, almost as if Grandmother is an assignment he is marking. He acknowledges that she has saved them by making them be a family of sorts. But he has chosen not to adopt everything she says, every ritual she puts forward: “I just can’t sing all of its songs.”
Cousin Butcher is more dismissive of Grandmother. He acknowledges that:
Old crone know how to make a lab out of
But he also condemns her for having “some vision of all of us as dickless and busy like ants”.
Fleming deploys language to conjure an extraordinary dust-filled wasteland – a parched and pained world in which so little is left, a world that seems at once in and out of focus, at once sharp and mirage-like. Song of Less is a short, intense work full of cauterizing moments. For both aesthetic and intellectual reasons, re-reading is rewarding – no, mandatory. Like Chan’s Every Version of You, it is surprising for its tenderness and compassion, even as it is brutal and unblinking, even as I finish it certain that extinction is imminent. The perennial half-light of the hot winter seems to extend from the sky to the characters’ inner worlds.
As Mykaela Saunders, editor of This All Come Back Now: an Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction, reflects in her introduction to the anthology, “some say that spec fic deals in the ‘not real,’ but what of the absolute fantasy of continuous consumption on a finite planet?” Both Chan and Fleming use imagined futures to undermine what is real and not real. Never mind the challenge of looking ahead to remember the past, with or without nostalgia: in the real world, the meatspace of 2022, we seem to have an amnesia of the present – we struggle to remember what is happening to us, what we are doing and not doing. While giving a birthday speech, Tao-Yi’s friend Zach declares that “We’re on the cusp of a new age.” He may be right – but when, these days, is that not the case?
It is a matter for Chan and Fleming whether they consider the writing of these books to be a form of activism. It hardly matters – their self-evaluation does not change the impact of the works on the reader; it does not change the themes, the preoccupations, the perceived dangers exposed and dwelt upon.
In turn, it is fanciful to invest too much faith in the isolated act of reading – the stimulated, inspired or entertained brain does not store carbon. Still, readers are not passive receivers of Chan and Fleming’s visions. Once the books are read, they sit in a shared space containing futures imagined by the authors, futures imagined by readers, and the current moment inhabited by writers, readers and non-readers.
When Chan’s Every Version of You sits stubbornly in my consciousness, weeks after I have finished it, when it pops into my mind after, say, I learn that the UN has published yet another woe-is-us climate report, when I yell at Siri to stop speaking for chrissakes, am I being passive or active? Probably both. When Song of Less gives me crazy dreams – as it has done – or when I open it to random pages and revel in its dark humanity, am I unduly satisfied with myself for my brief resistance to the amnesia of what our present course will inflict on my children? I’m sure I am.
At one point in Song of Less, Cousin Twig remembers the old times:
there were surges and strikes for years
rolling brownouts and curfews
it was very boring
Acknowledgement: while I was writing this piece, I participated in a Flinders University Collaborative Climate Fiction Workshop. This workshop clarified (or messed with) some of my thinking about Chan and Fleming’s books. I thank the conveners – Amy Matthews, Rachel Hennessey and Alex Cothren – and the workshop participants