TEXT review

Remembering the future

review by HC Gildfind


Jennifer Mills
Picador (Pan Macmillan), Sydney NSW 2018
ISBN: 9781760552206
Pb 357pp AUD 29.99


If the literary technique of ‘defamiliarisation’ is the usual means through which writers jolt people into seeing the world anew, how does a dystopian novelist shock us into seeing the environmental extremities of today, when ‘extremes’ are increasingly the norm? Furthermore, how can such a writer hope to contribute something original to our long tradition of dystopian fiction, and its rapidly growing sub-genre of ‘Cli-Fi’ [1]? Jennifer Mills has taken on these challenges with her new novel, Dyschronia. This striking title refers to the novel’s structural and thematic preoccupation with temporal disorder, while cleverly alluding to both the novel’s genre and to the feeling of ‘dysphoria’ experienced by its protagonist, Sam (66) – that deep sense of ‘unease’ which provokes, and should be provoked by, dystopian stories.

The central image of this novel is that of a sea which has nightmarishly ‘recoiled’ (14) to the horizon, leaving a slurry of rotting death in its wake. An ambiguous ‘we’ voices one narrative thread throughout the novel, a pronoun choice that automatically includes, and thus implicates, readers. ‘We’ can hardly believe what has happened: ‘How can we see what we can’t imagine?’ (13). This question highlights a central aim of the book, which is to make us see what we must imagine. By linking real horrors from today – such as ‘floating trash islands’ where birds ‘feed bits of plastic to their young’ (179) – to imagined horrors of the future, Mills makes the latter seem terrifyingly possible.

The townies refuse to acknowledge the enormity of what has happened, or their role in it. They say: ‘It’s nature’s way … it’s all part of a cycle’ (40). Their blind faith in the very technological and economic forces that have created this disaster remains: they try and ‘monetise’ their new ‘ghost town’ (136) with their computers, while awaiting their share of profits from the asphalt company that has ruined their lives. The townies are somewhat aware of their culpability: ‘For our generation, the course of life seemed tilted towards growth. The boom was infinite, like the ocean’ (30). No wonder, then, that the ocean should be repelled by them and their illogical, fantastical, selfish assumptions. Ultimately, though, their complicity hardly seems ‘chosen’ in a world ruled by all-powerful, dehumanised and dehumanising corporations. By the end of the novel even the idea of ‘destiny’ has been hijacked by corporate culture: it is no longer ‘a word’, or ‘a promise’ – it’s ‘a brand’ (351).

Mills largely avoids the clichés that plague the dystopian genre by understanding that abstract ideas and picturesque images can only engage readers via concrete characters, human stories and exquisite writing. The novel’s overtly abstract elements thus exist to contextualise Sam’s narrative. Sam, and her mother Ivy – wonderfully described as ‘skinny and hunted… [like] the last thylacine’ (4) – are ambivalence personified. Their evolving relationship to themselves and each other is utterly convincing, giving real flesh and blood to Mills’ fictional world.

Sam’s story is told in the past, present and future tenses. These shifts can be confusing, but as the reader progresses they realise that  this jolting is purposeful, for it makes us share Sam’s experience of living in ‘doubled time’ (128). Sam recalls how, as a child, she developed migraines which gave her glimpses into the future. Her prophecies are ambiguous, and Mills’ detailed, dense writing makes us feel the terrible claustrophobia of both Sam’s bodily pain and her entrapment in the strange temporal space created by her sickeningly ‘useless power’ to half-see the future (284). Through Sam’s illness, Mills thus cleverly evokes the very nature of today’s anxieties about the environment. Like Sam, we glimpse catastrophe without knowing if such a future is fated. Like Sam, we wonder whether questions of fate are even relevant: shouldn’t we try to change things for the better – irrespective of what we think we ‘know’?

Mills seems to hint that Sam has an ambiguous racial identity. Unlike Ivy, Sam doesn’t have ‘Proper blonde hair and white skin’ (22): they are ‘each other’s mirror, one dark, the other light’ (337). Sam also notes a man whose skin is ‘even browner than her own’ (65).  She and Ivy live on the edge of the community, avoided by the townies unless they want something, in which case Sam suddenly becomes their ‘little oracle’ (208). Sam’s non-linear experience of time is completely alien to that of the dominant white culture’s: something to be feared, when it isn’t being revered. Sam’s differences thus result in her being ‘Othered’ and marginalised by the townies which, in the most general sense, reflects the experience of colonised peoples globally. Through her figure, the crimes of her dystopia may therefore be linked to the much older, colonial crimes against her land and its original inhabitants – crimes that are alluded to by three women visitors, who ask the townsfolk, ‘Don’t you know whose country you’re on?’ (148).

 Ed appears out of nowhere. He’s ostensibly planning to turn the detritus of the asphalt plant into a money-making theme park. Ed trusts Sam’s prophetic abilities, joking that she might have a future in ‘futures’. He explains how, in futures trading, you ‘never actually hold the stock; you get out before the contract’s up. It’s like buying a promise’ (142). Sam senses the fundamental immorality of this, thinking it seems to break the ‘law of promises’ (142). As Sam matures she becomes increasingly suspicious of Ed. She notices how he has ‘made himself essential’ (226) and wonders why he is ‘so convinced’ by his own ‘version of reality’ (253). When she has sex with Ed’s ‘son’, who is later associated with yet another corporation, Sam just wants to be left ‘alone with her own body, complete in herself’ (250). Sam also notices how Ivy automatically accommodates them, and feels that the two men have ‘colonised’ (302) their home. Through these male figures, Mills again seems to link colonialism – and patriarchy – with catastrophic capitalism.

Mills is an elegant, skilful and thoughtful writer, but the real triumph of this particular book lies in the precision of its formal structure. It is a temporal jigsaw  that both evokes – and comments upon – its thematic content, manifesting Sam’s ultimate understanding that: ‘Time turns like soil, not wheels, soil, not water, soil’ (350). If time folds eternally into itself like this, then Dyschronia warns us that we are all connected, and thus always soiled by the consequences of each other’s actions. Whether we face this fact – or deny it – is up to us.






HC Gildfind (hcgildfind.com) is the author of the short story collection The Worry Front published by Margaret River Press.


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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker