Jane Abbott’s novel Watershed proposes a future climate change scenario that even the most pessimistic climatologist might hesitate to predict. The oceans haven’t just risen, they’ve inundated, drowning the old world beneath violent, debris-filled waves. The rains have ceased, at least on land where they’re needed, and most of the plants and animals are long dead. The land has become a sea of dust, and the scarcity of water means it has become the currency of choice among survivors.
Watershed is a Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic thriller where violence, or the threat of it, underpins almost every human interaction and everyone is at least a little mad. The protagonist, Jem, was born in the years after society’s collapse and raised by grandparents Sarah and Daniel, who remember the old world and cling to its moral codes, despite the fact that brutal self-interest is now the order of the day. Sarah and Daniel’s past is told in alternating chapters with Jem’s present, filling in Jem’s backstory and providing, in very broad strokes, the history of the collapse and its immediate aftermath.
In the present, Jem is a member of the Watch, a kind of post-apocalyptic CIA that specialises in quashing any sign of rebellion among the citizens of “the Citadel”. The inhabitants of the Citadel submit to a ruthless authoritarian regime in return for a measure of security and a meagre ration of water. All books have been confiscated, but this is largely a moot point as few people can now read. Religion is outlawed and the brutish Guard acts as the violent public face of the governing Council.
Jem has found his niche in this world by submitting to its cruel logic. The old-world morality his grandparents attempted to instil in him has been buried deep, and as the novel opens he is being tattooed with a mark to signify his 100th Council-sanctioned kill. The tattooist is his commander, Garrick, for whom Jem also habitually brings back a captured young man or woman for the sadistic Garrick to sexually and physically torture. When Jem is sent on a mission to rescue two Guards captured by rebels in a distant outpost of the Citadel, things turn out not to be as they seem, and Jem soon finds himself caught up in plots and counterplots, having to decide where his loyalties lie.
Watershed’s cover design hints that the novel’s publisher is perhaps hoping to align this novel with Hugh Howey’s blockbuster Silo series, which also features a post-apocalyptic world controlled by a shadowy cabal of tyrants, restricting the flow of information in order to rule a makeshift society with an iron fist. But the pleasures of Howey’s enjoyable, fast-paced and inventive series are mostly absent from Watershed.
One of the appeals of post-apocalyptic fiction is in imagining how you, the reader, would cope in the specific scenario presented. Would you find reserves of ingenuity and strength you never knew existed? Or would you throw in your lot with the sadistic cannibals skulking in the hills, picking off unwary survivors? This question doesn’t really arise while reading Watershed. If you were condemned to the relentlessly brutal Watershed version of the post-apocalyptic world, you’d probably fill your pockets with rocks and stroll happily into the ocean without a backwards look.
There is a level of nastiness in this novel that the lightweight plot and characters simply do not justify. Of course, violent and horrific acts are hardly unknown in post-apocalyptic fiction – no one who’s read The Road is likely to forget what was in that cellar – but unlike The Road, where Cormac McCarthy uses violence with precision and care to evoke the horror and sorrow of a dead world, much of the violence in Watershed seems to be there merely to illustrate the idea that people are mostly very bad. This is a rather facile lesson and hardly seems to justify the amount of violence, particularly sexual violence, to which the author subjects her characters and readers. And yet even in this respect Abbott pulls her punches, choosing to imply much of this violence rather than directly depict it. The broken and mutilated bodies of (usually) women are often presented and described only after the violence has taken place, but this doesn’t lessen the unpleasantness; it merely makes it feel callous.
We may not really expect, or even want, a thriller to delve deeply into the long-term psychological consequences of living in a society where violence and rape are the norm, but we do expect a thriller to thrill. And here again Watershed fails to deliver. The central mystery is not terribly interesting, and the characters are so vile and shallowly drawn that it’s very hard to care what happens to them. It is also sometimes hard to understand exactly what is happening to them. The voices of the male characters are almost indistinguishable; they almost all speak in the same posturing masculine ocker that is exhausting to read and, frustratingly, rarely conveys any actual information to advance the plot.
Despite the many weaknesses, when it comes to descriptive prose, Abbott’s writing is generally tight and fluid, well suited to the genre. Aspects of the post-apocalyptic world-building are also evocative; the image of the drowned cities, visible from the shoreline, slowly disintegrating into the swollen ocean, is beautiful and poignant. It’s a shame there aren’t more moments like this.
It’s also a shame to waste such a potentially fertile genre combination. A homegrown, post climate-apocalypse thriller should be a no-brainer, a welcome addition to the burgeoning genre of climate-change speculative fiction (or “cli-fi” if you can stand to use the term). Other Australian authors such as Jane Rawson and James Bradley have already produced some excellent works of literary cli-fi, but readers hoping for a cli-fi setting with a thriller spin may want to hold out hope that another such genre-melding experiment comes along. Watershed sadly fails to be a provocative vision of a post-apocalyptic world and a compelling action thriller, but instead is something less than either. DV
Vintage, 528pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "Jane Abbott, Watershed". Subscribe here.