In our era of climate change, prophecies about our future are commonplace. Scientists are our key prophets nowadays – though they are often repudiated or betrayed, like the religious prophets of old – but writers also increasingly offer their prognostications. Dyschronia, the third novel by the Australian writer Jennifer Mills, is another contribution to the future-oriented genre of cli-fi or climate-change fiction. Future gazing is also thematised by Mills’ novel.
Dyschronia is a word that describes confusion about time. The novel’s main protagonist, a girl named Sam, begins experiencing migraines accompanied by visions of the future. She is seven years old when the first episode of foresight occurs. Her pragmatic mother seeks help from science and Sam undergoes many years of medical tests and treatments, all to no avail.
When Sam correctly envisions the suicides of six men at her small town’s asphalt plant, and the Aspco Asphalt company ultimately closes down – because a “melting Arctic and rising wages locally meant that oil was getting expensive” – Sam becomes a scapegoat for the town’s bereaved and unemployed. The town of Clapstone had relied on Aspco Asphalt for its existence, even as its ground and people had been contaminated by it.
Sam’s status, however, changes with the arrival of an outsider, Ed, who recognises the economic potential represented by Sam’s “gift” or “genius”. When Sam predicts an unlikely flood, in a town that has been gradually reduced to termites and dust, Ed persuades the townspeople to invest in flood insurance. The flood is not as severe as anticipated, but the desperate townspeople ensure that the floodwaters do the kind of damage they are now counting on. Sam observes how “Garage floors were covered with water, just as she’d seen them. But the mud that marked the walls was plastered there with hands and brooms.”
This experience gives Sam the courage to believe that she can transform the future that is thrust upon her during her painful visions. After all, adults “made the world to whatever images lived in their head”. When she has a dire vision of the town’s prospects, linked with a mutant sea creature dredged up from the deep, she tells Ed that she has envisioned a tourist-attracting monument to the endangered cuttlefish, akin to the Big Lobster. Ed puts together a prospectus and begins to make this future happen. But damaged futures cannot be resolved by a childish whim. Neither can they be changed by a corporate act of will. As Sam’s mother warns, “All this business with the future, it’s not a game.”
Sam’s perspective is not the only one depicted in the novel. Other chapters employ a first-person plural narrator to represent the chorus of the townsfolk of Clapstone, who had “absorbed our hydrocarbons with our times tables” but who become ever fewer in the aftermath of Aspco Asphalt’s closure. The story of the townspeople begins with a noxious smell waking them and leading them to discover that the ocean has deserted their seaside town, leaving the detritus of thousands of marine deaths: “Gradually, the smell is revealed, as if the clear light marks it out as visible against the beach … The light isn’t shimmering off the sea like it’s supposed to. The light is bouncing off hard, still sand, and something else, many things, slick and lumpish things.” Mills’ evocation of the apocalyptic landscape is shockingly good.
For a while, the residents make a living from becoming exhibits in a “real live ghost town”. However, they come to be viewed as an “inconvenience” and “embarrassment” by the tourists, who leave bad reviews. The townspeople then begin receiving cryptic letters from a large corporation. Finally, a representative from one of its subsidiaries, Aquifer and Ink, arrives with news from the Department of Sustainable Communities that the area has been rezoned “as an unviable region for settlement”. The townspeople will be forced to relocate, even though they are told “the whole state’s looking a bit patchy right now. Desertification has been a huge issue, gas debilitation, groundwater. Not to mention the sinkholes.” The company representative shows pictures of a migrant camp that has been expanded to cater for “the internally displaced”. Early talk of compensation for the townspeople is twisted into talk of their “net financial obligation” to the mysterious company.
Here we are in absurdist territory, reminiscent of the work of Wayne Macauley, who satirises corporate machinations in the teasingly askew and allegorical worlds of his fiction. In one terrific paragraph in Mills’ novel, the proverbial river of time is briefly portrayed as a river of money – “It just flows and flows, finding the low ground, the crevices … We move with its logic” – but Dyschronia never commits to a critique of capitalism as the destructive currency of our times. The time-as-a-river motif is lost in a confusion of submarine images. Neither does the novel commit to the absurd or allegorical, given the chapters from Sam’s point of view are often realist or even melodramatic in tone and style. The result is incoherent. And whereas the characters in the townspeople chapters are deliberately anonymous, their representation in Sam’s chapters comes across as simply sketchy. The effect of both is to keep the reader at a distance from what happens to anyone. Finally, the novel doesn’t live up to the philosophical promise of its title, despite its tricksy ending.
Dyschronia sounds like dystopia, and Mills’ novel is not an optimistic work of cli-fi despite the strain of parody that enlivens it. Sam reflects, “It’s a fantasy, that belief the earth will heal itself.” Dyschronia does not compensate readers with fantasies of a brighter future. After all, Sam’s visions of the future are cripplingly painful and disabling, and her attempt at reimagining the future misguided and hopeless. There is no suggestion that Mills’ novel is interested in this scenario as an allegory for cli-fi, but the point of her future-gazing is something I have been left pondering. KN
Picador, 368pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 27, 2018 as "Jennifer Mills, Dyschronia". Subscribe here.