Daughter of Bad Times
Great science fiction often tackles portentous real-world events. The genre provides a heady platform for the extrapolation of ideas, imagining what might happen if a current situation were pushed to extremes. Tasmanian-born author Rohan Wilson embraces the liberty of genre conventions in his latest book. Having thus far examined his home state’s brutal colonial history in the novels The Roving Party and To Name Those Lost, he changes tack by leaping five decades into the future with Daughter of Bad Times, a layered novel that can be read as a doomed love story, a climate change warning and a searing commentary on Australian refugee policy.
Yamaan Ali Umair and Rin Braden are a young couple in love. Rin’s mother is the CEO of Cabey-Yasuda Corrections, a company that exploits climate refugees by keeping them in servitude with the promise of an eventual visa. Yamaan is a Maldivian poet and house cleaner who, after a tumultuous romance with Rin and an island-ending tsunami, winds up in a Tasmanian CYC facility manufacturing toys. The story begins with Rin’s discovery that Yamaan, presumed dead in the tsunami, is alive and trapped in the cruel system her own family created in cahoots with the Australian government.
What follows is a clever attempt by Rin to infiltrate the CYC manufacturing plant and rescue her boyfriend. Interspersed with this are flashbacks explaining the origins of their unlikely romance and flash-forwards to a royal commission into a riot at the plant, alerting us early on to the notion that Rin’s mission will not go according to plan. (Amusingly, the portfolio of the minister on the chopping block covers “National Integrity, Corrections and the Arts”.)
Yamaan and his fellow refugees are treated with utter contempt by the governments of the Pacific region, as if rising sea levels are somehow their fault. Their survival is an inconvenience. With countries closing their borders in order to preserve their racial identity, the refugees have no choice but to accept the tempting (and only) offer of eventual Australian residency. They become essentially a new slave class – a humiliated asset to be deployed in the service of big business. Furthermore, once they are employed, everything they consume is charged to an account at extortionate prices, causing them to rack up enormous debt to the state. Some privately run prisons in America currently run along this model, and one can only hope no one in Australian government reads Wilson’s novel and views this as a viable solution.
No futurist text would be complete without advanced technology, and this is where many speculative stories come unstuck. Wilson avoids sceptical eye-rolls by eschewing the fantastical and sticking to the Minority Report rule – make it feasible and recognisable. Although Google Glass may not have taken off, characters here wear lenses that provide an overlay of useful information on the real world. Instant translation of foreign languages and live streaming prove especially handy. When Yamaan’s prison feed is intercepted and the Australian authorities send in War of the Worlds-style ambulatory drones to quell the riot, the horrifying potential of current technology becomes all too apparent.
Wilson’s characterisation has always been strong and he continues his sympathetic portrayal of marginalised groups in Daughter of Bad Times. He has a knack for understanding that people are not “one thing”, a failing in much of contemporary literature. Yamaan is not solely defined by being caught up in a disaster that destroyed his country. His personality is multifaceted, and believable. Climate destruction has caused him to lose faith in a higher power. He loves the poet Rumi. He is technologically adept. The poor bastard is even an arts graduate.
Rin is an interesting match for him. A Japanese orphan adopted by a rich American businesswoman, she grew up in New York, attended college and worked in one of her mother’s terrifying prisons as a guard. Despite her inculcation in the corporate world, her empathy for the downtrodden and her refusal to toe the line threaten to undermine Cabey-Yasuda’s nefarious agenda. Above all – and this is very well portrayed – she and Yamaan are two young people from different worlds who fall for each other, mainly due to an emotional bond formed by great sex and easy companionship. Their love story is one for the ages, although Yamaan is never fully convinced that the class divide can be overcome and has trouble understanding why Rin would risk her life and career to retrieve him from prison.
Some readers may be uncomfortable that Wilson has chosen to write in the voices of a Japanese woman and a Maldivian man. For what it’s worth, Rin and Yamaan are presented as rounded, intelligent characters, with no trace of racial stereotyping. Both of them struggle with their respective identities, as would anyone who is displaced and dispossessed.
The white-saviour narrative of Tasmanian eco-terrorist Daniel Howland, who enters the prison and immediately rabble-rouses the passive inmates of colour into an uprising, is more troubling. Perhaps Wilson’s intention here is to feature a character who represents privileged white guilt – those who feel awful at the refugee situation and want to take action, but in doing so make matters worse. Howland walks a tightrope between being an inspiring figure of empowerment and an archetype of paternalist activism. His character is likely to spark debate, but that is no bad thing. Any book that addresses the Australian malaise directed towards refugees must be welcomed. Daughter of Bad Times is filled with such talking points, and it will be interesting to monitor the response to this excellent novel of ideas, which proves to be as thrilling as it is incendiary.
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 4, 2019 as "Rohan Wilson, Daughter of Bad Times". Subscribe here.