Best of 2019: Confronting the facts in our fiction

Chris Else describes an uncertain future in his new novel Waterlines. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Chris Else describes an uncertain future in his new novel Waterlines. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Our times need stories but they need to be told well, novelist Chris Else tells Tom McKinlay. 

Dystopias are best if they are a little way off, and some climate fiction (clifi) obliges.

For example, American writer Kim Stanley Robinson's tale of a drowned New York of 2140, pushes the action out more than a century.

But other recent climate-driven fiction has crept closer, shadowing the trajectory of IPCC pronouncements, each one of which seems to bring climate calamity a little closer.

These include Omar El Akkad's American War, set in a roasting world later this century, the Booker long-listed The Wall, by John Lanchester, again describing a "not-too-distant" tomorrow in which Britain cowers behind a wall holding back waves and waves of migrants, and Philip Temple's MiStory, depicting a future of war, food shortages, epidemics, economic chaos and totalitarianism just decades off.

Dunedin writer Chris Else has joined their ranks, describing a future that has arrived sooner than we'd like in his new novel Waterline.

It takes place just 20 years from now, in a world in the grip of a near Orwellian surveillance state, delivered via artificial intelligence, cast adrift from any sort of climate certainty. It's set comfortably this side of 2050 zero-carbon targets, which have clearly failed to head off global warming.

"I didn't set out with a focus on being dystopian," Else says. "I don't actually have any claim to be a futurist at all. And I think my thing is that if you write about the future you will certainly get some of it right, but you will certainly get some of it wrong too."

Black swan events will always knock us sideways, he says.

But it is going to become increasingly difficult to write a contemporary novel in which climate change does not feature, he says, such will be its impacts.

"It would be a bit like writing a novel in the Second World War, you are in London in 1943 ... how can you not talk about the war?"

Indeed, the likes of Amitav Ghosh's latest novel, Gun Island, is climate fiction - or perhaps reportage - right now: storms washing away Bangladesh as the pages turn.

"Climate and other issues, computers and technology, they are in the background even if you don't talk about them," Else says. "They are looming larger. I suppose you don't have to address them directly, but you are going to be addressing them indirectly - you have to, otherwise your fiction just seems weird."

While such concerns provide the backdrop to Waterline, Else says the impetus for the novel was actually its main character, Stella.

We meet her on the opening page, unhappily moving house with her two children. It is immediately clear they are shifting down, on their way to somewhere less desirable.

"I was interested in her because I was thinking about status and how important it is to us and how in fact it is probably an instinctive thing," Else says. "It is to do with our animal nature. Measuring ourselves against each other ..."

We appear to share that with our primate cousins, he says.

"And how that is bound up with the whole business of consumerism. The way in which for many people, spending is the way they establish their status, whether it is through their car or their house. The way they dress."

It does not appear to be based on need.

"It seemed to me that if we are in a climate change arena, if we are going to make a difference there, we are going to have to change the consumer aspects of our society, and if that really is bound up with status and if status is in some sense an instinctive thing, that's a tough job."

So, that's the job Stella is tasked with in Waterline. She's a woman from a privileged background, confronting the loss of status in all kinds of ways.

Indeed, the book's tagline - not Else's work, but he seems to quite like it - "Stella's world is slowly going under" sums it up. The only word in dispute there is "slowly".

"I tend to see it as primarily a book about character, but for that kind of reason, it is also a book about the times."

Our times need stories, Else believes.

Alongside it's various awareness-raising missions, Waterline is also an exercise in delivering kinetic, page-turning narrative.

"I set out to make it as readable as I could, have it bowl along," he says.

Else recently stuck his head above the parapet to suggest Aotearoa's writing output could do with a refocusing on storytelling.

Creative writing schools have been very good at drawing the best out of budding authors, helping them to create authentic voices and styles, he says. But the process can overlook a fairly critical element.

"Storytelling is as much a craft as it is an art. There are certain things about stories, if you are going to have a good story, you need to pay attention to. And I don't think those technical things get covered in the right kind of way often. So you get stories that are beautifully written but not necessarily always a good read.

"You appreciate them page by page and sentence by sentence but you don't get a sense of being carried along by them in the way that you do by a really good story."

For a story, a novel, to provide that transporting read, it needs to tick some boxes; the reader needs to be interested enough in the main character to care about what happens to them, then certain structural conventions need to be attended to.

"For the first part of the story you are on the side of the characters, and then the second part of the story you step back a little bit and watch what happens to them."

It's a bit like bringing up children, Else says.

"This is the kind of technical stuff that I think doesn't necessarily get the attention," he says.

Having knocked off Waterline - in about 12 months, which was pretty quick for him, he says - it's back to Else's "millstone".

It's a tale set in 1970 that he's been chipping away at for quite some time. That moment in time too was chosen for the change that was in the air. It was a pivotal point between all sorts of things; between a high-water mark of counter culture and the moment when its trappings - dope and protest among them - went mainstream.

"By the time you get to 1975 the middle class are doing that stuff," he says.

There are echoes of our reality in those times, Else says, including big street marches.

There were all sorts of weird things going on in the Auckland of 1970, he says, up to and including terrorists blowing up stuff.

Without giving too much away, Stella's world also gets somewhat incendiary in Waterline and she must face up or fade away.

And there is the task for fiction in a warming world, Else says.

"Facing the reality in fiction will become more and more difficult."

Else predicts one likely response will be a growing market for escapist fantasy.

"I think this happened to some extent in Europe during the '30s, which were pretty bleak," he says.

"And probably a lot of humour: we are going to have to laugh at something."

Though it might be quite black humour, he says.


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