I’m trying to find the relevance of my PhD project again. I’m sitting in the room where my editing job was made redundant over a Zoom meeting, and I’m watching the time in the corner of my screen. A million years ago, it was March. Yesterday, it was the middle of April and then somehow, somewhere, May and June happened. Finding yourself in the centre of a dystopia while concurrently trying to write a dystopia is an odd thing. The situation is both mundane and frightening.
Last year, I had spent the month of November drafting an entire creative manuscript for my thesis, and I now wonder whether the entire thing needs to be scrapped. I have to start thinking about what this crisis could/would/will/should mean for a project that offers a prediction of the working lives of women in a future Melbourne; a project that is now either more relevant than ever or completely insignificant. What insights can a dystopian novel offer to a world that is collectively in the midst of a disaster? A disaster where we are unsure what the ‘end point’ will look like. The ‘new normal’.
Before lockdown, I’d spent the best part of two years devouring Australian dystopian novels and reflecting on how these fictional worlds both mirror our own circumstances while offering warnings that, if the warped reflections are not addressed, there could be worse to come. Worse in every sense. Politically, culturally, economically. I found that the best stories depicted these worlds not in a pedagogical manner, but as a matter of fact. These would predict the perils of certain ideological outcomes, such as The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood, while others would warn of current and past atrocities being repeated, such as Claire G. Coleman’s brilliant Terra Nullius. I was particularly intrigued by depictions of technology as both an emancipatory tool and a mode of exploitation. I often thought about the implanted chips in Melissa Ferguson’s The Shining Wall, enabling both communication and corporate surveillance, and the bio-recycling unit that is both macabre and resourceful.
In the first few days of lockdown, while the updates were trickling in thickly every day and I found myself constantly refreshing The Guardian homepage with no regard for what that might be doing to my mental wellbeing, the minutes and hours dragged. It’s an odd phenomenon for a society used to the quick-paced world of late capitalism. Up until that point, it had felt like every year had passed quicker than the last, and I put it down to a regular symptom of growing older. Sitting squarely in my thirties, I imagined that life would only get faster; easier to forget about and let slip away. But the month of March felt like a lifetime, with the month of February sitting light years behind us in a world that we started describing as ‘pre-COVID’ in our Zoom conversations. There weren’t days of the week anymore, just the number of days since it had all began, with ‘pre-COVID’ and ‘post-COVID’ being distinct periods of our lives. There was new information every day and so the latest update felt immediately archaic when a new one broke.
The way that time can seemingly shift and stretch in a crisis gave new perspective to the Australian dystopian novels that play with chronology. Jennifer Mills’ Dyschronia explores a near future where events have both happened and are yet to happen, prophesised by a woman who may be suffering from a sort of chronological version of dyslexia. I read this book ‘pre-COVID’, straight after I finished reading Angela Meyer’s A Superior Spectre, which follows the lives of both a man in the future and a woman in the 1800s. Both texts are wildly different in setting and themes, but both present us with a dystopia that lives within the grasp of own world and time, dipping in and out of time periods. Both present a dichotomy of place, of genre, of characters. A chafing of both the familiar and the new.
Through lockdown, I was experiencing something new—something that didn’t remind me of anything that had come before—but each day had the same surroundings as the day that had just passed, and the years that had come before that. My bedroom. My loungeroom. My kitchen. My bathroom. Places so familiar to me were now imbued with the sense of a new crisis. A crisis that was difficult to escape or compartmentalise. My dining room melded into my study which then became the room where I would participate in social Zoom calls. And I found it difficult, for the first time in years, to pick up a dystopian novel. The new and uncertain had overwhelmingly infiltrated my daily life and I longed for the familiar and uplifting. Ursula Le Guin states, in her pivotal essay on utopias and dystopias, Utopiyin, Utopiyang, ‘yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing.’ I see my yearning for the familiar as the soft, dark cocoon I try to retreat to in times of crisis. My bed. My old books. My old music. I see my need for other worlds, exploration and new experiences as active and penetrating. Something rankles about Le Guin’s use of the male and female to make the distinction, but the yin and yang stand out to me. Le Guin urges us to embrace chaos, be receptive, be fluid, be easy, while acknowledging the place for the hardness, the penetration.
I listened to the public domain audio book of A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, drifting in and out of sleep against the croaky yet comforting voice of the narrator. I devoured the pure optimism and joy of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence while my much-anticipated copy of Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout sat beside me. The Glad Shout had been recommended to me by a friend, ‘pre-COVID’, and I had wondered why on earth I hadn’t read it before. But then I picked it up in the middle of the long March and it had felt too real, too raw, too possible. It affected me in ways I love and expect from great stories, but in a way I couldn’t emotionally handle in the middle of the long March. So I listened to my favourite Beatles songs over and over. I watched old episodes of The Simpsons. I ate food from my childhood. I endured the stretched-out March and the slackened April, and now that we find ourselves turning to possibilities of ‘new normals’, I think about how my PhD project could offer an alternative to the world that ended in March. Perhaps a utopia. A eutopia. A post-apocalyptic meshing of the yin and the yang. The chaos and uncertainty cocooned in a hard shell of hope and optimism. Or perhaps a dystopia. A warning. A depiction of what could happen if the ‘new normal’ is just the ‘old normal’, or something worse. The utopian and dystopian novels from the past, pregnant with the crises the writers had experienced in their time, can offer roadmaps for how to clamber out of, or simply endure, this crisis. This change. This new way of being. I reach for The Glad Shout again.
Rebecca Bryson is a writer, researcher and editor who is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University. After having worked in the publishing industry for eight years, she threw caution to the wind and decided to try her hand at the more creative side of the writing game. She has a particular interest in speculative fiction about unexplored worlds and her research is centred on the future of technology from a Marxist feminist perspective. Her creative work has been published in The Suburban Review and Verge 2020, and her short story Infinite Scroll was commended by the judges of the 2019 AAWP/ASSF Emerging Writer’s Prize 2019.