The future is now
When my brother left home in the 90s for the blinking lights of the IT boom, he gifted me something. I’d grown up with his penchant for sci-fi and intense 70s prog, but this was new: a space man called David Bowie. Unlike Freddy Mercury, who I wanted to marry, I didn’t want to be with Bowie: I wanted to be Bowie. Or, no, it’s more psychological than that. Our dad had died just before I was born and my 12-year-old brain pretty much slotted Bowie in as a vague approximation. I had, after all, grown up with stories about the beautiful man in purple hotpants who was my father—it checked out.
When Bowie died in 2016, it was at once shocking and very easy to believe that he’d been rocketed into space and that’s where he lived now. Bowie set us up for these multiple states of wonder: shifting forms between ‘an alligator’, ‘a mama-papa coming for you’, ‘a space invader’ and ‘a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you’. The ability to exist in multiple imaginative realms is what I love about science fiction in any form. For most people who are into the genre, sci-fi isn’t just an escape to another planet where everyone is called Zentox Fortuna. It’s a comment on the world around us. In asking ‘Is there life on Mars?’ we are at once longing for escape and expressing our loneliness on this blue planet. It has never been a genre that exists only in fantasy—the ‘science’ part grounds it. No fan is more excited when the fictional depiction is accurate or, even better, comes true. George Orwell predicted the surveillance state in 1984! Octavia Butler foretold Trump-era popularism in Parable of the Sower! Having stated my admiration, I have to admit that I don’t actually read much hard sci-fi—all that tech and interplanetary loping is too plotty for me. I either want gritty realism or speculative fiction that has its feet planted in the earth, its head in the what-might-be. These are my comfort genres. So, when the pandemic struck and we retreated into lockdown, it was to the hyper realistic and the daringly speculative that I turned.
Sally Rooney’s Normal People seems far removed from the ‘space face’ that Bowie taught me to hold close in love and art. Bookshops were shut and not delivering in NZ, so I pilfered my partner’s ereader and turned to Rooney’s 2018 novel so fully (feverishly, between Zoom meetings) because this concentrated portrayal of young love seemed suddenly out of this world. The closeness of the protagonists Marianne and Connell—an achingly human relationship, with character foibles that made me want to give Connell a good shake—would get them arrested in Covid lockdown. In my bubble, we had made a pact of kindness—moving gently, gently through our shrunken world. We celebrated my birthday by camping in the front yard. We hosted lockdown discos with our trapped friends on different continents—moths at the computer glass. My partner made the supermarket shop seem like showbags from a festival. In Normal People, Connell and Marianne misunderstand each other, leave each other ‘unfit for normal relationships’, get as physically close and as geographically far away as they can, meet (maskless) again and again. I’m leery of adaptations to film and TV unless they’re done exquisitely and this was: I watched the series like I read the book.
When lockdown ended, we packed up the car and fled north to the beach for one week that turned into three. I did my Zoom teaching with salt in my hair and—still having not seen a bookshop—consumed Ling Ma’s Severance (2018) on the ereader. If Normal People took me to an unknown nostalgia, I used Severance as a guide for how to understand both the pandemic and the pandemic novel that I’d just released … into the pandemic. Severance so beautifully balances the corporate manifestation of the spiritual world (the narrator Candace is a bible-publishing logistician) with the bodily and psychological resonance of a virus that zombifies its victims. That the virus is triggered by nostalgia offers a beautiful nod to the world we have just lost: ‘Let us return, then, as we do in times of grief, for the sake of pleasure but mostly for the need for relief, to art’. It is through Severance that I realise that the very foundations of genre have shifted: anything other than speculative fiction is now nostalgia (and speculative fiction might currently be considered realist).
This realisation was driven home as I scrolled, homesick, through Ronnie Scott’s The Adversary (2020). Set in a Melbourne outside of both my age and friendship group, I wanted to follow these men through the streets of this city I loved, forever teetering ‘on a verge made up of chlorine and the sun, now revved up, now satiated, now tired, now flushed’. The intimacy of Scott’s The Adversary would have resonated pre-pandemic anyway, but now this was exactly what I needed to cling to in a book. Previously, I had always read gritty realism as though I was listening to ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ for the first time: brand new but with that infinitely recognisable riff to nod along to (‘Who knows? / Not me / I never lost control’). Andrew McGahan’s Praise(1992) is one of my favourite novels in this style, foreshadowing a Brisbane that I lived in soon after. But I read The Adversary more like Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip (1977): a memento of a time, perfectly captured.
Genre is liquid and meant only to assist readers in bookshops and libraries, not to limit writers. And there is nothing like a book such as The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle to resist all categorisation and turn what I thought I knew of the natural world, my body and fiction on its head. I read The Octopus and I as my world is opening up again. It is a real book with real pages ordered from a real shop. I can press my face against other people’s by now and, though my beloved Melbourne is still in and out of lockdown, things are looking better—if forever altered—in the Antipodes. In this extraordinary novel, the protagonist Lucy navigates a new world viscerally, her body transformed by illness and accident, and her understanding of the creatures she shares a wild part of the Tasmanian coast with constantly shifting. But this book doesn’t open with Lucy: it is narrated, in the opening chapter, by an octopus who draws us into a space where—rolling in the waves— ‘I become heavy become flat become fixed become pinned to the sand and I cannot spiral and jet I can only slither’. I am tidal after reading this book, moving to a different rhythm.
My brother tells me that he went back to some of the old sci-fi in 2020. It hadn’t aged well. ‘Green boobs in space?’ I wonder. Pretty much. Retrograde portrayals of every single woman is his summation. Many things have changed, especially in the last year and a half. I have too. I was always a future thinker—the past fatigued me, the present itched. I placed most of my thoughts in what would come next. A result, I think, of being a fiction writer—always planning for the worst scenario to be overcome by the best one. The future is a bit dark and swirly now though, isn’t it? The deepest ocean. The farthest reaches of space. As we ‘turn and face the strange’.
Laura Jean McKay is the author of The Animals in That Country (Scribe 2020) — winner of The Victorian Prize for Literature and Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction 2021.