In her Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlisted novel Dyschronia, author Jennifer Mills explores the tension between ecological and industrial transformation in a fictional, but recognisably South Australian, coastal town.
“People from other parts of the country talk about the landscape in this book like I invented it,” Mills tells The Adelaide Review. “Like, ‘Woah, where did you come up with this bleak apocalyptic landscape?’ And South Australians go, ‘Oh, I know that place!’” she chuckles.
“There’s a kind of cautious love for the country that I really love about regional Australia,” the Sydney-raised, Clare Valley-based writer explains. “You’re so embedded in the landscape you can’t avoid the bush, the weather, all these things. It affects you emotionally, these changes that maybe city people can avoid.”
In Dyschronia we watch as the town of Clapstone is buffeted by such change, first when its sole industry, an asphalt refinery, is shut down, and later when its coastline mysteriously recedes out of sight. The townsfolk that remain cling to any passing lifeline: an influx of tourists drawn to the ‘ruin porn’ of their emptied town, entrepreneurial shysters looking to cut corners and make a buck, and the apathetic intersection of government and corporation. At one point, hopes are even pinned on the construction of a classically Australian ‘big thing’: a fibreglass cephalopod centrepiece in a planned amusement park.
Complicating this recognisable cycle is town resident Sam, who has experienced chronic migraines and apparent visions of the future since childhood. With the help of a dreamlike structure that similarly drops the reader back and forth, unmoored in time, Mills mirrors the feelings of paralysis, grief and fury we might feel when the outcome of an impending disaster is well-known, but we continue on course regardless.
“The emotional terrain of the book is quite varied, I think,” Mills says, describing Sam’s stages of “denial, anger, inertia and nihilism”. “Watching the kind of policy we have in Australia, and around climate, has been incredibly frustrating and depressing. So that shaped the book in a way.”
Speculative fiction is often at its most powerful when readers are shown that seemingly perverse imagined futures are in fact close to reality, particularly for marginalised communities (to quote Terra Nullius author Claire G. Coleman, “Dystopian fiction is easy for Aboriginal people to write, because we’re living in a dystopia”). Like the work of authors such as Briohny Doyle, Alexis Wright, and James Bradley, Dyschronia portrays an Australia under climate change that often feels very familiar, as Mills consciously echoes the Northern Territory intervention, Manus Island camps and the adaptation already underway in climate change-affected parts of rural Australia. “I think we use the future tense too much when we talk about it,” Mills says. “It’s already here, people are already adapting – I live in a regional town and there’s a lot of farmers who are changing their crop patterns. It’s not something that’s in the future anymore.”
It’s a message that hits close to home in South Australia, where the onset of the climate crisis coincides with the decline of manufacturing and other industries – Mills wrote the book while Whyalla and Port Augusta faced such upheaval. “It was interesting to go to Port Lincoln, actually, and also to Streaky Bay,” Mills says of a recent Writers SA residency in the Eyre Peninsula, where that conflict is currently in play. “I feel like it’s very divided along class lines and political beliefs. Half the people have ‘Fight For The Bight’ stickers on their utes, and the other half has ‘Shoot Ferals’ on theirs.
“Economic necessity creates these really small frames for decision-making. Maybe a deep-sea oil well will bring jobs in the short term, regardless of what the oil does to the air and how a spill would completely decimate the underwater ecosystem.”
Mills is not without sympathy for people who face this crossroad. Half of Dyschronia is written from the collective perspective of Clapstone’s residents, sharing their needs, feelings and desperation. “There’s nowhere else to work, there are no other jobs. You look at Pirie, parts of Port Augusta that feel like a ghost town. And people live there, that’s their life – they’re just broke. Of course people are going to make the short-term decision that puts food on their table, because nothing else is being offered.
“We need to create a just transition from a damaging economy to a sustainable economy, and we need to do that while we look after workers and give people retraining and reskilling, and create a whole economy around care – care for the environment and care for each other. And I don’t see Australia moving in that direction yet.”
This, Mills says, is why such themes are increasingly coming to bear in Australian art and literature. “Maybe we step up and do some of the intellectual heavy lifting that politics is very slow to catch on to,” she says. “Human beings are creatures of habit and tradition and routine – we like comforts, and are not good at changing direction. The culture is this huge ship travelling in one direction, and we’ve all got to do our bit to turn it around. And because I’m a fiction writer, I use fiction.”
Dyschronia (Picador) is out now
Myponga, Photo: Sia Duff