Set in a future where human civilization is threatened by mass environmental destruction and the remaining population lives in redesigned sustainable cities under ‘Ecolaw’, permanently at risk of further collapse. Framed as a future dystopia, the themes of media, memory and precariousness are utterly contemporaneous.
In this world, mass audiences are captivated by haptic entertainment with an obsessive focus on the spectacle of natural disasters—the ‘immersive cinema’ pioneered by the novel’s protagonist, Max Galleon. A global media frenzy centers on Pitcairn Island, which is sinking into the sea with the risk of unleashing a mega tsunami. Max and his business partner Jean see this as an opportunity to make their biggest production yet. If it’s just another event in a long series of disasters, they’ll have made the most epic catastrophe film of all time. If it’s the ultimate upheaval that makes the planet uninhabitable for humans, they will have made the final film.
The constant existential threat of natural disasters is the primary constraint that shapes people’s ideas of society and what’s necessary to survive. Max’s two children illustrate two different coping strategies. His daughter Lilly is addicted to Pow-Wow, an insufferable cartoon Panda that gamifies energy consumption and rationing in a way reminiscent of Jesse Schell’s infamous predictions from 2010; while his son Jonas works obsessively on his ‘Timeline of Misconception’, a school project focusing on the history of incorrect and dangerously wrong assumptions of human knowledge.
A stylistic and thematic debt to Ballard and Houellebecq is strongly evident, particularly in the the dark and deadpan comedic tone and languid and compliant outlook of the narrator. But the idea of the classic apathetic everyman is taken somewhere a little different by the elements of memory outsourcing and forgetfulness which provide a strong logic and explanation for why Max thinks like this that goes beyond mere nihilism.
Despite his status and relative security, Max feels uncertain and impotent. His manifestation of anxiety and avoidant behaviour will be familiar to anyone who has experienced social media addiction. The emotional core of the story is centered around Max outsourcing and manipulating his memories in the cloud and trying to connect neurally with his comatose brother, raising questions about what the future means for someone who exists in a perpetual present with an artificial and heavily-edited past replacing real memory.
The edited memories leave a residue. Far from a comfortable forgetting, these tweaks to the timeline remove the awareness and imagery of events but don’t efface the emotional, lived experience. This is encapsulated by the lonely and strange affair Max has with the doctor treating his brother. She asks him to erase the logs from the archive after they sleep together, hinting at a relationship as a perpetual Groundhog Day, continually reconciling and repeating without building on their previous time together. Yet later, Max feels an intense sense of loss and longing, searching for details of her in the archive, knowing there is something important, but unable to remember the colour of her eyes. This leads to Max scrolling back through his archive, deleting memories at a whim, going right back to his first memory after the operation to add the implants that allow him to do this. It’s a perfect snapshot of who this character is and a wry observation about the relationship of identity and memory to our obsession with Instagram and social media timelines. Despite being a superstar auteur director renown for his skill at combining sensations and images, Max is careless and sloppy, with no sense of how to organise and groom his timeline. This provides an interesting inner echo of the uncertainty and precariousness of the broader environmental situation.
The novel very cleverly functions as a commentary on our present world as well as being an alarming warning of what the future could look like. Unlike the tiresome late 20th century setting of most recent Australian fiction, The Island Will Sink seamlessly integrates emerging technologies like driverless cars, AR, VR and haptics, as well as the social context of gaming and gamification. It’s satisfying as a science fiction novel but it also functions completely outside genre expectations as a vivid exploration of control and surrender.