The Island Will Sink

I picked up Briohny Doyle’s fiction, The Island Will Sink, after reading her social commentary memoir, Adult Fantasy. In Adult Fantasy, Doyle tracks her journey as she reaches - and seemingly fails to realise - the expected markers of adulthood. She fumbles through a long-planned 30th birthday party, getting too drunk to drive a convertible that she has hired in Las Vegas. She gets engaged, but backs away from marriage. Her dog dies, and she finds herself adrift without this core being by her side. She can’t afford a house, relying on a string of casual jobs. It’s a familiar story for many us, for whom adulthood has arrived warped and disconnected. Oppressive social structures - skyrocketing house prices, flatlining wages, expensive degrees and student debt, entering a casualised workforce, and living amongst increasingly commercialised public spaces - sit alongside powerful social shifts around love, sex, gender and relationships, and a desire to live bolder and braver lives than our parents. In the wake of this deconstruction, Doyle writes about trying to reconstruct what it means to be an adult, reaching for goals and ambitions beyond, or alongside, children, marriage, careers, money. Throughout Adult Fantasy, Doyle writes about the process of writing her first novel, The Island Will Sink, as part of her PhD thesis. The result is a powerful testament to the fruits of a well-funded university system.

Rich and compelling, The Island Will Sink focuses on Max Galleon, his wife Ellie, and children Jonas and Lilly, in a familiar near future. Where Adult Fantasy looked at the public issues being grappled with by young women in Australia, The Island Will Sink zooms out even further, to a climate-changed world where disaster has become essential viewing. The island in question, Pitcairn Island, is sinking, the effects of which, in combination with rising sea levels, could be catastrophic. Max, who makes ‘immersive cinema’ where viewers take on the role of a protagonist surviving a natural disaster, monitors Pitcairn obsessively on screens that appear in the air, and take up whole walls in his house. 24-hour coverage features pantomime journalists talking to endless streams of experts, monitoring stats and cartoon renderings of models and future projections.

In Max’s present, an energy crisis has come and gone, and beyond mitigation or adaptation, they live is a state of rolling crises. An unnamed government, or perhaps a somewhat benevolent corporation, monitors people’s every expenditure of energy and resources under ‘EcoLaw’. A “corporate motivational mascot” - a panda named Pow-Pow - dispenses digital green ticks when people take the stairs or shower in filtered water, and throws tantrums when people drink coffee or use too much energy. Pow-Pow exercises power not only through gamification of daily tasks, but also by recruiting children to monitor their parents - Lilly monitors Max’s stats, and gives him a speech on the history of the self-driving methane fuel cars that roll around the streets and follow run-away children.

The family live close to the derelict EcoTowers development, and tent settlements emerge and disappear on the edges of the city - gentrification has pushed people into even more dangerous environments. The EcoTowers, now home to fringe religions and cults, have been cut off from the wifi, with the hope of driving people out - instead, the Towers have become a refuge for those looking to escape surveillance. The family home is bunker-like, and their lives are strikingly absent of class or cultural diversity - is this eco-fascism for the one per cent?

Max’s latest film project focuses on the potential sinking of Pitcairn, and immersive cinema seems to have consumed Max’s life. Suffering some form  of amnesia, an implanted chip records all of Max’s life, his reactions and emotions logged in an archive. In the process of investigating the fate of his brother, Tom, who is in a coma, we learn that Max, and others, edit and delete sections of his archives, blurring the lines between reality and fiction.

However, the moral panic around the dissolution of human connections with the rise of digital connections is unfounded - relationships remain, at their core, profoundly human, but rather extended with digital enhancements - cyborg connections. What holds the story together is the enduring love that the characters hold for each other - spouses, lovers, children and parents.

As Pitcairn sinks by fractions of millimetres, krill go extinct, there are floods and fires and storms, and the family watch it all in real time. It’s deeply familiar. In the wake of the latest IPCC report, we live with an endless stream of information about the changing climate, and our role in that change. Australian farmers are struggling with prolonged drought; as I write this, we’re in the last sticky evening of a three-day heat wave, that has seen parts of Queensland reach temperatures in excess of 40 degrees; the IPCC has reported that we have just 12 years to stop the worst of climate change; a coffin-shaped iceberg is drifting towards warmer Antarctic waters to “die”. But despite this, our governments remain addicted to digging up every lump of coal the Australian continent has to offer.

Max and his family wait to see if the island will sink. We too, in an endless stream of information, a material and digital immersion, remain suspended - we wait to see if the iceberg will melt.

Amy MacMahon is an organiser and sociologist living and working in Meanjin/Brisbane, with interests in community development, social work, climate and food justice and feminism.

Photo by John Jason on Unsplash