Waterline by Chris Else (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2019), 311 pp., $34.99
Chris Else’s new novel fits neatly into the zeitgeist of current speculative fiction. Around the world, not surprisingly, writers are meditating on the environmental ruin of our planet, the precariousness of our personal freedoms, the perilous health of democracies and the encroaching all-powerful reach of corporate-owned artificial intelligence. From these depressing influences spring story after story of not too distant imagined futures. In some cases, such as in Ian McEwan’s recent Machines Like Me, the chronological setting is in the past but presents us with an alternative history – i.e. fiction that speculates on how life might have been had certain major technological advances and/or catastrophes taken place earlier.
Else does not give us the exact year for Waterline, only a single line serving as a kind of introduction: ‘In a place and time not far from here and now.’ New Zealand readers will enjoy recognising some of the ‘here’: Byte could be an apocalyptic Wellington. The talked about but never visited (in the narrative at least) Wellesley could be Auckland.
The latter city is where the central family has previously lived until, at the novel’s suspenseful opening, Stella and her teenagers Mandy and Luke arrive in a self-drive van at South Head, the ‘3-star’ suburb of Byte that is to be their future home. The father is coming along separately to join them later but for now the small group seems vulnerable, the streets full of ominous threat. The kids bicker, give their mother cheek and make demands as to who will get the best room. Thus Else introduces us to this same but different world – everyone carries IPDs, cellphones with screens that can be rolled up and down. SLUB, BORIS, EARTHed: various acronyms enter the story and are always explained immediately. The reader is never left dangling in some misplaced attempt to demonstrate how clever the author is.
The world Else creates is certainly clever, and there is a gentlemanly, learned, almost courtly authorial presence that guides the narrative, even when events are violent and shocking. Much of the plot is heavily foreshadowed to the point that, were the sex and violence removed, the book could read as a YA novel. The style is old fashioned but skilful, particularly in structure. Chapters often end as cliffhangers; closed third-person perspectives dominate chapter by chapter, bringing us close to a large, well-handled cast; characters are complex, conflicted and for the most part extremely likeable.
Although Else does not explicitly say so, the assumption is that the Handson family is Pākehā. Stella is described as beautiful and well dressed, with a ‘top notch accent’, i.e. an upper-class way of talking. She is the product of a rural middle-class pony-owning childhood, and received an education good enough to enable her to work as an editor. If the reader has not guessed or wondered about the Handson’s ethnicity, it would become clear at the appearance of Geordie. Geordie’s ‘coffee-coloured’ skin is mentioned, as are his brown eyes, his red lips in a black beard, his stature and large hands. Here is the contrasting ‘other’: he is Maori and the genial boss of a local gang that inhabits Garrison, a nearby town.
Maori culture appears to have taken a beating. Te reo is not commonly used and a pou outside Geordie’s house is described as ‘… a wooden pole, carved with vines and flowers – clematis, maybe – with the figure of a leaping dolphin on top’. When the people of Garrison meet, use is made of a ‘toko’, described as a ‘talking stick’, which, unlike a traditional tokotoko, doesn’t belong to anyone in particular but is passed around to whoever has the floor. There is some talk about ‘The Ancestors’ but nobody seems to remember their whakapapa. The reason for this plot point, possibly, is squeamishness or nervousness on the part of a white author. Else sets his futuristic story in the country he lives in but doesn’t want to offend anyone by assuming inside knowledge or cultural misappropriation. It is of course dangerous for a reviewer to make assumptions like this because it could just be that this was how the story unfolded in the author’s head in a pure process of creation.
As is a prerequisite with dystopic, futuristic novels, the natural environment is in big trouble. Refreshingly, Else does not hammer the reader over and over with dire consequences of our current wasteful lifestyles. True, the ocean has swamped areas where people once lived and Byte is partially encircled by a massive sea wall. But wildlife still exists – pūkeko and other birds, insects and fish. A character sees a photograph of the last remaining elephant and the queue of people waiting to see it before it dies. People still fall in love and have children. Stella thinks to herself at the novel’s midpoint: ‘How do you keep your sanity? What is there to live for? Just the children, just the instincts. The instincts kept you going when nothing else would. Driving blind.’
Some characters are not driving blind – or believe that they are not, because they have religion. Byte is dominated by the Knights of St Judas, a male-dominated violent cult garbed in black shirts like members of Destiny Church and Nazis. They are anti-science, anti-learning, and believe heaven is a computer – a nice touch in Else’s world-building. Other characters allow their lives to be dominated by the internet, just as people do now. Enhanced Reality junkies are recogniseable by the marks goggles leave on their faces. Young Mandy tells her mother, ‘I don’t want to be online all the time but I can’t stop,’ and follows it with ‘a helpless wail’. Many contemporary parents will recognise this anguish. A minor character is so involved in his online life he forgets to eat, drink or wash. People struggle to have real friends as opposed to those they meet online. It’s not always certain whether or not an entity on the other end of the line is a machine or a human. So far so familiar, except for the housebots who do the domestic chores.
‘Waterline’ is a page-turner. Else sets up jeopardy and danger within the first few pages. Characters change and develop, often making use of traits they already have. When Stella develops leadership qualities, she has a conversation with a woman in her community:
‘You can’t help it. It isn’t anything you do, eh? It’s the way you are.’
‘But I don’t want it.’
‘That’s part of it though. Not wanting it. It’s like Geordie. He doesn’t want it. That’s why he’s good at it.’
Else is good at telling stories. Waterline is in keeping with much in his earlier books, which explore characters’ psychological realities and the philosophies they employ to survive. A thoughtful and entertaining work.
STEPHANIE JOHNSON is the author of twenty books: novels, poetry, short stories and non-fiction. She has also written for the screen and stage. 2019 saw the publication of a novel The Sisters’ Lover (as Lily Woodhouse) and non-fiction/biography West Island: Five twentieth-century New Zealanders in Australia (Otago University Press).