Nightmare on Planet Thanet: Rosa Rankin-Gee’s Dreamland

Anyone of the “climate dystopias are surplus to purpose” school of thought might as well click away now; Dreamland is very much not the droid you’re looking for. A staggeringly bleak extrapolation of post-Brexit Britain, taking as its focus the recently (and probably temporarily) reinvigorated seaside town of Margate as its setting, I’m not sure it would even do good service in the ‘cautionary futures’ category—but it’s a marvellous piece of literature nonetheless. I won’t say I loved it, because love is not a word that feels appropriate to something so unremittingly tragic, but I admire it immensely—not least because of the presumed emotional toll (which may perhaps also have been catharsis?) of writing it, and in doing so refusing to take the route of consolation or happy endings.

Dreamland is a first-person past-tense narrative, in which Chance tells the story of her family’s relocation from an all-too-believable near-future London of hyper-precarious housing for the underclasses to the once-again-declining town of Margate. Long since past its brief Twentyteens renaissance as a cheap alternative for artists and other middle-class DFLs (“Down From London”), a period during which Chance’s mother was an art student there, it’s become a dumping ground for undesirables in an increasingly fascistic Britain of infrastructural decay, rapid climate collapse and state-supported voluntary euthanasia.

Things go from bad to worse, contextually speaking, as Chance becomes a teenager through the first section of the book, but this is very dexterously handled by Rankin-Gee, who manages to walk the tightrope between presenting the situation as normalised to its young protagonist (who has never known any other way that things might be, other than her mother’s memories of what is effectively the reader’s present) and depicting the turning-feral of the entire Thanet peninsula, at first figuratively and then literally cut off from the mainland by both climate change and political abandonment. The middle section is shot through with the light of first love, as Chance encounters and falls for Frankie, a young woman claiming to be a charity worker, who arrives around the time of a gear-shift in the political situation—but by the halfway point it starts to become obvious that not all is what it seems. The third act follows the departure of both Frankie and any pretense that Planet Thanet is still part of the the country beyond, and Chance recounts the horrors of a community cut off from any form of hope or escape, even as she finally attempts the latter.

It’s a masterpiece, a book that forced me to stay up late three nights running in order to finish it—and I suspect that, now I know how it ends, I’ll never read it again. What pulled me through it this first time is the incredible power and control of Chance’s voice as the focaliser of the narrative, which had me gripped and convinced within the first few pages… and the lingering possibility, becoming fainter with every paragraph, that there might be some sort of relief from the downward spiral. But admirably, painfully, Rankin-Gee refuses any happily-ever-afters—although I think one could argue for there being a sort of tragic culminatory resolution for both Chance and one other character at the personal level.

From the perspective of technique, I find myself wondering whether that possibility of relief is (at least in part) a function of the narrative mode. As the mighty Clute has noted a number of times, the past-tense narrative, and particularly first-person versions thereof, imply the survival of the narrator beyond the timeline of the events depicted. This is of course only an implication, and there are fudges and ways around it, particularly in the more inventive forms of sf… but implications are powerful things, and in this case I think that implication plays strongly upon the sort of hope that I often talk about.

An optimist, I suspect, would be unlikely to make it past the first third of this book—and second-hand reading reports, provided by a friend with a connection to Thanet, suggest that people have bounced off it pretty hard precisely for its darkness of vision. Perhaps it’s precisely my commitment to hope, to the possibility of the critical utopia, that kept me reading right up to an ending which drowns even the most partial, contested and hard-scrabble utopian hope in a corvee-dug ditch of ever-rising sea water.

Dreamland is a powerful, ugly challenge to that sort of hope. Nonetheless, I think it stands—for me at least—as a monument to hope’s necessity. A brilliant, terrible book… and a damning document of the time and place of its writing.

delete after writing

Greetings from the midst of what seems to be an enduring motivational slump, and/or a mismanaged case of burn-out which is still smouldering, and/or a resurgence of a well-entrenched fear of uncertainty regarding (un)employment which, while understandable in terms of its formation, is profoundly maladaptive nonetheless.

I can’t write right now.

I mean, OK, sure, I can fill a page (or screen) with words and sentences—the practice has elevated such spooling-out to the status of a reflex—but I can’t express anything with those words and sentences, beyond my distress at my inability to express anything with those words and sentences. Which is to say: the blockage is not at the level of linguistic flow, but at the level of articulation of ideas. All writing is, at present, the writing-out (or writing-through) of thought.

I know some writery types who would argue that all writing is inherently and necessarily writing-out, and that anything beyond that—anything coherent, anything worth showing to anyone else—is revision and editing. Maybe that’s a universal truth, I don’t know. I do know that in recent times I have felt able to compose and draft with relative ease, across a variety of forms: essays, talks, papers. Perhaps I was always kidding myself on that front… though my ability to get the resulting stuff published (after some revision, of course) suggests that if I was fooling myself, then I was also fooling a lot of other people as well. Chalk another one up to “fake it ’til you make it”, maybe?

Nonetheless, here I am with a bunch of already-bumped deadlines on commissioned work, with fairly open briefs based around topics I’ve been working on for a decade or more, which were offered to me precisely because the commissioning persons believe I have something interesting and/or valuable to say… and I can barely structure an argument, let alone get past the extravagant throat-clearing that is part of my drafting process.

It’s not like I don’t know what the problem is. Hell, it’s right there in my first line: I am demotivated. To put it in some of my favoured theoretical terms, we might say that, after five to ten years of driving hard for a particular utopian destination, my encountering an impassable feature of the landscape has forced me to abandon that particular goal. The utopian direction of travel—utopian on both a personal and more general level—is still valid, I think. But I have run out of road. It’s not that the bridge is down, exactly… but at the risk of overextending the metaphor—a consistent happy-place tactic, if ever I’ve had one—it has become clear that my odds of making it over the bridge are incredibly slim, and dwindling by the day. Being confronted with this reality has also seen me give greater credence to dark rumours of what’s going down on the other side… though perhaps that’s just a mechanism for coming to terms with things.

But look at me, here, shrouding this stuff in overwrought metaphor; it’s telling that I can’t just say what I mean, isn’t it? Well, how about this, then: I’m not going to make it past the postdoctoral bottleneck of academia. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this, most of them systemic. It’s not a failure on my part so much as it’s a mismatch. It’s not that what I do isn’t useful, and it’s not that I don’t do it well enough. It’s just that there’s no free hole for this very square peg.

Well, selah. At least I can write, right?

Haha, yeah, OK. There are always droughts. I’ve been through droughts before. Just gotta keep tilling the soil, waiting for the rains to return.

But for now, I thirst.

#

On the matter of that mismatch: in some respects perhaps it’s stylistic (which is a topic for another day), but in others it’s perhaps due to the particular way in which I learned to write, and therefore to think. This aside from Dave Beer struck a chord this morning, while I was waiting at my vårdcentral for a bloodtest*:

Criticism and reviewing are often sidelined aspects of academic work […] Imagine being the social science eqivelent of a literary critic. You could write about and respond to books in the field, reviewing and thinking about debates and ideas. The focus would be on the dialogue around those ideas. Imagine writing review essays as a main outlet rather than more conventional journal articles. Book reviews and studies of thinkers and so on would be the preoccupation of that type of approach.

Oh, I have imagined being that—many times over. I have imagined it a lot in the last few months, in fact, as I try to conceive of a business model which would enable me to keep doing what I’m good at (and what I love). With apologies for seeming to compare myself to a philosophical titan, I came to writing (and the thinking that is writing) in much the same way as Benjamin, who is Beer’s point of departure in the piece linked above: I started out as a hand-to-mouth reviewer of books and music, and went from there to the rough and ready run-with-an-idea modality of blogging. One might uncharitably characterise this as a fundamentally reactive sort of writing/thinking—reactive, though I hope not reactionary—but it might be more generously described as synthetic, or maybe bricolage. (And what was Benjamin’s incomplete and perhaps uncomplete-able magnum opus, The Arcades Project, if not a sort of intensely literary and theoretical sort of bricolage?)

The cliche says that constraint is a gift to creativity, but I wonder if that isn’t also phrased in an unflattering way that conceals the really useful idea at its core. I have certainly known well the terror of the blank page, an arctic waste of risk, devoid of landmarks. And there are writerly Scotts, of course, bold adventurers for whom that howling and desperate terrain is as seductive as the sirens. But in writing, in thought, I suppose I am just as much a coward as I am in the physical realm.

(When I tell people that I climb, they often say “oh, you must not be afraid of heights, then”, to which I reply—very sincerely—that no, I am terrified of falling from heights, and that climbing for me is exactly about finding a way to not fall. And now it occurs to me that perhaps my current travails, discussed above, are the writerly equivalent of my recovery, still ongoing, from last year’s climbing injury: the physical break itself is mostly healed, but my psychological strength viz climbing is still not quite back where it was before the fall.)

The prompt—whether provided by a commission, a call-for-papers, or simply plucked from the rapids of the newsfeeds—has never felt to me like a constraint on my writing/thinking. Perhaps because it doesn’t tell me where I have to finish, but only where I might start.

All the thoughts I’ve ever had on infrastructure, whether written here or elsewhere, would likely never have happened if I hadn’t ended up working in an environment where responding to the word ‘infrastructure’ was the order of the day. I didn’t choose to be interested in infrastructure, really; rather, I was invited to think about it, given a point of departure. The same is probably true of futurity, though that was a more nebulous, emergent and zeitgeisty thing… and that came only after I had wandered outward from science fiction.

I have always said that the appeal of academia to me lay in its being the first way I ever found to make a stable and above-basic-survival income through the acts of reading, thinking, and writing about what I have read and thought. (Part of my coming-to-terms with the closing of that bridge is the recognition that, with very few exceptions, full-time academics spend perhaps ten percent of their working time on that aspect of academic endeavour.) With hindsight, the utopian destination of my blogging hey-day was something very much like the Benjamin-via-Beer practice above: writing from starting points that someone might pay for, and finding my way to what I now recognise as the synthesis of theory—a direction of travel (or perhaps a personal mental gravitation) which I suspect would prompt recognition in people who knew me long before I even decided to start writing.

Which is to say—perhaps—that I never really became a writer, so much as discovered that I always already was one? But no, that’s too much like falling back on fate as a causal principle, and fate is bullshit. Synchronicity is not pattern recognition, it’s pattern imposition. Conspiracy, fate and theory: all these are modes of personal narrative.

A shitload of words, here, from the point of departure of “I can’t write”. Perhaps the lesson here is that while a point of departure is necessary, it is not sufficient; some sense, however vague, of that direction of travel is also necessary.

It’ll come. The rains will come. I will find a new road.

But still I thirst.

[ * — Nothing serious, or so I hope; just trying to confirm that the slump isn’t a thyroid issue, or some other more obviously physical problem that might occur in a middle-aged person such as myself. ]

as if there was necessarily just one transition

Graeber and Wengrove again, referring to archaeological evidence from the soi disant ‘Fertile Crescent’:

If the situation in just one cradle of early farming was that complicated, then surely it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘what were the social implications of the transition to farming?’ — as if there was necessarily just one transition, and one set of implications.

p250

Mm-hmm. This applies to most talk of sociotechnical transition in the times ahead, as well as those in times past.

science fiction / social theory / infrastructural change / utopian narratology