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.