Technically Human: Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

Reading in the New Year for the AWW2017 Challenge

This review is part of the AWW2017 Challenge

Briohny Doyle’s debut novel The Island Will Sink – published by Melbourne literary journal The Lifted Brow – opens on a pitch-black page emblazoned with the block-white lettering ‘ESTABLISHING SHOT’. Turning to the opening chapter, a television screen splutters to life to inform our waking protagonist – immersive environmental disaster filmmaker Max Galleon – that Pitcairn Island is undoubtedly sinking, and that this development could herald the final catastrophe: the destruction of humankind. Pitcairn’s impending submersion very quickly becomes the subject matter of Max’s latest film project, and the rest of the novel follows him through the production process to opening night. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to say that this is what the novel is about: indeed Max’s film arguably does not make its appearance until after the credits have rolled in the ‘DIRECTOR’S CUT’ section of the novel.

The novel’s focus – the Galleon family – is familiar: Max and wife Eloise have a caring, if incredibly strained relationship; adolescent son Jonas is intelligent but moody and seems to feel rather lost in his world; and six-year old Lilly is a beacon of dynamic – if terrifying – girlhood. Throw into the mix Max’s disgruntled, slightly sexist best-friend and business partner Jean; a long-lost brother (Tom) who now lies in a coma; and a brilliant doctor (Gabrielle Stern) who instigates the novel’s ‘ROMANTIC SUBPLOT’, and you have all the necessary ingredients to make a soap opera. But, again, this isn’t about one family’s (dys)functions.

The Island Will Sink is set in an uncanny near-future, and every individual’s action is recorded and backed-up by their personal Archive, making memory obsolete (‘It would be gratuitous to remember’, Max opines at one point). Yet, for Max – devoid of a short-term memory and startlingly susceptible to black-outs – the re-playing of moments becomes an obsession. Max struggles to understand how Jean can live without automatic upload to the Archive and intimates on a number of occasions that his own childhood – predating the technology – did not exist because it was not recorded (‘Who bore witness?’). Max’s relationship to memory and technology creates a tenuous reality which largely comes undone in the novel’s ‘ACTION SEQUENCE’. But, again, The Island Will Sink is not a moral lament on the hyper-technification of our daily existence.

Ultimately, the novel explores the impacts of both technology and the perceived distinction between the ‘natural’ and ‘human-made’ world on identity and community formation. It is about the permeability of boundaries: between worlds, between the self and these worlds, and between the self and others. Reminiscent of the novels of JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, and Don DeLillo, Doyle’s novel doesn’t make a priori judgements about ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but rather interrogates how particular technologies or circumstances can create conditions that influence behaviour: What does technology make possible and/or limit? What does our world’s destruction as entertainment value suggest or elide? How are interpersonal relations affected by changes in the status quo? By not moralising, by instead allowing her characters depth, nuance, and agency, and allowing for their creative response to the situations they find themselves in, Doyle raises pertinent and difficult questions about who we are, and how much our environment really impacts that.

Although The Island Will Sink runs to nearly 300 pages (slightly longer than usual) and is, in many ways, sprawling – encompassing numerous characters and relationships and (as the above summary suggests) multiple thematic and narrative strands – it does not drag. Doyle’s prose manages to be at once succinct and poetic – Lilly is described as having ‘small, white, bureaucratic teeth’ – and, in a novel indebted to the SF genre, this specificity with evocative language is a necessary condition for world-building:

Some time in the past decade, a once sprawling and dangerous suburban wasteland was flattened into a quaint pastoral. Beyond the central district, wind farms glitter the clear felled land. Regeneration zones are demarcated with fluorescent borders. Tiny native saplings bend on their skinny trunks – easy prey for rogue gusts and small twisters.

The Island Will Sink is an intriguing book with delightful characters – Lilly as eco-fascist reminiscent of the true-believer youths of Nineteen Eighty-Four was a personal favourite – but it is not perfect. Doyle’s characters are often given unrealistic dialogue, and while this at times adds to the alienating atmosphere which makes the novel so delightful, at others it serves as lazy plot explanation. Ellie compares Max’s ‘two obsessions’:

Tom, and that island. They are both impassive, and yet so much depends on them. On some decoding of them. On working out their past and future. You interact with them like you are playing one of Jonas’ games, and yet they are totally uncommunicative, sinking, sullen.

And these moments encourage a critical eye over other aspects of the text. The world of The Island Will Sink is incredibly functional and sexless and I found it rather unbelievable that, with constant access to the entirety of the internet at the flick of an eyeball, there wasn’t a single mention of a character looking up porn – surely the near-future isn’t so different from our own world! Sex does occur and is explicitly referred to – once – in relation to what Max considers ‘masculine, husbandly things’ (‘Lawn mowing. Minor carpentry. Fucking.’) before acknowledgement that such things are taken care of by ‘expertly designed machines…that know…my wife’s body with the benefit of centuries of research and design.’ This perhaps comes down to the permeability of boundaries which lie at the novel’s core – transcending the physical body and blending the self with the world of 1s and 0s is indeed a key aspect. But sex is nothing if not a blending of self and other, self and world; an entanglement of identity and identification.

The future is indeed bleak if human pleasure lies in nothing other than the sublime terror of watching a pacific island slowly lower itself into the ocean. Though that was possibly Doyle’s point.

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