2004 saw the publication of Maggie Gee’s tenth novel The Flood, a story of climate change written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and featuring many of the social and political concerns of the early 2000s. Two decades on, and literally a generation later, it is fascinating to see Gee’s daughter Rosa Rankin-Gee exploring similar themes in her second novel, Dreamland.
As one of the original Best of Young British Novelists in 1983, Maggie Gee has spent her career somewhat in the shadow of the big (male) beasts of that group. Undaunted, she has continued to produce probing, energised works of a strikingly independent cast of mind, darkly humorous meditations on the way we live now, speculative satires on the way we might be going. Written from multiple and ever-shifting perspectives, The Flood was not a post-apocalypse novel so much as a postmodern take on the state-of-England novel, as if shaken, stirred, and reimagined by Virginia Woolf. Climate change narratives were not nearly as common in 2004 as they are now, most especially in the arena of literary fiction in which Gee writes, and for this reason alone The Flood must be counted as prescient and innovative.
Rosa Rankin-Gee's choice of subject matter in Dreamlandis therefore hardly surprising. Climate fiction has become a part of the literary landscape, in the mainstream as well as in science fiction and, if anything, the race and class divides that inspired The Flood have become more deeply entrenched. If Maggie Gee’s approach to her material is surreal with shadings of Weird, Rankin-Gee goes for stark realism, drawing on contemporary politics and social tensions in a more direct manner. As Dreamland opens, we see the novel’s teenaged protagonist Chance standing on a beach, watching and then rushing to help as an unnamed man struggles to pull his drowning child from the rising tide. The scene is strongly reminiscent of the horrific photographs of the drowned six-year-old Syrian asylum seeker, Alan Kurdi, that went viral on social media in 2015, and this is clearly no accident. Rankin-Gee’s narrative is set in the near future, but she wants her readers to feel that parts of it at least are happening already.
The narrative proper begins a decade earlier, when Chance is seven years old. She is living in temporary accommodation in London with her mother Jas, and her older half-brother JD, who has ADHD. Jas is at the end of her tether. After being pushed from one unsuitable B&B to another, she takes advantage of a scheme organised by an up-and-coming politician, Rex Winstable, offering cash to families willing to move out of London and relocate to coastal towns in the southeast of England. Jas insists this will be a new start for all of them, a “clean slate.” But on arrival in Margate, it is clear that those with money and somewhere else to go have already moved out, leaving the town increasingly impoverished, and without the wherewithal to combat the changes that are on their way.
With resources stretched and schools mostly closed, JD quickly falls under the influence of the charismatic but abusive Kole, while Chance joins the ever-expanding company of cat burglars and criminal opportunists, raiding the abandoned homes of the rich as the only form of enterprise left open to them. When JD is arrested, Jas and Chance are forced to accept the protection offered to them by Kole, a dangerous bargain that has repercussions of its own. As the effects of climate change accelerate and multiply, the people of Margate become increasingly desperate. When, in the aftermath of a massive storm surge, a new initiative is launched, many of them seize upon the chance of relocation as their only hope. But who exactly are LandSave, and what are their aims? Although Chance’s life experiences to date have taught her not to take the people with clipboards at their word, the consequences of rejecting the help on offer look equally grim.
Chance’s narrative is addressed to an unseen “you,” and her relationship with her absent lover, Franky, shadows the action of the novel as a whole, offering glimpses of light and freedom before snatching them away, leaving both Chance and the reader smarting from the reversals. If there is hope at the end of this novel, it hangs by the most fragile of threads. If there is any moral justification behind Franky’s actions, we will never hear it, and for me at least the lack of ultimate resolution to Chance and Franky’s story increases the impact of the novel as a whole.
If “Dreamland” is both the name of the famous amusement park just outside Margate and the blissful euphoria Chance succumbs to after meeting Franky, it is equally an ironic reference to the state of denial we currently inhabit, a political climate in which whole classes and races of people can be deemed disposable. Through the interlocking fates of her characters, Rankin-Gee shows how the tightest of family units can fracture under pressure, how poverty erodes potential, how the politics of patronage and contempt are often the fuel for social division and inequality. From Windrush through Grenfell to COVID, the real-world sources for Winstable’s policies are clear to see. Rankin-Gee focuses particular attention on the social cleansing that took place in southeast England right through the latter half of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first, whereby London boroughs would shift the responsibility for social housing by effectively deporting thousands of “problem” families and refugee immigrants to the cash-strapped coastal towns of the southeast, communities that were already in need of support owing to the double pressure of Thatcherite economics and the decline of their traditional industries of tourism and fishing.
Rankin-Gee is effective in showing how, with the onset of climate change, the pressures on already disadvantaged communities can only be exacerbated. As a portrait of a very near-future England caught in a spiral of regressive political philosophy and incompetent leadership, Dreamland puts me strongly in mind of Carl Neville’s 2016 novel Resolution Way, a comparison that also serves well to highlight the novel’s problems. In writing and forming a novel, every author must make a crucial decision: is their book primarily about its characters, or about their situation? Every now and then, a novel will come along in which the two are perfectly in balance—Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes most immediately to mind—resulting in a story that feels devastatingly human as well as politically urgent. Such classics are rare, however, and my disappointment with so much science fiction in literary terms is wrapped up in the way it tends to privilege the polemical over the personal.
There are arguable reasons for doing this. For a writer intent on conveying a particular message, a particular set of ideas, it makes sense that those ideas will stand in the foreground of the narrative. The danger in taking such an approach is that subtlety and ambiguity will end up being sacrificed. In Dreamland, the “us” and “them” attitude is pretty much ubiquitous: London is the hated citadel of the rich, just as the charity workers who travel south attempting to help are characterised as Dior-wearing do-gooders. By the same logic, Franky has to end up being revealed as a two-faced liar because she’s an incomer, just as Kole has to be killed because he is an abuser, even though the ambiguities in his character and actions make him as interesting as he is dislikeable. Chance has to engage our sympathies despite her refusal to find out more about what’s actually going on in the world, even when the information is dropped at her feet in handy leaflet form. Chance’s dogged “whatevs” attitude, her repudiation of anything that might pass for engaged intellectual activity (of which she is more than capable) leads to narrative problems later, when Rankin-Gee is forced to resort to exposition in order to let her readers know “what is really going on”—classic “as you know, Bob,” in everything but name.
Dreamland’s main problem is tangential to this, and more specifically to do with its use of speculative materials. Rankin-Gee’s novel is no cosy catastrophe, and its focus on communities, on the fraying social fabric of a divided nation, is to be commended. However, as a regular reader of science fiction I feel like I’ve read literally dozens of novels like this, stories that follow the same basic trajectory: things were kind of OK for us, then they got worse, then some unprecedented event from outside (asteroid strike, Kraken, zombie war, megatsunami, whatever) made things so much worse. And they kept on getting worse until we died or were saved.
The fact that we don’t know which of these fates Chance meets is a mark in the novel’s favour, but it does little to offset the fact that Dreamland, skilfully imagined and passionately told as it is, offers little in the way of novelty or mystery. Rankin-Gee’s ear for estuary idiom is spot on, her storytelling is robust, with flashes of real beauty. But in the end it is Maggie Gee’s more allusive take on climate catastrophe that I find myself drawn back to. The Flood may be less incisive in its politics than Dreamland, but Gee’s wayward, idiosyncratic approach makes the novel, in literary terms at least, even bolder.