There are clumsinesses and fascinations in this ambitious novel. What appear at first to be barriers to comprehension, though, are in fact among Daniel Vitale’s strengths. He presents a post-apocalypse world in which the USA has fallen apart after a series of climatic shifts, environmental catastrophes, and militia-led wars known as the Evanesence. This falling-apart is at times literal: at one point we are told that “the last ruins of New York City broke off and sank into the Atlantic.” In other words, the disconnects are part of the effect.
At one point in the novel’s second part, two characters with whom we (the reader) are familiar dine with another who is closer to the seat of power and knowledge in the world. As we see our viewpoint pair almost but not quite comprehending what they are hearing, virtually every sentence quivers with information that comes to us and to Tristan—information that illuminates our understanding of what we have previously learned.
Episodes like this make it difficult to summarise Orphans in Canland in the way you might want to describe a novel whose sole, or even major, purpose is to show us what our profligate consumption of natural resources is leading to—because, in the end, and much to its credit, that simplistic preaching is not what the novel is about. It is by no means an easy read, and perhaps isn’t meant to be. Similarly, while it is possible to read Orphans of Canland as what might off-handedly be dismissed as apocalypse-porn, I don’t think it is that, either. There is very little confirmed life-affirming optimism in it, but it does show us characters doing their best in dystopia.
The novel’s narrator is Tristan, twelve years old and living with his mother Helena and disturbed brother, Dylan, in the community of Canland, a “Restoration Part” devoted to repairing some of the damage that has been done to the planet. We would not expect a clear understanding of recent history from a twelve-year-old, and so we are presented with much which takes time to become clear. Vitale is fond of acronyms, and there are many here—WORLD (Worldwide Objective: Restoration, Longevity, and Dominion), DOTEC (Diaspora of the Environmental Collapse), COHO (Canland Overseers of Human Order)—which hit the reader like the wooden neologisms of old-fashioned SF, which for many readers clog rather than aid comprehension.
Still, Tristan’s own style of description of “Parts,” or classification by function, seems to suggest a mixture of bureaucratic detail and structural syndicalism, slightly reminiscent of the way individuals are assigned to activities according to their abilities and potential talent in utopias such as Ivan Yefremev’s Andromeda (1957) or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). Other “Parts” are devoted to defence or research, and there are also references to “Arts Parts” to which individuals deemed creative enough might be assigned by a “Board of Advancement.” Or, indeed, might not: Helm, one of Tristan’s teachers, is the author of a book of short stories which is not deemed sufficiently impressive to warrant his transfer. (We learn more about this book later.) Tristan himself makes up melodies on the piano and wonders if he might be sent to an Arts Part. But there are, right from the beginning, other references to “Rehabilitation Parts,” which is the kind of language we hear in societies whose utopianism we need to keep a very close eye on. And in the person of Tristan, Vitale has given us a viewpoint character who allows us to do this in a very effective way.
Other ways in which this world is introduced to us—from the term “xenodochium” (originally, a house in a religious community for the reception of strangers) to the classification of young people (apparently by age) as “futures” or “presents,” and the term “contribution” being substituted for the word “work”—mean we need to unpick Tristan’s narrative to look behind what he is telling us. We know about Arturo Eagles, the young trillionaire who devised WORLD, and his Viceroy in Canland, Hugo, who makes annual public addresses scattering goodies among the people of Canland in recognition of their contribution to global repair. But at first, we don’t know much about them and we are willing to accept what Tristan says. Tristan, however, is more than an extremely bright kid with a fascination for arachnids. He is also the bearer of a condition which makes him unable to feel pain—and thus a minor wound can, unnoticed, quickly progress to severe injury. His upbringing is unusual even in this strange and alarming world, and it soon becomes clear—to us; it possibly takes longer for Tristan himself to work this out—that all is not what it seems and that even Tristan’s analgesia is just one of a number of factors which condition his “reading” of the world he lives in.
As his mother, Helena—not quite the leader of the community but one of its founders and major decision-makers—explains to a public meeting hostile to her plans to limit Canland’s population, Tristan’s condition creates psychological complications. One of the most chilling and successful “revelations” is what this actually means, and as we come to realise, some of the novel’s complex strands come together. If Tristan truly, fully understands what’s meant when someone mocks him and calls him “Spectral,” he doesn’t let on, but by the novel’s end it is obvious what his antagonist is referring to. We come to understand that other characters, including Helena and Dylan, have “psychological complications” of their own. This, then, is a much cleverer and more sympathetic novel than a carelessly superficial reading of the dislocations which extend throughout much of it might tempt us into thinking.
Early in the novel, Tristan’s older friend/mentor Sybil makes the decision to leave the community, and this sparks a process by which Tristan is forced to question his position and role in Canland. “This is the best version of a world I can imagine,” he says, thinking of a future in which the Californian desert of Canland is greened and there are no food rations, and he can play baseball, and his father, Michael, is living with them. Indeed, there’s hope, no doubt about it: Michael is absent (in part, at least) because he is working on making the world a better place. There are technological advancements—SPVs (solar-powered vehicles), the virtual-reality Actualisations and Sensorium, and there is a mention in throwaway fashion that cancer “in all forms” now has a cure. But as we read on, we realise exactly what Tristan means when he mentions Helena is “conditioning” him for neglecting safeguards against his injury, and it becomes clear than Helena herself is damaged by her role in establishing and maintaining Canland—or perhaps even more so by an incident in the post-Evanesence chaos which we learn about late in the novel.
The increasing references to an epidemic of suicides in Canland, and the tension rising when the temperature soars to 140⁰, remove any sense of cosiness. Another spur to Tristan’s understanding is his encounter with a DOTEC refugee called AB, who has a connective tissue disorder—Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome—which means that they are constantly in pain. Tristan’s poignant relationship with AB helps to open up his understanding that this is certainly not the best of all possible worlds, but there are other relationships and plot turns that reveal a complicated and sometimes melodramatic backstory behind the post-Evanesence.
There remain clumsinesses. There are plotlines that seem to drift; there are exchanges of conversation which seem tangled, and responses out of tone for even a genius-level twelve-year-old, and there are overt infodumps. It can certainly be argued that the final revelations—about the founding of the community of Canland, the roles of the Sensorium, and what has earlier been referred to, in a long list of “Parts,” as the “Spectral Parts” (where people with abnormal neurological conditions receive coveted benefits for being research subjects)”—result in the uncomfortable confirmation of the generic expectations we might have of a certain type of novel which concerns someone who discovers that the world is not what they initially thought it was. Perhaps the careful reader will have come to this conclusion long before. But the novel succeeds both because Tristan is an inhabitant of a world which is extrapolated from anxieties about our own in the here and now and because we are seeing this world from an often distorted viewpoint—one which is challenging but rewarding to unravel and travel along with.
“I’ve read Helm’s book a dozen times now, and the thing about it that always makes me want to reread it is how I could swear that he’s hidden something of himself in it, and if I just read it again, a little closer, I’ll be able to see it.”
Tristan’s words about Helm’s book This Blood Is Not My Own tell us much about his own narrative. Orphans of Canland is a novel in which we frequently have to stop and think and even turn back to scenes which we need to re-read and re-comprehend. But it is worth the journey.