I have to admit, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic narratives. I don’t even care what sort of apocalypse it is—plague, nuclear war, meteor strike—because, let’s face it, the reason for all that destruction isn’t the truly interesting part of a post-apocalyptic story. It’s what the survivors make of their new world that matters: not only the individual response of a particular character looking to survive, but the response of the entire remaining community. The society they build, the choices that mean most to them.
Far too frequently this is overshadowed by the choices the author makes. I’m not talking here about the choice of whether to present a post-apocalyptic society as a dystopia or not, although that’s certainly important and something I’ll address a little later on. I’m talking, instead, about the motifs we so often see in post-apocalyptic fiction, the ones that represent in shorthand the type of world we’re being presented with. There are authorial choices that, sadly, I have come to expect, despise them though I do; so please: let’s take a moment to give a great big hand to Lachlan Walter, who has created a convincing dystopian setting in which sexual assault doesn’t rate even one tiny bloody mention.
There is no rape used primarily to show how awful life is in this drought-stricken, burned up Australia. There’s not even a grope. A vulnerable young girl is found by the two protagonists, and they do nothing but look after her. Even when transported to the camps, in a forced relocation of population to crowded slums full of armed guards complete with dodgy commander, young Ruby isn’t so much as threatened with the tiniest implication of such an assault. When made to stand spread-eagled so she can be patted down by guards before entry to the camp, still nothing. If anything, her frisk is slightly more gentle because of her age. Yes, she’s still very young (her age is never made quite clear), but it’s not like kids have been spared the prospect of rape in post-apocalypses before (fuck you 28 Days Later (2002), for your lazy bloody narrative choices; I have neither forgiven nor forgotten).
After countless iterations I have been so primed to expect dystopian sexual assault that I found myself genuinely surprised not to read it, and isn’t that terribly sad? I felt myself tensing up when Bill and Tobe tied Ruby up to carry her out of the desert, and just as I was finally accepting they were actually decent blokes it was time for the camp. Here we go, I thought, as Tobe got tasered by a commander so obnoxious even his own guards can’t feel anything for him but contempt. Here we go. I know what’s coming next.
It was so very refreshing to be wrong.
There is a point to this particular extended example, because in it I think is a nutshell of Walter’s own apocalyptic argument. This is his debut novel, so I was expecting a point to be made—and it turns out to be that communities endure, and that even in the midst of misery people frequently choose to be kind. That hardship doesn’t mean the end of moral development; that really only in hardship can our morals calcify into something tangible and trustworthy.
This underlying sense of optimism is very welcome in post-apocalyptic fiction, at least as far as I’m concerned. We could do with more of it. I’m not arguing for happy-clappy levels of unrealism, here—if your community is devastated by disaster, so badly that the previous ways of life are totally undermined and permanently altered, there’s going to be consequences and many of them will be bad. Some people will live down to the lowest possible expectations. That doesn’t mean they all will—or even that most will. The instinct to form a community, to protect that community, and to use it to aim for a better life, remains.
Walter shows this in a number of different ways, and they’re mostly untelegraphed. To go with the lack of sexual assault, there’s also a tentatively positive relationship between settler communities and what the text calls “First Country” people, the indigenous Australians who seem exempt from settler and camp expectations. The First Country people are nomadic, crossing the devastated land at will and apparently actively supported in their choice to do so. The Rain Never Came begins with a cricket match between a First Country caravan and a team from Bill’s local community, a welcome leisure activity after equally welcome trade. And part of the camp work detail is making sure that First Country people have adequate resources on their travels:
The second day, we cleaned a rundown hall, making it comfortable for a First Country caravan that a lookout had spotted on the Mallee. The third day, we waited on said caravan, fetching food and water, running errands for them, showing them around the camp. The fourth and fifth days passed in much the same way. (p. 199)
Race relations in present-day Australia are not what anyone would call adequate—and yet here we have a post-apocalyptic environment where racism, like sexism, is apparently not much tolerated.
Very little fuss is made of this inherent almost-optimism, which fits with the mien of the two main characters, typical Aussie blokes for whom the phrase “hard case” is rather admirably apt. And yet Bill and Tobe, quintessential piss-taking Aussie blokes as they are, capable of tramping through bush, skinning kangaroos, and being in general the stereotypical manly men, are also both very open with their emotions. They hug a lot, they cry a lot. They don’t consider emotion to be weakness, in others or in themselves. There’s something very refreshing about all this.
This is not to say, please note, that genuine dystopian action is absent here. The Rain Never Came is not a happy story. Australia is crumbling under a drought that’s lasted for generations—young people like Ruby have never known anything else. Water is scarce and rationed. This has knock-on environmental effects, as described in the train journey across the Mallee:
It was a desiccated void, thousands of acres of desolate pasture, all that remained of a land where cattle and sheep used to roam, where corn and wheat had grown tall and strong, where nature had run rampant and wild, where life had once thrived. All of that was now gone; all that was left was a barren dustbowl. What hadn’t shrivelled and baked had been uprooted and snatched away by the incessant wind, or buried by the sand that trailed in its wake. Not a tree or fence or outstation had survived—the land was completely flat, all the way to the horizon. (p. 166)
Walter constantly goes back to the land in this novel, using it as the touchstone reminder of devastation, and of apocalypse. Readers are never allowed to forget the enormity of the ecological devastation that’s at the very centre of this narrative, and neither are the characters. Every minute of their lives is spent dealing with it: the small towns that hang on, desperately, pumping water from underground bores until it runs out; the pub gone dry; the elderly parents who hang themselves in a barn so that the failing farm’s food and water don’t have to be so very stretched and their kids can hang on a bit longer.
Then there are the Creeps. The Compulsory Relocation Police—dog-killers, people-killers, town-killers. There to force people to move above “the line,” into a camp that’s more a permanent holding station for those unlucky enough not to be shipped north and into lands that are just a bit more viable. It’s a bad option, the camp. People go there voluntarily when their water runs out and they can’t support themselves any longer, because the camp may be crowded and terrible, in its way, but it’s also a well-organised source of food and water, with everyone in it receiving daily rations of each, enough to survive anyway. It’s just all happening behind bars, essentially. And the people who don’t choose it (through lack of other option) are forced there or often killed, their homes destroyed. This is all solidly dystopian, but to be honest I’m failing a little to see the point.
The ecosystem below the line is devastated, almost to the point of zero recovery. If people want to stay there anyway and die, then it’s arguable that it’s their own look-out, but why force relocation for no reason? I could almost understand it if the (voluntary) camp work groups—participation in these is rewarded with a little extra food, but mainly the acknowledged reward is a cure for boredom, the sense of purpose that work and making a contribution to a community bestows—were aimed at ecological restoration: a massive planting of drought-resistant vegetation, for instance, the forced relocation a means of conserving underground aquifers. (I note, too, that this is another entry in that fine Australian tradition of sci-fi drought narratives in which everyone inexplicably lives away from the coast and all potential desalinisation plants.) But that’s not shown to be the case.
Drought and lack of water is an ongoing problem in Australia today. While certainly an increased risk of such can be attributed to climate change, for example, there’s simply no question that poor resource management has been a historical factor in exacerbating climate events. That view from the train ride through the Mullee? Australia’s ecology didn’t evolve to support massive populations of sheep and cattle. Nor can its soil withstand significant destruction of native vegetation in favour of shallow-rooted agricultural crops such as wheat. Dryland salinity is increasing, the productive capacity of the land is decreasing. Walter has pushed all these trends up to the edge, and it’s absolutely believable. Then there’s Bill, watering a single rose bush on his property so he can continue to put a flower on his sister’s grave. It’s sweet, and touching, and … kind of the same wasteful behaviour, in microcosm, that got them all into this mess in the first place. If the forced relocations were part of a plan to combat this trend, to actively try and pull the land back from the brink and conserve the few resources it has left, then it would be easier I think to swallow. Readers would still be able to debate the morality and scope of the relocation efforts, but it wouldn’t, perhaps, be so dislocated from the sense of community and choice that Walters is illustrating.
This is especially the case as community is such a strong theme here. The first quarter of the book is steeped in neighbourly bonds, in people coming together in mutual support. It’s something to lighten the almost-expected dystopia of post-apocalyptic fiction—perhaps not the germ of utopia blooming like a rose in the desert, but an interrogation of dystopia nonetheless, and one that’s reinforced by the community-building within the camp; but it could I think have been pushed further by giving an understandable—if not always sympathetic—motive to the Creeps. This lack of motive is particularly relevant, I think, given the ending—which I won’t spoil—and how it queries the cost of resistance. Because resistance (to the camp, the Creeps, and the drought) does have costs, and these are hard and painful. Relationships can’t always survive the choices that lead to these costs, and in keeping with the rest of the book, The Rain Never Came argues that they don’t have to.
This interrogation of dystopia is one of those author choices I was talking about earlier. Sometimes the cost of reaching forward for better is turning away from the past … and if that’s not something to be celebrated, exactly, it’s nothing to be afraid of either.