My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books http://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au
Post-apocalyptic dystopian stories have been popular for a long time now and seem increasingly so. They allow us to play out our worst fears – climate collapse, alien invasion, zombie attack – while clinging to the hope that humanity (in some form) might survive. Particularly in the YA area, but in adult fiction, TV and movies too, many dystopias feature resourceful, basically good protagonists fighting to save and nurture a society where human decency still has a place. This is the territory of Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games books or Melanie Stryder of Stephanie Meyer’s non-vampire novel The Host. We even see it in shows like The Walking Dead. Sure the characters have their dark moments, and some go way off-beam, never to recover, but most want to live in peace and rebuild what they had.
There is a strand of dystopia, which is particularly strong in Australian writing, that occupies a more ambiguous space. Part of the pattern – informed possibly by the very first Mad Max movie – is its brutality. The people in these stories are more selfish, more animalistic, less trustworthy. Bonds of friendship unravel when put under pressure, pacts and truces last only as far as the next meal. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the harsher Australian environment that many of our home-grown dystopias have this sensibility, leavening the darkness (also in typically Australian manner) with stark humour that’s black and bitter and ironic. These books are also more willing to tackle complex issues head-on. Books like Kim Westwood’s The Daughters of Moab, which deals with sexual and gender intolerance, as well as her Aurealis Award-winning short story ‘Terning tha Weel’, strongly occupy this space. Or Paul Haines’s highly charged and unforgiving novella Wives, about the lack of women in small-town Australia and the lengths some men will go to in order to get a wife. These stories are visceral and grungy. You can hear the corrugated iron ticking in the heat, feel the sweat tracking down your back and smell the dust mixed with unwashed bodies. Set solidly in this mould is Trucksong, the debut novel from Andrew Macrae.
As a child, John Ra was found by the side of the road, clinging to the stiffening body of his mother, who had died in childbirth. Taken in by Smoov, a showman, and his daughter Isa, he travels from shanty town to shanty town, where Smoov channels images from the Wotcher (a deranged satellite) as part of his ‘trancemission’ show to tell others of the way things used to be when humanity lived in sentient gigacities instead of scraping a bleak existence from the middens of a decaying past:
Sun went down, lightning in the west crackling dry sheets. No smell of rain. I strung the white tarp from where the show would come forth. And then the Wotcher spun, moving slow and the flash of it came up from the east like a shining eye in the sky. There was a gasp from the folks in the camp as it passed and the wonderment from the crowd that something like that could be so high up and move so slow and regular, and the power of those who must have put it there, and the hope that there’d be another way back to the time when a vessel could be launched and floated like a star. In the wake of its passing it left its messages in the showman’s linkmaker and out of the crackle of static and noise came the signs the showmans used to earn their meat and their smoke. They could listen the Wotcher. They could sing the signal and tune to the freek of it.
Isa believes that if she can just get access to Smoov’s trancecrypts, she can find the pattern to reseed the gigacities and reclaim the past. John Ra doesn’t want to save the world. All he wants is to be with Isa – and for Smoov to stop bashing him. But everything changes when a group of sentient trucks, led by the Brumby King, raids the town and takes Isa. John, using the linkmaker, teams up with Sinnerman, another sentient truck with a grudge against the Brumby King, to get Isa back.
The moral landscape of Trucksong is refreshingly tangled. No one, least of all John, is wholly good or bad. Actions are fuelled by needs and wants – not reason – and regretted later. The characters want to make things right for themselves, or those they love, or the world, but they just don’t have it in them to make that happen. It’s the reality and the tragedy of being human.
Trucksong’s world is also extraordinarily layered. Revealed steadily through John’s adventures and interactions, it feels at once wholly alien and entirely real. The symbiotic relationship that builds between John and Sinnerman is surely one of the strangest team-ups in recent fiction. I can imagine it being handled quite differently in a less ambitious treatment as a kind of Knight Rider rip-off with a gruffly talking truck. But in Trucksong the relationship between trucks and their riders is an elemental, hind-brain thing:
The sound flowed smooth through the air and trucktalk chatter in the link as Sinnerman and the Left Tenant sat head to head and tried to best each other with their sound systems and their skills. Putting on a flashy show, pulling samples from their memories and trying to call each other with the best take on an old tune or the freshest new vox they’d found chattering in the stacks from the data mines. The battle went on and on, deep bass booming through me bones and me head ringing with the echo of high freek sound wash. All watched by the grim Brumby King. Sinnerman shook on its shocks under the onslaught and I kept it fed with patches to mod the waves of sound, learning as I went what made a good effect and saving up the knowing for it would come in handy for tweaking Sinner’s rein, I was sure. The Left Tenant revved up hard and cranked the wattage. I could feel it in me guts, the whole cab was shaking, the noise was frightening, louder and louder and then it stopped and both trucks clunked in gear and started their dance. Sinner spun its wheels in a mighty show of blue smoke blowing over the truck parking. Its eight rear wheels were burning out and its tail came flicking around to match the Left Tenant’s own circling motion. The next phase of the battle was coming.
Plugged into the truck via an intravenous cannula, a mixture of blood and truck synth-fac haze, is the visceral medium of communication, carrying wants and desires between truck and human in the interplay of adrenalin and truck-borne stimulants. It’s just one example of a constantly surprising and cohesive world that morphs and accretes meaning smoothly, and part of what makes Trucksong such an impressive and well-paced story.
John Ra, too, is a fully rounded character, suffering, hoping and despairing in equal measures, telling his story through the clacking keys of an ancient typewriter, spilling out his dreams and acknowledging his demons. The message of Trucksong is that things are not always as they should be and might never be that way again. As bleak a message as that may sound, Macrae’s control of narrative ensures it’s not.
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