With the support of the City of Melbourne’s ‘Writing About Melbourne’ program, Overland approached four authors whose work we admired and invited them to contribute stories set in the city’s future. There were no other stipulations. You can see the results on pages 49−80, strikingly illustrated by Matthew Dunn’s colour images.
Each of the stories is, we think, remarkable in its own way. Margo Lanagan imagines Melbourne as an abandoned, decaying metropolis through which mutant survivors trek on a strange pilgrimage. For Jack Dann, the city of the future is a security state locked into a permanent war on terror; for Andrew Morgan, the Docklands represent, rather than an exciting experiment in urban living, a monstrous and metastasising exteriorisation of a desolate inner landscape.
It is, however, Lucy Sussex who most explicitly provides a context for these fictional vistas. In her story, a trio of local utopians voyage from the nineteenth century to see how their predictions have unfolded. Sussex reminds us of how, once upon a time, the city of Melbourne offered an obvious setting for hymns to progress. Its spectacular growth, in a new world so physically distant from the evils of the old one, hinted, for many authors, at the possibilities the future might bring.
In 1892, David Andrade published The Melbourne Riots, in which poverty and injustice are banished by collective land settlement. He described his work as a ‘realistic novel’. His contemporary, J A Andrews, in The Triumph of Freedom, depicted anarchism and life on the land restoring freedom to ‘the liberty living people of Victoria’. As late as 1937, Ralph Gibson penned the tract Socialist Melbourne, in which the hammer and sickle flutter above the Commonwealth Bank buildings in Collins Street and the workers regard their socialised factories as more like clubs than workplaces.
Such writers did not ignore the problems besetting their city. If anything, the reverse was true − the richest crop of local utopias sprouted during the Depression of the 1890s. Yet in the midst of what today we’d call a financial meltdown, the reformers and the radicals of Melbourne’s past took it for granted that what was to come would be better than what had been before.
Today, that confidence has gone. If there’s a certain bleakness expressed in all the stories in this edition of Overland, it’s perhaps because, today, the optimism of yesterday seems impossibly naïve.
One explanation for the remarkable success of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap (an early draft of which is published here) is that it captures so exquisitely the melancholia of a generation brooding over lost ideals. Tsiolkas’ characters remember a time when other political, social and personal options seemed available, and they contrast those days with the lives into which they have fallen.
The Slap is partly a book about aging. More than that, it’s a depiction of the psychic consequences of the Howard era, that long grey stretch when neoliberalism seemed to have ended history. If the absence of alternatives to the market erodes public life (for if there’s no choice, what’s to debate?), it also, as Tsiolkas makes plain, destroys people.
The essays in Overland document the many challenges that confront us today − from racism and war to repression and colonialism. The defeat of the Howard government has not yet fundamentally changed the political landscape. As Bob Brown notes, even though both the prime minister and the opposition leader describe themselves as republicans, the very moderate democratic reform that a republic entails seems as far away as ever.
Yet there are reasons for hope. The tremendous and ongoing implosion of Australian conservatism represents not simply the defeat of an administration but, in the wake of the economic meltdown, a collapse of an entire philosophy. If we’ve learned anything over the last year, it’s that the world can turn upside down remarkably quickly.
The final chapters of The Slap are as optimistic as anything Tsiolkas has written. The book concludes with a focus on a new generation, unscarred by the events of the past. The future, it suggests, depends on people like that: the ones who believe anything is possible. It is they who will build the cities of tomorrow.
© Jeff Sparrow
Overland 196-spring 2009, p. 2
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