Australian author Sean Rabin’s novel The Good Captain is an environmental thriller that warns against complacency about the climate crisis. Set in the mid 21st century during a time of plummeting fish stocks, it presents a disturbing picture of what the world might soon become. The story follows a group of radical environmentalists committed to extreme disobedience and determined to challenge the powers threatening the last of the earth’s marine life. Their boat, symbolically named Mama, is captained by the formidable Rena, who was born and raised on the ocean. Here, he talks to Sally O’Reilly.
What inspired you to write The Good Captain? How would you summarise the themes of the novel?
Snorkelling in Greece twenty years ago and witnessing a barren Mediterranean Sea certainly planted the seed of this book. It grew from there as I investigated the effects of industrial fishing, aquaculture, plastic pollution and warming oceans. Australians spend a lot of their time in or around the ocean – we tell ourselves we have a deep connection with the sea – but I was stunned at how little people knew about declining fish stocks, and shocked at how some people wilfully avoided such information to protect their lifestyle. People have become highly efficient at avoiding unwanted information, so I’ve sought to write a Trojan horse – a novel that on the surface presents as a sea-faring thriller, while at the same time reveals the issues facing the ocean and its inhabitants. The result is essentially a fantasy of accountability – bringing to justice people who betray their positions of power to the detriment of our planet. Built upon this are also themes about humanity’s place within the natural world – activism – grief for the planet – and listening to the stories the earth is trying to tell us.
The narrative is set in a near future in which catastrophic overfishing has reached crisis point. How did you research this?
I read widely; examined my relationship with the sea; contemplated the aching sadness of an empty ocean, and asked myself how far I would go to prevent such thing from occurring. The threats to the ocean mentioned in the book are real – fish stocks plummeting – aquaculture creating dead zones – orca pods dying off from pollution – marine heat waves – red tides – subsidised trawlers decimating the ocean floor – sharks facing extinction. It doesn’t take much to imagine where such things will lead. Initially, I intended to set The Good Captain well into the future, but the more I researched the closer the future approached
What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
It sounds like a paradox, but writers need to use their imagination and at the same time tell the truth. We have to help people see what the future might be like, and also be honest about how this future may not be happy or safe. We cannot afford to lie to our readers and tell them everything is going to be okay just because it will make our books more marketable or easier to digest. Hope can be a delusion – an anaesthetic to fear and grief. Hope can be a drug that prevents us from doing something real. Writers are not in the business of peddling hope – we are in the business of explaining what we see in an effort to broaden humanity’s perception of the world. Writers also need to put the environment at the centre of the story and not use climate change as just a backdrop for typical human dramas – all this does is reinforce the idea of human supremacy – that what happens to humans is most important story to be told. Writers can help people perceive how nature has a voice and stories to share – maybe then more people will realise what’s at stake and why it’s worth fighting for.
Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency?
How will I explain to my son where all the fish went? What did I do to try and stop such a disaster? Are we going to be the monsters of our grandchildren’s nightmares? This was certainly my initial motivation to write The Good Captain. But once you realise this is a blue planet – that 70 per cent of the earth is covered in ocean – how it regulates global temperatures – provides 80 per cent of our oxygen – our fresh water – delivers protein to one billion people – captures carbon and stores atmospheric heat – that all life on earth originated in the sea – the idea of a barren, acidic ocean is terrifying – not just from a moral standpoint – not just from a poetic one – but from an existential one. Standing back and doing nothing seems impossible. What story could be more important than saving the only home that humanity has ever known?
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
One hundred-and-fifty million tonnes of wildlife hauled from the ocean every year. Eighty per cent of the world’s fisheries either fully exploited, over-exploited or in a state of collapse. Ninety per cent of all large predatory fish gone. One hundred million sharks killed each year. The ocean is being emptied – but if we leave it alone it will heal itself. No need for new machines or systems of management – just get the fucking trawlers out of the water and the ocean will recover. Literature can reveal how we need to remove ourselves from the centre of the story – stop pretending we are somehow in control – then maybe we can begin to see ourselves as participants in a much larger story – one with true meaning and purpose. Wilding by Isabella Tree is a pretty convincing example of the role of literature can play in showing people what can be done.
Sean Rabin is the author of two novels, The Good Captain (2020, Transit Lounge) and Wood Green (2016 Giramondo), as well as a handful of published short stories. He was born in Tasmania, but now lives in Sydney where he dreams of a world where fish are eaten only as a last resort – by people who have nothing else. He understands how this will result in many seafood businesses losing a great deal of money – and he honestly doesn’t care.
Sean’s call to action: It’s the simplest thing to say, but the hardest thing to do. Quite simply, we need to live with/have less. There is no machine coming to solve the planet’s problems – no new technology to save the day – the only thing that will prevent mass extinction is for everyone to live with a lot less. Figures from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, as well as recent during Covid lockdowns, prove that when the economy slows, global emissions decrease. We have to desist with the idea of growth. We must travel less, eat less, buy fewer clothes; reduce our consumption of everything. We must retrain our brains away from being consumers of this planet, and instead see ourselves as defenders. Preservationists of what’s left so it has the chance to one day grow back into the great abundance that once was.