Writers Rebel is delighted to be able to publish an exclusive excerpt from Venetia Welby’s new novel, Dreamtime.
‘So, where is he then, your dad?’ Carter’s hand is creeping towards her bony hip. Very illicit. ‘Won’t he come to your Family Week?’
Sol does not answer. She thinks about how Carter sold his house to pay for this – if that were true. Would it be worth it? This sober life?
Carter lights another cigarette, squinting. It’s still standard to chain-smoke through rehab, just as it is to treat deeply personal questions like they’re in any way acceptable. Smoking real tobacco in retro papers is something of a statement these days: we who have lived on the front line of life do not vape.
‘Meds!’ a voice yells out from the squat white complex that houses both Detox Unit and Pharmacy.
Sol watches the inmates swarm to the call. One by one they swoop in to pick up their fun-size plastic pot of drugs. Once upon a time I was like you, she thinks – but now her sad little pill pot contains only probiotics. Detox is complete and there’s no going back to the downers they gave her in the first month. She takes a drag of Carter’s cigarette instead.
‘What’s up next?’ he asks her now, his fingers tracing the line of her hip with growing insistence.
Sol looks at his kindly face, wolfish beneath the greying eyebrows. She recalls the languid way he removed her skirt in one of the dangling Meditation Pods by the pool last week.
Not today. Today, the end is actually in sight. Carter is not worth an extended sentence.
Disentangled, she walks alone past the palm-tree-fringed pool to Belinda’s office. Like everyone else on the programme, Sol has a personal psychotherapist assigned to her. Belinda – they’re all on first name terms only – is supposed to be some sort of mentor. ‘Appropriate Reparenting’ is a popular phrase.
Lights would look like a holiday resort, with its pristine villas and manicured tropical gardens, were it not for the heavies who patrol the place like a pack of dogs, muttering intelligence into walkie-talkies. Constant vigilance, their only mission to prevent escape and inappropriate touching. The first one’s a waste of manpower. If anyone did fly off through the Sonoran Desert that extends around them for miles in every direction, how far could they get? The snakes, the spiders, the scorpions … the sun! Even the goddamn sun, her namesake, is lethal. As with all the more affluent places in Tucson now, the outdoor spaces in Lights are in fact indoors, air filtered and conditioned beneath heat-reflecting structures of Perspex and steel. The carbon footprint of this place is off the scale. If they must go outside, people tend to drive from dome to dome, park beneath the ground in vaulted caverns of cooled air.
Arizona is a bad place to be homeless.
Belinda is lying in a tie-dye hammock outside the therapy room; the great UV lamp at the top of the glass dome – a gentler substitute sun – glances off her silver toe ring and anklet, the henna swirls on her tanned foot. She skips out, bird-like, and hugs Sol. Hug Therapy is a big thing here – hugging meditation, tree hugging, horse hugging. Sexual hugging is not a thing.
Belinda gestures for Sol to take the hammock and she hops in, feeling the warmth of the lamp rays on her face. Sol swipes her short hair forward into prickles and begins to talk, freely associating word after disassociated word as she has been encouraged to do since she arrived – ‘to warm up the unconscious’.
Sol’s warm-up always starts the same way: ‘Uh … Percocet …’
‘Good, Sol. Go on.’
‘OxyContin … Percocet … uh … fentanyl …’
Taking therapy in the hammock is a privilege she has attained through persistence with Her Recovery. She must say ‘My Recovery’ a thousand times a day.
Better than jail.
As she talks, Belinda manoeuvres her body into unnatural shapes on the sand, illustrating Sol’s post-hammock routine for today. She teaches a dawn yoga class here too. They are super keen on dawn stuff here – sage-smoke rituals with an eagle quill, prayers to the animal spirits, ancestral dances … You name it, dawn’s the time for it and an elder appears from what’s left of the Cocopah Reservation to give it. They dine at four in the afternoon and the evening, a time not of spirituality but of wickedness, holds only sleep. This has been tough for a night bird like Sol, but on the other hand boredom is a great soporific, and sleep a great propeller of time.
‘Well done, Sol. That’s enough now.’ Belinda extracts a slender limb from the pretzel she has become. ‘Are you in enough of a safe space to assume your vulnerable position?’
Q&A with Venetia Welby
Dreamtime is described as set “in a near future where we’ve lost the battle against climate change.” Could you tell us a bit more about this context for the novel?
Dreamtime opens near Tucson in 2035. We learn swiftly that the extreme heat of Arizona does not diminish its desirability to climate refugees, since all land is hard won – a precious commodity holding out against invading seas. I wanted to explore the idea of aviation ending, not as a way of mitigating warming but as a nationalist bid to prevent climate migration and keep the good land for those already on it.
The imminent end of flying is the catalyst for Sol to travel to Japan to search for her long lost father, once a marine on Okinawa. It is here and on the surrounding islands, which together used to form the prosperous Ryukyu Kingdom, that much of the story takes place.
Beyond the effects of climate change, Okinawa today suffers exceptionally – even by the standard of other Pacific islands that have battled colonialism, been exploited and decimated. Japan has allowed the US to run it as a garrison island since WW2. Forty American bases were built on land seized at gunpoint in the 1950s, the military have committed thousands of crimes against locals and, in addition to the dirty legacy of storing chemical and nuclear weapons there, continue to pollute even the groundwater.
In the near future of Dreamtime, Okinawa suffers still – and in the same way: increased conflict with China has led to military expansion throughout the islands. This is already happening there, but I wanted to explore it in conjunction with the threat of rising, barren seas and the extinction of island life. It is a future that in many ways is already here.
It sounds like the novel has a dystopian theme. But we’re already living in very dystopian times. Events that would have been dismissed as outlandish or beyond comprehension are now part of our everyday experience. Is there still a place for dystopian (or utopian) visions in fiction? Is your novel a dystopia or is there still some hope?
Yes, every day the news brings the stuff of fiction. Part of the inspiration for Dreamtime was the discovery of ancient bacteria thawing in the Siberian permafrost – I wondered what horrors might be dredged up by deep-sea mining and this is an image that recurs through the novel. One reader advised me to tone it down as it stretched rationality too far… Yesterday that same reader sent me an article entitled ‘100-million-year-old seafloor sediment bacteria have been resuscitated’ with the alarming news that scientists had been ‘surprised’ by this.
Nothing is surprising; the climate crisis and all its attendant business is reality and has a place in every form of fiction. I’m not sure it’s helpful to stuff any mention of it into a new genre, itself within the wider label of sci-fi, with its implications of irreality. Writers need to imaginatively explore the situation we find ourselves in in order to find possible ways out of it, or to learn to bear it if, god forbid, there is no way out. My novel reflects the dystopia we live in now. There is hope in my novel as there is hope in the world. Pandora’s box, innit.
What frightens you most about the Anthropocene?
Our inability to keep up with our worst inventions. We can create (and won’t stop creating) apocalyptic bombs and chemical weapons, but we can’t get rid of them. Attempts to bury Agent Orange or decontaminate Fukushima – or even to deal safely with the waste produced by nuclear power – just create more problems. True disposal is impossible. Humans have changed the level of radiation in the world.
I’m also frightened by the frequent revelations that things are, in fact, worse than we thought: unseen accelerations have already occurred. The melting icecaps are releasing tons of methane, methane heats the earth 28 times more effectively than carbon, more ice melts and warming water blooms with methane-producing algae etc etc. Feedback loops and unforeseen interactions – what else don’t we know? The irreversible tipping point comes ever closer.
Our refusal to understand the needs and rights of animals keeps me up at night, too. Factory farming, wet markets, pet abuse – it’s all torture. We are living in a world in which hundreds of species are allowed to go extinct every single day. Why are we talking about anything else?
What motivates you to act? What might be the role for writers in this new age?
I have a seven-year-old son. He has been taught that we can all make a difference and for his sake, I must believe that it’s true. Writers can say what others cannot, can explore hypotheticals and reach something true. Everyone has a part to play in halting the juggernaut and hauling it round – inertia is death.
Tell us about your research for the novel? Did you uncover any good texts about the climate and ecological emergency that you’d recommend to our readers?
My research was mainly about the history, culture and politics of Okinawa – my ecological knowledge was drawn from the news and what I observe happening around me. In researching Okinawa, though, it was impossible to avoid the fact that the US military are the biggest polluters in the world and nowhere is this more evident than on these islands. Jon Mitchell’s Poisoning the Pacific: The US Military’s Secret Dumping of Plutonium, Chemical Weapons, and Agent Orange was particularly informative. You can read my review here if interested and I highly recommend the book. There are also some fantastic new organisations which, like Writers Rebel, are bringing fiction and climate activism together: Mary Woodbury’s Dragonfly and Lauren James’s Climate Fiction Writers League.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
I imagine a wilder life, less dependent on energy-saving commodities. A world where animal life can flourish and complex ecosystems thrive – where humans know their place within that fragile balance and work together to perpetuate it. We’re addicted to the idea of progress, miseducated to believe that moving forward is always positive – no matter the cost.
Everything has a part to play in creating this future. Why not literature? Fiction can throw down a carpet of ideas, make the future gentler underfoot perhaps. We read to feel we are not alone, to live another’s life, another’s time – it is an expanding of our collective unconscious; the creation of a world, somewhere, in which it is possible for us to change.
Venetia Welby is a writer and journalist who lives in London. Her debut novel Mother of Darkness, a requiem for lost Soho, came out with Quartet in 2017 and her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Spectator, The London Magazine, Review 31 and anthologies Garden Among Fires and Trauma, among others. Find out more at www.venetiawelby.com or follow Venetia on Twitter @venwelby or Instagram @vvwelby for updates.
Dreamtime was published by Salt on 1 September 2021.