Jane Abbott’s novel Watershed proposes a future climate change scenario that even the most pessimistic climatologist might hesitate to predict. The oceans haven’t just risen, they’ve inundated, drowning the old world beneath violent, debris-filled waves. The rains have ceased, at least on land where they’re needed, and most of the plants and animals are long dead. The land has become a sea of dust, and the scarcity of water means it has become the currency of choice among survivors.
Watershed is a Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic thriller where violence, or the threat of it, underpins almost every human interaction and everyone is at least a little mad. The protagonist, Jem, was born in the years after society’s collapse and raised by grandparents Sarah and Daniel, who remember the old world and cling to its moral codes, despite the fact that brutal self-interest is now the order of the day. Sarah and Daniel’s past is told in alternating chapters with Jem’s present, filling in Jem’s backstory and providing, in very broad strokes, the history of the collapse and its immediate aftermath.
Watershed’s cover design hints that the novel’s publisher is perhaps hoping to align this novel with Hugh Howey’s blockbuster Silo series, which also features a post-apocalyptic world controlled by a shadowy cabal of tyrants, restricting the flow of information in order to rule a makeshift society with an iron fist.
One of the appeals of post-apocalyptic fiction is in imagining how you, the reader, would cope in the specific scenario presented. Would you find reserves of ingenuity and strength you never knew existed? Or would you throw in your lot with the sadistic cannibals skulking in the hills, picking off unwary survivors? This question ariseS while reading Watershed. If you were condemned to the relentlessly brutal Watershed version of the post-apocalyptic world, you’d probably fill your pockets with rocks and stroll happily into the ocean without a backwards look.
We may not really expect, or even want, a thriller to delve deeply into the long-term psychological consequences of living in a society where violence and rape are the norm, but we do expect a thriller to thrill. And here Watershed deliverS. The central mystery is interesting, and the characters are WELL DRAWN.
When it comes to descriptive prose, Abbott’s writing is tight and fluid, well suited to the genre. Aspects of the post-apocalyptic world-building are also evocative; the image of the drowned cities, visible from the shoreline, slowly disintegrating into the swollen ocean, is beautiful and poignant.
A homegrown, post climate-apocalypse thriller LIKE THIS IS a welcome addition to the burgeoning genre of climate-change speculative fiction (or “cli-fi”).
Other Australian authors such as Jane Rawson and James Bradley have already produced some excellent works of literary cli-fi. Watershed IS a provocative vision of a post-apocalyptic world and a compelling action thriller. -- EDITOR eRIK O. jENSEN
Vintage, 528pp, $32.99