Sue Isle is one of many budding writers whose work I first discovered when I was living in Australia. I reviewed her first novel for Emerald City. Scale of Dragon, Tooth of Wolf was a nice little book, but not going to set the world on fire. That was back in 1997. Sue hasn’t had much published since, but she was chosen to open the Twelve Planets series of chapbooks, which has now grown to include Tansy Rayner Roberts, Lucy Sussex and Deb Biancotti. If you are going to publish a series showcasing the best of Australian women writers, you don’t want to start with a dud. And as Alisa Kranostein is a smart publisher, she hasn’t. In other words: Sue dear, how you have grown!
In keeping with the style of the Twelve Planets series, Nightsiders is a collection of interlinked short stories. They are effectively post-apocalyptic, though it is a fairly soft landing as apocalypses go. As in The Courier’s New Bicycle, Australia is suffering the effects of climate change and global economic collapse. In addition there has been a war with Indonesia. The East Coast is soldiering on as best it can, but Perth, where most of the action is set, has been largely abandoned.
The introduction by Marianne de Pierres compares the worldbuilding in Nightsiders with that of Doris Lessing. That’s exceptionally high praise, but Isle’s near future Perth is most certainly vividly realized. When reading it I was reminded of Martin McGrath’s recent post about how so much SF, particularly of the post-apocalyptic and dystopian variety, tends to treat ordinary people as a mindless mob. Isle does not do this. There are a few people in Perth whom she describes as “feral” who appear to be the equivalent of American survivalists: holed up in their bunkers with as many guns as they can lay their hands on. There are also the strange mutants known as “Drainers”, but Isle spends the first story, “The Painted Girl”, demonstrating that they are mostly decent people doing their best to try to survive, and every bit as prone to human kindness as the un-mutated folk.
The other three stories revolve around a group of people living in the ruins of central Perth. The key characters are in all of the stories: Prof. Daniel, the former university professor; Tom Roper, who of all things runs a theatre troupe; Ellen Wakeling, the schoolmistress, and so on. Through following them we slowly learn what has happened in Perth, and the rest of the country, and see how the people of Perth might make a future for themselves. The book is called “Nightsiders” because the climate in Western Australia is now so hostile to life that humans normally only come out at night. Only the Drainers can withstand the heat of the day. Possibly people of Aboriginal descent can handle the climate too, but they have disappeared off into the bush to get on with their lives as only they know how.
The second story, “Nation of the Night”, does something rather unusual. It features Ash Henderson, who is a young trans man. That’s a hard thing to be in a post-apocalyptic world, but not impossible. But why use such a character? Isle isn’t really writing about a trans person, though the medical detail is reasonably good. As far as I can make out, we learn Ash’s story because Isle needed to compare and contrast life in Melbourne with life in Perth. That meant she needed to have a character who was absolutely desperate to make the trip out East, but would then come home again. Ash’s need for surgery, combined with his unwillingness to abandon his supportive community in Perth for the uncertainties of a much larger city, fitted the bill perfectly. Most writers would probably assume that the small community in Perth would throw Ash out because he is “different”, but Isle thinks that human beings are better than that. After all, here they are at the end of the world, and they have a theatre troupe.
Tom Roper’s first love is Shakespeare, but in “Paper Dragons” his leadership is tested when some of the youngsters in the troupe discover a script from an old pre-disaster soap opera and decide to stage it. To Tom it is just poor quality drama, but to the old folks who remember things like television it is an emotionally wrenching reminder of how life used to be. The kids are aghast that their forebears could have been so shallow and carefree.
Finally, in “The Schoolteacher’s Tale”, two of the kids from the troupe get married. They choose to live out in the suburbs where diplomatic relationships with the Aboriginal people are beginning to be re-established. Miss Wakeling is called upon to play the role of village elder. Both she and the Aboriginal elders discover that they need to let go of their pretensions to be the sole guardians of wisdom.
As de Pierres says, Isle has created a wonderfully vivid setting with some beautifully realized characters. I very much hope that she gets around to writing a novel using all of this. There’s masses of material to work with.
Nightsiders was published before Twelfth Planet took Charles Tan on to create their ebooks for them, and he hasn’t had time to go back and convert this one yet. However, I understand from Alisa that there are plans to get it done soon. In the meantime it, and the other books in the series, are available in paper form here.