/ 22 August 2022

A poetic, resonant nightmare about LGBT rights and climate change

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An important disclaimer, before we go further – there is nothing remotely realistic about the climate science in Alistair Mackay’s sensitively written, beautiful queer cli-fi (climate change fiction) novel It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way. 

Fifteen years or so into the future, the Cape Flats have suddenly been flooded by rising oceans. Cape Town’s skyscrapers are inundated at ground level. Daytime temperatures in the city now exceed what the human body can survive, prompting its inhabitants to hide in shelters in the day and forage at night. As crops fail, protein powder made from ground-up maggots becomes prized fare. 

Meanwhile, in the domed, walled, air-conditioned Citadel settlement built on Signal Hill, conditions are easier, but residents still dream of emigrating from the violence and refugees. They peruse glossy brochures advertising green woods and fields in New Washington, Antarctica.

Once, such alarming exaggeration was a staple of left-wing environmentalism, literary and activist. Today, though, dystopian scenarios such as these have largely fallen out of favour, as writers and activists absorb the findings of climate communications research. Rather than being galvanised into action by representations of catastrophe, most individuals either become paralysed with fear or suspect, correctly, they are being manipulated. As a result, at best they learn to avoid the subject of climate change. At worst, they become kneejerk opponents.

At first, this was how I took It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way. The eponymous political campaign in the novel, where three gay friends Luthando, Viwe and Malcolm leave QR codes at petrol stations, which use ubiquitous virtual reality glasses to immerse unwary drivers in burning rainforests, struck me as essentially futile. Put differently, in the novel, it does actually have to be this way – the #IDHTBTW hashtag simply comes much too late. 

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way . . . is a poignant, exaggerated horror composed of real life elements.

Neither did the novel seem to offer any political hope. In one of many powerful scenes, Luthando taunts the pilot of a drone deployed to attack peaceful protestors. The pilot gets footage of him, which is used in fake videos, and he loses his job. Later, Luthando throws a petrol bomb into a power plant and gets imprisoned but Eskom keeps burning coal.

Towards the end of Mackay’s novel, though, comes a shrewd and important, meta-fictive clue. Malcolm, a white South African software developer, has become progressively more involved in building interfaces between neurology and video gaming. From his Citadel flat, he develops a “Somno Library” allowing people to live others’ dreams. But classifications are approximate and soon people are getting inadvertently trapped in nightmares which traumatise them. These hallucinations, Malcolm reflects, are usually enjoyed only by “adrenaline junkies”, “horror addicts” and “dystopian novel readers” (my emphasis).

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way isn’t a sober warning about climate change, then, nor, for that matter, capitalism or heterosexism. It is a dystopian novel that is first and foremost simply a bad dream, a poignant, exaggerated horror composed, like actual dreams, of real-life elements.

When I started reading the novel this way, vast metaphorical riches revealed themselves. There is, of course, the Citadel, walled off from the suffering masses, who fire rockets at its transparent dome in the hope of shattering it and forcing its residents to swelter in our changed climate. In other words, a contemporary South African gated community on steroids.

There are the swarms of drones inflicting terror on those who dare to challenge the ruling class — shades of Ayman al-Zawahiri being picked off on his balcony. Malcolm’s social media streams and games flowing directly from microchip to brain, to distract people — that, too, seemed apt hyperbole in our digital era.

Even more resonant was the homophobia. Because the novel takes place in what is evidently not just the end of the world, but an apocalypse fed by heat and fires, end-of-times religion takes hold. Groups of Believers impose a tyrannical orthodoxy hostile to women and queers. 

The scene where Luthando narrowly escapes being burned alive in his flat by a gang of Christian fanatics is terrifying. Yet, it also seems only a short step away from where we are today, with the US Supreme Court overturning Roe vs Wade and religion-inspired, anti-gay pogroms in countres like Uganda, Egypt and Chechnya.

It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way is certainly an absorbing read. The prose is vivid, and often mesmerising, the characters tenderly drawn and vulnerable, the situations surreal and disturbing. It is also an important and intelligent contribution to the slender oeuvre of queer cli-fi focused on the developing world. It deserves to find a wide, supportive audience, not just of “adrenalin junkies” and “horror addicts” but of citizens concerned with social justice, environmental stewardship and the growing authoritarianism of our dystopian times.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way by Alistair Mackay, Kwela Books, R290