Saturday, 28 January 2012

Nightsiders by Sue Isle

Cross posted from here.

Nightsiders by Sue Isle is a collection of four short stories set in the same world. It is part of Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets series, twelve collections which are showcasing the work of twelve Australian female authors. I believe it’s the only one so far to be entirely science fictional (that said, the only other I’ve read is Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts — an excellent blend of Roman mythology, the past and the future — and I’m not sure what’s planned for the rest of the series).

Nightsiders is set in Western Australia, in and around Perth. I want to say it’s post-apocalyptic, but that’s not quite true. It seems part local apocalypse, part generalised catastrophic climate change. The Australian climate has changed so that the west coast is no longer particularly habitable, with hints at the start that things are better in the east. The former city of Perth is now generally referred to as Nightside, because the people living there have turned nocturnal, seeking shelter during the heat of the day and going about their business in the marginally cooler nights.

A few words on each of the stories:


The Painted Girl

13 year old girl has been with walking with an older woman (who isn’t her mother) as long as she remembers. One day, her life abruptly changes and she learns there’s more to it than she’d realised.

The Nation of the Night

Ash, 17 year old a trans boy, goes east for an operation. The story is mostly about the stark differences between the parched west and the drowning east. He quickly learns that life is far from perfect in Melbourne, even if they still have hospitals and infrastructure. In Nightside (aka Perth), everyone helps their neighbours, in Melbourne, the infrastructure is overcrowded and they’re trying to keep out as many surplus people as they can manage.

Paper Dragons

Some of the kids in Nightside put on a play based on some old TV scripts they found in an abandoned home. Turns out it’s a soap about the trivialities of teenage life as in our time. Nightside’s entire population of old folk (who remember life before the bombings and the evacuation) turn out to watch.

The Schoolteacher’s Tale

This was my favourite story. Mostly, I think, because it filled in some of the gaps left by the other stories with teenage protagonists who didn’t know life before Nightside. The titular schoolteacher is a 70 year old woman who had been mentioned as a key figure in the lives of the characters in the previous two stories. We are exposed to some of her reminiscences of how much the world has changed and, through the story, we learn a bit of where Nightside is headed in the future.

~


It sort of feels strange that I can summarise each of the stories in a few sentences but barely even touch on what the stories are really about. Partly this is avoiding spoilers, and partly because there are some themes and ideas that run through all four stories which are hard to pin down to just one of them.

An idea that runs through all the stories (though features the most in the first one) is that of the Drainers. They are a group of people with a genetic mutation that gives them a tolerance for the harsh sun and helps them go a bit longer between sips of water. They come out during the day when everyone else is sleeping, and hide in caves and drains (hence the name, I suppose) at night. There are stories of them eating people or draining their blood and, because they move about when everyone else is sleeping, they’re regarded almost as reverse vampires, a notion which appealed to me.

All the children protagonists have adapted better to life in Nightside than the adults. They have good night vision (and poor day vision) and, of course, they are used to the only life they have ever known. One theme that ran heavily through the first three stories is that of abandonment. In the two middle stories, the children were abandoned by parents who went east during the evacuation. There’s a heavy implication that this happened to almost all of the children of Nightside, with some of the remaining adults acting as foster parents to many of them. It sort of felt a bit much. Of course, the children that weren’t abandoned when their parents went east wouldn’t have still been around. But really, children are pretty much top of the list of things parents take with them when leaving a war zone. Where are the parents that stayed behind with children? Where are the children whose parents were killed rather than left? I appreciate that the theme of abandonment fits in with the greater theme of Nightside being abandoned by its former inhabitants and the rest of the country, but it felt a little bit lopsided by the time I got to the end.

On a happier note, this was a collection full of strong and well drawn female characters. With the exception of Ash (trans) in the second story, all the protagonists were female. There was also a good balance of male and female secondary/background characters, which is always nice to see.

To a small degree, the setting put me in mind of Daughters of Moab by Kim Westwood, but the writing style was very different and thematically the setting and the idea of adaptation to a hostile environment were the only things the two have in common.

Overall, I found Nightsiders an interesting read.

Rating 4 / 5 stars

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