When I picked up Chris Hammer’s Scrublands (Allen & Unwin 2018) from the local library* I had forgotten I had ordered it and more importantly why I had done so. It is a whodunit/ thriller set in the fictitious town of Riversend an hour’s drive from the Murray River in New South Wales involving drugs, bikies, mass murder, and a ferocious and at times misleading media pack. As the ‘whodunnit’ genre of fiction is my reading for relaxation this was my first assumption.
But Scrublands is a climate fiction novel without mentioning the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming once in its 481 pages. The first lines set the scene: “The day is still. The heat having eased during the night, is building again; the sky is cloudless, the sun punishing. Across the road, down by what’s left of the river, the cicadas are generating a wall of noise…” The setting is drought and scorching heat that melts the bitumen – that of extreme weather exacerbated by climate change. It follows you through the book to the very end where the “day is hot and the day is barren. The morning’s breeze has died and the sun hangs over Riversend like a sentencing judge.” (p.457)
Hammer in his author’s note explains the “setting for Scrublands emerged from my travels in the summer of 2008-09 at the height of the millennium drought…” – a drought recent accounts** state was heavily influenced by climate change. “Martin sits next to Goffing, sipping his tea and looking up at the sky. He knows that somewhere in the world there must be clouds; there has to be. Somewhere it is raining; somewhere it is pelting down… Here there are no clouds and no rain, the drought can’t last forever; he knows it, everyone knows it. It’s just become hard to believe.” (p.443)
Then there are the bushfires. “The heat is worse. Yesterday’s wind has turned hot and dusty. Gusting in from the north-west, propelling fine particles of dust and carrying the threat of fire” (p.76) and the following bushfire is dealt with in some detail from pages 94 to105. The heat continues: “Outside the heat is waiting. It no longer comes as an affront or a surprise, merely as an accepted constant, bearing down on the weight of existence, all that he deserves. He walks to the shade of the shop awnings…” (p.225)
In reality this is depicting our heatwaves: “The heat is rising although it’s still only nine-thirty in the morning and the sun is a long way from its zenith…The temperature already in the high twenties, will climb much higher. He might be acclimatised to the dry heat but no-one acclimatises to forty degrees.” (p.452)
The town name Riversend is allegorical. Its message is that the town, with continuing heatwaves and bushfires, without water, has no future. And that can be extended to the nation. Much of Australia is now feeling these blistering heatwaves and droughts and both are occurring earlier and lasting longer. For Australia perhaps the grim future has already arrived?
*copy in the East Gippsland Shire Library
**Gergis, J. The Sunburnt Country, MUP, 2018 p.101 “the duration of the Millenium drought was unprecedented in the instrumental record…The likelihood of observing a long sequence of dry years by chance was less than 0.5 per cent.” –