We Are an Ant Mound: A Review for The Island Will Sink

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1986

The Lifted Brow, a quarterly ‘attack journal’ and one of Grapeshot’s fav publications, has leapt into the world of book publishing with Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink. As the novel hits bookshelves, we weigh up Doyle’s speculative expedition into a future city.

Words || Angus Dalton

The Island Will Sink opens on a city that has been shoved into a new age of renewable energy – not by choice, but by a violent, chaotic energy crisis. A cartoon figure called Pow-Pow the Power Saving Panda crops up regularly to reproach citizens for economically damaging practices that violate the EcoLaw. It’s a world charging out of the Anthropocene epoch – the era in which human civilisation has left a measurable impression on global geology and ecosystems – and into the Praeteranthropocene: the era in which that impact has become irreversible.

The story follows Max Galleon, the godfather of immersive cinema. To watch his films, audiences lie prostrate, encased in headsets and attached to haptic sensors that totally envelop the viewer in the scene. Max is an auteur of disaster movies. Fiery cataclysms, skyscraper-high tsunamis, that sort of thing. His films are the most popular entertainment in a world obsessed with climatic apocalypse. All eyes are on Pitcairn Island, a small landmass that is slowly sinking into the Pacific Ocean. The decent of the island is seen as a yardstick by which to measure the proximity of the end of the world, when superstorms boiled up by climate change are predicted to raze civilisation for good. It’s the perfect location for Max’s next film.

“It’s an uncomfortable allegory: We are that apathetic generation.”

The scene that I can’t shake comes about halfway through the novel, when Max visits the Pitcairn Studies Centre to research for his film. He meets an entomologist there studying ants on the island. She explains to him that if an ant mound is damaged by ‘some careless human’ or a storm, the generation of ants hatched at the time of the damage will be born lethargic. They won’t continue building the mound. They won’t stockpile food. It’s as if the colony has ‘sensed its demise’, and won’t bother continuing on. The colony will die.

It’s a sincerely uncomfortable allegory: we are that apathetic generation. We watch icecaps shrink in the same way the characters in this novel watch the island sink, and yet we do nothing, and refuse responsibility for climate change.

There are so many other intriguing facets to The Island Will Sink: Max relies on an archive to record his memories, which can be replayed, edited and deleted at will. There’s the mystery of Max’s comatose brother and the attempt to wake him by welding Max’s consciousness with his. The worldbuilding is brilliantly handled and it’s a thrill to read a speculative and satirical story that’s so accessible.

Doyle’s debut is funny, engaging, fast and fascinating, but above all, it reads as a warning. I was thoroughly rattled by its end.

4/5

The Island Will Sink is published by The Lifted Brow, rrp 29.99.