This tale of doom and resilience by Alistair MacKay follows three queer friends who must navigate climate collapse as their world unravels. Cape Town’s elite has fled to The Citadel, a temperature-controlled dome on Signal Hill where the citizens live in virtual reality, blind to what’s around them. In contrast, beneath them is Kapelitsha, a slum with searing temperatures and almost no water. There is a heightened awareness of a staggered class system. Despite the dystopian genre and the desolate backdrop of apocalyptic realism, this feels close to home; some Cape Town suburbs are mentioned by name. The novel struck me as an Orwellian tragedy, a spiraling story of rational dread, prophetic in addressing what we are really facing as a likely future. Structurally the book reads as a count down from the present day to near future doom.
The characters are rendered with vulnerability. The representation of queer romance feels honest and robust with moments that are remarkably sweet and soft, and others that are pure devastation. The writer does not shy away from the darkest sides of homophobia. Viwe’s shame and self-loathing at being gay due to Relevations-type religious condemnation is the most heartbreaking journey to follow. This character left me crying snot en trane. Luthando, the resolute environmental activist presents a more self-assured revolutionary image. And Malcolm, friend-zoned by Luthando, is the only white main character, with a fickle sense of ally-ship that’s all too familiar in South Africa.
Milo is a child being raised in this climate, hardly allowed to move during the daylight (which the author terms stillness hours when the sun is at its worst). The devastating thing about this kid’s childhood is that, at his most energetic and vital time of his life, he has to remain completely still in order to survive. For me, this brought up ideas of anti-natalism, the ethical question of whether or not to have children in a world that will inevitably destroy them, leaving them a withering crisp as they grow older.
Set in the context of climate collapse, It doesn’t have to be this way deals with enormously high stakes. It’s a weapon forged against our apathy. The inherent burning question felt by this reader was: why are people not freaking out about where the world is going? It’s a profound warning of our fragility. While it depicts an unforgiving picture of humanity’s suicide, the writer’s description of nature is blistering and beautiful. An alchemical, cosmic relationship between man and earth exists in this book.
Of course, this delicate dynamic is at odds with our capacity for destruction. The late-stage capitalist expansion of advanced virtual reality seems to run parallel with our devolution as a society. The reader is made to wonder about the insidious capacity of mental software with the novel’s exploration of eliminating trauma memory, the idea of trauma removal for a more subdued society. This fascinating and bone-chilling concept plays itself out in the insulated world of The Citadel. The big morally dubious corporation in the novel could be likened to Apple or Amazon – an all-powerful multi-national conglomerate potentially with big enough sway for this kind of mind control. Powerful enough to situate us firmly on the wrong side of history.
Existential and anti-consumerist, this novel reveals that we need a reimagined economic system and this reimagining has to be enormous. It reminds us that we are more than our labour. It narrates cataclysmic climate collapse in real terms with relatable characters. The title, naturally, presupposes an alternate future. And that future is up to us.