This is an interview with author and academic, Briohny Doyle, by Raphaelle Race.
The Island Will Sink is Briohny Doyle’s debut novel, a book about the questionable joys of technology, interconnectivity and the human mind.
The story takes place in a future, where the climate has altered so significantly that each new day delivers another environmental disaster. Because of this, humankind has become obsessed with minimising the fallout of climate change as much as possible: emissions are used as credits and energy saving propaganda has permeated popular culture. News updates obsess over the fate a small Pacific island called Pitcairn which, when submerged, scientists believe, will be the precursor to the final apocalyptic event – a tidal wave that will swamp the world.
We follow Max Galleon, a director of ‘immersive cinema’ movies, tech not unlike today’s fledgling virtual reality, which allows people viscerally experience the perspective of the movie’s protagonist. Max is an amnesiac who is obsessed with memory and experience. He has had a recording system incorporated into his mind, which records full footage of his life and can also monitor his emotions, blood sugar, sleep and vitamin needs. With this implant, Max no longer needs to question anything in his ‘memory bank’, yet throughout the book he obsesses over the possibility that his memories are being tampered with and are thus suspect.
The book weaves in and out of Max’s memories, both ‘real’ and suspect, his ideas for immersive movies, his son’s video games, and repeated conversations with his loved ones, providing a surrealist vision of a world in which technology has become inextricably linked with experience.
“[In the book] I am working with several levels of artifice - film, writing, memory, video games,” Briohny says about the multi-layered story, “I’m a massive fan of David Lynch, whose work is surreal in that it traverses these spaces, and throws up the commonplace into a stranger universe. This displacement, and way that the real world and Max’s dream space bleed into one another is definitely surreal.”
The idea of immersive virtual reality (explored in pop culture through the movie Total Recall, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K Dick), is here used by Doyle used to examine the interplay between people and machines. For the people of The Island Will Sink, cinematic immersion has become a cathartic way to experience the end of the world – they cry, they tremble and they watch people being burned alive. However, rather than helping people empathise with the world around them, this technology has had the effect of fetishising disaster and inducing a feeling of apathy.
For Doyle, the major theme of the story, shown through Max's fractured reality, is that of a culture that is “totally image-saturated – even more so than today.”
The Island Will Sink shows us what can be lost between people as we delve further and further into a world of ‘interconnectivity’, where thoughts and feelings and memories are completely mediated and work to reduce the human space of communication that happens when we connect intimately.
In one episode, electricity has been disconnected to Max’s family home. The family is traumatised by the experience, their technology has become useless, and Max’s son begins to cry as he realises that his only friends are only accessible through the internet. His online friends live on another continent and he begins to question whether they even exist. Thus, under the guise of providing a way to contact anyone at any time, the mediated world also increases our isolation and occludes the fact that mediated communication is, in reality, a very solitary activity.
“I do think that our sense of the 'personal experience' is changing,” says Doyle. “We are all having deeply personal, isolated experiences via our phones. I love that scene in the movie Her, where all the commuters are emerging from the subway deep in conversation with their operating system friends, no one talking to each other. It's not quite dystopian in and of itself though: something is lost, something gained. I have been thinking about that scene in relation to Pokemon Go lately – there are gangs of hunters, and solo hunters out in the city. On the one hand, it's great that they are all out on these rambling walks, on the other they are isolated from each otherd. And everyone is having this deeply personal experience, but all these experiences are all pretty much the same.”
One of the many themes explored revolves around the growing awareness of our changing world-climate, and the effects that are gradually becoming more obvious to the everyday person. In movies and popular fiction, the term ‘cli-fi’ has been termed to describe novels like Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl where our society is beginning to, or has already deteriorated due to radical changes in climate.
For Doyle however, this growing preoccupation with disasters is not a new human condition.
“One thing I have learned from studying apocalypse is that humans have always actually felt like we live in a moment of imminent end-times. In ancient Egypt, when the Nile flooded, people went into preparation for ‘The End’. That isn’t to say that I don't think climate change poses significant danger, of course I do. The big thing in my novel though, is that this danger has actually been incorporated by hyper capitalism. A small island in the Pacific sinks and the developed world views it as entertainment akin to sport.”
The Island Will Sink is a confronting story. Surrealism was never meant to be a comforting artform, drawing as it does on the unconscious world, on dreams and symbols and weirdness and fears.
This book does not necessarily make the reader reconsider their dependence on technology, rather it makes the reader aware of the ways in which we can slip between the cracks in reality – don’t get me wrong, you may want to – and help us to contemplate what is lost, and what is gained by such a colossal shift in the way we function in our society.
The Island Will Sink is out now at all good bookstores, or available at a discount through the link below.
To read an excerpt from it, click here.
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Raphaelle Race is Deputy Editor at Writers Bloc. She is based in Melbourne and works as a freelance journalist and editor. Her writing can be seen in Overland, Junkee, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings, Phantasmagoria and Feminartsy.