Nightsiders is the first anthology of the Twelve Planets series, a set of twelve collections being put out by Alisa Krasnostein at Twelfth Planet Press. Each of the collections will consist of four short stories. This one, by Sue Isle, features stories that all deal with the same place and similar issues: a near-future Perth, a city ruined by an almost complete lack of water, infrastructure damaged by bombs some time ago, and largely deserted in the Evacuation.
It should be said up front that I am friends with the editor, Alisa, although I do not know the author.
As a package, this is a nice little book. It’s 138 pages of narrative (with a short introduction from Marianne de Pierres), and given that’s split over four stories it’s the sort of book you can consume in one sitting or over several. I’m not a huge fan of the colour, but it is certainly appropriate given how much time is spent in the stories talking about the near-desert nature of Perth.
The first story is “The Painted Girl,” and follows Kyra and Nerina as they come into the city for the first time ever in Kyra’s experience; they’ve been wandering from place to place, never setting down roots. Kyra ends up with the Drainers, a name which is never fully explained, and learns something of the ways of this weird new place she’s been brought to. As an opening to the collection it works well, because the reader too is new to this near-future city, and has to come to grips with the lengths people go to to get and conserve water, the lack of basic amenities, and the fundamental changes which have happened in Perth, of all places.
The title “Nation of the Night” does not reflect the nature of the second story in the slightest. However, the story itself is fascinating, and I think the strongest of the collection. It deals with multiple issues with an elegance that makes reading the prose very easy indeed. Here, we follow the experiences of Ash – biologically female, psychologically male – as he heads East for surgery to resolve his conflicted nature. In Melbourne – described as intimately and recognisably for me, a Melbournian, as I am sure Perth is for natives of that place – Ash discovers that things over that way aren’t that much better, in many ways, than they are back home. The individuals Ash meets are vividly, if briefly, described, but it’s really the landscape and geography that stand out in this story; the changes wrought on a city that has taken in millions of refugees are as stark as those wrought on the city from whence all but a few thousand have fled. The story is not without problems – for all the talk of how difficult it will be for Ash to get to and from Melbourne, it feels quite easily achieved. However, as an investigation into gender identity, attitudes towards refugees, East/West relations in Australia, and the impact of climate change, this is a remarkable story.
Third comes “Paper Dragons,” which initially appeared in the ezine Shiny, also produced by Krasnostein. For all that I know entertainment has been a basic, perhaps essential, part of human civilisation since the earliest examples we have, I still found it slightly unbelievable that a community struggling as much as the Perth one appears to be would be able and willing to support a troupe of players who appear to do little else but rehearse and perform. Perhaps I’m too much of a pragmatist. I enjoyed the new characters introduced here, and the fact that Ash reappears in a different role, but I also didn’t really understand quite what the point overall was – of post-Evacuation teenagers staging an excerpt from a pre-Evac TV show, and its impact on the older people in the community. However, overall it allows yet more insight into how Perth society operates; the often brutally pragmatic choices that need to be made, and the suppression to some extent of ‘finer feelings’ that find at least a partial outlet in the theatre.
Finally, the collection closes with “The Schoolteacher’s Tale.” Here, a character referred to in other stories – Elizabeth Wakeling, teacher to generations of post-Evac Perth residents – gets a voice of her own. As a teacher myself, this story struck a chord with me, with its discussion of what learning would be necessary for generations growing up in a society like this. Elizabeth was delightfully curmudgeonly – as the oldest person in the area, and the only teacher, she’s entitled to it – but also pragmatic and willing to be flexible. Appropriately, as the collection opened with a confused young woman entering Perth, this story closes the collection with a determined old woman leaving it, with clear and specific plans in mind.
Across the four stories Isle portrays a striking, not-quite post-apocalyptic world that’s not quite believable, but not quite foreign enough to dismiss out of hand. The society she portrays in Perth is ethnically mixed, pragmatic, fiercely independent, and built on cunning. Most of those traits are ones that Western Australians would probably claim today, as well. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the eastern seaboard would abandon the western so completely, but with Isle’s portrayal of Melbourne it becomes all too possible. Overall, Nightsiders is an intriguing collection, and it left me wondering whether Isle plans to return to the world in a novel – it certainly feels like it would be sustainable. And if this is the standard of the rest of the Twelve Planets series, I cannot wait for the next eleven.