Sanet Oberholzer reviews ‘It Doesn't Have to Be This Way’
Alistair Mackay's debut is a brutal and brilliant dystopian novel in its commentary on the possibility of our collective future
It Doesn't Have To Be This Way ★★★★★
Alistair Mackay does not mince his words. The opening scene makes one wince. “The floor of the fly farm is ankle-deep in human shit, and beneath that is a concrete slab — the parking garage of a shopping centre that never got built — and in the corner of the farm is a small hut, where they grind the dried maggots into powder. The fly farm is simple exchange. We give the flies our shit and they give us their young to eat.”
Climate change has been the inspiration of many a work of speculative fiction and it’s the route Mackay decided to take for his debut novel. The result is not only the stuff dystopian fiction is made of; it’s the stuff that will get him noticed.
It’s a mere 15 years from our present reality and you find yourself lying motionless next to a boy named Milo in a futuristic version of Cape Town during the searing “stillness hours” when you dare not move. “If we move too much, or let our hearts race, the temperature rises in our bodies and the air can’t cool us and our organs fail.”
Within a few short years, climate collapse has forged a great divide. In the slums of Kapelitcha people die on a daily basis. Inhabitants have resorted to cannibalism, driven by insatiable hunger. If the cannibals don’t get you, you might be killed by the homeless over a bottle of faeces, dry out from thirst or succumb to the unbearable heat.
The world’s richest have fled to the New Temperate Zones, places like New Washington in Antarctica. Those who are stuck in what we know to be Cape Town, and can afford it, live a sheltered life in the Citadel. Built on Signal Hill, the climate-controlled dome offers safety and luxuries like electricity, running water, cushy desk jobs and fancy coffees that embody the epitome of privilege and invite attacks from those left to die on the outside.
But the denizens of the Citadel have been overtaken by technology and virtual reality worlds, courtesy of biotech implants in their temples. They live lives devoid of meaning and true connection.
To make sense of how it all went wrong, the novel follows the lives of three queer friends who live in a modern-day Cape Town in which Day Zero was a reality.
Luthando meets Viwe at a reforestation festival he attends with his friend Malcolm. Despite having suppressed his homosexuality after a lifetime of having been shamed, Viwe finds love with Luthando.
Luthando, an environmental activist, starts his path towards activism by planting indigenous trees around Cape Town but soon finds himself on the wrong side of the government and public opinion after a protest he organises goes awry.
Working with Malcolm, a fellow software and game developer, they create a guerrilla virtual reality campaign in which they present experiences with dire consequences, commenting on issues such as climate change and UN reform. The videos end with one message: “It doesn’t have to be this way”.
It all goes wrong very fast: Luthando goes too far with his activism, a great loss pushes Viwe over the edge and into a world of fanatics who operate under the guise of Christianity, and Malcolm finds himself questioning his work and the ethical boundaries it may cross.
Mackay has produced a South African novel that is unapologetically queer and set in a relatable Cape Town before the world falls apart. His timeframe to total collapse is perhaps too short realistically but it acts as a kind of hyperbole: it serves as a striking reminder that — if we don’t act soon — environmental catastrophe might be closer than we realise.
At times brutal and difficult to read, It Doesn't Have to Be This Way is both a poignant commentary on the possibility of our collective future, a moving look at what is wrong with humanity and an examination of love and resilience. It’s brutal and heartbreaking and undoubtedly brilliant.