‘Politics is the art of shifting trouble from the living to the unborn.’
– George Monbiot
‘...let no man talk to me of these and the like expedients, ’till he
hath at least some glympse of hope, that there will ever be
some hearty and sincere attempt to put them into practice.’
– ‘A Modest Proposal’, Jonathan Swift
‘And death shall have no dominion.’
– Dylan Thomas
Reclaiming Alessandra Domenica’s map of the future: the editor’s samizdat introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition of No Dominion.
SO UNCANNY WAS the apparent predictive power of Alessandra Domenica’s first novel, No Dominion, that in the years immediately after its publication it drew to it a wholly un-ironic subcultural following that read the novel as a literal map of the future. Still today, some twenty years after the era of its forecast has closed, the book inspires a kind of cult whose slavish adherence to its content as truth might, were these different times, be thought comical. It remains one of the few works of literature to have made the leap so entirely from the secular to the sacred.
No Dominion is set thirty years into Domenica’s own future, at the very beginning of those decades that saw the Australian continent being gradually abandoned under the stresses of what was then known as global ‘warming’. Its traumas are rooted in the signs of civilisational collapse that loomed at the time: the fraying then resurgent grip of government, the rise of vigilante terror and the herding of immigrant groups into protective urban exclusion zones.
In No Dominion these traumas are focused on the isolated exurbs of an unnamed conurbation in south-eastern Australia, a city as socially and politically volatile as Paris was in the early 2000s, and an obvious parallel with Melbourne and its rings of ghettoised hatred four decades later.
At the heart of the novel is the remarkable Sunday Sunday (the doubled name recalls Catch-22’s Major Major and Lolita’s Humbert Humbert), the anarchist journalist who stumbles across the story of a long-ago discovery of the decomposing body of a woman in a rubbish tip on the western outskirts of the city. The body is presumed by police to belong to one of the ‘invisibles’ of the time, an illegal immigrant, possibly a sex worker, who is never DNA-matched with any missing person or any other individual on the genetic record. Once the remains are cremated the case is more or less forgotten. (The influence of that other uncanny anticipator of apocalypse, Roberto Bolaño, is clear here.) But thirty years later a web of competing and contradictory urban legends has grown around the identity of the body in the tip, especially among those who now live in the largely lawless Outer Ring, parts of which have been built on the site of the dump; and it is to these mythologies that Sunday Sunday, as journalist, is drawn.
The rumours that circulate about the body never seem quite able to define their own substance. Just what is so important about the dead woman shifts with each telling of the legend, and Sunday becomes determined to discover the truth.
Alessandra Domenica’s contemporaries responded to the novel with both critical and emotional enthusiasm. One Spanish critic’s praise is typical: ‘No Dominion, built as it is on labyrinths, hidden knowledge and circular, self-consuming universes, is both the perfect Borgesian murder mystery and a ghastly parable for our times.’
Of course, at the time of the novel’s publication no one, least of all Domenica herself, had any inkling that there would emerge such striking correspondences between the events of the fiction and those of the real world. Each fictional event that seemed to come to pass in the passage of history was met by those involved in the growing sanctification movement with a blend of celebration and awe. The most powerful of these was the identification of an actual Sunday figure, whose life circumstances and close relationship to the author only served to fuel the fervour of those who were intent on wresting the novel from its secular origins.
Naturally I will be challenged by those who point to the correspondence between real and fictional events as a kind of evidence of miracles. I would remind these literary occultists that No Dominion was produced by a culture so anxious about its future that its writers created thousands of works which speculated about what the future might bring for a civilisation that faced such enormous environmental threats. It was inevitable that sooner or later this culture would produce at least one work that was more or less narrowly predictive of actual events. In fact, I favour the theory that the novel helped to produce the exact cultural conditions that some believe it only predicted. It became, in effect, a map that defined the future, rather than a document that merely plotted an already existing fate.
Literature emerges from the speculations of minds that are immersed in capacities creative and logical, reasonable and unconscious. The novelist’s mind draws on evidence observed from political, social, physical and personal worlds, and infers the possible and the probable from that evidence. It is incumbent upon us, as critical thinkers, to remember that the novelist is not a seer and that the novel is not a divine object. It is the present editor’s sincere wish that this new edition of No Dominon will serve to encourage a new generation of readers who might finally turn the tide against the cultists who for so long have claimed it as their own.
IT WAS DECEMBER and Charlotte van Rijn did not want a cold place. Not at such short notice, and not after her last posting. Those final weeks in the province had been cold and hard and had almost choked the air from her body. She had detested it. Charlotte wanted the heat of her summertime childhoods back.
She had been watching the live stream of the Cancun negotiations from the transit hotel in Bangkok hoping, on an outside chance, for a glimpse of Felix, when there he was front-and-centre being buttonholed by a media scrum. The Island bloc had decided to up it and walk out and Felix, as their geoscience man, was at the head of the pack.
‘Science,’ he’d said coldly into the bank of microphones, ‘is about narrowing uncertainties, about estimating probability based on measured observation. And judging from the farce that I have just observed in that room, I can say with all the confidence I have that regardless of whatever steps are now taken – carbon taxes, trading schemes, mitigation, sequestration, whatever – there has never been a greater probability that we as a species, and the civilisation we have made, are now seriously fucked.’
That wonderful portmanteau word had gone live to air and, as Felix pushed past the cameras and out of sight, Charlotte had given a little cheer.
She’d texted him straight after. Felix-Hero, she wrote, Good and Brave Maker of Worlds. WTF? And in a moment he had sprung back: Meet me in NY.
But she did not want New York. It was too cold. So she called him and they spoke and they agreed on Melbourne, on the uncertain place they called home. It would take him another three days.
At Tullamarine she picked up a copy of Alexandra’s book, No Dominion. Her heart had flared when she’d read her friend’s name on the cover. Alex had been posting the reviews to her network for the last couple of weeks. All of it was good. More than good.
She had expected Alex to be waiting for her at the airport but when she didn’t show Charlotte gave the nod to the first cab in the rank. The driver was bearded and wore a long blue kurta. He stepped out and popped the boot. He put his hand out for her baggage, but Charlotte insisted on lifting it in herself. It was a habit she’d developed more out of suspicion than a need to assert her independence. She’d spent so long in war zones she hardly trusted anyone else to handle her kit bag, the legacy of her embed. She took the back seat and fell into the habit of thinking unfair thoughts. She hated them, especially now that she was home, but there they were and she couldn’t just make them go away. While the cab was gliding through the city tunnel Branko texted: Alex is crook as a dog. Chucking up. Sorry. Give her a call later. The driver was looking back at her in the mirror now. How to tell him she was media, a journalist, not a soldier?
At home she dug Alex’s book out of her bag and lay on the bed. The novel was shorter than she’d expected it would be. She flicked to the end, looking only at the page numbers. What was it? A hundred and ninety? One-ninety-two? It took her only till the early afternoon to finish it.
At three in the morning she woke on the sofa, somewhere between jet lag and nightmare, terrified in a way she hadn’t been through her entire posting. In her dream the journalist in Alex’s novel, Sunday Sunday, was kneeling at Charlotte’s feet with a sack over her head. She was moaning, then shouting. Her anger was enormous and it entered Charlotte’s gut like a fist. It was nothing like the story but seemed to have everything to do with it. She’d fallen asleep with a glass of wine beside her and reasoned that the dream had been so intense because she hadn’t emptied her bladder before she’d nodded off. She stumbled to the toilet and was not surprised to find that she was menstruating.
The following day she found herself searching about the house for evidence of betrayal: underwear that she didn’t own; food and cosmetics that she didn’t think belonged; hair, pubic or long blond, in the bed. If there was going to be another woman, she’d have to be a blond. She imagined the white-hot outrage she would have had the right to summon, enjoying the dimness of her charity. It was her way of anticipating Felix without sitting about moping.
Later, she dialled Alex’s number. ‘Hey, writer, how you feeling?’
‘Yeah, okay now.’
‘So, when are you due?’
They were both smiling: Charlotte could feel it. There were layers of deep knowing between them.
‘Does he know?’
‘When you going to tell him?’
‘I might not. I might just disappear on him.’
‘You’ll tell him. You will.’
‘Yeah, I will. But for now, fuck him, the grumpy prick.’
‘You did, didn’t you?’
Their laughter erupted through that bedrock of knowing, at once children, schoolgirls, and now this. The correspondent and the novelist.
‘Your book, Alex.’
‘It’s terrible. It’s awful.’
‘Gee, thanks. Really.’
‘No, I mean it. It’s about awful things. It gave me bad dreams.’
‘You know there’s something I want to ask you.’
‘Why don’t you come by and see me?’
‘I’ve got some stuff to do, but I’ll come by tomorrow. Felix is home Tuesday.’
‘But I want to hear your war stories.’
‘I want to know if it’s me, Alex. Is it me in the story?’
‘ALEX IS HAVING a baby.’
It was the first thing Charlotte whispered into Felix’s ear after they’d come through the door and fallen onto the bed, embracing long and hard.
‘Well, she ought to be congratulated, then,’ he said.
She bit his ear. She was wearing the only long loose blouse she had. It was light, dandelion, and she’d worn it each day since she’d come home. She wasn’t in the habit of making things new each day. He reached under it but she pushed his hand away.
‘Red flag,’ she said.
In the morning she put her hand on his shoulder. She’d been awake for hours, stewing.
‘What’s up?’ he said. For all their distance, he could still read this pattern in her.
‘Show me your hand, Felix.’
Felix stretched his arm up over Charlotte’s body, his palm high, meshing into the morning light falling through the window. She imagined he was calling down the sun and wind, shifting them through her body like so many gears, up, up.
She took his wrist and guided his hand down close to her own. She traced the arrowhead of lines in his palm, each one, lovingly, gently. The sunlight on them. She remembered to rib him later about the blond she had wanted to conjure up and scold him over.
‘Isn’t it amazing?’ she said.
‘The human hand. Homo sapiens sapiens. The Anatomically Modern Human. Your hand has a generational history of about two hundred thousand years. Just have a look at it. Look at how old it is.’
He withdrew his hand from hers and looked, and Charlotte drew the lines on her own palm. What were the palm readers’ words for them? She’d known them when she was a teenager, when she’d wanted to be sure who the man she was going to marry would be. It was after the thing she’d had for Tim Castangna. Head. Heart. Destiny. Life. They were the big four. Those she knew. Whatever happened to Tim? Where did people go? They didn’t seem to die anymore. And even if they did, they remained on the network, like ghosts unable to leave the world. The past was always there in the present. But not Tim. Tim had never come back. What a strange surname, now that she thought about it. There must have been someone in his family generations back who was in the chestnut business. But that was so long ago. It was so unknowable.
‘Eight thousand generations have passed this hand on to you,’ she said.
‘You’ve been up doing maths, haven’t you?’
‘But more than eight thousand individuals. Each generation has two parents. Each of those parents has two parents. And each of those has two parents. If you go back around ten generations, let’s say about two hundred and fifty years, there are two hundred and fifty-six people who have conspired in the making of your hand. But go back another ten generations and you’re already at the bottom end of a line of ancestors that numbers over a million. Every generation doubles.’
‘At some point there’s got to be inbreeding, right?’
‘A massive amount. Seventy thousand years ago, at the height of the last major ice age, we got down to just a thousand breeding pairs. Imagine it. If the weather had got any colder, that would have been it. The end of the experiment.’
‘That’s climate, Charlotte. It’s not weather. Weather will knock out some individuals but it’s climate that crushes entire species.’
‘Did you mean what you said in Cancun?’
‘I said a lot of things in Cancun.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Yes. I meant it.’
‘You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?’
‘You want to us to have a baby, right?’
Snap. It had begun with the walkout and had passed through the news of Alex’s pregnancy and ended up here, worrying over the next generation. Eight thousand and one. A child. It would mean a year, even eighteen months, away from the job. Perhaps she would never return or would just come back to do the weekend news. The possibility was seductive. To be done with all this risk, the rootlessness.
She caressed him, kissed him brightly. But he did not seem to want to smile back. It wasn’t the right moment to start trying, anyway. Her period was barely beginning to trail off. The great mystery of hidden ovulation, the strategy that evolution had settled in her to keep a man interested, was hidden even from herself. She did not know exactly when it would happen, but it would. And so would a child. The child would happen even though Felix was worried, even though he had been so desperately angry with the world in Cancun. It would happen even though there was a cauldron of anxiety that cooked and cooked and cooked below her. A child was a starry, empirical idea. It would be their place in the generations.
IT WAS WHEN Charlotte had just ticked past the uncertain first trimester and its sickness, when her body had settled into its new reality, that she woke again in the middle of the night as if a shot had gone off inside her. She woke and could barely breathe. At first she believed it had been the pregnancy itself that had caused the recoil, that there had been some catastrophe in her womb. But soon it became clear that it was nothing physical at all. She tried to take Felix by the arm but her body would not move. The only way she could describe it to him later, when they had talked and talked and agreed on the reality of the problem and had trawled through the research and hit on the strange solution, was panic. Pure, transparent panic, an anchor in the knowledge that had surged through from the robust and violent psychology of her pregnancy, something so pure that it exceeded even Felix’s knowledge, an uncontainable cascade that had been coursing through her all along: Alex’s book, Felix in Cancun, her own cheer at his defiant obscenity, the generations that had made her own hands. But even these were not the truth. They were the rough stuff that had gone into the mix. They were the props to faith. They were the church. What Charlotte had was an answer.
Until that moment that thing, that headline, climate change, had possessed only the qualities of a religion to her, something that relied on faith at a time when the certain signs of its manifestation had withdrawn to the heavens. It was one thing when bushfires swallowed up whole towns, when summer dragged on long into autumn with temperatures beyond bearable, and lakes and lakes of water that never arrived. But when eventually it did rain, and when the summer was mild and brief and the fires did not come, then it was easy to begin doubting. And once doubt had set in, it was easy to forget it from her body, to dismiss it all as weather. Weather was visible. But climate needed a lifetime. It needed many lifetimes. It needed generations to know.
And there it was. It was the weight of the child she bore that had crashed the boundary between knowing and not knowing. There was no longer any separation at all between this abstract thing made of words and herself. The knowing of climate and what was coming was inside her. This was the catastrophe. This was the disaster. This was the knowledge. It was the baby. It was her very self.
‘THE WAY IT works is this. Every human cell is a finely balanced thing. The tipping point between life and death is incredibly delicate. Or, properly, there is just enough death around to maintain life. Each of our cells is programmed to continuously assess its own viability. If a cell recognises that it is not viable, let’s say if it recognises its own mutation into a tumour, then the balance tips towards death. The cell dies so that the rest of the body can continue to live. This is what we call apoptosis. And at the centre of this process is a particular gene that we call p53. Because it protects the body against cancers we also call it the guardian angel gene. P53 is repeated on the same chromosome in every cell of every normal human body. If it detects a mutation it sends out a protein message for the cell’s mitochondria to fragment, causing that cell to fail. This is pretty much how it works in what we call somatic cells, those cells that form most parts of your body – skin, organs, eyeballs, what have you. These are the cells that will eventually die one way or another, in any case. Once they have differentiated after fertilisation into these parts of the body, that’s it. That’s their fate. They cannot pass themselves on. They leave nothing behind. When they die, they’re gone. They are mortal.
‘The type of cell we’re interested in here at Genesis is the germ-line cell. In the male they are the spermatocytes and in the female the oocytes. While these cells have the full complement of forty-six chromosomes they will, in preparation for sexual reproduction, divide into sperm and ova with twenty-three chromosomes apiece. Female human germ-line cells, the oocytes, begin to accumulate soon after the embryo has formed. However, prior to birth most of the accumulated foetal oocytes will die in a pre-programmed apoptotic event, a process which relies on the activation of the p53 gene. This leaves the neonate with a finite number of primary oocytes. This finite number determines the female’s entire reproductive capacity, her capacity to pass on the human genome to the next generation. These are the cells we call the immortals.
‘Now, to your specific request, and may I say that your background reading was nothing less than thorough. As you will know, the research in this area is mostly focused on the disruption of genes which cause oocyte apoptosis during chemotherapy. That means we actively pre– vent the death of female reproductive cells during cancer treatment. Women want to have babies after they have recovered from cancer, and they would prefer to have their eggs intact inside their bodies, rather than have them harvested and stored for an IVF procedure after it’s all done. The research is focused on preventing the expression of the p53 gene that kills the germ-line cells as they endure the chemo. What the market wants is what drives the research, and the research is further shaped by the consumer dollar into technology. The hand of the market is there at every stage. Now, you’ve already indicated that you’re expecting a daughter?’
‘A daughter, that’s right.’
‘How many weeks along are you, Charlotte? Can I call you Charlotte?’
‘Yes. Of course.’
‘I’m eighteen weeks.’
‘Good. We have plenty of time. The plan my team has proposed to me, and what I am going to propose to you, is that once the foetus has reached twenty-two weeks we will inject targeted nanoparticles into the foetus’s bloodstream in order to cause an RNA interference, which will trigger the death of her entire oocyte population. The procedure will cause the same effect in you, Charlotte. A variant will be introduced in you, Felix, in which a corresponding protein will be triggered to cause persistent spermatocyte apoptosis. Do you understand what all this means?’
Charlotte looked to Felix with a shrug of agreement, searching for any doubts. She wondered for just a moment about side effects, for the baby first and herself second, but decided to hold off until later. There would be time for that when they were on the bus home. So far it was nothing more than a proposal, a theory. Something not yet manifest. They would throw about their uncertainties. They would do further research. But they couldn’t wait forever. What was it? Four weeks. They had decided. It was the least violent solution they had come up with on that long day of agonising. They knew it was possible. They were the market.
‘What I need to discuss with you both is the ethics of what you’re asking me to do. What you’re suggesting is that we do the opposite of what medical science should do.’
Charlotte deferred to Felix to give the answer. He was the scientist, after all. But he looked as if he were struggling with the problem that the doctor, or technician, or whatever she was, had proposed. But then he found the words he needed.
‘No, Sarah. It’s not. It’s not unethical. What we want to do is to end our part in the human story with her, with our daughter. We don’t feel it’s ethical any longer for us to have a generation that comes after our own child. To do so would be committing those lives to an awful existence. So we are withdrawing our genes pre-emptively. We are withdrawing them ethically.’
‘Felix, you know as well as I do that under another name it’s genetic sterilisation. And under another name again it’s committing genetic suicide.’
‘Those are names, Sarah. But yes. Let’s call them what they are.’
‘Why not remain childless? Why not just terminate this pregnancy and be done with it? It’s not too late. Just don’t have children.’
‘No,’ Charlotte said firmly, so that even she was surprised by her certainty. ‘We’ve discussed this. I’m already eighteen weeks. It wouldn’t be right. We want this child.’
‘But given the advances that will come in the technology, even if we did do this, it would eventually be reversible. Even now, a genetically sterile individual could theoretically have a child of her own if she chose to. She could pass on her genes by having her own cellular material transplanted into a host zygote. And in any case it is more than feasible that the production of germ-line cells could one day be switched on again. We’re talking about twenty, thirty, maybe forty years’ time.’
‘Yes,’ said Charlotte. ‘But she would have a choice. She would see not just the weather – she would also see the climate. This is the most important thing. It will relieve the child of the burden.’
‘Yes,’ said Felix. ‘Charlotte is right.’
‘It is right,’ said Charlotte.
They were no longer speaking to the woman. They were trying to convince no one. They were making a noise that seemed to come from both of them, at once. It was a litany. It was a chorus.
‘Yes,’ said Felix.
‘We will tell the child one day,’ said Charlotte.
‘Yes,’ Felix breathed. ‘When the time is right we will tell the child.’
‘Yes,’ said Charlotte. ‘We will tell her.’
‘And when is she due, exactly?’
‘We’ve booked in a caesar. For the twentieth.’
‘Let’s see. That’s a Sunday?’
‘Yes,’ said the baby’s mother. ‘A Sunday.’