Chris Else, novelist and manuscript assessor, has a new novel out. Waterline is set in a New Zealand where artificial intelligence is in charge of all aspects of your life, and if you're not officially registered you'll be incarcerated. The story focuses on a family forced to leave their comfortable lives in Wellesley for a dodgy town called Byte.
In this interview, Chris explains that the work is not trying to predict our near future, but to bring to life a family in crisis and explore how consumer culture and a concern for status can define us but not ultimately.
You paint a picture of an alternative society that might be in store for countries such as ours if we don’t pay attention to current threats – e.g., climate change – right now. Is Waterline driven primarily by your personal views of the climate change situation or is climate change nothing more than a useful theme to drive the action of your characters – i.e., a plot mechanism?
Climate change was not the main reason for writing the book and nor am I trying to predict what the future might be. I think futurism can only ever be partially true, at best. My main interest in the story was the challenges faced by a family whose affluent, largely unthinking life falls apart in a crisis. What interests me is the way our often only semi-conscious concern for our status influences our day-to-day decisions. I think this has a massive bearing on the inertia we have to overcome in order to get any climate action. Consumption driven capitalism is destroying our environment and consumption is fed, in its turn, by our status anxiety – new cars, houses, appliances, electronic devices, fashion, holidays, etc are all markers of where we stand in a social hierarchy and sources of our self-esteem, therefore. Now and again we are sickened by our greed for such stuff but that does not stop us from pursuing it. Waterline is about losing such things and successfully adjusting. So, in that sense, it is about the climate crisis.
A novelist is often credited with being a commentator on society, whether they intend this or not. The rise of Artificial Intelligence – as an escape mechanism from ‘real life’, as a useful tool (your house bot, and the surgical team, for example), but also as a controlling and anonymous force – is brilliantly portrayed throughout Waterline. To what extent do you intend the reader to either admire or deplore the implications of the rise of AI?
AI is sometimes portrayed as a physical danger to human beings – the rise-of-the-machines scenario in which computers decide to eliminate people. That’s a possibility, of course, but it isn’t the main danger that I see. I think the impact of AI will come sooner and with less drama than the rise of alien computer consciousness. I see more and more decisions being made by machines ostensibly for the benefit of people and in the service of society but with the general effect that most of the population will be sidelined from creative work and thus from one of the important ways of establishing and maintaining their status and self-esteem. The kind of frustrations we now feel in dealing with automated telephone systems will become much deeper and more general. In Waterline, I try to show how this can lead to a computerised bureaucracy that is both Byzantine and Kakfaesque.
Your main character, Stella, evolves from spoilt princess to warrior queen in extremely challenging circumstances. Was she your starting point for Waterline, and if not, what was your original inspiration to write this novel?
Yes, Stella was the seed for the novel. I wanted to see what would happen when the trappings of an affluent, middle-class lifestyle were stripped away from someone who has always had it all. I wanted a character who was more than just spoilt, though. Stella has her privileged upbringing, her luxurious house and her credit cards but she is also a mother and, I think, a pretty good one. The better part of her nature is driven by her concern for her kids. I think this more primal energy is what she draws on in order to overcome the difficulties she has to face.
At the end of Waterline, the reader is shown isolated communities surviving on their own with different values and separate ‘laws’ – reminiscent of the frontier towns of the old Wild West days. Should Stella and her family expect more trouble from over the hill, given the bad blood that exists between the factions? Do you intend it to be a happy ending, or a brooding reminder that ‘no man is an island’?
I see the community as being more a return to an old way of life than the term ‘Wild West’ suggests. One of the themes in the book is the way people are drawn away from physical reality into a virtual online world. I see Garrison, the village in the novel, as the opposite of this – a return to a physically authentic way of life. I don’t see this as being utopian because I can’t see how our modern way of life can be sustained in its present form. We have to simplify or we won’t survive.
As to the ending, I am open about the future of the story. I have no idea what a sequel might involve. What I wanted to show was that whatever Stella’s future might involve, she is now ready to face and deal with it.
Waterline also explores the rise and controlling force of religious fundamentalism in society. Do you believe that ‘When fascism comes … it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross’ (Sinclair Lewis) or is this theme just another plot mechanism to activate your characters and therefore incidental to driving your story line? [It’s more than a plot device. I see religious fundamentalism, along with ultra-nationalism and racism, as desperate attempts to maintain status and a sense of self-worth in a world that is increasingly crushing people psychologically. Unfortunately, though, such tribalisms all involve an escape from reality; this is why I portray the Knights of St Judas as all wearing enhanced reality goggles, which are programmed so that they see the world around them according to their preconceptions – an idea I got from an episode of Black Mirror.
As the reader progresses through Waterline, they are frequently pulled up short to think that if we don’t recognise the big issues (and act now) this novel is indeed a chilling picture of a future we are making for ourselves. Did you intend to write a dystopian novel of life in the near future or is this simply where your characters led you? To what extent is this ‘warning’ your personal belief?
I don’t see the book as being a prediction about the future. Almost everything in it is already happening. What I’ve tried to do is take these elements and enlarge them and emphasise them metaphorically so that they are more clearly visible. And, yes, I guess the book is a warning. Whether the problems I am exploring are accurately diagnosed or not, I am absolutely certain that we have to stop wandering around in a daze pretending everything is going to be all right. We have to start paying attention.
Waterline is an action-packed novel with a driving narrative and could be seen as a welcome return to good old-fashioned story-telling. Given your comments on the state of NZ fiction, (see link to recent article below) would it be accurate to describe your novel as representing your hope for a directional change in contemporary NZ literary fiction?
Some people took the piece in ReadingRoom to mean that I was advocating one form of literature over another. I wasn’t. I enjoy all kinds of writing and I think they all have their place. What I see, though, is a local publishing scene that, by accident or design, is not fully satisfying the needs of those readers who primarily want a good story.
I’ve been working as a manuscript assessor and literary agent for over thirty years and I’ve thought a lot about what makes novels page-turners. I haven’t always applied that knowledge to my own writing because I like experimentation, too. Waterline is different, however. I deliberately set out to write a novel that I believed would have strong narrative drive. The story is quite consciously constructed, therefore. From the feedback I’ve had, it seems to have worked. I suppose in that sense it can be seen as my attempt at an example of something I believe we need.
In case you missed them: Chris wrote an article for Newsroom recently: Oh for God's sake please just tell us a story and a piece by novelist Catherine Robertson followed: In response to the Chris Else thesis that NZ fiction is plotless drivel. Chris also read from Waterline and was interviewed on RNZ's Standing Room Only.