In a future world of extreme climate change, Perth, Western Australia’s capital city, has been abandoned. Most people were evacuated to the East by the late ’30s and organised infrastructure and services have gone.
A few thousand obstinate and independent souls cling to the city and to the southern towns. Living mostly by night to endure the fierce temperatures, they are creating a new culture in defiance of official expectations. A teenage girl stolen from her family as a child; a troupe of street actors who affect their new culture with memories of the old; a boy born into the wrong body; and a teacher who is pushed into the role of guide tell the story of The Nightside.
I purchased this book.
“We call Perth the Nightside now, because we get around mostly at night.”
– from Nation of the Night, by Sue Isle.
The first collection of Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets is Nightsiders, by Sue Isle.
Nightsiders collects four interwoven short stories, all set in a future Perth (the capital city of Western Australia). The city has been devastated by war and extreme climate change, most of its population left in the Evacuation. Those who remain survive by sleeping during the day and being active during the relatively cooler night. As a result, Perth is now known as the Nightside.
The stories in this collection are The Painted Girl, Nation of the Night, Paper Dragons and The Schoolteacher’s Tale. Each will be discussed individually, and at the end of the review I will add my thoughts on the entire collection.
The Painted Girl
Our introduction to the Nightside comes in the form of Kyra, a thirteen-year old girl who has been travelling with an older woman, Nerina, for ten years. For the first time in their travelling, Nerina is taking Kyra to the Nightside. There, Kyra meets the titular painted girl, Alicia, and her people, the Drainers. Unlike most, the Drainers have the ability to walk during the heat of the day. Through this meeting, Kyra discovers truths about her own life, and is given a choice as to where she wants it to go next.
This story is a vivid introduction to the Nightside and its denizens. Kyra, as a young girl who remembers nothing other than travelling with Nerina, emphasises the wonder and the horror of what has become of one-time Perth. This is no utopia, but a place in which life is eked out using whatever means possible.
In another author’s hands, the Nightside could have remained a bleak place, the stories focused on the depravity and horror that people could stoop to in order to survive in such a changed world. But Isle gives us something very different: in Alicia and the Drainers, and in Kyra herself, there is hope. And importantly, Kyra is given a choice, after a life in which she has had little.
Nation of the Night
This story revolves around Ash, a seventeen-year-old resident of the Nightside. Ash is transgender, and seeks surgery and hormone therapy. With medical care in the Nightside limited or nonexistent, he seeks the closest thing he can find, his friend Professor Daniel. Pre-Evacuation, Daniel was a professor of mathematics, but now lives totally indoors, reliant on others to bring him water and food. Through Daniel, Ash secures a referral to a hospital in Melbourne, and travels East. There, he finds Melbourne as changed as Perth, but in different ways. The city is overcrowded, and they are trying to keep out as many people as possible.
Again, this story could have hopelessly bleak. Both cities have fallen apart, and in both, people are struggling. The fact that, even in this kind of world, Ash finds acceptance and the treatment he needs, is heartening, and like Kyra being given a choice in The Painted Girl, a sign that humanity is not entirely lost.
In this story, we are back in the Nightside, following a teenager, Shani, who we first see scrounging in the remains of old house, along with her friend Ichiro (Itch). This is part of what people of the Nightside to do survive. On this trip, they find useful items such as razors, but Itch also finds the sheets of what he believes to be a play. They bring the play to Tom Roper, who runs the Player’s Troupe. They discover that what they have found is a screenplay from a pre-Evactuation soapie revolving around teenagers, and seek to put it on as a play. When they do, things in the Nightside begin to change.
This is a story of expansion: of the view we are given of the Nightside and how those born pre- and post-Evacuation have coped with the changes to the city. Ash is here as one of the players in the Troupe, returned from his trip over East and wiser for it.
This story reads almost as an elegy for the lost world. It is a tribute to the power of stories and art (even those stories from a soap opera) and the way they can spark change.
The Schoolteacher’s Tale
The final story centres around Miss Wakeling, the oldest person in the Nightside and schoolteacher to the young people. She is one of the few Elders who leave their houses, and on this occasion we see her – reluctantly – take a longer journey out to the Edge to celebrate the wedding of Shani and Ichiro (who we first met in Paper Dragons).
Miss Wakeling’s point of view gives a different insight to that of the younger protagonists of the other stories. She refers to the city mostly still as Perth, and recognises many old landmarks and place names as they travel.
Like Kyra in the first story, Miss Wakeling is given a choice by the Aboriginal Elders she finds attending the wedding. It is this choice that will begin to lead the Nightside and its people into the future.
Nightsiders was always going to be a collection I was drawn to. I love the idea of characters dealing with a dystopia, and setting such a story in my home city of Perth? I’m sold immediately.
I loved the threads that twine through these stories. There are characters who appear again and again – Ash, Professor Daniel, Shani and Itch, Miss Wakeling – which really emphasises the smallness of the population which remains in the Nightside. Fascinating, too, are the little hints of how people are biologically beginning to change. Many of the children born into the Nightside have better night vision than the Elders, and the Drainers are known to have some kind of mutation that lets them walk during the heat of the day. Merging all of these things, and the knowledge of the old and new Nightside, as well as that of the Aboriginals still walking on country, has the potential to lead to a new kind of humanity. With the hints that the readers are given about the chaos in the rest of Australia, it is easy to see the once-abandoned Perth giving rise to a place that will lead the country entire into the new world.
There is much diversity in this world, also. People of colour are represented, along with diverse gender identity. More importantly, this also seems to be a world which doesn’t see the difference at all – everyone is simply accepted for who and what they are.
It should also be noted that the majority of the protagonists were female, and of diverse age. And, unlike in many other dystopias, all of these females are given agency, and there is no sexual assault or rape used as a plot device. All of these women are ultimately capable of looking after themselves and of each other.
The cover design by Amanda Rainey is, as always, outstanding, and the quality of the print book is high.
As the first collection in the Twelve Planets, Nightsiders sets a very high bar for the project, and is highly recommended, even if you’re someone who doesn’t usually read dystopias.