Will more humans come to destroy this world?

Will more humans come to destroy this world?

Review: Audition, Pip Adam, Giramondo

It takes a while for Pip Adam’s novel Audition to come into focus. We overhear three people talking in a spaceship. They praise the spaceship but are nevertheless squashed inside it, filling up the interior to the point where they worry about breaking the ship. In this Kafkaesque world they must keep talking because somehow the ship takes its propulsion from the noise they make. The astronauts, we realise, have been placed aboard the ship by others, and the trio aren’t sure of their destination. 

It turns out they are prisoners, and in the second part of the book we learn more about their incarceration on Earth. Adam is an advocate for prison reform, and while her book is not exactly an allegory for the prison system, because it is about a prison system, it uses surrealism and science fiction to make exaggerated points about the system, highlighting the system’s degradation and failures, and the language around it that frame it as humane and necessary. 

At some point, for some unspecified reason, some of the inmates grow huge – into giants – and the authorities decide to send them into space, a reference to the colonial practice of sending convicts to Australia. While there is evidence that the British government intended to set up a colony for free citizens, the practice of sending convicts into what amounted to an unknown, alien world was less about punishment than banishment. The convicts had, in effect, become too big for Britain’s penal system, and for British society. 

The guards assume the inmates are just big and stupid, but the inmates know more than they let on. They are trained to operate their spaceship, but they suspect, as they leave, that the training is just a ruse to make them compliant and docile, to give them the illusion that they have some control over their fate, but the spaceship is controlling them. 

In the novel, the inmates can’t remember their pasts, before incarceration, but they are told stories by their ‘teachers’ about their past relationships taken from the plots of popular romantic comedies. The inmates aren’t entirely sure about all this, but they are so clouded by the system that they go along.

Space exploration is a fine analogy for prisons. Astronauts are locked into enclosed spaces with other people, where they see the same people, and the same grey interiors, all the time. They wear uniforms, are constantly monitored. Laws work differently there. Their supervisors see this world differently than they do. There is irony, though, in the fact that one is celebrated as a peak for human achievement, the other the end point of a downward trajectory.

Eventually the inmates crash land on an alien planet, where they are welcomed by humanoid aliens who are vague in both appearance and conversation. The aliens, the inmates notice, look sort-of human, but this is a performance, much like, we can note as readers, prisoners are human but locked into a sort-of performance.

The inmates eat food they can’t describe, participate in work in some kind of factory that they can’t quite understand. The flora is weird and seems animated, unlike that of Earth. (Here again there is a reference to the antipodean world British convicts found themselves in.) Will they fit in? Will more humans come to destroy this world?

Science fiction is not just a vehicle for escapism; it can be a format for social satire and critique. Dune, famously, is about ecological concerns; the fiction of Octavia Butler explores ideas of race. We can trace the subversive elements in science fiction back to the likes of Jonathan Swift. Adam’s book astutely combines analyses of colonial and current practices, but the surrealist nature of the plot means it is not heavy-handed, allowing the messages to seep through its loose, oddly-woven narrative. 

Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com and is the illustrator of Thoughts That Feel So Big. 


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