It is some decades after the plagues, which ended in 2032 and ultimately reduced the world’s population from nine billion to two billion. Much broke down, of course – infrastructure, systems, nations.
John had been working with a scientific project on time travel in 2017 and volunteered to be the first to go into the future. The apparatus he’s enclosed in resembles the Tardis of Doctor Who, except it’s not the red telephone box but a dark blue police call box. He finds himself on a beach of an island called Havergey, somewhere north of Scotland. He’s found by Ben, a watcher who helps keep an eye on the coast. Because he left in 2017, he’s missed the plagues.
For several days, John will need to remain in Quarantine, a rather pleasant but isolated house, as he learns about the society of Havergey and decides whether he will fit in or not. Ben brings him food. He passes the time by reading a selection of books called the Archive, which explain what Havergey was before the plagues and what it became after. And so he reads the Scholar’s book, the autobiography of John the Gardener, journal fragments, letters, and other materials comprising the Archive. And he discusses what he reads with Ben.
And while the society of Havergey is supposedly not based on individual stories, it almost can’t help but be.
Havergey by novelist and poet John Burnside may sound a bit science-fiction-ish, but it’s not. It is a rumination of what could happen if population outstrips the planet’s resources to provide. It’s the story of individuals who attempt to create something different. It’s also a study of what makes us human, what we think is important and what turns out to be important.
Burnside is the author of 16 poetry collections, 11 novels, and 6 non-fiction works. He was also a writer for the TV series Dice. He won both the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for Black Cat Bone (2011) and has won numerous other awards for poetry and fiction. He is also a columnist on nature for New Statesman. Havergey is published by Little Toller, which has been producing a series of monographs on writing about the natural world.
Havergey is a small novel, some 167 pages. It avoids slipping into polemic, which is too often too easy to do when a novelist tackles a theme like sustainability or resource capacity of the planet. The stories of the people involved are what make it quietly real.
Top photograph by Zak Boca via Unsplash. Used with permission.