by Antony Di Nardo
The media release for Dry includes the claim that this book is "a powerful literary thriller about a frighteningly near future where myth and adventure intersect . . ." Publishers are no doubt prone to hyperbole. Sure, the reader will find references to Nordic mythology and native lore; there's adventure if you consider chasing wood buffalo off a cliff adventurous; and a future of perpetual drought is frightening. However, not by a long stretch is this work "literary", unless the word has become so diluted by a downpour of recent fiction that it now includes any writing where modifiers and metaphors flourish in descriptive landscapes drenched with overwrought imagery. For this reader, fiction merits the literary label only if contains writing in which narrative, characterization, and the control of language, theme and ideas all conspire to invigorate, engage or challenge my moral, intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities. Importantly, good fiction-literary or not-should consist of good writing. Dry is no more literary than it is a thriller.
The year is 2023. The world is running out of fresh water and the vast prairies of arable land have been reduced to sun-parched, arid dirt. Wheat is at a premium. So is sunscreen. Vegetables, scarce as they are, are grown underground in climate-controlled caves. The dismal state of the planet, the demise of its food basket, is likely a result of global warming. Some cities appear to have been abandoned, and large groups of people displaced. There are hints of anarchy, governments in disarray, starvation, a return to primitive, tribal ways. Protestors decry the actions of GM foods. There's a suggestion that besides the melting away of the ice cap and the terrible impact of a decade-long drought, there has been a cataclysmic worldwide event, but the nature of it isn't made clear. There is a great deal in the novel that isn't clear. For example, why would one of the richest, most powerful, and oldest men in the world (Magnus Dragland has reached 124 years of age thanks to advancements in organ replacements and stem-cell research) live in a bunker in southern Saskatchewan, in the middle of a desert and surrounding a family of plant scientists who despise him? Is it really the case that the memory of the woman he loved decades ago is keeping him in this place, close to her scientifically minded grandchildren? What has happened to the major centres of the world?
This is the basic setting for this cautionary sci-fi melodrama (perhaps envisioned as a made-for-TV movie). Signy Nilsson and her brother Tomas live at Sunterra, the family farm, where they are working on developing a super-hybrid of Durham wheat and prairie grass that is resistant to drought, disease and, they hope, the corporate clutches of their arch-enemy, Dragland. Signy flies around in a "skyboat". She visits Old Moose Jaw City, which seems to have become a Las Vegas-cum-spa of the north, frequented by wealthy tourists. She hangs out in a quaint-with-quilts but high-tech cabin in the hills of Saskatchewan where her Swedish ancestors first homesteaded before the Great Depression pushed them northward. The cabin, formerly her great-grandmother's, is a veritable "fortress of solitude", wired with state-of-the-art security devices (Signy is, conveniently, an inventor as well). She flies north for a meeting with her ex-husband, Eddie, and his business associates at the "Saskatchewan First Nations Consortium" to discuss the sale and distribution of Sunterra Gold, the hybrid wheat she has developed in her home-based lab. Her ex is also an inventor. He has given the world "Pocket Eddie", the ultimate hand-held everything, and he improves upon the flying "spy-eyes" that protect Sunterra from Dragland. They sit high up in the all-glass boardroom of an all-glass teepee, an impressive architectural wonder, while below them native dancers are in constant motion. There is a suggestion that First Nations people have come into their own, have become a cultural and economic force in this dried-up world, but that too remains unclear.
The drama revs up when Dragland tries to run over Signy's 12-year-old son David (who is deaf but very communicative nonetheless), with a remote-controlled automated tractor that has trespassed onto the Nilsson farmstead. Dragland wants the remaining four-quarter-sections of land that are still owned by the Nilssons. Unlike his 99 square miles of prairie, theirs is green and growing. He also wants the secret to Sunterra Gold. But most of all, he wants retribution for his unrequited love for Signy's great-grandmother. It all ends tragically when Astrid, Signy's lookalike cousin, is killed by Dragland's henchmen in a botched attempt to steal the Nilssons' hybrid. David confronts Dragland and a long-buried family secret is revealed. Dragland gives up the fight, accepts his mortality, and the Nilssons inherit his entire fortune. Dare I add that with the grain of their invention they are poised to save the world from starvation?
If it weren't for some awkward, even embarrassingly feeble, stretches of writing, especially in parts of the dialogue, I would say Dry makes for an interesting read. There is a lot of artifice in Barbara Sapergia's one-dimensional creation of a prairie world gone wrong, but too little art. The science is kept light; there's just enough to keep the reader abreast of GM foods and hybrids, and the sketch provided of this "frighteningly near future" for Saskatchewan might entertain hard-core readers of speculative fiction. But don't expect strong characterization, a compelling narrative, or writing that in any way deserves to be called "literary". This book is-I can't resist it-dry in that department.