In a dystopian near-future, genetic engineering, radical surgery and a regime of drugs can give you something humans have always dreamed about: the ability to fly. If you have the money, you can join this self-created elite: the winged. These fliers are not only given wings; they have their own architecture, fashion, religion and politics, and build floating towers in the sky. Those who live outside the City in RaRA-land can only look up at this new species of human in wonder and despair.
Except for one remarkable girl, Peri, a refugee from RaRA-land who is prepared to sacrifice everything to get her own wings. When she kidnaps a rich family’s child, the investigation threatens to undermine the glittering world of fliers and reveal its ruthless secrets.
I believe that if one always looked at the skies, one would end up with wings
– Gustave Flaubert
When I began writing When We Have Wings, I was excited about the possibilities of describing humans flying with their own wings as well as conscious of the accompanying dark side of exclusion from such an elite.
Flying has never been just a means of transport. We have yearned for it for so long that it has an ancient history as a powerful metaphor for freedom, power and creativity, from mythic inventor Daedalus to artist visionary Leonardo da Vinci to rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.
The advent of airplanes has done little to fulfil this longing we have to fly with our own wings; it still haunts our dreams. In my book, flight is reserved for those who are rich and powerful and can afford to make those dreams reality. My main character, Peri, is not rich or powerful but she will stop at nothing to acquire her own wings. No price is too high, she thinks, but is it? This is one of the questions the novel explores.
There are many social divisions in my book: between rich and poor, fliers and non-fliers, and importantly, between the City and the rest of the country – RaRA-land as I call it. That term RaRA stands for Rural and Regional Areas and comes straight from my own experience as a state government adviser on water policy.
RaRA-land is an important setting for my main character Peri and her story. In When We Have Wings, the divide between City and RaRA-land is enforced by law. Moving to the City requires temporary work permits and sponsoring from employers. Refugees from RaRA-land flee illegally to the City. Permanent City residence permits are almost unheard of; the fact Peri has one becomes a telling clue in the investigation of her disappearance.
Australia is one of the most urbanised nations on Earth but the movement of people from the land to the cities is a global trend that is accelerating. In 2008 it was reported that for the first time in human history the number of people living in cities worldwide was greater than the population of rural areas.
When We Have Wings shows some of the dangers and consequences of this trend. Cities are becoming virtual gated communities, their populations ignoring the reality that their survival depends on the land they never see. Most urban dwellers have no idea of the size of the ecological footprint of their city, the amount of soil, fertiliser and water needed to sustain them or the consequences of land mismanagement: soil loss, rising salt, loss of diversity.
Seen from above by my main character Peri, the impact of these trends on the landscape is dramatic:
The country began to look less wild, to show more recent scars of neglect and abandonment. One of these, a dead hydroelectric dam, made Peri shiver. The great hole in the earth lay empty. Below the crumbled rim of the dam, massive chunks of concrete bristling with its steel reinforcing bars torn from the ruined curtain wall were scattered and broken down the dry wash of the extinct river like the discarded toy blocks of a giant. Concrete leaked rust stains the colour of old blood.
They followed the scar of the dead river until it petered out into exhausted land left to rising salt, its deadly white scribbles stitching scars of raw earth, eroded hills and crumbling levees. The bones of splintered farmhouses weathered under the white sun. They saw few birds, except, here and there, a crow.
It is ironic that the most exclusive elite in my near-future City are fliers, those who could soar over the land and see all this for themselves, yet ignore what is really happening in their world.
But there are exceptions. As she flees, Peri finds her way to Audax, a group of fliers who are experimenting at the extreme edge of flight and have withdrawn to the heart of a rugged wilderness, easily recognisable as the Australian bush. They have realised that the act of truly becoming fliers requires a real connection with nature. The leader of Audax says to Peri:
Most importantly, if we want to be real fliers, we will be fliers in the world. We can’t ignore the degradation of the wilderness, the air, the seas. There is no Flight without becoming part of those things.
As part of the theme of needing to care for the land, I touch on the idea of Superweeds, transformed by resistance to herbicides conferred from genetically modified crops, and smothering large areas of RaRA-land. Superweeds are not science-fiction; transfer of resistant genes from crops to wild plants is already happening, as reported recently in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/oct/19/gm-crops-insecurity-superweeds-pesticides).
So too is another strange aspect of future agribusiness. As a small girl, Peri is brought to a farm that belongs to Janeane, her foster aunt. She lives in a brief rural idyll among apple and banana trees, swimming in the creek, looking after Nutmeg the horse, blissfully unaware that her aunt is in fact an illegal ‘pharmer’.
‘Pharming’ – the growing of vaccines and other pharmaceuticals in crops – is already a reality; an article titled Pharmland in the Oct-Nov 2011 Australian science magazine Cosmos explores its possible benefits. In my novel, pharming is one of the few options left for the landowners of RaRA-land. As Peri grows older, she comes to realise that, while the illegality of ‘pharming’ is painful for her foster aunt Janeane, it is less painful than giving up the land altogether.
When We Have Wings sounds a warning in its portrayal of a bleak possible future for regional Australia. It does so out of a real concern for that future and a love of the land.
The main focus of the novel is on flight and on the ways it transforms the lives of my characters. To explore the beauty and exhilaration of flight meant exploring the beauties of the land my characters were flying above. It became clear to me that to love flying means also loving the land. This is something I’m certain many Australian farmers appreciate as they fly over the vastness of their land as part of their work.
It was the land that entranced Peri as she flew south that morning. She exulted in its formal, industrial beauty, all senses heightened in her nervous excitement. She reckoned she was flying at about two hundred metres and from this height she could see the patterning of colour and texture: fields strict as tiles, squares of raw red earth ripped into furrows and laid next to rectangles of emerald pasture, the joins shocking as cuts.
Acid-green pasture crumpled like silk next to rows of lavender bushes carved thick as stone. Clear sounds rose singly through warming air: the falling note of one crow, the cough of an old farm truck, the swoop into full volume chanting of cicadas.
A dot moving over fields of burning gold startled her before she realised the black speck was her own shadow. She was so small against these vast fields; she and Hugo hung over this molten gold, seeming not to move at all, though she was flying swiftly.
Though I have vivid memories of travelling in and flying over South Australia, Far North Queensland and the Northern Territory, I needed more detail of what a flier would see from varying heights. During the decade it took me to write When We Have Wings, not only did books and documentaries appear based on exceptional photography of the Earth from the air but Google Earth also became available. These were invaluable tools for research; I pored over these incredible photos and flew over the land with Google Earth, checking what my characters could see from 100 metres up, 200 metres up, one kilometre, four kilometres. These views directly inspired passages such as:
The shallower water near the shore washed clear green, liquid glass, over parallel ridges of sand. The wind stirred the water and the shining green moved in the light, shimmering like an immense abalone shell with its fine silver and purple lines.
A lasting gift from researching and writing When We Have Wings was that I’m now far more aware of the sky, especially the variety and changeability of clouds. I live in the Blue Mountains, a wonderful place to watch clouds, and am fascinated by the big thunderheads, cumulus clouds exploding upwards even as I watch them, thermals whipping them hundreds of metres high. As one of my characters says, ‘clouds are the face of the weather made visible’.
Many of our most loved novels not only reflect our own lives and concerns back to us but also give us experiences of other lives we couldn’t have any other way. My hope for readers of When We Have Wings is for you to feel by the end that you really know what it is to fly.
Oh my god, exulted Peri. I am flying!
Peri was concentrating too hard to be distracted by the dazzling glitter sheeting below, light falling, sluicing over her wings like rain, air so blue she could taste it, pure as snow. It was beautiful but she wasn’t looking at it. Instead she was in it in a way she had never been in the world before.
This was Flight.
The true thing she’d struggled so hard for. It was for this she’d risked and endured so much.
It had to be worth it.