In Alison Stine’s 2021 dystopian novel, Trashlands, the object of humanity’s demise becomes the centerpiece of its salvation. Or perhaps it’s better thought of as a curse.
When the events of the novel begin, decades have passed since floods tore through the world, reshaping coastlines and lives in the process. So much time has passed in fact, that our central character, Coral (the characters are named after plants, animals and cities), doesn’t have any connection to the “before time.”
This comes both into stark focus as a character-building trait (that is, for her entire existence, she’s only known how to survive) and also, at times, to comic relief: Fire hydrant. What a funny word, she thought, since fire didn’t come out of the hydrant.
In Trashlands, humanity’s demise was plastic, an overreliance on plastic, especially single-use plastic (the characters throughout the novel often marvel at how ridiculous it would be to use plastic once and discard it rather than remaking it anew or how absurd it was how much plastic was devoted to wasteful packaging) and in general, not heeding the concerns about climate change.
However, in the world left after the water largely receded, plastic is better than cold, hard cash. Plastic is the primary currency among humans now. Plastic is the economy. Plastic is life.
Coral, along with Mr. Fall, a fatherly figure to her and to many others, is old enough to remember and teach the “before times,”; her boyfriend, Trillium, who is a tattoo artist; Foxglove, a stripper at the local strip club; and others, live in what is known as Scrapalachia, formerly Appalachia.
Specifically, they live in Trashlands, a junkyard somewhere in southeast Ohio, a perfect spot along the water where plastic comes in to be scavenged by plastic “pluckers” like Coral, sorted and sold for survival. The quasi, self-proclaimed mayor of Trashlands is Rattlesnake Master, who acts as essentially a pimp by running a strip club in Trashlands, which he advertises for in the newspaper and with a giant neon sign. Women dance endlessly for men who pay them in plastic to an endless loop of bass music.
Meanwhile, along the coasts, known as the Els, cities are being rebuilt, inasmuch as they can be, via the plastic scavenged, sorted and sold by those in Scrapalachia. They melt the plastic to create bricks to build new buildings. There’s still some functioning government. Heck, there’s even newspapers still!
In fact, one of the central characters is Miami, a newspaperman from the city, who comes to Trashlands ostensibly to write about what might as well be a foreign country inside of America (again, echoing the salient divide in our country today). However, his ulterior motive, and one that would prove ultimately futile, is to avenge the death of his sister, who he thinks was killed somewhere in Scrapalachia.
That’s the thing, too. The floods not only wiped away what we’ve come to think of as high-functioning civilization in the form of basic infrastructure, running water, reliable food sources, internet, travel via cars and planes — throughout the book, characters marvel at the rare sight of an “aeroplane” — but that the floods also wiped away feminism, for all intents and purposes. The patriarchy resumed stronger than ever, which Tahiti (the bodyguard for Foxglove, who not-so-secretly pines for her and was one of my favorite characters in the book) gives a great rant late in the book, noting how close women were to running the world, and how much better they would be at it, before the floods. And how much better Coral, Foxglove, Summer (another stripper at the club) and other women would be at running this plastic dystopia.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of what Stine uncovers in her examination of a dystopia where plastic and the patriarchy reign supreme is that even amid that — even in a world where our characters can’t guarantee their next meal or their safety — humans still yearn for something more.
For Coral, it’s sculpting art out of plastic for no real purpose other than because she needs to. She’s not trying to sell it or even display it. What’s lovely about this, too, is that again, Coral has no foot in the past before the floods. So, her artistic need is innate, as it is for all of us.
For Trillium, it’s tattooing; yes, he makes a living doing it, too, but there’s an art to it that keeps him humming along alive more than merely surviving.
For others, like Mr. Fall, it’s his passion for teaching the next generation and telling the story of now for later.
Or that Miami is a newspaperman, telling stories and using paper to tell those stories, not for something more “useful” to survive.
And even still, I think there is something deeply human about the fact that even in a dystopian future, we would surely maintain our vices of alcohol and drugs to numb our day-to-day pain and existential pain, and we would still need titillation and copulation, not even for procreation purposes, as the characters in Trashlands do.
Beyond the dichotomy of of plastic as savior and curse, or that the patriarchy would be revitalized to a greater extent in a collapsed society, or that art is as necessary to human survival as roots and berries, Stine’s most beautiful and poignant story told in Trashlands is that of Coral and her son, Shanghai. It is their story which will linger in my head the most after finishing her novel.
Marauders, or as their known in the book, collectors, come through camps like Trashlands, to take children from their families so that they can go to factories and sort plastic. The children with their little hands are thought to better suited to the job. (This echoes people’s concerns nowadays with sweatshops in foreign lands buoying our cheap products here in the West.)
One day, Shanghai was taken by the collectors in this fashion.
What’s deeply beautiful about it, though, is that Stine uses this abduction and Coral’s quest to get him back, as an allegory of sorts for a mother’s complicated relationship to, and feelings about, their children.
Because Coral felt both a sense of relief when he was abducted and obviously, a fierce love to regain him. The former manifest because Shanghai was a difficult child and raising a difficult child is hard enough in the best of times, much less in the worst of times, as she was attempting to do. And she was still a child herself, basically.
But that’s motherhood, right? You’re not always going to like your child, but you’re always going to love them.
The best dystopian books are the ones that rein in the grandiose in favor of the intimate and I think that’s what Stine achieved here with Trashlands. Yes, there is of course some grandiosity about humans’ willful ignorance as they careen over the plastic precipice and the maddening fact of the patriarchy, but at heart, this book is about these aforementioned characters and their yearning for art, love and simply, something more than mere survival.
Stine goes for a world-building of a different kind, a more inward-focused and human one. I appreciated that.
And the best dystopian books are counterintuitively optimistic, not bleak, and I read much optimism in Trashlands even amid a world steeped in bleakness. That is, that floods, power-hungry, violent men and even humanity’s aggregate stupidity, are incapable of negating the human spirit.
It will find a way, as Coral’s did.
(Addendum: I don’t have a good way to weave this in the review, but Stine offered a line about poverty I went out of my way to put into my Notes app: “Everything wore down at the same time … that’s the law of poverty.” That’s powerful and speaks for itself.)