Meg Mundell’s debut novel, Black Glass, is set in a dystopian near-future Melbourne. A friend recently asked me why so many books set in the future were dystopian. Thinking about it, I think that very few books (historical, present or future) are ever set in a Utopia. If everything is happy and perfect, there isn’t a lot of dramatic potential. A spanner has to be thrown in the works to get a story going.
Black Glass has multiple spanners and multiple works, but the two key ones are the lives of Tally and Grace, sisters who are separated at the beginning of the book by a violent explosion. As the book flashes towards an ending that is also violently explosive, it’s anybody’s guess whether the sisters will find each other again.
The story is told in fragments, echoing numerous images of shattered glass, from the sisters’ world suddenly blown apart to the abandoned glass factory that Tally later makes her home. Some fragments follow Tally’s story, others follow Grace, while yet others follow journalist Damon, the artist Milk or others who will eventually converge in the final pages.
The technique has a very cinematic quality, and sometimes has a very strobe-like sense of disorientation. It suits the world that Melbourne has become very well—a disjointed patchwork of zones inhabited by strict policing, manipulative power brokers, the correctly documented and the ‘undocs’, the definite ‘have nots’. And although it’s not an immediately recognisable Melbourne, I did enjoy the passing references to places I knew and places I could imagine.
Tally and Grace, and most of the people they meet, are undocs, scraping a living on the streets and avoiding both police round-ups and the nastier elements in their precarious world. Each sister falls in with a different circle of folks living on the edge, which gives Mundell ample room to explore issues of identity and control. Everyone we meet, whether undoc or legit, has competing interests, potential dangers and a need to hide part or all of themselves in order to survive.
Mundell’s style flows easily. The deceptively simple approach seems to gloss many things over, except that enough clues have been given that we know what is really going on without things having to be spelled out. These story shards seem slight at times, but they are sharp.
Dark but never hopeless, Black Glass is a fast-paced, intriguing piece of speculative fiction.