Never Have Hands Been So Vital to a Creature
Bats of the Republic
By Zachary Thomas Dodson
Released in May of 2015, director George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road grossed $374 million worldwide, an astonishing feat for a film whose predecessor hit theaters thirty years ago. Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy—starring Mel Gibson, between 1979 and 1985—is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia ruled by roadway gangs who battle for the world’s last dregs of petroleum. Fury Road did so well because it’s gorgeously shot and feverishly acted, but also because its central premise still kicks like a Ford Falcon covered in blood and dust.
Inspired by the oil shortages of the 1970s (and the ubiquitous threat of nuclear war), the Mad Max films offer a future in which the environment is dead and civilization has been whittled down to leather, filth, and ranging the desert for food and water. As an Australian, Miller knows that the country’s scorching hot outback has the potential to become a brush-fired wasteland. With the ten hottest years on record having occurred since 1998 (2014 being the worst), drought-ravaged places like California and Sao Paulo, Brazil likewise hint at a precarious future.
The best post-apocalyptic stories succeed in driving our present fears to the Nth degree. They show our values subverted and material gains stripped away. In Bats of the Republic, debut novelist Zachary Thomas Dodson imagines Texas in the year 2143 (as the Silver-City), where nature has fallen to rot, writing implements are outlawed, and all communication is recorded. Also, laudanum is once more the drug of choice.
The wider backdrop is that a worldwide Collapse has destroyed civilization, and the United States is now comprised of seven city-states, each walled off from the outlying dead zones. Perhaps Dodson’s most daring commitment to this Dark Future—and certainly the element that will most rattle progressive readers—is that his city-states are organized by “Lifephase.” This means that the elderly (70 and older) live exclusively in Chicago-Land, teens (14-22) live in Port-Land, and single adults and “Queers” (28-69) live in Atlantas. The map showing these Lifephases—and others reserved for marriage and child rearing—boasts unfamiliar coastlines created by elevated oceans.
Bats of the Republic contains more than a map, however. It’s an illuminated novel, like Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009), and the narrative twines around illustrations, character-specific fonts, and even a shorter novel. Not all readers will care for such intrusions, and some might consider them gimmicky crutches. But Dodson’s illuminations do add an otherworldly filigree to prose that volleys from blunt assessments, like when Historian Henry Bartle says, “After the Collapse, there was very little patience or tolerance for diversity. Folks were scared,” to poetic rambles, as Bartle tells us that
The past is like a tree in the darkest night, filled with black birds rarely seen. Truths that flutter, escaping the edges of peripheral vision. First they are birds lost against a dark sky, then they are simply leaves, blown about by an animating wind. The longer I looked, the more difficult it was to see.
Like all of Dodson’s main characters, Bartle vibrates softly from the page at his own frequency; his chapters are presented as a secret batch of correspondence typed to his daughter, Eliza. She works at the Vault of Records, which is part library and part fascist ops center, where all communication (via speech, paper, and phone) is studied, carbon copied, and threaded together (that her segments come as hand-written notes to her friend, Leeya, is yet more narrative texture). Eliza’s boyfriend, Zeke, is the protagonist of Bats of the Republic and the inheritor of his recently deceased grandfather’s Senate seat. While he decides whether or not to accept the position, Zeke is the Khrysalis. He’s also inherited a sealed letter of questionable value, which he does not immediately turn in to the Vault to be “carbon’d.”
The vastness of Dodson’s novel helps it do what few Dark Future stories can—pull readers slack-jawed to the very end. Details swarm like bats from a cave, then wheel in a hypnotic figure-eight that takes us between Zeke’s life in 2143, and the life of his ancestor, frail naturalist Zadock Thomas, in 1843. Dodson curves details—laudanum addiction, or news of a chupacabra-like beast killing women—from one time-frame into another, reinforcing the temporal quirk; as in novels by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Haruki Murakami (1Q84), coincidence acts with the strength and presence of a speaking character.
To follow one of Bats of the Republic‘s grandest coincidences is to further reveal a nested structure, beginning with Zadock Thomas. Like Victorian science heroes Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace, Thomas sets out to catalog new animal species on a life-affirming journey. His more modest trek, however, takes him from Chicago to Texas, where he must deliver a letter to General Irion at the front of the Mexican-American War. He does so at the behest of Joseph Gray, who is striving to establish Chicago’s “Museum of Flying,” a first-class natural history museum. Zadock also hopes to win the heart of Gray’s eldest daughter, Elswyth, who spurs him toward greatness while tepidly acknowledging his existence.
These details take on a chimerical slipperiness when we learn that Zadock travels with Major McMarrow and his soldiers. Legend has it that McMarrow was once so confident of his men that he sat atop his horse and read while battle raged around him. “The musket ball pierced all the pages of his book, coming through the very sentence he was reading, but at such a reduced speed that it bounced harmlessly off his chest.” We never learn the name of the book, but Dodson does include chapters of the Victorian comedy of manners, “The Sisters Gray,” by L.W. Gray. Henry Bartle, in his letters to Eliza, recommends she check it out from the Vault because it seems to feature the Gray family’s exaggerated misadventures, within which there may be grains of truth about Zeke’s bloodline. All the pages from “The Sisters Gray” have circular perforations. And within this book we learn of yet another book, supposedly written by Joseph Gray’s deceased wife, called “The City-State.”
There is every chance that a fictional Möbius strip like Bats of the Republic might present as a clever hunk of paper, pretty on the shelf, jammed full of flaky Complexity. But Dodson’s passion for the real world elevates his fictional one. The take-away from every passage describing Zeke and Eliza’s life, despite the futuristic embellishments, is that they’re prisoners. To travel from the Silver-City to Chicago-Land, Zeke
rode the rotovator up the tether in the center of the city-state. It docked with the tram, which floated in near-earth orbit to the dock above Chicago-Land. He wished he had more laudanum. His palms began to sweat the moment he boarded. He could only think the worst. The statite car might drift into space. The steam thrusters might misfire. The car was attached to nothing. Zeke imagined it falling.
He looked nervously at the landscape painted below. It felt strange to be outside the protective wall of the barrier. The other passengers didn’t seem to mind. In their minds, they had not left the bounds of civilization.
Outside the barrier there were few trees, few lakes, and no buildings. Lots of rot: brown, barren, burning. The storm country was huge. Each trip, Zeke would scan for signs of life. The car was too far from the ground to see anything. Ghost rivers of smoke drifted along the earth’s floor. Some said the land was burning. That there were folks outside, in the rot, setting fires. But nothing could be seen. Not even the flocks of birds Zeke had read about in old books. It was dead and flat as a page of text.
A future where we can’t witness wild animals in their natural environments in horrifying, but it may nevertheless be what we create. Dodson, committed to writing both a novel and a natural history guide, brings animal sketches to audiences who may have never perused a nature book. This is a beautiful thing, and Zadock’s entries for the Museum of Flying and his “Bats of the Republic” compendium ring with tangible wonder:
Cave Bat. Small, brown like the surrounding desert. Body is covered with fur and its face is flat and short and indeed more alike to a human than a mouse. Folds of skin about its ears, no doubt for hearing in the cave, and its wings are formed of the same rubbery dark skin. I thought the wings hairless but, rubbing them between my thumb and forefinger, I could feel tiny follicles. Its wings are not so much formed by its arms as its hands, thin bony fingers providing the frame on which the skin is stretched. Imagine having hands so large that by their downward gesture you could be propelled up into the air! Never have hands been so vital to a creature. To hold this one in mine was a thrill unmatched.
Meanwhile, Dodson arranges complementary plot elements that force the lives of Zeke and Zadock into alignment, pinning them under glass like insects. Bats of the Republic becomes a page-turner just so you can lean back from the sparkling array and make better sense of it. In 2143, Zeke must outmaneuver his loutish Lawman cousin, Bic (who’d love to become Senator), and Major Daxon, a psychopath who runs the Vault. In 1843, Zadock competes with the more rugged Bart Buell for Elswyth’s hand, and must survive Major McMarrow’s idiosyncratic leadership. Both narratives feature a secretive sisterhood of future-reading Auspices, who insist that guiding bloodlines will create a stronger Texas.
The end of Bats of the Republic offers a sealed envelope, a physical echo of the device that generated Zeke and Zadock’s spiral towards each other. Then again, Zadock stroked a bat wing and wrote “Never have hands been so vital to a creature.” That’s worth contemplating as we open the surprise ending. Would Dodson trade the ability to write for the gift of flight? I don’t think a second read will make that any clearer.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.