Rabin, Sean. The Good Captain. Melbourne, Transit Lounge, 2022. RRP: $29.99, 368pp, ISBN: 9781925760934.
The second novel from Tasmanian author Sean Rabin, The Good Captain, puts climate change centre stage and poses questions to both activists that seek to save the planet, and to businesses and politicians who seek to exploit it. These questions start with: how far is too far?
Set in a not-too-distant and disturbingly-believable future, The Good Captain’s dystopia presents to readers a world of plummeting fish stocks, polluted waters, toxic algae, wildly unpredictable weather, highly invasive technology and ever-increasing extinct species. If any of this sounds familiar and akin to reading the local news, then you might just be getting the idea behind the message Rabin seeks to convey.
The novel opens with a rag-tag crew of activists setting sail on their vessel, Mama, having just kidnapped the former prime minister of Australia—a thoroughly irredeemable, money-hungry man named Angus Wallace Thompson. The crew is made up of a small number of men and women from different walks of life, including midshipman Bill, who is dealing with a lifetime of guilt from enjoying generational wealth accrued through farming the ocean, and deckhand Aino, who is grieving the loss of the brother she followed to the sea, a brother who believed passionately in conservation. At the helm of the vessel is the enigmatic captain, Rena. She is as wild and reckless as the ocean they sail on, was born on and raised by that ocean, and has never set foot on land. Across the novel the reader learns of Rena’s history and the cycle of names she has been known by: Idu, Margit, Nina, Karen.
Rena and her crew are travelling to a rendezvous to deliver their cargo—the kidnapped politician, Thompson. The novel follows a seafaring classic narrative of sorts, interspersed with personal dramas and narrow escapes, and culminating in a sobering twist at its conclusion.
There is, at times, vast amounts of backstory and exposition delivered in monologues or lengthy paragraphs. In certain moments this works powerfully, such as when the ship encounters a space in the ocean that is entirely blanketed by discarded plastic. A list of the plastic items spans almost two pages of the novel: ‘Plastic bottles for smaller plastic bottles containing even smaller sweets. Plastic bottles for insect repellent, cranberry juice, banana caramel sundae topping, hand sanitiser, shaving cream, mint sauce, chocolate mousse, plant food and wood stain’ (107). This is both powerful and uncomfortable, all the more for how many of these items might be found if one should stand and wander their house at the moment of reading. That Rabin does not need to exaggerate or invent to fill the space of plastic items is a reminder of the undercurrents of truth and reality in his novel.
It is telling that even the most extreme of activists, the character of Rena, still views the sea in anthropomorphic terms. When she thinks of the ocean, her mind immediately categorises it as having a ‘face’ (263), and the terminology she uses to describe oceanic events—including ‘opaque hearts’, ‘faceless men’, ‘crossed swords’ (277) and ‘short muscular waves’ (52)—still reaches for the comfort of imposing human traits on nature to facilitate understanding. The novel demonstrates that even the best of us, who love the environment and seek to save it, still fall back on forcing human descriptors upon it. This inadvertent personification goes a long way to show how humans are conditioned to see the world.
The primary antagonist, Thompson, is an amalgamation of every poorly-appointed, self-absorbed politician, a satirical characterisation that at times seems at odds with the rest of the novel. There is a farcical extreme to his character that is one-dimensional in its portrayal, and which is occasionally jarring when compared to the other layered, and often complex, characters. However, this can be seen as a pointed choice by Rabin, and positions Thompson as less worthy of empathy.
Moral questions plague the novel. For instance, whilst Thompson is presented as ‘bad’ and given little ambiguity, the crew themselves exist within shaded territory where questions of what we accept in the name of ‘the greater good’ are raised. The crew, when they come across fishing trawlers, exact swift justice delivered in the form of weapons and missiles that tear the vessels apart. Their reasoning is to stop the overfishing of a diminished marine population, but the question raised by the novel is whether the means justify the ends.
The crew themselves, on deliverance of their attack, are tellingly unmoved and unaffected, speaking to a state of being desensitised to the act. In the immediate aftermath, ‘on Mama’s bridge no one spoke, no one cheered’ (73). The first mate, Christopher, acknowledges ‘satisfaction’ at their success, another crew member is preoccupied with his beloved communications system and, finally, the carpenter can think only of the missed opportunity to salvage from the wreck: ‘Mel observed the last of the smouldering debris disappear from the water’s surface and realised if they had fired sooner there would have been time to hunt for scrap—now it would be too dark’ (73).
The Good Captain is a haunting novel, and, time and time again, prompts the questions that are at its centre. How far can we push nature before it fights back, or worse, crumbles completely beneath our onslaught? How far is too far in the name of preservation? Are the lives of the fishermen, and others, worth sacrificing in the grand scheme of trying to save the world? And, is it too late to stop this dystopian future from becoming a reality?
Shaeden Berry is a writer from Boorloo with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Murdoch University. She has written for Kill Your Darlings, Refinery29, MamaMia and Fashion Journal. Her short stories will be featured in the upcoming anthologies: The Unexpected Party by Fremantle Press, and Strange by MidnightSun Publishing.