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Yellowcake Springs by Guy Salvidge
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it was amazing

Yellowcake Springs by Guy Salvidge (Glass House Books, 2011 ISBN 9781921869174)

When I got my copy of Yellowcake Springs by Guy Salvidge in the mail I set aside David Beckham’s autobiography – an interesting book in itself – and beheld this artifact from Australia with its fiery red cover dominated by a circular nuclear warning sign in the very center. Keep out! Stay away! It seemed to scream at me, You really don’t want to read this book! I opened it eagerly, and spotted the photograph of Guy Salvidge in the front papers – a scary sight and almost enough to make me drop the book in horror! But… I had to read this book; I’d been looking forward to it for a long time. Guy Salvidge is one of Australia’s new crew of writers active internationally; he’s won awards! Several of them, and this novel Yellowcake Springs, his second, is itself a winner of the 2011 IP Picks Best Fiction Award and in 2012 is on the short list for the Norma K. Hemming Award for speculative fiction in Australia. I can see why.
Set in Western Australia somewhere near Perth and in Perth itself Yellowcake Springs assembles a cast of main characters that we get to know well as we read into the novel. There’s Sylvia Baron (and, yes, she does resemble Sylvia Bohlen from Philip K. Dick’s MARTIAN TIME-SLIP) who is an advertising artist for a Chinese nuclear power community in the Australian desert: Yellowcake Springs. It’s her job to entice people there and make them feel safe and secure living next to a huge nuclear power complex. To do this she uses a technology called CDS – Controlled Dreaming State – by which dreams are manipulated and shared by online communities of people anxious to have some virtual fun away from their lives in what is the depressing and desolate land of near-future Western Australia.
Sylvia’s husband, David, is a sketchy character and possibly up to no good. He comes and goes in the novel but never seems able to truly connect with his wife, who is having a CDS affair with a man she doesn’t know or even know where he lives. This Rion, short for Orion, is a handsome down-and-outer who actually lives in a deserted town some distance from Yellowcake Springs. Using a CDS Console stolen in a raid on the local police station in which the area militia ousted the cops from the town of East Hills, Rion in his beyond shabby rotting apartment plans with the aid of this CDS Console to escape from his dead town and move up in the world. His CDS affair with Sylvia is, he thinks, his ticket out. But first he must escape from the militia yahoos who control his town and then make his way across the desert to Yellowcake Springs.
But, despite Sylvia and the Chinese nuclear corporation’s efforts to make Yellowcake Springs a flagship community, all is not well in this circular man-made town with its three zones: red for where the nuclear reactors are, yellow for where the workers work, and green for where they live, all surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and monitored by surveillance cameras.
The Chinese are the main villains in this plot and they have devised a variation of the Controlled Dreaming State that operates in the daytime, as it were, called Controlled Waking State. Chinese workers are sent to Yellowcake Springs to work on the reactors and a special crew is hooked up to the Controlled Waking State apparatus and must learn how to live and work in the CWS condition. This is not an easy task as once the Chinese experimenters are in CWS they begin to lose touch with reality and are never sure whether they are in CWS or are really awake.
In a future world of overpopulation, no water, the land turning to desert and lawlessness encroaching everywhere there are many unhappy people looking for someone to blame for their sorry lot. An oasis such as Yellowcake Springs with its huge nuclear cooling towers attracts the destructive attentions of these environmentalists or ‘mentals’ as they are known and the town becomes a target.
But life goes on in fits and starts for those living in the novel. There’s not much hope anywhere and even the big city of Perth proves a disappointment. Things are just going downhill everywhere. The Chinese are a remote omnipotent power, well intentioned perhaps, but without any soul. The Mentals are just lashing out with hate at anything technological even though they can barely survive without it. Everywhere is starvation and death but still the global population of humanity grows virtually unchecked.
At the end of the novel we see the fate of Yellowcake Springs. A town destroyed and rebuilt but, and here’s the true horror of this tale, remaining always the same.
Guy Salvidge writes simply and he knows how to engage the reader with a flat economy of words. When I reached the end of the book I wanted it to continue, I wanted to see how this bleak future Australia turned out. It all seemed so real to me that I wondered if such a place as Yellowcake Springs really existed somewhere north of Perth and east of the sea. Is Western Australia dotted by nuclear power stations owned and operated by the Chinese? Is it all so dry there, so damn desperate to survive for any forms of life?
Living here in the United States, in the semi-desert state of Colorado where the air is so dry and thin a discarded orange will not rot but will, instead, just dry out to a crusty sphere, I can still look around and see green trees and grass and flowers and hear the birds sing and the dogs bark. But the Western Australia of this novel takes the meaning of desert several stages further into aridness and despair. I see the landscape there in my minds eye, I see a once lush spring of water now dry and caked with cracked yellow mud, in which only a few desert creatures survive and mankind is not wanted. I see a yellowcake spring here and now. And I reach out to Guy Salvidge in the real Western Australia and I say, Tell me, Guy, tell me it isn’t so!?

-- Dave Hyde, May 2012
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
May 16, 2012 – Finished Reading
May 20, 2012 – Shelved

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