Alt-Ctrl is a YA dystopian novella by West Australian freelance writer and editor Rebecca Freeman. It is set in a not-too-distant future Australia in which climate collapse has forced most citizens into domed cities run by the international corporation PlanetRescue. Governments are at the mercy of PlanetRescue, as we find out in the opening scene of Alt-Ctrl, and the remainder of the story follows city-dweller and engineer, Finn, on her journey to bring down the organisation.
Finn and her friend, Jhara, escape the city and travel to a community living off the grid in the Badlands, where a rebellion is growing to take down PlanetRescue and the domed cities where, it turns out, only a select few are allowed to live. Anyone deemed ‘unworthy’ is rejected from city life, and this discrimination, although only mentioned once or twice, underpins the injustice and unethical practices of PlanetRescue.
Freeman creates a very nuanced character in Finn, who is neurodiverse and deeply dislikes being touched, is uncomfortable with face-to-face interactions, and struggles with the more personable, organic way of life she experiences outside of the city. Freeman captures well the differences and challenges in going from city to rural life, and I feel this is the strongest aspect of the novella.
Many interesting concepts are explored through the setting and plot in Alt-Ctrl, both sci-fi and personal: the struggle between corporations and governments in the face of unprecedented challenges; finding one’s place in a world of uncertainty; self-governing, self-sufficient rural communities versus sterile, discriminatory city-living. The rural community setting is very detailed, the descriptions of social ritual, working together for a common goal, fair governance, the landscape; these all contribute to a very strong sense of place and belonging that the main character finds attractive, although entirely alien to her experience of sterile, insular city life.
The opening scene sets out PlanetRescue’s hold over governments in creating, owning and maintaining the domed cities that protect citizens from the harsh elements of a post-climate change world, but that aspect essentially covers the sci-fi and dystopian elements of the work. This story is more about Finn and her personal journey of discovery, fortitude, and her own origins; the dystopic elements a backdrop to her growth.
I enjoyed the story, and it’s a good way of dipping one’s readerly toes into the genre of cli-fi and dystopic fiction, but I also felt it needed a little more exposition at the beginning to properly establish Finn’s life in the city. The scenes in the country are quite long and detailed and if this were juxtaposed with the rigidity and sterility of life inside the domes then Finn’s struggle in adjusting would be clearer to the reader. However, this is a small qualm, and readers will enjoy following the story of Finn as she discovers her origins and what she is capable of in a deeply divided world.