Factory 19 by Dennis Glover review – an Orwellian dystopia in Tasmania's near future

Gig economy burnout and pre-digital nostalgia drive the creation of a low-tech refuge for ‘the disrupted’ in Glover’s second novel

The past was of concern to George Orwell: its capacity to be shaped – even replaced – by those in power. As the Oceania citizens intone in Nineteen Eighty-Four, repeating the despotic Party’s mantra: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Orwell is an intimate subject to Dennis Glover, an Australian author, policy adviser and speechwriter who has worked for some of the nation’s top politicians. His book Orwell’s Australia (2003) examines the social critic’s impact on the nation’s politics, and his debut novel, The Last Man in Europe (2017), historically reimagines the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four. So it makes sense that Glover’s second novel, Factory 19, also looks to the past, imagining an isolated industrial colony reclaiming a time stolen from them by the digital age.

Factory 19 is set in a recognisable era. It is the year 2022, monopolistic Big Tech reigns supreme, digital devices are ubiquitous, and many people are burnt out by the gig economy’s “endless, exhaustive hustle for survival”. In response, Paul Ritchey (also a speechwriter) contracts the world’s first allergy to technology – diagnosed as “digital proximity anxiety” – and is forced to relocate to the low-tech plains of Hobart, Tasmania. But this isn’t Hobart quite as we know it. Largely abandoned, the city has been devastated by an economic recession following the closure of the Gallery of Future Art (GoFA) and the disappearance its eccentric billionaire owner, Dundas Faussett – a barely disguised reincarnation of David Walsh, founder of Hobart’s real-world Museum of Old and New Art.

Re-emerging years later, Faussett announces the opening of a new industrial colony in Hobart titled Factory 19. This community will remain fixed in the past, Faussett claims, eschewing the “inadequacy of the present” for the “golden age” of the 1940s. (Their Year Zero is March 1948, the month before the advent of the first mainframe computer.) It will be a home for “the disrupted”: those looking to escape not only the virulent presence of technology but society’s “obsession with productivity, the gig economy, [and] the whole stupid numbers-driven way of interpreting the world”. Ritchey joins tentatively but is soon enamoured, and Fausset takes him under his wing.

Nostalgia and the pursuit of happiness are two of Factory 19’s most prominent themes. The act of remembering is seen as “the most powerful political act of all”, with Glover’s characters rejecting modernity’s false promises of prosperity by returning to the values of a bygone age. Glover is at his strongest here, creatively expanding on his nonfiction book An Economy Is Not a Society, which examines how economic reform and capitalism’s adherence to productivity over people have destroyed industrial communities. Indeed, Factory 19 can be seen as a riposte to this, one in which Glover – who grew up the son of factory workers in the Victorian town of Doveton (a once-industrious town similar to Factory 19) – has the working class refute the notion that technological innovation means progress.

Factory 19 also draws attention to the limitations of this utopian vision of a static past. It isn’t long before Faussett’s halcyon arcadia begins to fray at the edges, and the rosy tint of nostalgia starts to fade. Over-population, class disparity and cultural resistance bring about conflicts within the community, and dissenters are increasingly punished for failing to conform to Factory 19’s 40s-era-specific values, music, and even language. Here, Glover begins to sew into the narrative an Orwellian presence, which gives the novel a foreboding tone. The Department of Everyday Life Administration is created – an homage to Orwell’s Ministry of Truth – and the Digital Device Police begin to curtail any infiltrations of outside contraband.

Steeped in historical detail, Factory 19 is both a social commentary on the malefic indifference of the digital age and a criticism of neoliberalism’s deleterious effect on the working class. It is a shame, however, that Glover’s prose – though navigable and buoyant – veers too often into phrasing and moments that are groan-inducing, clunky, or frankly bizarre. (At one point, Ritchey finds himself in a dive bar, one where the formal dress code and poems on the wall prompt his odd response of “But an LGBTIQ bar in 1948?”) Ultimately, it attempts to maintain a heightened pace, but the plot slackens, and one too many conflict resolutions arrive as deus ex machina. The occasional objectification of women, a presumed satirical example of “era-specific” mores, is also more uncomfortable than critical.

But despite its flaws, Factory 19 is undeniably imaginative, with the novel capturing the lure of nostalgia – for better or for worse. It is a response to Orwell’s Party mantra: a rejection of modern capitalism’s distortion of the past as a time of inefficiency and complacency. Tongue firmly in cheek, Glover draws readers into a pre-internet era of bustling industry, one cast in the lurid hues of Kodachrome and Technicolor. For those who feel increasingly alienated by the digital age, this may be your ticket off the mainland.

Factory 19 by Dennis Glover is out now through Black Inc.


Jack Callil

The GuardianTramp

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