Books

Claire G. Coleman
The Old Lie

An innovative tradition of First Nations science fiction has emerged around the world in recent decades. While older works in the genre imagined nightmarish scenarios of reverse colonisation featuring invading aliens – think H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds – First Nations science fiction has looked to an all-too-real history of invasion to generate its nightmarish scenarios.

The Old Lie is the second science-fiction novel – after the acclaimed Terra Nullius – by the Noongar writer Claire G. Coleman. This new book, like its predecessor, is marked by a parodic awareness of the genre in which Coleman is working, and a keen sense of its allegorical potential.

The Old Lie is set in a future world where a brutal intergalactic war is being fought between the Federation (which includes Earth) and the invading Conglomeration. The large cast of First Nations characters includes an infantrywoman fighting to protect her ancestral lands from being stolen again, a man incarcerated by the Brainbug Alliance, and a man whose Country has been destroyed by weapons testing – with Maralinga being explicitly referenced.

This is not a book of great subtlety, but then the issues it explores are too important to risk obfuscation. Coleman ensures her characters’ experiences resonate with matters germane to Australia’s First Nations people – such as the little-known history of First Nations men who fought in World War II without getting the respect that white Australian soldiers received upon their return. Indeed, a strong theme in The Old Lie, as suggested by the title, is betrayal.

Coleman, however, also has fun with science-fiction conventions. There are plasma rifles and explosions galore, spider-like creatures known as Ziggys (surely a playful reference to David Bowie’s work), and a gung-ho spaceship fighter pilot who “preferred to think of herself as beyond such petty concepts as ‘the rules’ ”.

At times chaotic in its plot and aesthetic, the fast-paced, violent action of The Old Lie places it firmly in the militaristic subgenre of science fiction – notwithstanding the occasional use of Wilfred Owen’s anti-war poetry as a chapter epigraph. This novel is like Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, though its First Nations and feminist agenda provides an antidote to that novel’s fascism and to science fiction’s white prejudice more generally.

Maria Takolander

Hachette, 368pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Claire G. Coleman, The Old Lie". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Maria Takolander