Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman (Hachette Australia 978-0733638312, A$29.99, 304pp, tp) August 2017. (Small Beer 978-1-61873-1517, $17.00, 304pp, tp) September 2018.

The idea of alien invasion as a commentary on colonialism is at least as old as H.G. Wells, but unfortunately never seems to get out of date. Wells himself, in the very first chapter of The War of the Worlds, formulated it succinctly:

The Tasmanians, in spite of their human like­ness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

Wells’s example seems particularly apt to Terra Nullius, the first novel by the indigenous Australian writer Claire G. Coleman (who is of Noongar descent), since Coleman cites it herself:

Since the invasion, you call it the settlement, of this planet you have acted as if humans do not exist…. This has happened before: the English believed they had exterminated all of the Tasmanian Aborigines, the Palawa; in fact they survived the invasion, they still exist now.

But Coleman develops a highly original narra­tive strategy that is almost impossible to discuss without risking spoilers (it could be argued that reviewing the novel as science fiction is itself something of a spoiler, but readers sensitive to such things might want to skip the last paragraph of this review). For the first nine chapters of the book, we seem to be reading a fairly familiar, if harrowing, tale of an Aboriginal, raised in captivity, who has escaped an internment camp in search of his ancestral home, and who is be­ing so relentlessly pursued that he becomes a local legend, an emblem of resistance to colonial authority. The situation echoes the Thomas Ke­neally novel and Fre Schepsi film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, as well as Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (and its film adaptation), both of which are cited by Coleman in an afterword.

The novel, which was originally published in Australia and New Zealand in 2017, literally hits the ground running. Its opening sentence, introducing us to the fugitive who is one of the main protagonists, is “Jacky was running,” and the pace never really lets up. We’re introduced to other viewpoint characters: a conniving nun named Sister Bagra, who runs a school for native children despite viewing them as barely educable vermin; a bureaucrat in the “Department for the Protection of Natives,” who is equally contemp­tuous of his charges; a young Native girl named Esperance, living in extreme poverty in a camp not yet overrun by Settlers; the brutal military commander Sergeant Rohan, who obsessively leads his troopers in the search for Jacky (and is about the closest the novel comes to an over­familiar stereotype); and Johnny Star, a trooper so repelled by his participation in the massacre of a Native village that he deserts (a bit like Finn from The Force Awakens) and becomes a fugitive himself. Later we meet Father Grark, an inspector from the Settlers’ homeland sent to in­vestigate the abuses at Sister Bagra’s school, and who contends that the Natives should be treated with respect and dignity. Coleman draws these characters in bold strokes, and while none seem entirely original, she manipulates the multiple viewpoints with an adroitness that keeps the novel moving at a relentless pace.

But now here comes the spoiler, and here comes the SF: beginning in Chapter Ten, some two-fifths of the way through the book, we learn that the Natives are not only Aboriginals, but all humans, and that the Settlers are not European, but amphibious humanoid alien invaders, con­temptuously called Toads by the natives. By the time the novel begins, the Toads have long since conquered nearly the entire world, with Australia one of the last human strongholds because of the dry climate of the interior, which is dangerous for Toads. Ironically, the subjugation of humanity has nearly erased our own forms of racism: “In interstellar terms, we, the people of Earth, are the Australian Aboriginals,” and the entire planet is “Terra Nullius,” from the old British term for unclaimed land or land empty of people – thus essentially defining the native populations as non-persons. Coleman is not at all interested in being subtle about drawing these parallels, nor does she need to be: she gets her point across with powerful, disturbing, and often extremely violent portrayals of the subjugation of a native population that can’t help but echo history. The grimdark tone of most of the narrative doesn’t seem to hold out much promise of a Will Smith showing up to vanquish the aliens with a well-placed shot – the novel is too rooted in historical realism for that – but the ending Coleman does provide (and which I won’t spoil) is thoroughly consistent with the sensibility of this gripping, harrowing, but ultimately deeply humane tale.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the September 2018 issue of Locus.

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