The Old Lie, Claire G Coleman

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If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*. [Wilfred Owen]

The Old Lie is a war story, framed by Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, of Australian soldiers, Indigenous Australian soldiers it turns out, part of a larger force fighting in the mud and ruined habitations of distant lands. Strange territory for Western Australian Wirlomin/Noongar woman Claire Coleman, but as we are learning, she is full of surprises.

Corporal Shane Daniels was lost, the grey uniformity of the sky and dirt, the rain, the muck, had rendered the flat, bomb-wracked plain featureless … Tangled barbed wire was a constant obstacle, tangling, tearing , hidden, trampled into the soupy mud …

A familiar opening for Australian war stories for a hundred years now. But in Coleman’s sure hands it becomes something else, becomes more. Yes, the treatment the protagonists, best friends Daniels in the infantry and fighter pilot Romeo endure bear out the justifiable bitterness of Wilfred Owen’s poem. But the story is also a metaphor for Aboriginal dispossession; for White settlement on Aboriginal lands; for Australia’s lickspittle subservience to Empire which led to the Maralinga atom bomb tests on Aboriginal-occupied desert land; for the stolen generations – the seizing and selling into institutional slavery of mixed race children; for the imprisonment of refugees.

No, I won’t discuss how the metaphor works, though that would be a pleasure with others who had read the book. And I won’t discuss this as a genre novel, which I could, and which I think Coleman does well. The Old Lie is clearly presented as literary fiction and that therefore is how it must be judged.

The underlying story is that Daniels and Romeo fill out the old trope of brave, anti-authority soldiers; fight their way out of impossibly tight situations; Daniels has family back home, Romeo finds a (saccharine) love interest. In another part of the war zone, a young man and a girl separately escape slavery and join forces with a foreign monk; find themselves herded in with refugees from the various fields of conflict; do their best to head for a near-forgotten home. William, a medic, wakes up in prison; is forced to assist his captors in their experiments. A strange illness follows the bombing of a remote city.

Unlike fellow Wirlomin/Noongar writer Kim Scott [and I assume there is a connection. The Coleman boys married Fanny/Benang’s daughters (here)] Claire Coleman is not particularly literary, but she is a great story teller. And she uses her stories to emphasize Aboriginal themes, in this case, particularly connection to country.

The red scrub, it didn’t even reach her knees, the red sand, that was home. She could feel it, hear the voices of her ancestors. Maybe it was Walker’s lessons … maybe it was her proximity to death, but she felt more in contact with her people, with her Country, than she had ever felt in her life. [Or ..]

He waited to die, he could not breathe, he smiled, he waited to die. His soul, what was left of it, would escape his body and return to his Country. There he would join his old people. His wife and kids would be there one day too.

The Old Lie is an old-fashioned adventure story, but also a story with a purpose, with an underlying theme. On the basis of her two novels I think it is fair to say there is always more to Claire Coleman than first meets the eye.

This is a very short review but Coleman’s story telling depends for its oomph on the reader coming upon the elements of the story in the order which the author presents them and saying more would put that at risk. Yes I liked it and I would recommend that everyone read it and discuss the issues it raises.

It ends without a resolution. Perhaps Coleman is planning a series.

 

Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie, Hachette, Sydney, 2019

see also: Terra Nullius (my review)


*It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, Horace (Ode III.2.13)

The Total Devotion Machine, Rosaleen Love

The Total Devotion Machine and Other Stories By Rosaleen Love

Have you heard of Rosaleen Love. I’m blowed if I have, but she’s a good writer, an old fashioned womens libber (b.1940), and funny! If the stars had aligned she may even have been my tutor in History and Philosophy of Science at Melbourne Uni in 1970 when I was in my third first year and she was doing her PhD. Love is a science journalist, writing on the Great Barrier reef, a futurist, and a Science Fiction writer. The Total Devotion Machine and other stories (1989) was her first collection followed by Evolution Annie and other stories (1993).

I’ve been reading, and enjoying, these stories over the past two or three weeks, but let’s go back to the beginning, for a close look at The Total Devotion Machine, followed by a brief look at the others – there are 17 in total averaging 10 pages each.

Mary Beth left it until the day before she set sail to tell Wim Morris and Baby about the Total Devotion Machine. “This time tomorrow I’ll be off, flying the solar wind to Mars,” she said …

Wim is an adolescent. He and Baby have absent fathers who are bound by shared parenting agreements.

I’ll miss you both, but the machine will send me those interactive videos so necessary for my full development as a mother, and of course by return I’ll send you back some of me, for your full development as children …

So Mary Beth sailed off on the Tricentennial Fleet, and even the fathers came to wave goodbye, which set back their self-improvement schedules at least an hour.

The tone is one of old-fashioned SF optimism, but intended ironically I think, as are her observations not just of the fathers, but of Mary Beth. The TDM finds Mary Beth’s two kids a handful, and soon …

Baby comes to visit Jemmy [her father] at work. The machine bustles in and places her on his bench. “I thought that since you failed to turn up for your contractual three hours’ parenting time on Sunday I’d take time off in lieu today,” it says.

“What contract? I didn’t sign any contract.”

“The contract you signed with Mary Beth, whom I am legally and morally replacing.”

“Oh, that contract. Well that contract was always more of an ongoing process, really, more than a legally binding document as such,” says Jemmy, looking round the room at people who hastily drop fascinated eyes to their work as his gaze meets theirs.

… Jemmy knows that tomorrow, when Baby is back home, everyone will down tools and invite him into a conference. They will discuss, in a mutually supportive and deeply understanding fashion, Jemmy’s domestic problems and possible solutions to them, as part of The Strategic Management Plan for the Better Utilisation of the Full Potential of each Employee.

William, Wim’s father cops the same. The two fathers give in and move back home and the TDM looks forward to a year of leisure.

In Bat Mania, Barbastella finds to her surprise she has reached that age where she is turning into an old bat, literally. She adjusts to her situation and gains revenge on a former workmate by investing the properties he’s hoping to sell with colonies of her fellows. She sets her ambitions higher, wishing to change the world: “Matriarchy is the power of the old bat.”

Tanami Drift is a story of knowledge workers forced inland by rising seawaters – a possibility that was taken more seriously in the 1980s than now, when it has actually begun – where children tailored to their parents requirements are purchased from a Baby Factory, and extended family networks are simulated by computer. It’s a complex story. Glory wants to know who supplied her genes; her ‘father’ is on a one-way flight to Jupiter; the community is under surveillance from metallic lizards; desert vegetation is kept under control, by fire, by ‘outstationers’ who have their children the old fashioned way; Dr Neville who runs the Baby Factory appears to be demented.

In other stories Love uses her knowledge of and love for marine biology. A research student loses credibility when she lets slip that she can actually feel what sea-life are thinking; two hippies and a maths nerd drive up the coast to commune with the dolphins but once the dolphins have learned math they will take over the world; fossilized bones from Lake Mungo subtly change their shape each time they’re measured, causing constant changes in theories about pre-history; a researcher into electric signals between fish discovers extra-terrestial messages.

There are stories that might be straight, but have a little twist at the end. Children Don’t Leave Home Any More, and mothers still pick up after them; the end of tea ladies and the contracting out of milk and coffee supply leads to mafia controlled bingo in the lunch room; heaven isn’t all it’s made out to be.

The final story is a report into the tourist possibilities of the Maralinga atom bomb test site in central Australia. It’s pretty dark, but then so was the ‘black mist’ of radioactive dust which enveloped workers at the site and Aboriginal communities left unwarned nearby. In some distant future, travellers will come to this planet and compare us with dinosaurs. ‘”Their brains were too small for their huge bodies”, they will say, nodding wisely to each other.’

Rosaleen Love, The Total Devotion Machine and other stories, The Women’s Press, London, 1989.
Republished in 2014 by Twelfth Planet Press, Classic Reprints ebooks (here)

Hollow Earth, John Kinsella

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At the risk of losing my (self-allocated) reputation for not reading poetry, John Kinsella  – seen once before in these pages, here: False Claims of Colonial Thieves, Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella – is a Western Australian poet/writer I have been meaning to pay more attention to for some time. He was born in Perth, in 1963; his mother was a poet and his father a mining engineer and later a farm manager. From his writing – I should read Auto (2001), his collection of autobiographical pieces – he seems to have lived in Kalgoorlie and, later Mullewa from whence he attended high school in Geraldton. According to Wikipedia Kinsella is now a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge and the author of more than 30 works including 3 novels, now four.

Hollow Earth (2019) is the science fiction novel you might expect from a poet – shades of the centre in Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork. The protagonist, Manfred, a young man, finds ways into a world beneath the surface, Hollow Earth, with humanoid inhabitants, green tinged, of indeterminate or maybe fluid gender, at the same technological level as us on the surface, but keeping largely to themselves. Lives with them for a while before persuading his two friends/lovers Ari and Zest to come with him to the surface where they engage in a drug-laced odyssey (or Aeneid if you know your Virgil which of course I don’t).

The future intrudes from time to time and we see ahead to a Hollow Earth reduced to a colony run by a Big Australian mining company which might as well go flat out now the Earth is f****d anyway.

Looking to the future, when refugees from the surface began filtering through before the final push and consolidation of the Big Miners (and the internment camp for Hollow Earthers and ‘aberrant’ surface dwellers they created), driven from Ireland where they were refugees from conflict in the Middle East… Zest and Ari, who had some influence on their local life enhancement committee, asked Manfred if he’d act as liaison officer to help house and clothe the new arrivals. No, that can’t be correct – this happened after, long after Manfred was in Hollow Earth. But narratives loop, surely, and who can say which ends we’re working with? It’s possible, really, isn’t it?

This narrative loops, for sure! Manfred as a boy digging in the sand (all WA is sand); Manfred in Ireland while his mother searches for extraterrestials; Manfred, Ari and Zest in Ireland, in Perth, in bed, on drugs. Short chapters, a sentence, one, two, three pages. Some poetry, some text, some incomprehensible, some random.

Manfred declared the poet C.J. Brennan [Australian poet Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)] to be a fantasy writer of the ilk of Tolkien. And as he described the world the poet had created, barely analogous to our own, he was laughed off the stage and the door was closed forever on his academic career. But Lilith in succubus scrubs remained to haunt him, to jar his gender aphasia into distressed shadow shapes …

To Sydney where Brennan’s own academic career ended in drunkenness and poverty; to Kimba, South Australia, where a proposed nuclear waste dump closes a portal to Hollow Earth.

They never really get inside the land they describe. Sure, they scape it, these colonial novelists and poets who think they’re decolonising the text, but they skate over the top and appropriate a few sentiments and observations made by others whose land it is …

Back to boyhood, or stories of his boyhood for Zest and Ari, it’s hard to tell; a dangerous father, a frightened mother, an absent father: “three phone calls in three years, then silence”; addiction, rehab, London.

Years pass. Living on the profits of Ari dealing. Hello World, a freudian typo from my one Europe trip, remains closed to them. In Cowtown, USA Zest forms the intention of becoming pregnant and in the intention is the deed. A child will see the way back.

You make it sound like a Messiah, Zest. No, I’m not saying that. Not at all – the baby will be of both worlds, that is all. Axis mundi.

Then Ireland, waiting for the volcano, his original ingress, to open, Manfred picks rocks. Haven’t all the rocks in all the fields in Ireland been picked yet? Ari goes clean. Druggy mates from Freo, clean now too, are living in the desert out from Kal. “Come and join us”. A truckie intervenes.

I read ahead: they will call me eel and monkey, without a thought to the thousands, the tens of thousands of roos and emus and wombats, even camels that have died on my bullbar. And bulls. And cows… You’d think a long-haul truckie with a beer gut wouldn’t care or wouldn’t know. But I have loved trucks since I was a child … We are kin. I was distracted. I was driving fast. I saw the eagle and heard the crows. I wanted to get back to my beginnings.

From there the story peters out. Loved it. Read it.

 

John Kinsella, Hollow Earth, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019. Cover image, Stephen Kinsella.

see also:
Cristopher Brennan Poems (1913) here

Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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I am not a poetry reader let alone reviewer and I only bought this book, a year or so ago, because I was in my local bookstore and the book’s from Broome, WA based indigenous publisher Magabala, and so I assumed it was West Australian. In fact Alison Whittaker “is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah [NSW]. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist …”.

BlakWorks then languished on my bedside table until I was reminded by Brona’s review of the poem A Love like Dorothea’s (here including a video of a reading by the author) to give it another try. I wasn’t really thinking about who Dorothea was when I started to read and so it hit me like a punch. The assertion Whittaker is making here, I think, is that our love for this land we have so recently occupied alienates the people who have been its custodians for the last 60 millenia. Our love leaves no room for their love. No quote, it would decrease the impact of you reading/listening to it yourself.

The book is divided into 15 sections: whitework, bloodwork, storywork … through to newwork, blakwork; each with about half a dozen poems. Whitework commences with the poem blakwork which tells us that it is a full time job dealing with white guilt: “Indentured blakwork, something like:/nine to five, forgiv-/-ing you.”

I won’t pretend I understood all, or even half, of what I read. Some of the poems are concrete, that is their structure is part of the poem; at least a couple are short essays but here, in a book of poems, we must be aware of the shape, the sound of words as well as of meaning; a number render legalese into poetry to provide a commentary on Indigenous people’s experience of the Australian legal system; and some (I think!) are about other stuff, not just Black-White relations.

Some I like without knowing why: “… so many blaks/How could I name them all?/Inner city arty blak/Remote yet so connected blak/Welfare woman villain blak …” (bpm); or “Indigine, slip through the world Aboriginally this is your line, as your parents will prepare/you so too will you prepare yourself so too will you repair you …” (badblak).

One, ethnomathematics, struck me with a dose of that white guilt. A few words (numbers) dotted across the page: “one, one   /halfhalfhalf …/threequarters/fiveeighths”. Pretty clear what it’s referring to.

There are a few poems which are commentaries on white man’s law. Two or three are ‘simply’  lists of the most common phrases in the judges’ decsion. So, the skeleton of the common law is extracted from the Mabo decision; and exhibit tab is from the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu [who died in a police cell in Port Hedland WA in 2014, while being held for unpaid fines (here)] –

Exhibit 2 tab
The custody system
XXXX Dhu’s temperature
The police vehicle
Lock up procedure

Another, An Act, plays with white legalese: “This Act is the Binaal Bunma-li, Warra-y Act 2018 …  Definitions:/… Binaal Bunma-li: to soothe or settle down/…/Regulations: such as determined by Elders through Country/…. “.

Some is more or less what you would expect, family stories in the section the abattoir; a complaint that a Black woman has been white-washed out of the Thunderbolt [bushranger] legend; an ode to her schoolmates, for feral girls:

‘O, youse feral girls,’
Twisting hands, dancing to warrambul like they’re crossing fingers,
twisting Kmart bras under Big Dub singlets.
They got that
sacred patchwork of precedence–legging thighs follow panty lines,
topograph their overcourse–goad softly little babs to sleep
goad firecourse to wake
goad Centrelink, its cards and monies, from the settler state.

And out of the blue, the section, the centre appears to be a dystopian short story in blank verse:

Bounced through a low-hanging satellite that competes with the atmosphere like I compete with the pedestrians, the Centre for Mob Futures is being rebuilt. Far from here, out desert ways, I’ve reported on its programmers quick to plug its many hostile haemorrhages and rework its paper scaffolds. An archive of drives all buzzing with unsteady fans and unlabelled wires. (futures. excellence.)

Access to the centre is guarded by an AI which determines Aboriginality by yarning, and demands that it be made a cup of tea (blak captcha). In a virtual outback-

… totally unsupervised by mission managers –old and new alike–mob frolicked, philosophised, borned art, and built technologies… In the Centre, a place spinning imprecisely through the sky and broadcasting to a supercomputer in the desert … (virtualisation).

It fails, I think (the project, not the poem).

As I slipped back past the belly-touching AI into the real meatland, all sparse and beige-hot and withering, the Centre’s satellite lost its signal. It shut down. (the last project).

You know I’m an SF/dystopian fan and it’s interesting that Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven and Claire Coleman, to name the most obvious, are all, sometimes anyway, in that space (pun unintended, and indeed unnoticed until about the fourth re-reading).

All the poems require contemplation, more than I have given them at this reading, and I recommend you follow Brona, both in reading one poem at a time, and literally, to see what she has to say about them. And if you’re really serious you could read the review below from the Sydney Review of books. (I haven’t, not yet anyway).

Melanie, did I like it? Not enough to rush out and buy more, but nor did I dislike it, it was interesting.

 

Alison Whittaker, BlakWork, Magabala Books, Broome WA, 2018

Jeanine Leane, Ultima Thule: BlakWork by Alison Whittaker, Sydney Review of Books, 5 Feb 2019 (here)

For further reading of Indigenous authors see –
my Aboriginal Australia page (here) – there’s a list of all my reviews at the bottom.
Lisa’a ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (here)

Traveller Inceptio, Rob Shackleford

Traveller inceptio

An Open Letter to the Author

Rob,

Your letter to me began –

Hi!

My name is Rob and I’m an Australian author.

My book ‘Traveller Inceptio’ has been recently published by Austin Macauley and I’m shooting this email to see if you might be interested in casting your eye over it.

Traveller-Inceptio is a gentle Sci-Fi that blends the genres of Historical Fiction and Action / Adventure, with a dash of Romance thrown in.

I’m used to Science Fiction and to the awkwardness of the often geeky (sorry!) types who write it and are its biggest fans. So I mostly regarded your overstretched prose, your blonde heroes, the few token women, and the fewer token people of colour with tolerance. But around half-way through, at Loc 5500, I got angry.

Your words were –

Vague surprise on their simian faces, they shrugged and wandered into the crowd to cruise for any infraction, real or imagined, that would allow them to instigate a forced ejection and the occasional thump if resisted.

I’m sure you know that ‘simian’ means “monkey or ape-like”. This is SF, you may have been referring to aliens or to humanised apes, but in fact the people you are describing are the security staff at an Auckland night club, “bull-necked Pacific Islander[s]”. There are many situations where the use of ‘simian’ in this context could see you in jail or cost you your job. Your usage is made more egregious here because it is in the context of brave white soldier heroes seeing off bullyin, cowardly Maoris.

The antagonist was big and beefy, with the arrogance and barely contained violence of a football player… The Maori looked to his back-up in delight, and they seemed to swell in size and threat.

I do have a second, related area of complaint that I might have discussed in the normal course of a  review and that is from when the initial time travellers, in Queensland, run into a party of Aboriginal men.

… three bearded and naked aboriginal men stood by the fishing line, eyes comically wide in terror as they stared.

What can I say? The Black man with his “eyes comically wide in terror” is a trope of the Jim Crow era, and I struggle to see how you might be so ignorant as to use it here. Further, ‘aboriginal’ should no more be uncapitalised than ‘Australian’ or ‘Shackleford’. You compound these errors, at Loc 3375/Chapter 29, by purporting to describe the encounter, including its religious and spiritual significance, from the Aboriginals’ point of view. This is a form of racism, sadly all too common in White writers, called ‘appropriation’. Look it up.

I can only hope the offence you have given here was unintended and that your book is taken down until it is rectified.

yours faithfully,

Bill Holloway


 

Traveller Inceptio begins with a group of graduate students in Queensland getting funding to invent a 3D scanner for baggage through customs. They set up in a shed on the beach near the mouth of the Maroochy River (so two of the researcher dudes can go surfing every morning) and an accidental bump to the wiring of their prototype turns the scanner into a transmitter able to send and recover people 1,000 years back in time.

Because, and the author really says this, armies are mostly white and male, half a dozen white, male soldiers from SAS regiments in Australia, NZ, UK, Canada and USA are trained to return to Saxon England – during the Danish invasions at the time of Etherald the Unready, prior to the Norman invasion of 1066 – because they’ll fit in.

Two story lines proceed in alternating chapters – the grad students set up their workshop, make their discovery, deal with their commercial sponsors, the university, Australian and US spooks; a man called Michael wanders through Nottingham Forest (its Saxon name is Snot-something), meets primitive but civilised villagers etc.. The grad student story fades away and is replaced by SAS men training to be Saxon warriors. And it all comes together in a series of very gory battles – not to my taste but I think I understand the point the author was trying to make.

The writing is over-descriptive, but does settle down after a while. There are token women, but that is a given in mainstream SF, of course they are all beautiful and good in bed (SF writers get their sex education from Playboy), except for one geeky woman who is also good in bed but of course wears glasses. The novel starts out as campus fiction but morphs into something else as the author studies what real face to face conflict with swords and axes might mean to modern soldiers. It’s ok, well except for Shackleford’s ineptitude – I hope it’s nothing more – in dealing with race.

 

Rob Shackleford, Traveller Inceptio, Austin Macauley, London, 2019o

Purchase here
Author website here

 

The Shining Wall, Melissa Ferguson

SF books used always to have SF loudly on the spine and front cover. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more, part of the unwillingness of mainstream writers to be seen as genre (looking at you Ian McEwan) maybe and part also, as in the case of this book, the laudable uptake of dystopian themes in recent Australian women’s fiction, of which I have written before.

SF, although of course it had antecedents in Frankenstein, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is largely a post-WWII phenomenon, rising out of US pulp fiction, short stories and novels of space travel, ray guns and grotesque monsters, dashed off at the rate of two, three, four novels a year for a pittance by (mostly male) writers. I read the sedate (English) John Wyndham at school but really discovered SF in the MU Union library, reading short stories and serialized novels in the pulp magazines Galaxy, Astounding, Analogue etc. and in particular Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil which Galaxy brought out in 6 parts over July-Dec 1970.

SF in the US had an almost cult status – an idea taken literally by L Ron Hubbard, SF writer and founder of the Church of Scientology – with fans and writers mixing at frequent Conventions. Heinlein, who is a good writer, but with a Superman complex (in the Nietzschean sense) became a figure of fun in fanzines (remember when blogs had to be published on paper!), his slight stature contrasting with his muscular, wealthy, high IQ, sex god (and occasional goddess) protagonists.

I write this as a lead-in to the idea that literary values in SF were often sacrificed to speed of writing and the rush of new ideas. To some extent this still continues though the movement has thrown up over time some great writers – JG Ballard, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Ursula Le Guin and more recently William Gibson – whose merit has been obscured by the SF label attached to their writing. But SF is not unique in this, there are plenty of other genres where literary values are sacrificed to story telling – just look at the popularity in Australia of Di Morrissey, Judy Nunn, Bryce Courtenay etc., etc.

So. The Shining Wall (2019) is an Australian SF novel, without the SF label, in which the ideas and the story are more important than the writing. The author, Melissa Ferguson “lives in Geelong [Vic.] with her husband, two children, two guinea pigs, and one axolotl.” God, that annoys me! And is a “cancer-fighting” scientist, though the ideas in this book don’t particularly relate to her science.

The setting is a near future where Citizens, with perfect health, young bodies and the possibility of near-immortality have retreated into a walled city, City 1, surrounded by the ruins of the suburbs. The underclass, “demi-humans” live in shanty towns outside the walls. Neanderthals, “neos”, have been cloned to work as servants and soldiers. Re-wilders advocate the rejection of anything to do with City 1 and especially the brain implants which serve to both monitor health and act as inter-personal communications devices. Trolls tunnel under the city walls. And there are colonies of free-Neos who have escaped to the bush. Government is a dictatorship privatised out to LeaderCorp which provides both utilities, basic water and medicines, to the Demi settlements, and policing, via mixed squads of ‘sapiens’ and Neos.

We are meant to be involved in the lives of three characters, a Demi, Alida, a teenage girl who with her mother has adopted a younger, stray girl, Graycie; Shuqba, a very straight Neo woman cop who while policing a LeaderCorp ‘hub’ in the settlements befriends Alida and begins to unstraighten; and Ferrassie, another Neo woman, working in a factory turning cockroaches into flour, who falls foul of the authorities and is sentenced to the medical research facility from which no Neo ever returns.

Characterisation is ok, but subservient to plot. The oddest thing is Alida’s speech which is full of archaic Australian slang – littlies, threads, dunny, dosh.

A jigsaw of the front of the mansion appeared through some leaves, all its slick lines and creamy rendering dreamily distorted by the domeshield. Alida’s guts were in a tangle. To top it all off she need a shit. Anxiety was truly the best laxative. She pressed her knuckles into her belly. She’d shit her pants before bolting back into the mansion in search of a dunny.

Rhea darted from one greenhouse to another, peering around at the back door of the mansion and muttering some prayers.

‘Someone’s gonna clock you acting so suss,’ Alida whispered as loud as she dared.

Briefly, Alida’s mother dies and Alida has to work for Freel the local crime lord to make rent. Ganya, his offsider, smuggles Alida into the City where she is Cinderella to a Prince and two Fairy Godmothers. A drug, ‘passenger’, gets her through the sex. After, the two Citizen women ask Alida to have a child for them.

Alida refuses and refuses any further jobs; Graycie gets ill; Alida’s junkie mate is using up all her credits. Shuqba gives her some work, but eventually Alida is forced to acknowledge that Graycie would be better off if she were adopted by citizens.

There are various adventures as City 1 collapses and Shuqba attempts to save Ferrassie and reunite Alida and Graycie. The story’s ok but Ferguson never settles into a comfortable writing style and, for me at least, this was intrusive.

 

Melissa Ferguson, The Shining Wall, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2019

1984, George Orwell

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That I have reviewed two classics one after the other (Pride and Prejudice and 1984) is just a coincidence based on what audiobooks become available at my local library, but if I had the chance, classics would be all I read. And some new releases I suppose, one must ‘keep up’. Of course I’ve read them both before, but that’s why they’re classics – they stand, demand even, re-reading.

I pick up Orwells as a matter of course whenever I see them second hand and in looking for my copy of 1984 for this review I see I have a a few yet to be read – The Unknown Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Collected Essays, The Road to Wigan Pier, Coming up for Air – so expect some more reviews.

As a young man growing up, 1984 was in the distant future, a dystopia hanging over us in a way that is difficult to explain now that it is so far in the past. Later,  we congratulated ourselves that we had dodged a bullet, but what shocked me on this re-reading was Orwell’s prescience. The Introduction to my edition points out how many concepts from 1984 almost immediately entered the language:

… in common use by people who have never read the book – for example Newspeak, thought-crime, Big Brother, unperson, doublethink – most relate to the power of the state to bend reality.

These concepts, and particularly doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”, are at the core of right wing orthodoxy today.

1984 was Orwell’s last work, written in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The right, of course, promptly adopted it as an attack on Stalinism, which indeed it was, while ignoring any meaning it might have for their own tendency to totalitariansim. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was not anti-communism, though the right and their fellow travellers in the ‘centre’ like to conflate the two. Orwell was clearly of the far left, he admired the anarchists in Spain, though he chose to fight with POUM who were basically Trotskyite (my review of Homage to Catalonia). The Republicans probably lost the war in Spain because the Soviet-supported Communists were as dedicated to defeating POUM as they were to combatting Franco. When the Republican government rounded up the leadership of POUM, Orwell was lucky to escape with his life, and this of course informs 1984, where the ruling Party is led by the Stalin figure, Big Brother and the shadowy opposition by Goldstein, clearly standing for Trotsky.

For a novel of such universal themes 1984 is suprisingly provincial. The ‘world’ it describes is the drab, post-war London of socialism, shortages and rationing. The world is divided into three blocs who have fought themselves to a stalemate. England belongs to the Oceania bloc of Great Britain, North America, South Africa and Australia, but Orwell makes no attempt to explain how English socialism prevails over US capitalism, nor how the UK is never overrun by Eurasia (Europe/Russia/South Asia).

Society is divided into Inner Party (Ruling Class), Outer Party (Middle Class) and Proles. The Inner Party rules by doing its best to prevent casual sex, channelling the resultant sexual frustration into political hysteria, with cameras and microphones everywhere so that the Thought Police may monitor every person’s activities, and children encouraged to report on their parents.

London today has an ‘Orwellian’ 500,000 cctv cameras in public spaces, though they’re probably not as informative as our communications and search records, with computer algorithms taking the place of the Ministries of Love and Truth in analysing and storing the resultant data, all available to the government and the police at the push of a button (or to you, if you want to watch, here).

At the core of the story is 39 year old Winston Smith, a minor bureaucrat whose job is to rewrite past newspaper reports so that they do not contradict current ‘truths’. Smith, who has one failed marriage behind him, lives a lonely and largely sexless life, though he did once give in to a hideously painted prole prostitute (for a socialist, Orwell is very ambivalent about the Proles). Smith is discontented with his life and has begun writing down anti-State thoughts in a journal he found in a junk shop. He becomes aware at work of a younger woman who appears to be paying him some attention. Although at first he fears she may be an informer for the Thought Police, he meets her and they become lovers, meeting first in parks then in a room he rents above the junk shop.

When they are, inevitably, betrayed the novel follows two courses, the Political and the Personal. Smith undergoes months of imprisonment, torture and indocrination to force him not just to agree with the Party, to engage in doublethink whenever he thinks he knows two facts which are at odds, but to internalise his agreement, to love Big Brother.

The Personal, the horrors of Room 101 which force Smith to disavow his feelings for Julia, his lover are well known, and anyway, as with many dystopian works, are merely a vehicle for the real message.

It’s clear that Orwell’s cynicism about ‘truth’ or about our leaders telling us the truth was a direct result of his participation in the war in Spain. In Looking Back on the Spanish War he writes,

As far as the mass of the people go, the extraordinary swings of opinion which occur nowadays, the emotions which can be turned on and off like a tap, are the result of newspaper and radio hypnosis. In the intelligentsia I should say they rather result from money and mere physical safety. At a given moment they may be ‘pro-war’ or ‘anti-war’, but in either case they have no realistic picture of war in their minds.

As a participant, he was able to make the comparisons first-hand between what was happening in Spain and what was reported in European newspapers:

I saw great battles reported where there was no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed… I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’…

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

The middle part of the book is taken up with Smith reading a critique of the Party, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, by the rebel leader Goldstein, a pretence to get us to absorb a lot of Newspeak and Doublethink theory.

The war between the blocs is explained as very little to do about territory gained and lost, and all to do with motivating members to unquestioningly support the Party – reprising the anarchist argument War is the Health of the State. In reality –

the war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

I won’t take the theory lesson much further except to point out the almost exact parallels between the orthodoxy required by the Party in 1984 and the contortions of apparently intelligent people on the right of politics today to hold, and to insist that we also hold, beliefs that are completely at odds with what we, and they, know to be true.

To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.

Does that sound like Creationism to you? Does that sound like Climate-Change denialism? Like the arguments in favour of invading Iraq? Of course it does, because that’s how those in power work, in Orwell’s time, in our time.

 

 

George Orwell, 1984, first pub. 1949. My copy (not pictured above) Penguin 1989 with Introduction by Dr Peter Davison [I sourced the illustration from another blog (here) but couldn’t identify the illustrator. Tetiana Aleksina who often ‘likes’ my excursions into SF might have more info.]

George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War, written 1943, first pub. 1953. Published with Homage to Catalonia, 1968.