Futuristic Worlds in Australian Aboriginal Fiction

by Iva Polak (Author)
©2017 Monographs XX, 274 Pages
Series: World Science Fiction Studies, Volume 1


This is the first study that brings together the theory of the fantastic with the vibrant corpus of Australian Aboriginal fiction on futurities. Selected works by Ellen van Neerven, Sam Watson, Archie Weller, Eric Willmot and Alexis Wright are analysed as fictional prose texts that construct alternative future worlds. They offer a distinctive contribution to the relatively new field of non-mainstream science fiction that has entered the critical domain of late, often under the title of postcolonial science fiction. The structures of these alternative worlds reveal a relationship – sometimes straightforward, sometimes more complex – with the established paradigms of the genre. The novelty of their stories comes from the authors’ cultural memory and experience of having survived the «end of the world» brought about by colonisation. Their answers to our futurity contain different novums that debunk the myth of progress in order to raise the issue of a future without a human face.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface
  • Introduction: In Search of the Australian Fantastic
  • The Australian Non-Aboriginal Fantastic and its Epitext: A Short Survey
  • The Aboriginal Novel and its Epitextual Minefield
  • Spectres of the Aboriginal Fantastic and its Epitext
  • Chapter 1: The Fantastic as a Terminological Trickster
  • Chapter 2: The Postcolonial Turn and the Fantastic
  • Chapter 3: Below the Line: A SF Novel of (Double) Invasion
  • Chapter 4: “Water”: The SF Alien as a Metaphor for Culture
  • Chapter 5: Land of the Golden Clouds: An Epic Space of Science Fantasy and Fantastika
  • Chapter 6: The Kadaitcha Sung: Towards Native Slipstream
  • Chapter 7: The Swan Book: Into Transrealist Fiction
  • Conclusion: The Future Arrives
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


Projects such as this are largely reclusive, but I am deeply thankful to many people who have encouraged my research in different ways. I am grateful to Dunja Fališevac, who provided me with the theoretical backbone of the fantastic many moons ago. I would also like to thank Van Ikin for generously sending me many issues of his SF magazine from Perth to Zagreb, and thus introducing me to Australian SF criticism. I am indebted to the staff of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Adelaide, especially to Mandy Treagus and Amanda Nettelbeck, for hosting my stay in 2014 and 2015. I owe warm thanks to the interlibrary loan team at the Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide – Maria, Vikki, Robin, Jillian, Margaret, Sonja, Prathna and Laura – for providing an impeccable service.

There were also those who showered me with unconditional support when my writing came to a sudden halt, and who continue to do so to this day. Thank you to Vanja, who nursed me back to health. Thank you to Ivana ab imo pectore, who kept me going and who was the first to read the manuscript. Thank you also to my dad, Danijel and Buby for being my silver lining.

Above all, I am deeply grateful to Christine Nicholls for her overwhelming intellectual and personal support, for providing me with a home away from home, and for teaching me not to back away from sensitive and often difficult topics.

| xi →


This study brings together the huge and versatile corpus of the theory of the fantastic on the one hand, and the growingly vibrant corpus of futurity-expressing Australian Aboriginal1 fiction on the other. Its primary interest is to discuss those Aboriginal works that boldly embark on the construction of futuristic worlds, and offer a distinctive contribution to a relatively recent field of the non-mainstream, in particular native writers’ science fiction, a field that has only entered the critical domain in the twenty-first century, often under the title of postcolonial science fiction. This is indeed an off-the-beaten-track journey, since no book-length study simultaneously evoking science fiction and Aboriginal fiction has yet been published. This is why this study starts with wider problems, which are gradually narrowed down to explore selected fictional prose works by Eric Willmot, Sam Watson, Archie Weller, Alexis Wright and Ellen van Neerven.

The introductory chapter is divided into three subheadings to introduce the complexities accompanying Aboriginal fiction and science fiction. Since the emphasis is on the general reception of literary works, Gérard Genette’s “epitext” used in the three subheadings denotes everything outside the book. The first section of the introduction, “The Australian Non-Aboriginal Fantastic and its Epitext: A Short Survey”, focuses on the general ambiguity of discussing Australian literary works that depart ← xi | xii → from the consensus reality, owing to Australia’s strong documentary realist tradition. In this respect, magical realism, which has entered the literary mainstream in many national cultures, remains in the margins of literary discussions in Australia. On the other hand, SF and fantasy are reserved for specialised audiences and critics. The second section, “The Aboriginal Novel and its Epitextual Minefield”, shows that the invisibility of SF in the national corpus and the issue of specialised readership gain a rather different dimension in the domain of Aboriginal SF. To try to untangle this issue, this section touches upon the apparent rarity of the Aboriginal novel in a primarily novel-reading country, and explores the factors that contribute to the constitution of the “expected niche” of Aboriginal writing, especially genre fiction (readership, scholarly reception, the book market). The final section, “Spectres of the Aboriginal Fantastic and its Epitext”, focuses on the reasons why connecting Aboriginal fiction with SF may represent a theoretical and cultural minefield. The conclusion is that specific intra- and extra-literary matters have contributed to the invisibility of Aboriginal SF.

Chapter 1 relies on a specific theoretical bricolage, by making do with existing theoretical approaches to the fantastic, without attempting to indigenise theory – a task that should be undertaken by Aboriginal or indigenous scholars. Since none of the prose works included in this study have been discussed systematically in relation to the theory of the fantastic in general and SF specifically, this chapter introduces the terminology that will be used in their analysis. The theoretical backbone is Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, which is then expanded with reference to the work of Amaryll Beatrice Chanady, Neil Cornwell, Christine Brooke-Rose, Eric S. Rabkin, W. R. Irwin, Rosemary Jackson, Irène Bessière, and Kathryn Hume. Todorov’s marvellous theory, within which the discussed Aboriginal corpus can be accommodated, is further developed with classical SF theory (Darko Suvin, Gary K. Wolfe, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay), and Fantasy (Tolkien, Suvin, Rabkin, Irwin). Finally, the standard SF tropes are upgraded in accordance with more recent developments in SF (John Clute, Bruce Sterling, Damien Broderick, Grace L. Dillon), which often join SF, Fantasy, Gothic fiction and other genre fiction. The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate how the introduced terminology (the fantastic/fantasy/Fantasy/SF) will subsequently be used. ← xii | xiii →

Chapter 2 starts with a brief reference to the acclaimed global postcolonial magical realism, to argue that the trajectories of global postcolonial SF and Fantasy (the use of the capital “F” is explained in Chapter 1) could not be more different. The corpus, which appeared in the 1990s and entered the critical arena in the twenty-first century, revealed that SF as a genre cannot be exhausted, but is only further developed when the coloniser/colonised positions are reversed, that is, when the standard SF tropes are transposed. When SF is explored by postcolonial non-mainstream authors who inhabit a series of different minority positions, it voices the same topic identified as a kernel for postcolonial studies (temporality, space, identity). SF’s potency here is not surprising; it went through similar transfigurations before the appearance of postcolonial SF, when it started voicing a series of socially marginal positions within mainstream culture. So, as postcolonial SF critics argue, the nexus between postcoloniality and SF is logical. The rest of the chapter introduces twenty-first-century anthologies of SF and Fantasy, encompassing those written from marginal positions (So Long Been Dreaming; Walking the Clouds; Long Hidden), as well as the most influential theoretical book-length studies (Patricia Kerslake, John Rieder), and critical anthologies (Science Fiction, Imperialism and the Third World; The Postnational Fantasy). Its purpose is to show that this theoretical field is already well-formulated. The “turn” evoked in the title is taken from Nalo Hopkinson’s reference to the renovation of the “master’s house [of SF]” rather than its rejection, that is, the idea that postcolonial SF relies on, as well as departs from, standard SF tropes.

The subsequent chapters analysing six Aboriginal prose works are all structured in the same way: the author’s socio-historical context; the work’s early reception, and possible reasons for this; analysis of a series of textual features that enable the work to be discussed within the framework of the fantastic as a meta-principle; and, finally, a more specific definition of its genre (from Suvinian SF to more contemporary approaches). Works are arranged pursuant to the complexity of the structure of their alternative worlds and their relationship – sometimes straightforward, sometimes more complex – with the genre of science fiction.

Hence, Chapter 3, which focuses on Eric Willmot’s Below the Line, constructs the author’s career in the context of the late 1980s and early ← xiii | xiv → 1990s. Despite the success of his first novel, Below the Line received a handful of negative reviews from mainstream critics, and was neglected both by leading Aboriginal critics of the period and by Australian SF critics. The discussion includes early reviews of the novel, and the problems surrounding “speculative fiction”. The analysis focuses on the novel’s early twenty-first-century spatiality and temporality; the evocation and transformation of the alleged South Irian and Brisbane Line, distinguishing this as the only Aboriginal SF novel about Asian invasion and double invasion; how extrapolation and analogy are used to construct the future; how the standard SF icons of the wasteland and the city are appropriated; how the novum is realised; and finally, how fallacy is embedded in the very title of the work. The purpose of this is to show that Below the Line deserves the title of the first Aboriginal SF work. Moreover, its topic of invasion is still current in the twenty-first-century Australian context.

Chapter 4, which discusses Ellen van Neerven’s novella “Water”, explains van Neerven’s career as reflecting the contemporary socio-historical moment in Australia. Like Willmot’s novel, this novella received few reviews, none of which complimented the author for choosing the SF genre. Paradoxically, van Neerven’s novella is published in her award-winning collection Heat and Wave. Since her protagonist/narrator is a queer woman, the novella is the first example of Aboriginal queer SF fiction. Like Below the Line, “Water” constructs a near-future Australia with an Aboriginal president. In line with the contemporary moment in Australia, especially van Neerven’s state of Queensland, the narrative calls into question the issues of mining and Aboriginal land rights. However, to achieve this, she places emphasis not so much on the SF icon of the wasteland, but rather on the transformation of another SF icon: that of the monster or alien. The novella constructs a complex cultural image of the so-called “alien encounter” and of “the degree of alienity”, which is transformed from within, from the site of otherness, in order to compose an elaborate image of the cultural self. The text repositions the standard SF trope, reflecting Suvin’s claim that SF needs radically liberating novums. At the same time, the text does not provide easy answers regarding the destruction of the landscape and the preservation of culture. ← xiv | xv →

Chapter 5, on Archie Weller’s Land of the Golden Clouds, starts with the short-lived reception of this SF novel. The purpose is to discuss the complexities surrounding Weller’s putatively Aboriginal status and the problems of retrospective analysis of the SF novel discussed herein. The discussion will also focus on the ways in which twenty-first-century SF critics have resurrected Weller’s novel. The analysis of Land of the Golden Clouds starts with Van Ikin’s early review, which positioned Weller’s novel between Tolkien and Asimov, in the genre of science fantasy, and shows the myriad ways in which Weller’s novel intertwines the conventions of Fantasy and SF. Land of the Golden Clouds takes place in a distant future, following an event that evokes a nuclear disaster. The chapter shows how this disaster is used as a means to a theme rather than the theme itself, and how some cities are constructed on the SF icon of the city, while others stay closer to Fantasy owing to their mythical nature. It is explained how the storyline between the two protagonists can be interpreted through Propp’s morphology of the folktale, and how some satellite events, such as the sudden arrival of technologically advanced characters, find their footing in SF. Hence, the novel can be interpreted as both the lowest form of analogic SF, and as Fantasy. As a melange of non-mimetic genres, it also fits into all Todorov’s types of the marvellous. However, alongside SF and Fantasy, the novel incorporates motifs appertaining to Gothic fiction and horror, and could be further accommodated by fantastika (Clute, Broderick). Finally, irrespective of some critics’ claim that the novel constructs a fairy tale of multiculturalism, it is argued that when this is achieved in a non-mimetic genre, the eucatastrophe of multiculturalism can be interpreted as ironic.

The introductory part of Chapter 6, which considers Sam Watson’s The Kadaitcha Sung, focuses on the noisy critical epitext the novel received upon its release, and details why it was criticised during the 1990s; how Watson reacted; what types of intertextuality and genre were evoked in relation to the novel; and, finally, why its twenty-first-century reception is different. The genre-switching detected by scholars encompasses magical realism, Fantasy, SF, speculative fiction, weird fiction and Gothic fiction, all of which can be positioned on Todorov’s diagram. Moreover, the novel relies heavily on the textualisation and transformation of the Aboriginal Dreaming. The text therefore demands an implied reader whose existing ← xv | xvi → knowledge should include an awareness of the functioning of the fantastic as well as a familiarity with the culture-distinct ontology. This enables the detection of the “what if” scenario: what if colonisation continues with corruption from all sides, and what if the Aboriginal connection to the land becomes literally disrupted? The subsequent analysis juxtaposes different iconographies used to construct different spaces: Uluru, where magic is naturalised and where the text stays closer to magical realism/maban reality, is in stark opposition to Brisbane, emblematic of the SF icon of the city. In the latter, the author uses analogy to extract the problems that torment the empirical Brisbane of the 1990s and amplify them to create a futuristic cityscape ruled by (realistic and fantastic) violence. After an elaborate analysis of various passages from the novel to show the text’s transformative potential, it becomes clear that the novel both is and is not magical realist, marvellous (in Todorov’s sense), fantastic (in Tolkien’s sense) and science fictional (in Suvin’s sense). This explains the introduction of slipstream, a term defined for what it is not. General definitions of slipstream (Sterling, Broderick, Landon, Kelly and Kessel, Mendlesohn) state that it reflects the mess arising from the unstable epistemology and ontology of the contemporary postmodern condition, but the term is then further narrowed to “native slipstream” (Dillon). This accommodates the prominent Aboriginal aspect of Watson’s novel, which replaces postmodernism with models of the cultural experience of reality. The purpose of this “genre” is to recover the native space of the pre-colonial and colonial past, and bring it to the forefront to build a bittersweet future.


XX, 274
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
Australian Aboriginal fiction science fiction the fantastic postcolonial fiction
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XX, 274 pp., 1 fig.

Biographical notes

Iva Polak (Author)

Iva Polak is Assistant Professor in English Literature at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. She has lectured on Australian Aboriginal literature in Croatia, the Czech Republic, Australia and Japan and has published widely in the field, including a monograph on the development of Australian Aboriginal fiction (2011). She has received two Endeavour Research Fellowships (Curtin University, WA, 2006; University of Adelaide, SA, 2014). Her current interests include new developments in the fantastic and humour studies.


Title: Futuristic Worlds in Australian Aboriginal Fiction
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