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Dystopiana*, Australiana** January 25, 2012

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, life, memories, reviews.
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I’ve always found it a combination of surprising and amusing when people talk about the recent dystopian YA boom as if it’s a new thing, as if Suzanne Collins plucked The Hunger Games out of the (dystopia-free) ether and opened the floodgates to a host of imitators. (Well, that’s sort of what happened, but that’s beside the point.) Growing up in Australia in the 90s, basically everything I read was dystopian, before I even knew what the word ‘dystopian’ meant.

The first author I got into in a major way (and who, indeed, has the dubious honour of writing the first novel-length book I ever read) was Jackie French, whose hippie-like existence in a small town near Braidwood informed her futuristic science-fiction novels for children. While she’s better known for other works, at age seven, my favourite books of hers were a five-part series, beginning with Music From the Sea, set in an Australia so parched by the sun that humans have become nocturnal and are living a lifestyle reminiscent of early farming/gathering societies. That somewhat gentle introduction to the ‘harsh Australian weather’ subgenre of dystopian literature led me to darker fare that mixed its narratives of personal and communal heroism with pointedly political calls to arms.

John Marsden’s Tomorrow series is the environmental-political Australian dystopian series par excellence. Beginning with a bang with Tomorrow, When the War Began (a title which implies that its story could happen on any particular tomorrow), this seven-book series follows the adventures of a group of rural Australian teenagers who return from a camping holiday in the bush to find that the country has been invaded, their hometown was the focal point of the invasion, and everyone they love has been rounded up and imprisoned in the local showground. The teenagers retreat to the bush and become a guerrilla resistance force, all the while agonising over whether their actions are just. Written against the backdrop of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, this series brought home the realities of war to an entire generation of Australian teenagers more used to thinking of conflict as something that happened ‘over there’.

I actually don’t think that the Tomorrow series is the best of 90s Australian dystopian YA fiction, although it has great emotional resonance and Marsden’s evocation of the Australian landscape, and the unease most Australians feel within it, is spot on. But the later novels lack the believability that made the first few so powerful, and an ill-advised spin-off trilogy means the series ends, if not with a whimper, not really with a bang either.

No, in my opinion, there is a three-way tie for the best stories of this genre between the works of Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and one particular novel of Ruth Park’s.

Most Australians of my generation will be familiar with at least one book by Kelleher, Taronga, as it was widely studied in high school during our teenage years, but I’ve always felt Kelleher was tragically unrecognised. His trilogy beginning with Parkland, which I reviewed here a while back, is both a Cassandra-like warning and a hopeful shout of encouragement. In each book, in different ways, he wipes the slate clean, so to speak, recreating subtly different Gardens of Eden to see if, once tempted with consciousness, human nature could ever lead us anywhere other than destruction.

Gillian Rubinstein is also concerned with human nature in two very good series of hers, the Galax-Arena series and the Space Demons trilogy. I have blogged about Galax-Arena in relation to The Hunger Games already, so suffice it to say that the series is, at its heart, about the exploitation of (often poor, always defenseless) children at the hands of (often wealthy, always privileged) adults, and can be read as a metaphor for the way First World countries can only ‘live’ as well as they do by (figuratively) killing the Third World.

The Space Demons trilogy is a little different, because it uses its broader dystopian concerns as a backdrop on which to set four or five parallel coming-of-age narratives. Four (and later more) young people find themselves sucked into the virtual world of their computer games (and, in Shinkei, the third book, of cyberspace), within which they must resolve their numerous personal issues, and, as becomes increasingly apparent, the problems that beset the world. The final book reads like an idealistic call to arms, a plea to remember dreams in the face of privilege, cynicism, exploitation and fanaticism, and is one of the best intertwinings of the personal with the political that I have ever encountered.

Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif makes it onto this list simply because its dystopian nature isn’t immediately apparent, and the way it sneaks up on you is absolutely terrifying. You think you’re reading a fantasy book about family tensions, parental expectation and an island paradise populated by real-life mermaids, and then Park will give a throwaway reference to the characters having never seen a butterfly or a certain breed of animal because they’re extinct. It’s chilling.

Why, then, were Australian YA authors rushing down the dystopian road a good two decades before their (mainly American) counterparts? I have several theories, but what I’ve always felt was the mostly likely cause is the intersection of Australia’s bizarre geography and bizarre history and social mythology (mythology in the sense of stories people tell about themselves).

Australians cannot quite make up their minds about these things. On the one hand, there’s this weird sort of pride in the harshness of our landscape, and on the other, there’s the fact that very few Australians actually live in it. Australians, for the most part, cling desperately to the coastal cities, and yet there’s this constant awareness that just around the corner, there’s this vast, parched desert or dry bushland just waiting to be set on fire and burn your house to the ground. As an Australian, the recent climate change debate has always struck me as very odd because, well, if we were talking about global warming in my first grade class in 1991 and the salinity problems of the Murray-Darling basin in my fifth grade class in 1995, and the hole in the ozone layer since forever, it’s not as if suddenly clued-in politicians have only just become aware of it.

Couple this anxiety about the physical features of the land with a general sense of anxiety about the location of the land itself and about one’s place in it (and by this I mean that a dominant strand of the Australian mythos has always been an uncertainty about where and what Australia actually is***) and you get this narrative of discomfort and unease. Australian literature, by and large, does not feature people ‘lighting out for the territories’ in search of freedom and prosperity. Instead, one heads off into a hostile wilderness where general weirdness goes on.****

All this combined to make Australia a fruitful breeding ground for dystopian literature. When these novelists wanted to play around with their fears for the future, their belief in multiculturalism or political anxieties, the Australian experience provided a physical and mythological backdrop for the stories that arose. It would be wonderful if the new dystopian craze introduced these wonderful works to a wider audience.

* I know that’s not how you decline Greek.
** Also, this is not about Mad Max.
*** As demonstrated by the common use of ‘the West’ to describe a group of nations of which (usually Anglo, almost always white) Australians see themselves as part, despite the fact that the only place to which Australia is west is New Zealand.
**** Think Picnic At Hanging Rock. Think Walkabout.***** This is why the Tomorrow series is so powerful, because the civilised space of hearth and home has been rendered dangerous, and the story’s heroes find the normally hostile wilderness a welcoming haven.
***** This is, obviously, a literary trope mainly employed by white (usually Anglo) Australians, and I think stems from a sense of guilt at what was done to the indigenous inhabitants of the land which Australian culture (until very recently) felt profoundly uneasy examining in an open way. And so it was explored in this slantwise manner.


1. Katie - January 26, 2012

That almost off-hand comment about butterflies in My Sister Sif stands out as my strongest memory of that book, years after reading it. It’s funny the way you almost discount their breathing devices as a fantasty/other world object when really, they’re very futuristic.

I’ve always thought Australian YA was some of the best in the world and I hope it always continues to be that way.

dolorosa12 - January 26, 2012

Yeah, it’s funny how that’s what remains with you. It’s been more than 15 years since I read My Sister Sif and that comment is my most powerful memory of the book. When I read it, I didn’t even interpret the ‘rebreathers’ as being science-fictional. If I recall, they were described as being used by the Navy, and I just assumed that they were real devices used by the real Navy. (I was a pretty gullible child and tended to believe everything unless it was completely beyond the pale.)

I agree with you about the general quality of Australian YA. I used to think it was because I would naturally remember the books I read as a child and teenager with rose-tinted fondness, but I’ve gone back and read them as an adult, and they genuinely are among the best in the world. I’ve thought for a while that this was because Australian YA authors, especially those of the 80s and 90s, didn’t pull any punches. They went straight to the dark heart of things and included themes in their books that you simply wouldn’t be able to publish in other countries. I feel that the sort of moral debate that seems to be going on to this day in the US about YA literature and what is ‘appropriate’ has already been had in Australia, years before we even started reading as children, and for that I am very grateful.

dolorosa12 - January 26, 2012

(See, for examples of my point about the daring nature of Australian YA, basically any book by Victor Kelleher. Outside Australia, his themes would’ve been controversial even in books not aimed at teenagers.)

2. Catie - January 27, 2012

I totally agree with you on the comment about global warming- though I’m sure it can’t only have been Australia which was talking about it in the ’90s. I remember, as a kid, reading a Captain Planet comic book which talked about global warming in a library in London. I thought it was established fact then, so I am still a bit puzzled about the recent debate/reaction to Al Gore’s documentary as though this was a ‘new’ topic.

More on topic with the theme of your article, I love Australian YA! If I look at my reading patterns, I don’t read a lot of Australian (or NZ) books, but I grew up reading lots of Australian (and NZ) YA/children’s books, and I still read them. The national myths that make YA dystopia so good, though, are often things I dislike about adult fiction from Australia. The focus on the outback when the majority of the population lives in cities, for instance, and a fairly prevalent mood of bleakness or unease.

dolorosa12 - February 5, 2012

I’m so sorry it’s taken this long to get back to you.

Yes, I imagine it was being talked about in places other than Australia, although it has always been my impression that it was talked about in Australia as an established fact by a wider range of people. This may not be so, though.

I quite like the bleakness and unease that you mention, although I wonder if the reason you find it more satisfying in YA books than in adult ones is that the YA ones tend to end on a more upbeat and hopeful note (in the sense of ‘literature tells us that there are dragons, but it also tells us they can be defeated’), whereas the stuff aimed at adults often forgoes a happy ending.

I think the outback continues to exert such a force on the Australian literary imagination precisely because so few Australians live there. For the city-dwelling majority, it sort of performs the function of the wilderness in medieval literature as a place outside the norms of ordinary society, where WEIRD STUFF HAPPENS.

3. linkspam 22 April - April 22, 2016

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