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One time January 10, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Well, Victor Kelleher Week turned into something more like Victor Kelleher Fortnight, unfortunately. I spent all of last week suffering the double effects of rather horrendous jet-lag and a dreadful cold, and I felt too weak to be able to blog adequately, so I apologise for stretching this on longer than I should have. I turn now to my final review of Victor Kelleher’s work (for now), of <em>Fire Dancer</em>. Spoilers follow.

<em>Fire Dancer</em> was my favourite book in this trilogy, and is the one that I reread the most as a teenager. I’m not entirely sure what appealed to me about it, and, after this most recent reread, I’m not convinced that it is the strongest in the trilogy (that honour goes to <em>Parkland</em>, in my opinion), but it’s certainly got its fair share of interesting themes and philosophical quandaries.

In the not-too-distant future, time travel moves from being a theoretical possibility to a reality.  Inevitably, time-travel tourism springs up as an industry, with wealthy people paying large sums of money for the privilege of journeying to the darker corners of prehistory and observing man’s distant ancestors. It is on one such trip that bored rich kid Josie and shy outsider Ivan (who is not rich, but won a free trip to the past after writing an essay on the Neanderthals for a competition) find themselves stranded in the past with only a clan of Neanderthals for company.

The pair are quickly discovered and adopted by the Neanderthals, and they slowly adapt to the harsher environment and lifestyle of these mysterious cousins of our own ancestors, finding companionship and kindred spirits among the clan.

That’s not to say that their journey is an easy one.  Josie, a 21st-century, strong-willed young woman, chafes at the restrictions placed on women in the clan. She wants to hunt, but only men are permitted to hunt, and has a combative relationship with Lheppo, an aggressive young warrior of the clan.  Eventually she manages to get her own way, and becomes an acclaimed hunter, saving Lheppo’s life and gaining the name Utha (‘Leopard Slayer’) in the process.  For Ivan, the adaptation is even more difficult. A gentle, studious outsider in the 21st century, the violence of hunting is utterly abhorrent to him. This makes him a non-person in the eyes of the Neanderthal clan.  But, like Josie, he slowly finds a place for himself in the Stone Age world, breaking the rules of the clan by becoming accepted as its first male shaman.

Josie and Ivan both felt somewhat out of place in the 21st century, and, once they give up on ever being rescued, they both realise that they have more purpose and fulfillment in their Stone Age lives.  And they both make stronger connections than just friendship, Josie and Lheppo becoming what is surely the earliest ever quarreling couple and Ivan finding love with Aghri, the daughter of the clan’s leader Kharno and its shaman Lhien.  This being the Stone Age, there is no contraception, and both Aghri and Josie fall pregnant.  In this way, Ivan and Josie realise with horror, they have contributed to the end of the Neanderthals as a species and the eventual dominance of Homo sapiens.  They are, in fact, creating their own ancestors.  Time, they realise, is not a continuous stream moving inexorably forwards, but rather exists in loops, where past and future affect one another in incredibly complex ways.  They have mixed feelings about this, but ultimately accept their roles as seed-carriers of the future with stoicism.

Just when both have become completely resigned to life among the Neanderthals, however, the future intrudes again: the time-travel ship arrives, a year after Josie and Ivan were abandoned, to bring them back to the future. After much soul-searching, Josie chooses to go back, but Ivan elects to stay, explaining that he feels much more alive – indeed, much more human – in the past.

Humanity Kelleher is obviously playing around here with notions of true humanity. We’ve seen already that he views humanity as something akin to conscious thought, but I would argue that in Fire Dancer, he’s got other things on his mind. Humanity, for him, is equated with humaneness, with living lightly on the earth, living with purpose, as if your whole existence depends on it.

‘You’re a hunter now,’ he [Ivan] explained, ‘and if you’re right, I’m on my way to becoming a shaman. Well, those aren’t just jobs or professions, like they would be in the future. Here a hunter or shaman is what we are, and once we accept those identities, we’re as bound by the rules as everyone else. […] We’ve become Neanderthals. There’s no going back.’

Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 249.

The Neanderthals obviously offer Kelleher a wonderful mechanism to explore these ideas, as they are so full of potential for a writer – so familiar, and yet so distant, elusive and mysterious (how closely related were they to our own Homo sapiens ancestors? why did they suddenly die out?).  Of course, such themes run the risk of venturing into noble savage territory, but Kelleher is careful not to romanticise the Neanderthals or their lifestyle.  He does this mostly through Ivan, whose struggle to accept the brutality of life among the clan shows this life for the harsh, bloody existence that it is.

This was not the world he had visualised, aeons ago now, when in his other life he had written about Neanderthal people. Not this world of conflict and gore. He had had in mind a less testing place. Of wildness and adventure, yes, but nothing as basic and barbarous as this. Where life was to death as the hand is to the glove, the two fitting together intimately. Where endless and bloody conflict – or so he mistakenly believed at that instant – defined the whole of existence.

Victor Kelleher, Fire Dancer, p. 211.

That being said, Kelleher is clearly using the Neanderthals – and Josie and Ivan’s experience with them – to make some pertinent comments about the twentieth century (the time in which he was writing). There is much to be learned, he argues, from a people who live with thrift, whose existence is little different from that of the animals upon which they prey, where the idea of owning more than the essentials necessary to sustain life is ridiculous.  Humanity is not about things, it is a state of mind.

Responsibility Once Josie and Ivan accept the role that their accidental abandonment on the shores of the past has given them, they do not shrink from it. By their very presence, they are proof of the existence of time-loops, and, rather than cursing the cruel position in which fate has placed them – carriers of the seeds which will destroy the people among whom they feel most welcome and usher in the ancestors of the people with whom they feel no kinship – they embrace it stoically.  This also allows Kelleher to get in a few remarks about the lucky, bizarre and complicated accidents responsible for the entire sweep of human history.  As Josie notes:

‘We didn’t choose for an animal to crash into the ship; or for the ship to take off before we could scramble back on board. It all just happened.’

‘Okay, so it was an accident. That’s still a hello of a lot different from saying it was meant to be. Listening to you, anyone would think there’s a purpose in our being here.’

[…] ‘Maybe there’s a purpose behind it all,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Who knows? Maybe we’re … the seeds of the future.’

Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 250-1.

Freedom This is probably where Kelleher gets most into the whole noble savage thing.  In Fire Dancer, he argues that true freedom exists when people embrace a lifestyle free of choices, free of security, where life is harsh, possessions are few and where most energy is focused on the struggle to stay alive.  Ivan and Josie find purpose and kinship among the Neanderthals, and acceptance which they never possessed in the 21st century.  And if the past and the future are one codependent loop, we are lost in the stream of time, always at the mercy of where it takes us.  We might as well sit back and revel in the freedom this gives us.

This is the final review of the trilogy. I will probably follow it up with a post about the most significant themes and concepts explored by Kelleher in this series of books.

One voice January 2, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl.
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[Spoilers for Earthsong by Victor Kelleher.]

Kelleher’s second book in the Parkland trilogy is more ambitious than its predecessor, and, perhaps because of this, is somewhat less successful. As a child, I reread Earthsong less than the other two books in the trilogy, although I cannot remember exactly what it was that failed to appeal to me.

As with Parkland, Earthsong is set in a dystopian future. In this book, global warming made Earth uninhabitable for human beings, who, after trying various ways to remain (including building colonies under the sea) despite the dangerous atmospheric conditions, migrated to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, which is supposed to have conditions similar to early Earth and which in the book was terraformed to make it inhabitable for human beings. After several centuries, the off-worlders decide to send human beings back to Earth in the form of frozen embryos, in order to repopulate it. Travelling with these embryos are teenagers Anna and Joe, who are given the grandiose title ‘the First Parents’.

Straight away, things go wrong. The heat shields on Anna and Joe’s ship (a sentient being named Walter) are damaged, causing them to crash-land thousands of kilometres away from where the transport ships (carrying the embryos) have landed. Worse, Walter himself is damaged by the landing and undergoes a personality change of sorts, transforming from an impersonal, intelligent machine into a crazed, spiritual being who seems overwhelmed by life on Earth. He becomes, in fact, a shamanic figure. Accompanying Anna and Joe are two other robots, Trog (whose name evokes troglodytes, of course), who is no-nonsense and practical, and Og, who speaks in parables, quotes and sayings.

While Anna and Joe at first think they have a straightforward journey to retrieve the transport ships and begin the project of repopulating Earth, it quickly becomes apparent that Earth has changed in the absence of humans. All its animal life, from rats and cats to snakes and sharks, seems to possess sentience and consciousness. Animals that previously lived solitary lives seem to have developed the ability to live commnunally and organise themselves like humans. Anna and Joe find themselves in constant conflict with the fauna. Fearful and harried on all sides by vicious attacks by animals such as rats, eagles and lizards, they proceed slowly. All the while, Walter seems away with the fairies, speaking of the voices he can hear and spouting mystical insights into the nature of the universe and humanity. He claims that he hears the whole earth speaking with one voice, which he calls the voice of God or good (it’s not clear, as his own ability to speak is compromised by this point and he constantly jumbles his words. The confusion between God and good is, of course, deliberate on Kelleher’s part, as Kelleher cannot resist a bit of theological confusion).

After an encounter with some whales that have developed the ability to talk in Morse code, Anna and Joe discover the truth of this brave new Earth: the sea colonies, knowing that they were going to die, made a fateful decision to splice human genes into those of all living beings on Earth. This meant that all creatures – and even some large trees – eventually developed human characteristics: the ability to reason, to live in groups and work for the common good, to defer gratification, in short to be conscious. Unfortunately, these characteristics seem to only manifest themselves as the worst, most destructive human qualities: brutality, dog-eat-dog competition, cruelty.  The whales speak with horror of ‘the swarms’, which, it is soon revealed, are insects – with human intelligence – that, by virtue of superior numbers, presumably – hold the rest of creation in their sway.

[H]uman guile and cunning had taken on monstrous shape. Yes, human guile and cunning, that was what they were up against. And human kindness? Human compassion? What had happened to those qualities? Had they somehow fled the world? Had they been lost – left out perhaps – when the human genes governing intelligence were spliced into the rest of creation? Had the last colonies passed on only their aggression and their drive for dominance? Was this the truth behind the one mind, the one voice, Walter had referred to? It was a horrible thought which she flinched away from. A world without love! Without gentleness or care or fellow feeling! She could not bring herself to face such a prospect.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, pp. 219-220.

Leaving the science aside, it’s worth stopping and considering this concept for a moment. Can you even begin to imagine what it would be like to live in a planet where every living being possessed the worst characteristics of humanity, and human intelligence? In Kelleher’s imagination, it would be horrific – a dangerous and threatening place of constant war. It is so bad that Anna and Joe are uncertain as to whether they ought to animate the embryos, horrified at the thought of bringing up children in a world of conflict and danger.

Meanwhile, Walter embarks on a mission to communicate with the swarms, hoping to convince them – and, by extension, the other inhabitants of Earth – of the value of peaceful coexistence.  He is adamant that if people – by which he means all living and sentient beings – could just communicate better, the world would be a harmonious place for all.  Anna and Joe, besieged by the swarms, have almost given up hope, but Walter is ultimately successful, and the book ends with Earth poised on the brink of a newer, gentler future.  On the surface, Earthsong is thus a much gentler and more hopeful book than Parkland, but as is usual with Kelleher, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.

Humanity Because Kelleher defines humanity as consciousness, his definition of humanity in Earthsong is much broader than in Parkland, encompassing all creation.  While indulging in many descriptive pages of the horrors of an Earth populated in this manner – the scenes where Anna and Joe are besieged by lizards, rats, snakes, bats and insects are like something out of a horror movie – he ultimately arrives at a rather cheerful, hippy-like understanding of how this might work.  If we are all human, we all speak with one voice, and if we could only listen to this voice and speak to one another, we would live in peace, tranquility and harmony.

This is obviously meant to be a metaphor for the present state of affairs on Earth – that we, as people, must turn away from the violence and greed in our natures and recognise our common humanity if we are to escape destruction.  This is all very well and good, but it strikes me, as it struck me when I first read Earthsong, as overly optimistic.  And if ‘humanity’ means all beings on Earth, this only complicates matters. How are we to recognise our common ‘humanity’ if we’re all eating one another, for example?

Responsibility If Kelleher falls somewhat short in his exploration of the theme of humanity in Earthsong, he truly succeeds in the theme of responsibility.  This book is, in a sense, all about responsibility.  In particular, it is about the peculiar nature of human responsibility: the greatest responsibility we have is that towards future generations, and yet this requires us to make decisions for a future of which we are entirely unaware.* And these decisions will, of course, affect and shape that future.

Joe and Anna initially deplore the actions of the sea colonies: knowing that they (the sea colonies) were going to die out, they were freed from the responsibility of behaving responsibly:

The underwater colonies had acted irresponsibly, distributing their genes throughout a planet without the thought for the consequences. […] Despite her disapproval of what the last people had done, she couldn’t bring herself to blame them. In their place, faced with extinction, she might well have done the same.  After all, to live on in other creatures was better than nothing.

Victor Kelleher, Earthsong, p. 168.

Most horrifically, of course, Joe and Anna are forced to suffer the consequences of decisions made by these ancient people, who did not take responsibility for their actions.  The parallels between this book, and our own world, are fairly clear.

Freedom As I began this section, the book The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson popped into my head. That book is all about humanity’s destructive nature, and how we would like to be able to start again, with a blank canvas, a clean slate, a new Eden, and how that probably isn’t possible. Earthsong seems be be set on such a blank canvas, an Earth healed and cleansed of the effects of humanity’s brutal destruction – but of course it isn’t.

I think we all like to imagine that if we had the freedom to begin again, we’d do things differently, we’d be better, gentler, kinder. Kelleher, in his way, is warning us that there are no second chances.  Even an Earth wiped of all human beings is not free from human influence.  We may not have a Titan to retreat to, and we certainly won’t have an Earth to return to, so we need to start thinking about what sort of future our decisions might make.

The final book in this trilogy, Fire Dancer, is in many ways the most intriguing, because it is not set in the future but rather our distant past.  In it, two human beings have the extraordinary and terrible responsibility of having to make decisions knowing full well what effect they will have on the future. I will be reviewing it some time early next week.


* Being who I am, this makes my thoughts turn to religion, and in particular the story of the Fall.  The parallels – between the story of Adam and Eve, Anna and Joe and the sea colonies – are apparent to me, although I might be reading too many things into this.  Faced with extinction, the sea colonies had to make a decision about a future in which they had no stake, while Anna and Joe also had to make a decision on behalf of the unborn embryos for which they are responsible.  Being human – like Adam and Eve – they possess free will, but they do not possess the ability to comprehend the outcomes of their actions and decisions.  Anna and Joe, like their Biblical counterparts, are the first parents, while the sea people are the end of their genetic line, of course.  I need to think further about what all these connections mean.

One people December 29, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, meta, reviews.
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[Spoilers for Victor Kelleher’s book Parkland.]

‘We are all one people,’ Cassie tells her friends, Ralph and Boxer, repeatedly throughout Victor Kelleher’s book, Parkland. This would be unremarkable, except that Ralph is a half-human, half-gorilla much more comfortable with the gorilla side of his nature, while Boxer is a human-chimpanzee hybrid who struggles against his society’s dismissal of him as an animal not worthy of the human consciousness he possesses.

All three are inhabitants of Parkland, a future vision of our Earth made more chilling by its very plausibility. Parkland is a zoo whose inmates are all apes: gorillas, chimpanzees, baboons – and humans. The keepers are humanoid but not human, and they keep the zoo’s population in check with the aid of leopogs, vicious dog-leopard hybrids. The visitors to Parkland are all animals – tigers, giraffes and so on – but they have a strangely human consciousness behind their eyes. The human residents of Parkland are, for the most part, content. The walls of Parkland provide them with food, medicine, clothing and every other material comfort. In Parkland, they are safe and civilised, unlike the savage humans of the BC (‘Before Cage’) era.

Cassie and her friends reject Parkland and everything it stands for. When they discover the keepers wrestling an unknown boy into the enclosures, they realise that they’ve been lied to all their lives: there is a world beyond Parkland’s walls, and there are free people living there. They become determined to escape.

But the feral humans are not the answer to their prayers. They are violent, harsh and believe in survival at all costs, a reflection of the savage, hunted lives they must live. The ferals reject Ralph and Boxer as abominations. And Cassie and her friends have other problems: Leon (as the feral boy is called) was implanted with a tracking device by the Parkland keepers as a means to signal the leopogs, which are to cull the feral population. Cassie, accompanied by her friends and Leon, realises that she must return to Parkland and confront its keepers. It is at this confrontation that she realises the true history of Parkland. Its keepers are aliens who view themselves as responsible for maintaining the balance of life on every planet in the universe. They have visited Earth twice: once to annihilate the dinosaur population (‘an evolutionary cul-de-sac’) and once to prevent human beings from destroying all other life on their planet. The result of that second visit was, of course, Parkland. After many tribulations, the worst of the keepers are killed, leaving Edwards, one of their ‘scientist class’, to work with the humans and the other apes to make Parkland a place of harmony, where the old human knowledge is retained but not abused.

Parkland is absolutely ruthless in its exploration of Kelleher’s main concerns: humanity, responsibility and freedom, and it’s worth examining just what conclusions the book reaches in terms of these three main themes.

Humanity. At its heart, Kelleher’s concern here is with what exactly constitutes a human being. Ultimately he leaves us with a definition of humanity that is quite fluid. Cassie, with all the zeal of an activist, passionately believes that all apes are ‘one people’. In her worldview, there are the people – the inhabitants of Parkland – and the others, the keepers who oppress and imprison them. In thinking thus, she is actually strikingly similar to the keepers themselves, who view all the inhabitants of Parkland as ‘the apes’, and think of themselves as elevated beings. (These two viewpoints consciously evoke colonialism to a great extent, of course.) Clarke, one of the keepers, even accuses his fellow-keeper Edwards of ‘going native’.

‘You’ve been in this body too long, d’you know that? It’s getting to you. You’re beginning to think like the apes.’

‘Maybe I am,’ Edwards conceded, ‘but then maybe that’s not the worst thing that can happen to us while we’re here.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘Meaning it’s a pity you haven’t been affected by the body you’re in.’ […]

He [Edwards] was standing at the gallery railing, holding both hands up before him as though studying them. ‘Me?’ she [Cassie] heard him murmur. Next he ran his hands slowly down his face, like a blind man examining his own features. ‘Me?’ he murmured again. ‘Me?’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, pp. 204 and 206.


The ferals, on the other hand, have a harsh, ‘you’re either with us or against us’ view of humanity. Apes are certainly not human beings. And human beings are not compassionate. They are Darwinist, survive-at-all costs, brutal individuals. The humans in Parkland are little better than collaborators in their own oppression.

Responsiblity Ultimately, although the ferals believe the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to survive (they take this to extremes, abandoning the weak members of their society in the face of attacks), Kelleher is arguing here that the fundamental responsibility of a human being is to be humane. Like most dystopian science-fiction, Parkland is written with a very strong warning to contemporary society in mind: maintain a balance, rein in our destructive and consumerist impulses, or suffer the horrific consequences. We can see, with the ferals, how strong the human urge to dominate and destroy can be. Even in the face of obliteration at the hands of the leopogs, Leon is still talking about the BC age as one of achievement and mastery:

‘But there wasn’t any civilisation,’ she [Cassie] objected. ‘Not until we were taken into Parkland.’

‘They probably told you that to keep you quiet,’ he [Leon] sneered. ‘I’d rather trust the stories, about how we could fly and build things, and how we could live in one place and didn’t have to run all the time. That was before the coming of the leopogs.’

– Victor Kelleher, Parkland, p. 127.


Freedom In Parkland, as in the other books of this trilogy, Kelleher links the concepts of responsibility and freedom together very tightly. This makes a lot of sense, as these are, of course, the impulses in humanity that constantly war with one another. The ostensible message of the book is that we are not free to do what we want, because the darker aspects of humanity would cause us to destroy ourselves. However – and this is what makes Kelleher truly remarkable as a writer for children, especially in the late ’80s – the book is more ambiguous than that.

It’s about cages – both physical and metaphorical. Who is more free – the Parklanders, who are secure, comfortable and safe, with every physical need taken care of – the ferals, or the apes, who lack a human consciousness and thus bear no responsibility for their actions? The book ends with Cassie and her friends poised on the brink of a new future, with Parkland a haven, rather than a prison, with the knowledge of the old times available to all who seek it, including the chimp-human hybrid Boxer. But Cassie’s qualms about Boxer’s enthusiasm for the old human knowledge (and the rapacious nature that bent it to destructive ends) undermine the book’s hopeful ending. Ultimately, Kelleher seems to be saying that to be truly responsible and free, to be truly human, is to be free to make mistakes.

Kelleher’s concern with maintaining balance and harmony on earth, as well as between the warring human impulses to create and destroy, finds further expression in the next book of the trilogy, Earthsong, which I will be discussing next. I look forward to seeing you all soon for the next installment of Victor Kelleher Week!

Announcement: Victor Kelleher Week December 27, 2010

Posted by dolorosa12 in announcements, books.
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Hello, dear readers! It’s been a while. I hope you all are enjoying your holidays!

Back at the start of the year, I had grand plans for this blog. They included a semi-regular segment on ‘under-appreciated authors’, where I was planning to plead the case for authors I love that no one else seems to have heard of. This segment never materialised, due to various things (mainly the fact that I was writing a PhD, as well as a bunch of conference papers, and editing an academic journal). However, now that I’ve got a bit of spare time, I’d like to propose something slightly less ambitious: Victor Kelleher Week.

Victor Kelleher is one of my favourite authors, and has been since I was a child. I credit his books with playing a major role in my philosophical, moral and intellectual development. Although his books are often taught in Australian secondary schools, very few people seem to share my high opinion of him, and he is not widely known outside Australia.

At this point, I’m intending to re-read Parkland, Earthsong and Fire Dancer, which form a loosely-linked trilogy (‘about humanity, responsibility and freedom’, their blurbs inform me), and post about each of the three books. Aside from The Beast of Heaven (which is a book for adults), these are my three favourite Kelleher novels, and they are probably most representative of his work. If everything goes smoothly, I might try doing this for other, ‘underappreciated’ authors.

I hope you enjoy Victor Kelleher Week!