Sci-Fi Twist on Reconciliation


Terra coverClaire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
(304 pages)

$20 paper, $5 e-book

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.

The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.

The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.

First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.

The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.

The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.

I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.

The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!

It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.

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Human consciousness: complete and inconsistent?


Robin Craig, Frankensteel, Thoughtware Publications 2012
(Kindle edition: Amazon price $US1.99)

 

Reviewed by Ted Witham in TableAUS (Australian Mensa News)  September/October 2012

 

Robin Craig’s “Philosophical Reflections” in TableAUS often provoke replies both polite and unmannered from Mensans. In these “Reflections”, Robin presents his highly rational and positivist world-view using the rhetoric of the philosopher. I enjoyed reading a new side of Robin in his novella Frankensteel.

 

Frankensteel tells the story of an anthropoid robot equipped with an organic brain whose intelligence grows from a few simple learning algorithms. The robot at first appears unable to speak, however, but just the fact of its invention throws the authorities into panic mode. They order its maker Stephen Beldan to destroy it. Frankensteelhas quite a presence in a room, and its first spoken words are effectively a declaration to its maker that it would be inhuman to destroy it. Though the scientist locks the robot away, it inevitably escapes and seeks out the company of Professor David Samuels whose expertise in human consciousness may help it understand whether it is human or not.

 

Special Investigator Miriam Hunter is ordered to hunt “Steel” down and finds herself drawn into the moral dilemma at the heart of this story:  whether this human creation with its intelligence should be destroyed or not.

 

The story has been told before. Any writer since Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic attempting a re-write of the Frankenstein myth must have a stand-out factor to distinguish it from its predecessors. Its factory setting and its police hunter skilled in dark arts of pursuit and assassinationgive Frankensteel a modern “industrial” and almost noir feel.  The character of the professor, in particular, gives Robin Craig the narrative licence to develop arguments for and against artificial intelligence and its relationship to human consciousness. Frankensteel brings the old myth up to date bytaking into account recent developments, both in neuroscience and artificial intelligence.

 

Set against these protagonists are the shadowy Imagist cult, believing that only human beings are made in the Image of God, and therefore set against machine consciousness. These radicals are capable of serious violence, but the robot uses his intelligent understanding of human beings to survive.

 

Frankensteel is a novella length story which I read in a few hours. Its chief problem is that the characters are not sufficiently developed for me to care what happened to Frankensteel or any of his friends. It might be stronger if it was compressed to a short story length and then told through the eyes of just one of the characters, Frankensteel himself perhaps, so that readers both identified with his nascent humanity and were also drawn into the discussion about machine and human consciousness.

 

But I salute Robin Craig for imaginatively raising the issues: I enjoyed meeting Frankensteel.