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Australia is currently patting itself on the back for having a “discussion about race.” This shallow, vapid “discussion” revolves around a few recent events. To sum up: at last Friday night’s AFL game, Indigenous Sydney footballer Adam Goodes was called an ape by a 13-year-old Collingwood fan. She was ejected from the grounds, Goodes was too upset to continue the match, and was approached in the Sydney rooms afterwards by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to offer a personal apology. Goodes asked the media not to vilify the girl herself, but to think about how she was a product of the casual attitude towards racism that exists in Australia. McGuire, whose conduct was similarly exemplary, then fucked it up by saying on breakfast radio that Goodes could promote King Kong the musical.

Most of the coverage revolves around whether the girl knew “ape” was racist, whether McGuire’s apology was good enough, whether he should he step down as Collingwood president, etc. This is how racism controversies always play out in the Australian media: we behave as though racist comments are mere insults that reflect poorly on the character of the person making them, rather than symptomatic of the deep and persistent racism this country was founded upon. We pretend that racist remarks are the cause rather than the effect. This is why there are thousands upon thousands of comments and tweets and letters to the editor voicing opinions ranging from genuine confusion about why Goodes was so upset to sneering remarks that he should “toughen up.”

It’s all well and good to call out public figures for making racist remarks, but the entire affair is pointless unless people are told why it’s wrong to make racist remarks. This seems obvious, but apparently they need to be. Plenty of white people will compare being called an ape to being called a Pom or a sheep-shagger, either oblivious or willfully blind to the social and cultural context that separates Brits and Kiwis from Aboriginals. A visitor from a foreign culture or an alien planet could be forgiven that thinking Indigenous Australians are on the same rung of society as white Australians. Because, contrary to the narrative of Australia’s Big Conversation About Race, the issue is not “Aboriginal person called name by white person.” The issue is “Aboriginal people still suffering the consequences of a white empire that occupied their land by force.”

Sam de Brito, hardly Australia’s most articulate or thoughtful columnist, is one of the few I can think of who has pointed out the elephant in the room over the past few days:

…That hurt is proportionate to the suffering, malevolence, violence, cruelty and indignity that men and women experienced during slavery in the US.

This is an experience to which we have never given full acknowledgement in this country. We do not understand the anger, the shame, the frustration, the bitterness and sorrow of what was taken from indigenous Australians…

…We said “sorry”, but for what? Crippling your culture? Raping your women? Murdering your children? Ingraining shame into your upbringing? Alienating you from contemporary culture to the point there is not one indigenous TV personality regularly seen on our TV screens?

White Australians say “harden up” and “get over it” about racist jokes because that’s what they really want Aboriginals to do about the dispossession of their land and the continuing marginalisation of their people. Harden up. Get over it. Stop complaining, stop drinking, stop being unemployed. Stop making me feel guilty.

Until the Australian media can link these regular racism controversies together into what they are – a reflection of racism in our society, and an acknowledgement of the fact that we fucked Aboriginals over and we’re still fucking them over – then this scenario is going to play out over and over again like an Escher drawing.

The Sword of the Spirits by John Christopher (1972) 162 p.

This is the third and final book in Christopher’s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and I have to say, I can’t think of any other trilogy in which the name is derived from the title of the last entry rather than the first.

Having killed his brother at the climax of Beyond The Burning Lands, Luke is now the ruler of Winchester, and is working to consolidate his power while the Seers – openly a religious order, but secretly working to restore technology to the world – assist him. Other factions, including some within Winchester, are working against him.

I wouldn’t say Luke is a well-developed character, pe se, but he is interesting in the sense that he breaks the mould of the traditional young adult protagonist. There are signs as early as the first book that he is headstrong, proud, self-important and lacks intellectual curiosity (indeed, he rarely seems more than indifferent towards the goal of the Seers). But it only becomes clear towards the end of The Sword of the Spirits that he is, in fact, the villain of the trilogy. The hero is one of his old friends, whose travels and adventures have taken place almost entirely out of the reader’s eye, but who returns at the climax to save the day in a rather unconventional way. Luke is presented with the error of his ways and is begged to reconsider, and – much like the climax of The Guardians – I was honestly uncertain which way it would go; whether he would achieve redemption or sink into tyranny. John Christopher was no George R.R. Martin, but he most definitely didn’t follow the unwritten rules of the genre. I won’t ruin the surprise, but suffice to say that even after Luke makes his choice, the novel ends on a very different note than I thought it would, with a particularly bleak final sentence.

In five years time I will have forgotten the names of all the characters and likely much of the plot as well. I will, nonetheless, remember certain events, and the overall trajectory of the novel. The Sword of the Spirits trilogy doesn’t come close to matching Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, but it’s nonetheless a step above most young adult fiction, and well worth reading if one is interested in the genre.

As She Climbed Across The Table by Jonathon Lethem (1997) 192 p.

This is the first of Lethem’s novels that can be accurately described as one, rather than a stretched out short story or a crudely pasted together amalgamation of short stories. As She Climbed Across The Table concerns a love-lorn anthropologist, Phillip, whose physicist girlfriend Alice has become obsessed with a wormhole dubbed “Lack” which has been created in her physics department at a California university. Lack is notable for making certain random objects disappear, while others pass right through it. Phillip becomes increasingly concerned at Alice’s obsession with Lack, which he suspects is bordering on romantic infatuation.

I wouldn’t call this a satirical novel, as others have, though it certainly pokes a lot of fun at various academic pursuits, and academia and university life in general. This is the first of Lethem’s novels which is ostensibly set in the real world, but although the speculative element – a manufactured wormhole, not so different to what’s going on at CERN – is easy to swallow, it later develops into events which, while fascinating, made the book quite surreal. It’s a love story, and while I wasn’t particularly wrapped up in it, I never had trouble believing it.

That’s one of Lethem’s great qualities – he’s always totally in control of his prose, even if his story comes off the rails a bit. It reminds me quite a lot of the early novels of Michael Chabon, about which I said that Chabon was already a master writer, just not a master storyteller. Both writers have prose good enough that I’m willing to forgive the overall pointlessness of some of their novels. The closest word, I guess, is “readable,” though that implies shallowness and ease of reading, which isn’t quite what I mean.

Both authors are also adept at perfectly capturing human thoughts and emotions and discussions. Their characters are perpetually thinking things they aren’t saying, and analysing their train wreck conversations in real time while pretending everything is fine. I like it. It’s realistic. It reminds me of how I (and, I presume, everyone else) think about how I stumble through life without ever actually articulating it, even in my head.

Anyway. I’m enjoying reading through Lethem’s early novels, even if I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them. Next up is Girl in Landscape, followed by the first of his books that’s actually well-known, Motherless Brooklyn.

When I lived in Sunshine West I rode my motorcycle to my office in South Melbourne every afternoon, along the elevated freeway that runs through Southbank. Shortly after I’d started that commute, a developer began constructing a skinny apartment building at the very edge of the freeway, by the Kingsway exit ramp. There was something vaguely satisfying about watching it go up bit by bit by bit, as the calendar pages rolled on by. It rose far higher than I ever expected it to, 50 storeys at least, and it was still under construction when I moved from Sunshine West to Richmond and started taking a different route to work.

But I still ride down that freeway sometimes, usually if I go straight from my girlfriend’s place in Flemington, and can still check on its progress. The other day, as I rode to work thinking about the email I was going to send my boss about transferring to London – because I’ve been in Melbourne for more than two years and I think I’m ready to move on – I noticed with surprise that the building was complete. Time to go, I said aloud in my helmet.

I wasn’t waiting for it to be finished, obviously, nor would I stay if it wasn’t. But I’m always on the lookout for pleasing symmetries in the set design of my life, and I like living in a city and watching it gradually change. One of my regrets about moving to London is that I won’t get to see Melbourne 108 gradually clawing its way to the top of the skyline.

The third story in my Black Swan series, “Flight” (previously titled “Pilot Light”) has been published in issue #43 of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. You can read it for free here – download the PDF, Kindle, whatever floats your boat.

This brings an end to the run of Black Swan series I originally published here at Grub Street, but I have plenty more in the pipeline, and hopefully the good men at TQF will be kind enough to keep accepting them.

Beyond the Burning Lands by John Christopher (1971) 170 p.

This is the second book in John Christopher’s “Sword of the Spirits” trilogy, and I enjoyed it quite a bit more than the first. Luke Perry (yeah, yeah, it was written in the ‘70s) has been permitted to return to Winchester, the city of his birth, by the new Prince and his half-brother, Peter. While the Seers are continuing their man-behind-the-curtain machinations to restore science and knowledge to the world, Luke is content to be back at home, but soon goes off on another adventure. A peddler from foreign lands has arrived in Winchester, claiming to have crossed the volcanic wasteland to the north, and offers to return with an embassy to the “land of the Wilsh.” Luke, as Peter’s brother, is sent along with the group as an emissary.

While The Prince in Waiting was fairly pedestrian fantasy/post-apocalyptic story offering castles, battles and political struggles, Beyond the Burning Lands features the mystery of new lands, cultural intrigue and even some monsters, and was a much more entertaining ride. I also found Christopher’s tell-don’t-show writing style more tolerable in this one, as it actually makes a lot more sense for Luke to be evaluating his feelings behind a poker face as he acts as an emissary in a strange and foreign country. On the whole, this was a quick, easy young adult novel that I enjoyed quite a bit more than its predecessor. I’m glad I stuck with this trilogy and I look forward to its eponymous conclusion, The Sword of the Spirits.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (1960) 338 p.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a well-known science fiction novel that anybody who’s familiar with the genre has probably heard of; for some reason I’ve always associated it with Flowers For Algernon (possibly because of the title?) which I’ve never read. I also assumed, because it was relatively old and remained a well-known title, that it was one of those books that blurred the line between science fiction and literature.

The novel takes place in three parts, all revolving around a Catholic abbey somewhere in the deserts of the American south-west many centuries after a nuclear war. The first is about 600 years later and roughly corresponds to the Dark Ages; the second is about 1,200 years later and roughly corresponds to the Renaissance; the third is about 1,800 years later and has the nations of mankind once again threatening each other with nuclear war.

I was surprised, given that I’d assumed this was a novel with literary pretensions, by Miller’s style of writing. I mean, it does have literary pretensions, but that’s exactly what they are – pretensions. He reminded me of his fellow mid-century science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein, in that his writing was littered with a weirdly comic sense of humour among ostensibly serious subjects, and that he occasionally got a little preachy. Much of the third act, for example, revolves around a battle of wills between the abbot and a government doctor tasked with euthanising people suffering from terminal radiation sickness. I don’t know if Miller was himself Catholic – not that it should matter, since the character is – but the section is told from the abbot’s point of view and, while certainly not verging on Heinlein levels of preachiness, doesn’t quite do a fair and balanced job of presenting the opposite opinion.

I actually enjoyed that segment nonetheless, though, because it was the first part of the book that seemed to touch on anything weighty. The novel is saturated in Catholicism, but it’s mostly skin-deep references. I was expecting such a well-regarded book to tackle big subjects like faith, nuclear war and the struggle between religion and science a little more skillfully. Instead, I was mostly left wondering what Miller was trying to accomplish.

Overall, though, the problem I mostly had with A Canticle for Leibowitz was that it was dull. Miller is a wordy writer and doesn’t create particularly memorable characters – not helped by the fact the novel is really just three novellas, introducing a new set of characters each time. Nor is his imagined world of the future very interesting, existing mostly to serve the morals and allegories of the plot, mirroring fairly obvious stages in real history – and it shouldn’t take 338 pages to spell out the tired old axiom that history repeats itself. A Canticle for Leibowitz may be considered a science fiction classic, but my advice is to skip it.

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May 2013