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Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell (2020) 561 p.

There was a time when David Mitchell could write about paint drying and I would’ve bought the book. But I was disinterested to begin with in the premise of Utopia Avenue: the story of a fictional British band in the heady musical world of the 1960s. Clearly a passion project for Mitchell, who’s always weaved a thread of music through his writing, but not a topic I’m particularly interested in compared to, say, body-hopping immortals, 18th century trading outposts in a closed-off Japan, or even a year of childhood in provincial Britain.

Utopia Avenue won me over in the end, containing as it does enough other interesting stuff: deaths, romantic affairs, troubled familial relationships, a brief stretch in an Italian prison, and the obligatory cameos from the David Mitchell Extended Cinematic Universe. One of the band members is Jasper de Zoet, a descendant of the titular Dutch clerk in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and from the age of sixteen he finds himself troubled by auditory hallucinations which, as it turns out, are not hallucinations at all but rather a very real and very dangerous attempt by a spirit to take over his body. It’s rather telling that the most interesting part of this story thread comes in Jasper’s early troubles and attempts to figure out what’s going on, rather than the inevitable deus ex machina arrival of Dr Marinus. Mitchell has at this point made the interconnected nature of his novels a signature move, but I’m not the first of his loyal readers to express a wish that he would leave all this behind and write something as strikingly fresh again as Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas.

It’s possibly because Mitchell’s quirks have started to wear on my patience that I’m noticing his other flaws. Dialogue has never been his strong suit: every character speaks like David Mitchell writes, and I lost count of the number of times a character had a brief encounter with a stranger (usually a Spot The Famous Figure moment – Utopia Avenue is replete with obligatory but ultimately pointless 1960s celebrity Easter eggs) who would dispense some clever witticism about the nature of life. The other regular encounter is one of the main characters giving a cool retort to a Sorkinesque straw man. It’s frustrating to see an author who is otherwise capable of writing characters who display depth and growth continually whipping out these shallow caricatures.

Still, despite all its flaws, I enjoyed Utopia Avenue – slow to start, but it picks up more steam by the second half. A weak novel by a great novelist is still a good book.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (2014) 181 p.

One of the most popular non-fiction hits of recent years in Australia, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu re-examines 19th century explorers’ journals and other sources to argue that pre-contact Aboriginal Australians were more technologically advanced than the primitive hunter-gatherer society assumed by most modern-day Australians. The most publicised aspect of this argument is that Aboriginals harvested grains, but Pascoe touches on many other areas, some more contentious than others – fisheries, aquaculture, towns, animal husbandry – across the course of this relatively slim book.

As a pop science book rather than an academic text, Dark Emu wears its heart on its sleeve, and I have neither the ability nor the inclination to do further research to confirm or reject Pascoe’s claims. I do have the ability, as with any other complex subject like climate change, to weigh up the respectability and the motives of the people who have done the fact checking – or who claim they have. Dark Emu is no more or less inherently political than any other historiography, but it’s certainly become a political touchstone in Australia in the last few years. If you want to dramatically oversimplify the two sides, imagine an inner-city Greens-voting twenty-something on one side (disclaimer: I am two of those things, but sadly no longer the third), accepting every claim in Dark Emu as gospel and buying a copy for every member of their family; on the other, imagine a red-faced, balding, baby boomer subscriber to The Australian boiling over with rage about a book he hasn’t read.

I think it’s reasonable to say that white settlers conducted a genocide on this continent. I think it’s reasonable to believe that a wealth of knowledge and history was lost when a society with no written language had their oral records wiped out by invaders who decimated, dispossessed and scattered their people. I think it’s reasonable to argue pre-contact Aboriginal society would have been complex and diverse, that rather than a continent of identical hunter-gatherers there were certainly fishers and whalers and farmers; I also think it’s fair to note, as Russell Marks does, that Pascoe often implies that the exception was the rule. I think that Pascoe, who is not a professional historian, makes some odd choices which cast some of his more seemingly reasonable claims into doubt, such as his citation of the thoroughly discredited pseudo-historian Gavin Menzies to suggest that Aboriginals might have visited Beijing in the 1400s. I think Pascoe is a decent and well-meaning man whose core thesis is broadly plausible, particularly his assertion that white Australia deliberately ignored or minimised evidence of more complex Aboriginal civilisation, even as his enthusiasm for his subject sometimes leads him down the garden path of outright speculation.

But I think, most of all, that Dark Emu’s most compelling evidence in favour of its central argument is found not within the pages of the book itself, but rather in the thousands of column inches dedicated to Having A Normal One about it in Australia’s conservative press. In the past few years Dark Emu has become the latest battleground in this country’s long-running history wars (themselves just a theatre of our broader culture wars), with apoplectic responses from the usual quarters: people like columnist Andrew Bolt, who decided to muck-rake Pascoe’s Indigenous ancestry despite having been convicted of racial discrimination for doing the same thing to others in the past; or Quadrant contributor Peter O’Brien, who was so incensed by Dark Emu he published a rebuttal book, and, hilariously, currently has for a top Google hit a Quadrant piece in which he whinges at length about getting into an edit war on Dark Emu‘s Wikipedia article. Beyond these illustrious contributors to Australia’s public discourse you can see the layperson’s response on Goodreads: a whole raft of one-star reviews, “questions” and comments by users who, with a glance at their avatar-less profiles, were apparently so triggered by Dark Emu they felt compelled to go to the bother of registering to the site solely to attack it.

All of this simply underscores Pascoe’s central point: the legitimacy of contemporary white Australia was built on a dark legacy, and many white Australians feel instinctively in their bones that any threat to the doctrine of terra nullius (struck down in law but not in spirit) must be aggressively challenged. “Any suggestion that Aborigines are anything other than furtive rock apes has to be destroyed by these people,” an Indigenous leader told a journalist for The Saturday Paper, who cross-checked many of Pascoe’s claims against the original sources at the National Library and found them to be accurate.

I find the likes of Bolt and O’Brien very sad. I feel sorry for them. This is not because, as they would no doubt retort, that I’m some kind of self-hating, latte-sipping, inner-city white Australian. I love my country a great deal – all things considered, looking at the broad sweep of human history and the world today, Australia is one of the freest, fairest, safest and most prosperous places a person could hope to be born. But I can believe those things and love my country while still acknowledging that it was built on dispossession and has a long and enduring history of racism; that the freedom, safety and prosperity I enjoy is not extended at remotely the same length to Indigenous Australians. Knowing those things makes me want to change Australia’s future, not deny its history. Some of Pascoe’s assertions may be sketchy or exaggerated, but the over-reaction to a fairly innocuous pop science book from some demographics in Australia tells you everything you need to know about Dark Emu’s broader truth.

A Science Fiction Omnibus edited by Brian Aldiss (1973/2007) 590 p.

As near as I can tell Brian Aldiss published and revised a number of these collections, this being the most recent edition, put out in 2007. Apart from half a dozen more contemporary pieces injected into the mix, it’s mostly the same collection of early sci-fi stories from the 1950s and ‘60s that I remember reading as a battered old paperback when I was a young teenager – possibly, I think, the first short stories I’d ever read.

Many of these don’t hold up, coming as they do from the golly-gee-whiz era of science fiction. (And some of the modern insertions, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s thoughtful Notes on Sexual Dimorphism, stand out against them like a sore thumb.) But highlights include:

Lot by Ward Moore, about a father packing his family into the car and onto a jam-packed highway to try to escape what’s implied to be a nuclear attack on Los Angeles; I must have remembered the tone and urgency of this story, since it’s subconsciously reflected in my own short story West Gate, but as a teenager I missed Moore’s subtle use of the father as an unreliable narrator, a bitter and hen-pecked man who secretly resents his family and fantasises that the collapse of society is going to finally usher in his time to shine;

The Liberation of Earth by William Tenn, a satirical story about Earth finding itself a battlefield between two opposing alien militaries, constantly taken and retaken and declared “liberated” each time while billions die and entire continents are vapourised;

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison, about a human missionary arriving on a planet populated by peaceful and very literal-minded aliens;

The Store of the Worlds by Robert Sheckley, in which a man approaches a trader who has developed a drug that allows one to see their heart’s truest desire;

Night Watch by James Inglis, following the journey of a space probe launched off into the galaxy;

Great Work of Time by John Crowley, an 80-page novella capping off the anthology, which is one of the most thoughtful and literary time travel stories I’ve ever read, about a secret society which attempts to alter history to preserve the British Empire and the complications which arise from that. Crowley’s fantasy novel Little, Big is one of the few books I’ve ever given up on shortly after starting it, finding it not to be to my taste, but on the strength of this novella alone I’ll definitely be taking another look at Crowley’s work.

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October 2020