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Coded Devices

Coded Devices

April 6, 2016

Maddee Clark

One of the central fantasies of colonisation in Australia has been that Aboriginal people have no future. Much of telling Indigenous history to non-Indigenous people is unseating the idea that we are dead or that we belong only to the past. It is always much more digestible to non-Indigenous minds that Aboriginal people are dead, tragically / no longer have culture / are dying out / don’t really live in the south eastern states; than it is to accept images of resistance, life, and adaptation. European invaders have taken the assumed inevitability of total Aboriginal extinction as a starting point for their writing about Indigenous cultures. Irish anthropologist Daisy Bates wrote in 1921 that despite having some limited capacity for improvement through training, the only good mixed-race Aboriginal child was “a dead one”Daisy Bates, “The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent Among the Natives of Australia” 1938; and made it her life’s mission to work to ease “the passing of the Aborigines”. H.G. Wells based The War of the Worlds (1897) on the assumed genocide of Aboriginal Tasmanians, who he described as “swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants… in spite of their human likeness”H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” Book 1 Chapter 1, 1897.

Contemporary science fiction and futurism about Australia has represented Aboriginality with absence, with the unreal and savage, and tied to an expectation of destruction. Most film and TV about the Australian future features no Indigenous people, except sometimes as visions, ghosts, and props in the character arc of white people (see, for example, David Gulpilil’s 0.5 second appearance in Mad Max: Fury Road where he appears in Max’s flashbacks framed in white light like ghost), but it feels risky to ask an audience to imagine a future with no white people or no white power. Indigenous contemporary art and media has begun to take this up, incorporating futurist and sci-fi elements into their practices to produce work which places Indigenous people in positions of power in the Australian future; like Hannah Brontë’s video work Still I Rise (2016), which features an Aboriginal woman as Prime Minister at the head of an all-women Parliament, Darren Siwes’ Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina (2008), or the Sovereign Apocalypse project.

Before first contact with the Australian continent, European writers obsessively fantasised about the potential treasures of Terra Australis Incognita. In Hollandia Nova-Terra Australis, a 1744 map drawn by Emanuel Bowen showing Australia as a supercontinent taking up most of the southern hemisphere, he notes in the empty spaces of the map;

“It is impossible to conceive a Country that promises fairer from it’s [sic] Scituation [sic], than this of Terra Australis; no longer incognita, as this Map demonstrates, but the Southern Continent Discovered. It lies Precisely in the richest Climates of the World. If the islands of Sumatra, Java, & Borneo, abound in Precious Stones and other Valuable Commodities; and the Moluccas in Spices; New Guinea and the Regions behind it must by a parity of Reason be as plentifully endowed by Nature. If the Island of Madagascar is so Noble and Plentiful a Country as all Authors speak of it; and Gold, Ivory, and other Commodities are common in the Southern part of Africa…if Peru overflows with Silver; if all the Mountains of Chili [sic] are filled with Gold…this Continent enjoys the same position and therefore whoever perfectly discovers and settles it will become infallibly possessed of Territories as Rich, as fruitful, & as capable of Improvement, as any that have been hitherto found out.”Emanuel Bowen, Hollandia Nova-Terra Australis, 1744

On fantasy, mapping and hyperreality, Baudrillard wrote that “when the map covers the whole territory, something like the principle of reality disappears”Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, 1983. Making resource-rich utopias and biblical new worlds out of Indigenous homelands, invaders mapped their presence onto country. Connecting this to my own relationship with place; the town I grew up in on Wadawurrung country was first founded as an attempt to replicate a successful sober Methodist town of the same name from New Jersey in the United States, and continued to operate as a sober religious community for decades. The Methodist church finally closed in the 1990s. A Reverend Osborne of New Jersey had set up a camp in Royal Park before moving to what’s now called the Bellarine Peninsula with the intention of establishing a permanent camp.

Every hopeful and visionary new world necessitates the end of another. Governments of invading settler nation-states have historically encouraged the proliferation of utopian movements and intentional communities as a means of encouraging the spread of settlement from urban areas outwards, as Australian state governments did in the 1890s leading up to federation, as the New Zealand government did in the 1970s, and as Israel has done for the last fifty years. Bill Metcalf, a historian on intentional communities, has written that utopian influences, including utopian texts, are a defining feature of intentional community building and non-Indigenous communal living. Intentional communities, both religious and secular, have a history in Australia dating back to the 1850s, idealising politicised forms of alternative communal living and interacting with dispossession, frontier violence, and mission and reserve-era colonisation. The anonymously written Oo-a-deen; or, Mysteries of the Interior Unveiled, published as a serial in 1847 in the Corio Chronicle and Western District Advertiser, based in Wadawurrung country (published in the area now called Geelong), is probably the first Australian science fiction text, and imagines that there is an oasis or interior lake in the centre of Australia populated by a thriving, pale-skinned civilisation.

One of the first intentional communities, Herrnhut, was also founded on Wadawurrung country in the 1850s, before being relocated to Western Australia, where it occupied Aboriginal country and took in Aboriginal survivors of frontier wars. The Victorian state government enacted legislation in the 1890s to facilitate so-called village settlements as a means of promoting the spread of unemployed urban settlers onto land in Victoria, encouraging the growth of more utopian land-based projects. The careful design of Canberra was intended to produce a “garden city”, a bush capital which would be used to model new social norms and generate a national community. While the city was being designed in 1912, King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs, was recorded as saying; “When I viewed the site … it seemed to me that Moses, thousands of years ago, as he gazed down on the promised land, saw no more panoramic view than I did”Ken Taylor “Picturesque Visions of a Nation: Capital City in the Garden’, The New Federalist: Journal of Australian Federation History, no 3 (June 1999): 74-80. The panoramic and aesthetic properties of the capital of the newly federated states was of utmost importance. Currently, Australia has more intentional communities per capita than Israel. When I mention this offhand to a non-Indigenous friend, she says; “I guess it makes sense, because the landscape is so beautiful.”

Noel Pearson writes in an essay on genocide that he was “first turned on”Noel Pearson, The War of the Worlds, 2015 by a musical production of Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a young boy, but became “disquieted” when he realised that the original novel had been written with the assumed genocide of Tasmanian Indigenous people in mind, and that this was not widely known. He repeats a stunned disbelief that his European literary heroes like Dickens and Wells would have wished him and his family out of existence; “I expected Charles Darwin. But I didn’t expect Charles Dickens”. Pearson’s writing moves back and forth between pleasure and betrayal. The European writers who “possessed [him] when [he] was a boy” believed that the deliberate killing of his family was a natural progression, necessary to make way for more advanced forms of civilisation. Sci-fi writer Nalo Hopkinson writes that “Arguably, one of the most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreign countries and colonizing the natives… that’s not a thrilling adventure story; it’s non-fiction, and we are on the wrong side of the strange-looking ship that appears out of nowhere.”Noel Pearson, The War of the Worlds, 2015 Science fiction, cyberpunk and speculative fiction are all genres that Indigenous artists are using to place Indigenous people back into representations of the Australian future. As someone who is always looking for recuperative representations of pre-colonial Indigenous sexualities (as well as being a fan of Indigenous sci-fi), my own imagination was captured when I first read that in 1676 a French writer, Gabriel de Foigny, had written a utopian fantasy (La Terre Australe Connue) about Australia, in which the original “Australians” were non-monogamous,  sex and gender fluid, with six fingers and toes. The image of Terra Australis Incognita in La Terre Australe Connue was, in part, de Foigny’s critique of European sexual and gender norms, much like Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, and the science fiction traditions which followed had been inspired by the invasion of Indigenous homelands and the attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples globally. The foreign, alien-like qualities of the “natives” common in early utopian fiction and sci-fi contributed to the dehumanisation of Indigenous people and continued to inspire colonial exploration.

Given how Australian colonisation is a process which relies just as heavily on image culture as it does on physical violences, there’s a precarity to taking pleasure in reading and creating utopian and apocalyptic fantasies that are inspired by the things invading European writers imagined about the destruction and replacement of Indigenous societies with European outposts. Hopkinson writes in So Long Been DreamingNalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, editors, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004 about her hesitation to accept European literary tropes and forms of producing text as a legitimate way to tell the stories of people of colour, naming her own writing as performed with the use of “the master’s tools”. This hesitation is shared by Noel Pearson, turned on by stories about alien invasion while struggling to comprehend the lived realities of European fantasies about Aboriginal death. This hesitation is shared by me, who at 11 listened to The War of the Worlds on Wadawurrung country on a cassette player, fearing invasion.

Indigenous narrative intervention into futurism makes what Afrofuturist writer Kodwo Eshun calls a war of countermemory and counterfuture. Indigenous writers create narratives which place themselves into the future, as well as interrupting colonial discourse about climate change, nature and culture. Siblings Paul and Nayuka Gorrie from Native Propagations wrote in Sovereign Apocalypse 2 that “Colonisation distanced us from nature… in the sovereign apocalypse native plants are a part of our lives. We’ve removed the colonial barriers to our relationship with nature and native plants. We relearnt native plant knowledge and shared it because we knew that culture shouldn’t be exclusive.” Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven’s 2014 speculative/fantasy short story WaterWater is published in Ellen van Neerven’s short story collection Heat and Light, UQP, 2014, writes queer Indigenous presence into the (near) Australian future. The story’s central features are the jangigir, creatures who appear to be machine, human and plant all at once. They are ‘discovered’ by Australian scientists, and studied, controlled, and fed poisoned water as an ‘experiment’ in behaviour control. They are also continually referred to as not quite human despite the fact that they might look like us. This makes them seem reminiscent of an alien/foreigner trope in science fiction and speculative fiction, but in doing so, also very intentionally reminiscent of the position of Indigenous people living under colonialism. Ellen van Neerven’s Aboriginal characters are all alienated, unsure of themselves, and unsure of their relationships with tradition and country. Her protagonist Kaden (a queer Yugambeh woman working on the jangigir as a scientist) does not immediately recognise the jangigir as Indigenous, and is made to question her own defamiliarised understandings of humanness through an inter-species affair;

To understand, I give myself the first question. What is a plant? A plant is a living organism. A plant has cell walls with cellulose and characteristically they obtain most of their energy through sunlight. Plants provide most of the world’s molecular energy and are the basis of most of the world’s ecologies, especially on land. Plants are one of the two main groups into which all living things have been traditionally divided; the other is animals. The division goes back at least as far as Aristotle…Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, UQP, 2014

Jangigir (almost) come close to de Foigny’s fictional Australians; but instead of being both “male” and “female” they are genderless, gender among them being “not predetermined and only communicated” (Queer is an “old-fashioned word” in van Neerven’s future Australia and remains an inadequate definition for desire). The jangigir in Water could just as easily be Donna Haraway’s cyborg feminist; dissolving the boundaries between plant, human and machine (they use e-readers and think “like a computer”), unsentimental, “wary of holism, but needy for connection”. In 1985, Haraway called the boundaries between human/animal, organism/machine, and political/fictional leaky. Kodwo Eshun, speaking in John Akomfrah’s 1996 film The Last Angel of History, said that Afrofuturist music producers “willingly take on the role of the cyborg, willingly take on that man-machine interface just to explore the mutation that’s already happened to them.” Haraway also called the distinction between science fiction and social reality an “optical illusion”Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto, 1983. The cybernetic lends itself easily to dislocated Aboriginal experience of colonialism, culture and modernity (and in this case, science and the European boundaries between modern/traditional, plant/human, nature/culture). What comes next are more questions, about the lines between fiction and non-fiction, past and future, dead and alive, broken and living, alien and very much at home.

Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh freelance writer living in the Kulin Nation. They are a Ph.D student researching Indigenous speculative fiction and futurism.