Having read Claire G. Coleman’s The Old Lie, I knew she was an Indigenous Australian who wrote science fiction that commented on historical and present day treatment of Indigenous Australians. So, when I started reading her earlier novel Terra Nullius, I was immediately looking for science fiction elements.
The novel starts as if set in the outback of 19th century Australia. It has a few main characters and constantly switches point of view between them. They include Jacky who is on the run from his "master". Then we have a heartless nun in charge of a mission. She thinks the “natives”, who have been stolen from their families and placed under her dubious care, are sub-human and not worthy of her time. Another character is Johnny, a trooper who has deserted after participating in a massacre of natives. There are a few other main characters, but describing them will spoil the plot of the novel.
The first half of the novel really reminded me of the horrors that have been inflicted on Indigenous Australians by their colonisers including: Indigenous Australians dying on mass from diseases the colonisers introduced, the stealing of their land, the use of natives as slave labour, the massacres of tribes, the stealing of children from their parents and attempts to re-educate them into the white man’s ways, the introduction of alcohol and its devastating effects on Indigenous Australians, etc.
It seemed like the perfect book to be reading on Australia Day, or Survival Day as many Indigenous Australians call it.
As a reader of science fiction I was wondering about the lack of descriptions of certain characters, and the lack of wildlife. The “mounts” the troopers rode as they chased Jacky were not described. So I began to wonder where and when the novel was set. About halfway through the reader finds out.
I found the narrative gripping and emotionally engaging as I hoped that the “natives”, as the colonisers call them, would survive. But I knew they were no match for the weapons and other technology of their colonisers.
When reading Australian science fiction my interest always picks up when indigenous characters appear as they are rare. When in the hands of white authors they tend to win in the end. This is probably a result of the guilt white Australians have about what has happened and is still happening to Indigenous Australians. Whereas, Indigenous Australian authors view their future, from my limited reading, as continuing the fight for survival.
The manuscript and novel deservedly won awards was short-listed for many others, like the Stella Prize.
Terra Nullius is one of the best novels I have read by an Australian science fiction author.