‘What went wrong?’ he asked. ‘They said it wasn’t going to affect us. It was all up there, in the northern hemisphere. We were supposed to be the lucky ones, who’d escaped. That’s what they said on the radio and telly. I heard them.’
‘They made a mistake,’ she said.
– Victor Kelleher, Taronga, 1986
Australia is pretty unique compared to a lot of English-speaking countries in the world. Though we have uranium mines and all sorts of exports and research, we haven’t really got nuclear power. In our media the argument has become nuclear versus other green energies, and while Helen Caldicott faces off against arguments like “Well, Europe does it!”, Europe is eyeing their own nuclear reactors with dubious eyes and investing in solar and wind energy for a more sustainable future. While politicians argue with each other and consult APS reports instead of meeting with scientists or trying to understand the real long-term implications of nuclear power, the US and other countries still have controversies over a lack of waste disposal sites and the deliberate misclassification of some nuclear waste to circumvent rules about landfill.
Not that long ago there was a barely-there story on the ABC website that mentioned some mining waste that had been deposited at a local country town’s tip. It took me some time to draw a parallel between the location and the known nearby mines – but there was no doubt in my mind that in the end the mine’s employees had been sent to recover potentially radioactive waste from a local tip. They didn’t have much in the way of protective clothing. But the story here wasn’t in the nuclear waste, it was in the mining corporation.
It’s another thing entirely in Obernewtyn. A fantasy novel written by Isobelle Carmody in 1988 that is set in a regressed version of Australia. Still recognisable by the spelling, some phrases, and the mere descriptions of the environment, the land of Obernewtyn is a post-nuclear Australia. There is a taint that lingers, and a fear that the secrets of the “beforetimers” will return to be abused by others hungry for power. There are genetic mutations in fantastical ways that affect the main characters. There is hope in this novel; not all of the mutations are negative or detrimental to human health. There is tolerance and a community of slow-growing enlightenment and peace that is emerging out of the social and actual fallout of the “Great White”. But what is most striking to me about the world that Obernewtyn and its series is that it has taken a very long time for humanity to get to where they are.
It has been a very, very long time since whatever caused the nuclear explosion. Humans have lost technology and our current health-based fears of nuclear radiation in human tissue have been twisted into a religious and political fear of difference. When Carmody, a young university student in a non-nuclear country looked ahead to a potentially nuclear Australian, this is what she saw. A long and hopeless wound aching through the land, society, knowledge, and all of human existence that would take countless thousands of years to heal. Though the narrative is about Elspeth and the cloistered mountain community at Obernewtyn, the world-setting is far from fantasy.
Another Australian born writer, Patricia Bernard, doesn’t focus explicitly on nuclear science in her Outcast Trilogy, but we are still presented with a very Australian feeling environment. There are regressed humans, living as hunter-gatherers in some areas and in dystopically degraded predatory isolated areas elsewhere. Technology in general is this bittersweet drug that an elite few live with in a city surrounded by garbage and devastation. Humanity even in all its’ advanced splendour seems content only to predate on those less well off. Though Bernard’s book is less focused on nuclear energy in particular, that same culture of fear and loss and the misdirected potential of technology under the selfish short-sighted hands of humanity is quite resonant with Carmody’s Obernewtyn. Also is the final resolution achieved only at the end of the third book; leaving prejudice and ignorance and fear behind, the humans work towards enlightenment and seek to avoid the ways that their forefathers – that’s us here and now – threw away all of those opportunities for a safe and positive future.
In Taronga, Victor Kelleher shows a far less fantastical dystopic future. Since the world-setting is very bare bones and bleak, the only real hints we have at what has happened are Ben’s ability to Call animals with his mind, the taboo phrase Last Days, and the gutted deserted remains of Sydney. The quote cited at the top of this essay is one of the most revealing in the entire book. It was all up there, in the northern hemisphere. A reference is made a few chapters later to the Doomsday scenario, confirming without words in a way that was recognisable to me when I first read this book as a child that “northern hemispherical” powers – the US, EU, China and Russia most likely – had engaged in a war that had led to the very quick ruination of our civilisation. A nuclear war. The phrase Doomsday is reminiscent of the Doomsday Clock, counting down to a “midnight” nuclear war. Since its inception the clock has remained within minutes of midnight.
It is well past midnight when we meet Ben. He grows from a sense of personal shame from having used his strange ability to lead to the predation and death of animals towards his truly free self at the end of the novel. While the most obvious prisoner is Raja, the tiger at Taronga Zoo, the true prisoners are the humans. The reviled adults cling to their Doomsday scenarios and us-versus-them attitude to life, trying to protect their lifestyle and exploiting and killing to do so. Trapped in the mindsets of their generation, they are killed within the cages of their limited perspectives. Ben himself is trapped by them, but it is only when he sees a final solution that he is freed. Through the novel Ben learns to see the world not through the eyes of a human afraid of death, but through the eyes of a living being equal in life and death to all others. He learns to accept and see the cruelty and negativity in human past, because just as Ellie points out, wilful ignorance only leads to a perpetuation of ignorance. Self awareness, responsible decisions and the ability of a clear head to see beyond the pig-headedness of humanity are at the very core of Taronga.
Each of the main characters of these books is facing a very Australian seeming world in a post-apocalyptic environment. Abuse of technology – namely nuclear – and a stagnation of society and personal values has led to deplorable behaviour that most adults are blind to. Young Australian characters see past the smokescreens and through the justifications to the real heart of the matter. In Obernewtyn tolerance is a key concept, with the characters facing extreme prejudice and exploitation. In The Outcast Trilogy it is simply freely available resources and information, with Fish’s triumph over proprietary and costly forms of education. In Taronga, it comes to Ben with the realisation that Taronga does not simply mean a Zoo, or “Water Views”, but potentially all of Australia.
There is the crux of it all. With authors like Shaun Tan, D.M. Cornish and quite a lot of television shows and broader media generated by Australian authors for Australian children, we still see these themes and atmospheric settings echoed. All science fiction and fantasy is more analogous to our current cultural identity than to any imagined future or alternate fantasy reality, and Taronga means Australia. These authors are guessing and supposing about post-nuclear war futures because a post-nuclear war future is very much of a concern to our society. Unlike many countries in the world, we do not have widespread nuclear energy. But we do mine and supply uranium. In the end, the voice of the Australian public is shown best by Ben in Taronga.
‘They said it wasn’t going to affect us. It was all up there, in the northern hemisphere. We were supposed to be the lucky ones, who’d escaped.’
– – – –
What is more interesting even than all this, perhaps, is how easily so many Australians have moved from a childhood of awareness of these issues to an adulthood of wilful ignorance. I am going to try making a list of nuclear themed Australian fiction, and if you have any suggestions I would love to hear them.