meanwhile at the end of the world
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction in settler societies, especially Australia and New Zealand. There is a lot of it!
The most well-known Australian post-apocalyptic work is probably Nevil Shute’s notoriously bleak On The Beach (1957). It’s all about Australia slowly succumbing to the nuclear fallout that’s already destroyed the civilisations of the Northern Hemisphere after WWIII; it quickly becomes clear that there is no hope of survival. There’s a big Keep Calm And Carry On vibe as the government distributes suicide pills and people spend their last moments with their loved ones.
Nuclear fallout wouldn’t be the first thing to leave Australia til last, at least in the Australian popular imagination. My Anglo-Celtic (this is important in this context, and not just a way of not saying “white”) parents grew up in Australia in the 50s. They’ve always said that I can’t imagine the feeling of being in a total backwater, the end of the world (geographically speaking). My mum didn’t see exotic vegetables like broccoli or capsicum until she was well into adulthood. Her mother was always treated as a little different, a little on the outer, simply because her parents were European immigrants; mind you, this was in Tasmania, which is to say the sticks. My dad grew up in ~cosmopolitan~ Sydney, though, and he has often told me about his shocking realisation that there was more than one kind of rice. Australian expats from this time are usually scathing in their commentary on backwards Australia; just look at Barry McKenzie. That was never an affectionate self-satire like Kath and Kim, it was a brutal takedown of Australian boorishness for a UK audience.
This was all before the deconstruction of the White Australia policy was significantly underway, of course. In the 1950s we’d just reluctantly begun to allow Mediterranean migrants, in a “populate or perish” effort to keep up with the Asian powers. Incidentally, the White Australia policy is a great example of how “up until [date]” language is terrible history writing. To begin with, it erases the tens of thousands of years of continuous Indigenous cultures. But even in the context of post-invasion Australia, it’s untrue to say that the White Australia policy or something like it operated “up until” its progressive dismantling from the immediate post-war period to the 70s. Such a representation of Australian history allows us to maintain a fantasy of consistent progress towards a racially harmonious future. In fact, the White Australia policy was not a given of Australian politics from the year dot, but was actively pursued around the time of Federation (1901) as a nation-building and border-defining project. (The appalling racism of the Federation era is one reason why I’m leery of attempts to establish an Australian republic; I think such a project will inevitably be guided by a similar white nationalism.) Prior to 1901, the various states of Australia were self-governing, and above that governed by the UK, not centrally administered by any Australian government. In this period, there were large numbers of Asian and Pacific Islander residents in Australia. They were actively harassed and pushed out, not simply prevented from entering. But to this day there’s a distinct Euro-Chinese population dating from the nineteenth century in Bendigo and the goldfields region more broadly, a large and old Japanese diaspora in Broome, and quite a few other demographic pockets of non-Indigenous people of colour with deep roots in Australia. (Both Fiji and New Zealand were approached to be part of the new Federation, and I’d be keen to know if their considerably larger non-white populations played any role in their withdrawal from the process. I mean, they probably just didn’t want to be overpowered by mainland Australia. It’s interesting to think about how different Australia might have been, though.)
Paranoia about the Asian nations to the north still pops up all the time in Australian politics and culture. On the literary front, one of Australia’s most popular YA books is Tomorrow When The War Began, by John Marsden, the first in a series about a group of (mostly white) teens who become guerrilla warriors after Australia is invaded by an unnamed, populous nation to the north — by implication, Indonesia. The reason given for the invasion is that they want our space and our resources, which is treated as perfectly rational – who wouldn’t want what we’ve got, here in the lucky country? There are some interesting and complicated things going on with the Tomorrow series but it’s pretty hard to argue that it’s not part of a paranoid white supremacist tradition in Australian literature.
Anyway, there’s a lot of talk in Australia about how embarrassing and try-hard our desperation to be noticed by larger powers is, the so-called “cultural cringe”. I often think myself that it’s grounded in a colonial mentality, a desire to be relevant to Britain rather than in the Asia-Pacific region. But what happened was not that our rich culture was ignored by the UK, or whatever, but that Anglo Australians did everything in our power to make the country dull, stultifying, insular, and irrelevant to the rest of the world. And we did it because — well, mostly we did it because of racist economic protectionists, including most of the union movement, let’s not get caught up in thinking that everything is about abstract cultural yearnings rather than material self-interest. But White Australia was truly tied up in settler anxiety around maintaining the purity of the outpost, an anxiety that didn’t exist in the same way in England. We instituted it because we wanted to be more like the heart of the Empire, because we couldn’t take our position on the cultural periphery, and thereby ensured for ourselves peripheral status. (As the joke goes: What’s the difference between yoghurt and Australia? Yoghurt has a real live culture.) What goes around comes around, I guess.
Even now, Australia seems to be perceived in Europe and North America as a bizarre and desolate wasteland. My German expat housemates always used to get email from their friends in Berlin about lethal freak accidents featuring jellyfish, the sun, and crocodiles. (It seems like German tourists are, for some reason, the most likely to get eaten by crocodiles.) Australian deserts (red, like the surface of Mars) pop up in all kinds of genre fiction, they’re the Western science fiction imaginary given shape here on earth. There’s Mad Max, of course, and the mutant kangaroo creatures in Tank Girl, and an interlude in Y: The Last Man, that one Ursula Le Guin story about US tourists in Central Australia, and probably many more.
New Zealand tends to get a slightly different treatment. In (English) John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955), New Zealand makes an appearance as sanctuary. I guess New Zealand is even more remote than Australia in the non-Antipodean West’s cultural imaginary, and the wildlife is certainly less deadly, so it’s no surprise that it gets to be the new Eden. New Zealand is still a very popular destination for survivalist types looking for safety in the post-apocalypse.
The Chrysalids is about a bunch of kids living in a community in Labrador, in the remote North of Canada, one of the few places to be spared a catastrophic nuclear disaster some generations ago. The communities that remain are controlled by a rigid theocracy that kills or sterilises any human who shows signs of mutation. Unfortunately for our protagonist, his telepathic abilities are one such mutation. While his invisible mutation can be kept secret for a while, he and his friends with similar abilities are eventually forced to go on the run. The Chrysalids is a very good, very frightening book with an ending that seems happy at first and on a little thought is completely horrifying. It’s unclear whether Wyndham intended it to be so horrifying.
I mention Chrysalids not only for New Zealand’s cameo role, but because it’s such a clear influence on the genre of “books about teens with enhanced mental powers following a nuclear apocalypse“, and I feel like I’ve read, like, ten Australian YA novels with that exact plot. Notable examples: Taronga by Victor Kelleher and Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody. (Honourable mentions: ABC TV series, The Girl From Tomorrow; similar scenario without a nuclear war, Garth Nix novel Shade’s Children.) The far-future post-apocalyptic scenario of Obernewtyn is a post in itself, and I need to go to bed; I’ll get back to it.