Monday, 2 October 2017

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman is a book I picked up because of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. A few people had reviewed it and, from how they were alluding to the spec fic element without giving it away made me intrigued. I downloaded the sample chapters off iBooks and, finding the writing to be very good ended up buying the whole book. Regular readers will know I don't like to give away spoilers willy-nilly but in this case, I find it necessary to properly be able to discuss the book (I was also frustrated by those allusive reviews). I will keep the actual spoilers under a spoiler shield, so if you don't want to read them, don't hover your mouse over them or highlight them.

Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running.

The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.

This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history.

The opening of this book was very well-written. There's a lot of set up of different characters and although the direction of the plot is not entirely clear from the beginning, I found it compelling reading. I also found myself spending the first 41% of the book trying to guess what the big reveal would be (the blurb ☝️ and other reviews I'd read made it clear there was one). This was also especially well done since Coleman does not so much drop hints as studiously avoids anything explicit. I did pick up on one thing, but even then I wasn't entirely sure if it was relevant until I hit the actual reveal.

My issues with Terra Nullius arose once I actually got to the reveal and the book became more distinctly science fiction. Now for a spoilery discussion. Skip the next paragraph (do not hover or highlight the grey/purple section) if you do not want to be spoiled.

My first issue, post-reveal, was the abrupt change in quality of the epigraphs. In this case, they were fictional quotes at the start of each chapter. Pre-reveal, they mostly just set the tone and highlighted the general horribleness of colonialism. After the reveal there were several which were more along the lines of "look at my clever comparison of the British with aliens, let me explain it in too much detail" which made me feel bashed over the head with obviousness. They were entirely unnecessary and would have been better replaced with something more subtle. Towards the end they settled down a bit, and there were some which explained the background of the aliens, which I found less blatantly obvious and more useful. I suspect that these are a product of insufficient science fictional research/reading (let's face it, this is not an original trope, only the intense Australian-ness of it brings something new to the table). Those quotes were definitely my biggest problem in terms of how the aliens were presented. Everything else more or less worked well, albeit there were a few (less annoying) infodumps in the main text as well.

If poorly written quotes were my only issue, I would have given this book an additional half-star rating. As it is, only the high quality of (most of) the prose pushes it up to four stars. The other issue I had was that I was expecting the plot to pick up after the reveal and gain a clearer direction. It did not. Individual characters had goals and/or motivations but these did not come together as one would expect from a genre book. My guess is that this was intentional, and I think I see what the author was trying to achieve, but I found it disappointing and insufficiently rewarding for pushing through to the end.

Ultimately, I don't think this book was aimed at science fiction readers. That said, other SF fans might be less annoyed than I was and enjoy it more. It certainly brings a lot of colonial context to the story, particularly from an indigenous perspective, and a strong Australian setting, which I enjoyed.

4 / 5 stars

First published: August 2017, Hachette
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: iBooks
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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