Claire G Coleman won a black&write! Fellowship in 2016 for her manuscript of Terra Nullius. The Fellowship was established to support unpublished Australian Indigenous writers to complete their works and find a publisher. Terra Nullius is based on the experience of Coleman’s people, the Noongar of South Western Australia. But this is not their story. Only the blurb on the back of the book stating that “This is not the Australia of our history” and some odd details in the early part of the text flag this is actually a work of speculative fiction.
When Terra Nullius opens, Native servant Jacky is on the run from his Settler masters, pursued by Troopers who see this as a potential call to rebellion. At the same time, Sister Brarga runs the local mission where Native children, taken from their families, are treated harshly and taught to be servants; Jonny Star, a Trooper gone rogue, has joined a gang of Native outlaws; and Esperance leads a group of free Natives deeper into the desert to escape Settler expansion.
About a third of the way through Coleman twists the narrative. And while hints abound in the text, she becomes very explicit, bringing in some very familiar speculative fiction tropes that are a long way from the book’s historical antecedents. This shift pulls the narrative out of the historical frame in which it can easily be read and makes the story more universal. And while the characters are archetypes and their arcs are in some ways preordained by circumstance, Coleman manages to infuse them and their stories with some depth. Coleman deepens this analogy with pre-chapter quotes, which feel a little heavy handed but are also critical to expanding her world and exploring the way the history of colonisation repeats itself when the right circumstances line up.
In Terra Nullius Coleman has created a speculative sandbox in which to explore and reveal human concerns and a sometimes contested historical context. Coleman encourages readers to experience and empathise with the Native characters and their situation, gently leading them to re-examine and rethink the very real history on which her story is based.
This review first appeared in Aurealis #105, Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, www.aurealis.com.au