The Old Lie, by Claire G. Coleman is one of those brilliant but infuriating novels that you really want to tell other people to read, but is really hard to describe properly without including at least a couple of almost-spoilers.
I can tell you that it’s a wonderfully imaginative, dark novel set in the future (mostly in outer space, but also on Earth in Australia), told from multiple points of view about humans trying to find their way back to Earth and make sense of what’s happened to their home planet.
Romany “Romeo” Zetz is one of the best fighter pilots the Federation has. Along with her best friend, infantry-woman Shane Daniels, she has been drawn into a war that is not their own but which they must fight to support the intergalactic Federation and keep their families safe back on Earth safe from the enemy forces of the Conglomeration.
You’ll probably spend the first half of the novel fairly confused about how the various points of view can possibly be related and wonder where this whole story is going. But you won’t care because you’ll be wholly immersed in the characters’ vivid, painful and violent journeys through intergalactic war and captivity.
It’s often been said that reading fiction is an excellent way to develop empathy. In her award-winning first novel, Terra Nullius, Coleman proved herself a master at putting colonisers in the shoes of the colonised and giving them a taste of what it’s like to be invaded by a race who believe the existing inhabitants are inferior and expendable.
She has managed to do it again in The Old Lie, this time on an intergalactic scale.
The narrative is at once alien and all-too-familiar. The horrific trench warfare of World War I is echoed in Shane Daniel’s first scenes. The desperate modern plight of refugees rejected by country after country is brought to the fore with Jimmy, Itta and Speech’s dangerous journey from one space station to another. The racism (and speciesism) suffered by supposedly allied members of the Federation is a daily reality for too many people in 2020. The dangers of scientific research without the restraint of basic ethics is… actually, I won’t go there. That would be one spoiler too many.
You’ll just need to go and read it yourself to find out.
There is, however, one particularly disturbing event I learned about from The Old Lie which I’ll share with you, even if you don’t read the book.
Australia’s Maralinga nuclear bombing: Where reality and fiction meet
I read a lot of speculative fiction. Mostly the stories are compiled from pure figments of the author’s imagination, but every now and then a character will refer to an event which sounds like it might actually have happened.
References to the 1956 Maralinga bombing in The Old Lie stopped me in my tracks.
I had a vague notion that nuclear testing had occurred at some point in Australia’s history, somewhere in the outback where nobody lived. Or at least, that was what I remembered from when I had learned that particular history lesson.
Between 1956 and 1963 the British government exploded 7 nuclear bombs in outback South Australia. To say ‘nobody lived’ in Maralinga is about as accurate as saying ‘nobody lived’ in Australia before the British arrived back in 1788. As the ABC news article explains:
Aboriginal people who were not adequately warned about the test’s dangers were blinded, affected by radiation poisoning and left with an ongoing legacy of radiation-related health problems.
The human toll is not even the full story. Much of the pull to home for characters in The Old Lie is a pull to Country, a desire to return to the land that their ancestors have been spiritually connected to for tens of thousands of years. As Coleman’s character, Kelly, explains:
‘My Mum told me… that when the old people were dying after the Maralinga bomb they did not fear for themselves, they feared for their Country, that the Country would die, that the weapon they had tested there would never let the land recover. I wondered what it must have felt like, knowing they were returning to Country when they died but the Country was dying too, knowing they could never return to the Country alive…
‘I have never been to Country,’ she continued, ‘it’s been hot since they nuked it and will be forever.’ She felt hot tears on her cheeks.
As a white woman I’ll never truly understand the connection to Country. I do feel, however, that I have a better appreciation of that connection after reading The Old Lie. I appreciate enough to understand that reparation is not as simple as apologising and relocating people to another – non-irradiated – parcel of land.
I appreciate enough to be utterly horrified. And there, right there, lies the power of fiction.