In The Old Lie, Claire G. Coleman has given herself a right of reply to her award-winning début novel, Terra Nullius (2017). Here, she strips away some of the racial ambiguity of the human–alien invasion allegory of that novel and leaves in its place a meaty analysis of colonisation and imperialism.
The Old Lie is also a hoot, a rollick through both sci-fi and speculative fiction. While some early action sequences may leave the reader scurrying for purchase in a vacuum not unlike the great yawn of space, they reflect the confusion of war and displacement. Although it strands us, as bodies boil or suffocate and planets succumb, it has the merit of making her readers work hard – encoding revelation after revelation about contemporary realities into a knotted, visceral plot.
Coleman continues her practice of weaving seemingly disparate stories of survival closer and closer throughout the book. Because of this, The Old Lie starts slowly; we become oriented to many stories, which, in the fog of war between two forces with diverging visions for the fate of Earth, initially have vague and merely reactive narrative paths. The characters, too, avoid being too explicit or knowable. Despite being thrust into raw and vulnerable trajectories (refugees, commanders of a rapidly declining force, slack-jawed survivors), each one shares an unflinching voice that has a resolve and clarity of expression ultimately at odds with their circumstances. Perhaps a symptom of the unreasonable persistence and sure-headedness that appear to be prerequisites for surviving interplanetary conflict.
In subtle ways, the tendency to analogise race with species recurs – even when characters recall specific colonial events that bring us back to race. But how can it not in inter-species sci-fi? Human scholars in Coleman’s world lament the lack of inter-species harmony, comparing it with intra-human interpersonal racism. What is initially missing, in this analogy, is a more structural analysis of racism and colonisation. Coleman does take us there eventually: as relationships become complicated and desperation surges, she reveals how frontier wars don’t just take place via conquest and skirmishes, but how they remain in institutions and manifest in seemingly firm alliances. Taking the analogy, which she launched in The Old Lie, to a scale as vast as the universe allows Coleman to explore slippages between Indigenous peoples and refugees and their mutual maltreatment and abuse at the hands of institutions, politicians, and diplomats. Not just their explicit maltreatment by the enemy, but how malformed allegiances can more powerfully betray them, having first earned trust.
Even though race–species comparisons slip back in, they recede as if placed there only to be pulled away. Coleman is at her strongest when she gets specific about Country, about cultural location, and about the gravity of loss or the endurance of intergenerational dormancy. A powerful scene, when a character returns to a place on his grandfather’s Country, is the most moving in the whole book. It is also the briefest and simplest. We could attribute its impact on this reviewer to familiarity in an alien world, which is always the tension in speculative fiction. It represents a break for the reader in their capacity to imagine atrocity after atrocity of incomparable scale. Like Terra Nullius, however, Coleman’s specificity about character, place, and power is mostly reserved for humans, and in The Old Lie mostly for Indigenous peoples, and that might deny us useful detail on the dynamics of racial power at play. People are hurt – but who is doing the hurting and how?
If Coleman would allow me one indulgence in a diversity discourse we both consider insufficient to improve our stake as Indigenous peoples in literature – it is significant to see her queer and transgender Indigenous characters, living the most fulfilled, complex lives they can in the colony and the war. The downplayed narrative significance of their status as queered, gendered, and racialised bodies again plays with the trope that Coleman necessarily exploits to get the whole story off the ground – that all inter-human oppression ends when they unite to face a greater force – but it is still satisfying to witness.
Tiny glimpses of the undergirding hegemony remain in the characters. This is interesting to observe in Coleman’s complex web of relationships between equally sure-headed people. Those glimpses reveal the tension – again, even in war – between structural oppression and its more obvious interpersonal manifestations. Even careful readers might not catch them, especially in descriptors of transgender and intersex characters, which makes them difficult to evaluate as part of The Old Lie’s offering. Are they a character’s demonstrable failing or an inadvertent endorsement? Is The Old Lie too dependent on the good faith of a readership?
This is a difficult novel to review without adding spoilers – plotting and twisting have always been Coleman’s forte – but it is one that is worth pushing through to the end. Ultimately, she presents us with a dense and satisfying suite of stories to which the reader has to bring deeper reading and deliberation. Coleman is never straightforward, but if you do the work, you will get a story that is ecologically complex – both in terms of the worlds it has conceived, and how it sits with Indigenous peoples enduring reality in this colony.