Here’s another old piece of science fiction criticism, one with a particularly Australian focus. Originally published in Aurealis #89, it should prove rewarding for those who like their science fiction to be more than just action and adventure.

Postcolonial Science Fiction and Peter Docker’s The Waterboys


Equality in science fiction is red hot right now. We can see it all around us: in the failed attempts by the Sad Puppy movement to hijack the Hugo Awards; in the backlash against the numerous decisions by toy companies to only release figurines of male characters from the various science fiction franchises that fill cinema screens; in the fact that The Force Awakens’ two leads are a woman and a black man; in the increasing popularity and reach of science fiction from non-Western countries. However, while there is a substantial body of critical work arguing that science fiction has always been weighted in favour of the Western norm while simultaneously professing to be a “colour-blind” genre, many people believe that science fiction has always had an undercurrent of equality, an affinity for the marginalised, and sympathy for those who exist outside of this norm. While this second school of thought is becoming more pervasive in contemporary science fiction, the genre’s early period was often dominated by works that embraced the notion of Western imperialism. It is worth briefly noting that it is predominantly writers of the second school – such as HG Wells and Ray Bradbury – who are revered as giants of the field: They knew the cultural impact that Western colonisation had had upon the rest of the world, and they used this knowledge to craft different versions of their societies, featuring the same (or similar) cultural anxieties and problems as those experienced by their own. In other words, they blazed a trail for postcolonial science fiction.

First, a brief primer: postcolonialism is a method of intellectual thought that analyses, explains and responds to the cultural legacies of colonialism and imperialism, specifically in relation to the consequences of nations colonising foreign countries and exploiting their native people and land; while postcolonial science fiction uses the trappings and tropes of the genre as a framework for this analysis, explanation and response, albeit in a fictionalised setting. In many ways, science fiction and postcolonial thought are quite a fitting match – science fiction is a genre that is often concerned with ideas of expansion and colonisation and with the idea of “otherness” and different ways of being.

However, it isn’t only in tales of interplanetary colonisation and the clash between us (humans) and them (aliens) that this kind of postcolonial exploration can be found, as Peter Docker’s remarkable The Waterboys shows – its themes and concerns, its shuffling of chronological and linear time, its examination of the gulf between traditional Indigenous Australian and Western conceptualisations of reality, and its incorporation of the former’s particular conceptualisation of reality into both its structure and the “operating logic” of its narrative (the natural laws which underpin the world its characters inhabit), all mark it as an explicit work of postcolonial science fiction. It does what writer and academic Nalo Hopkinson claims all postcolonial science-fiction should, which is to “take the meme of colonising the natives and, from the experience of the colonizee, critique it, pervert it, fuck with it, with irony, with anger, with humour, and also, with love and respect for the genre of science-fiction that makes it possible to think about new ways of doing things.”

The Waterboys is set in an apocalyptic drought-stricken future Australia in which a paramilitary corporation controls the dwindling water supply. Conway, our narrator, is a “whitefulla” who lives a nomadic existence with his Indigenous Australian mate Mularabone; they carry out a guerrilla campaign against said corporation in the hope of restoring the guarded and dammed water to the country, working hand-in-hand with Mularabone’s tribe. This forms what I term story A; it occurs in both present time and in flashback. Story B centres on Conway’s role as a “dreamer and water diviner.” Embraced by Mularabone’s tribe for his spiritual connections to the land, Conway uses his dreams to help guide them to water. But his dreams also throw him backwards in time, forcing him to inhabit the bodies of a number of different “whitefullas” at the exact moments that they are committing various historical atrocities inflicted upon Indigenous Australians. These dreams eventually settle into a linear narrative, as Conway repeatedly inhabits the body of Mister Conway, an aide to Captain Charles Fremantle (a historical figure who led the first British settlement of Western Australia). As he “inhabits” Mister Conway, he carries both his own memories and those of the real Mister Conway, whose “spirit” was presumably displaced by his dream-travels. Taking advantage of this situation, Conway tries to persuade Fremantle to rebel against the British Empire and embrace traditional Indigenous Australian ways of being in the world, and hence potentially change the tragic outcome of first contact and settlement. Stories A and B are told in alternating chapters, with Conway’s manipulation of the past in Story B having an ever-increasing effect upon the events of Story A. Eventually, both stories A and B end up commentating on each other, and in many ways the interplay between them allegorises a psychic collision in Conway, who is both a representative of the violent settlers and an honorary “countryman.”

The Waterboys’ structure is itself an attempt to address an underlying conflict between Western and indigenous representations of the past: Aspects of The Dreaming that are within the grasp of non-Indigenous Australians can help to illuminate this aspect. From my limited understanding, The Dreaming is both the spiritual belief system underpinning traditional Indigenous Australian culture and “a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man,” according to the Australian anthropologist William Stanner. In essence, The Dreaming structured traditional Indigenous Australian culture, laid down its laws and customs and traditions, and shaped its people’s conceptualisation of the world and time/history. This occurred because of the creation story at the heart of The Dreaming: There was nothing, and then the world suddenly came into being, populated with all manner of creator ancestors. They shaped the world before coming to rest as features of the natural environment, at which point all of creation now existed. The word “all” is significant: When looked at from a Western perspective of time/history, the creator ancestors of The Dreaming shaped the world as it was, is, and will be. This suggests a concept of time that is cyclical rather than linear: The “spirits” that inhabit all people and every aspect of the natural world travel along great cycles that encompass eternity; individual people, flora and fauna are merely “chariots” for these spirits, chariots which live out their lives as smaller cycles within larger ones.

Here, we can see that by having stories A and B unfold in alternating chapters that are nonetheless linked and influential upon each other, and in which equal importance and weight is given to both the “real” and the “dream,” Docker is embracing the traditional Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of the world and time/history that underpins The Dreaming. However, by emphasising that this conflation of past, present and future is not a perceptual act but a literal fact (within the bounds of both the narrative’s reality and that of traditional Indigenous Australians), Docker is also allowing an alternative to the Western conceptualisation of the world and time/history to play out on a narrative level as well as a structural. The characters in The Waterboys are divided between those that understand this alternative conceptualisation and/or simply choose to accept it, and those that either don’t see it or choose not to. This divide roughly falls along racial lines, with the “countrymen” (Indigenous Australians) belonging to the former category and most of the “whitefullas” (self-explanatory) to the latter. By the end of the text, those characters who see the world and time/history as being different from that of the West have had their views vindicated: Conway exists as both Mister Conway and as Conway; his actions in one time and/or plane of being are as significant and as influential as any other, and all are equally real, exactly in accordance with The Dreaming. Mularabone and the members of his tribe and the few other “whitefullas” they have embraced all accept and understand this as well, and through their acceptance and understanding are rewarded by the temporary peace of mind – necessarily temporary within the narrative’s overall setting, as is the case in much science-fiction that focuses on a small part of a large whole – that comes with having vanquished foes, overcome obstacles, and achieved resolution.

Docker’s use of the “operating logic” of the Dreaming (the conceptualisation of the world and time/history it laid down) as the structural framework for The Waterboys also allows him to offer up a genre-blending text with an important message that is ultimately uplifting. Firstly, by blending genres and structuring the result around a traditional Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of the world and time/history, Docker is emphasising a theme central to The Waterboys’ narrative and integral to its message: co-operation and an acceptance of difference. Here, we must acknowledge that the world of The Waterboys cannot exist without reference to our (presumably Western, 21st-century Australian) world and its attendant problems and anxieties. This is where the function of Docker’s blending of genres comes into play; the successful blending of such disparate genres is a reflection of our modern world, a world in which multiculturalism, mass media, globalisation, the internet and social media are a part of everyday life, as are the psychic and cultural after-effects of our society’s path to this point. This point is crucial, because while The Waterboys is alternately set in a version of the real past and a (necessarily) fictional post-apocalyptic future, its themes and its message are intended to apply to our contemporary (present-day) world.

This happens because of our (assumed) status as citizens of a country shaped by the Imperial West, with all the attendant Western ways of perceiving the passage of time, our connection to the environment, and the structure of reality itself. Having these fundamental aspects of Western society challenged is but one step; when the narrative voice is focussed through Conway, our initial assumptions on how to read the book are also challenged. Because Conway is a white Australian who has nonetheless melded his conceptualisation of the world and time/history with that of traditional Indigenous Australian culture, we are unable to distance ourselves from the text by noting any differences (racial, social and/or cultural) between our position and his. Instead, because the integration of a traditional Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of the world and time/history with that of the Imperial West happens gradually at first, our ability to identify with Conway is made easier. The result is that, at the point in the text when the integration of conceptualisations is complete, we have had enough time to play a metaphorical game of “catch up” and hence have started to see the world of The Waterboys as Conway sees it. As he simply accepts the (Western-lensed) strangeness of his world, so we do too. And while the further through The Waterboys we read the more different its world becomes, our initial adoption of the traditional Indigenous Australian “live and let live” attitude towards these differences only gets stronger. We can see here how echoes of the meeting and clashing of cultures contained in The Waterboys’ narrative are starting to emerge between the (presumably non-Indigenous Australian) reader and the text itself. But this clash is productive: The differences between a traditional Indigenous Australian and a Western conceptualisation of the world and time/history are accepted and embraced by the narrative’s protagonist(s), rather than used as a source of conflict or a justification for exploitation. This then allows us to make room alongside our conceptualisation of the world and time/history for a conceptualisation more in line with that of traditional Indigenous Australians, in the hope that by existing together new ways to overcome the societal problems and cultural anxieties of our world can more easily be imagined. This is co-operation, in essence; and this is the The Waterboys’ ultimate message.