The Old Lie by Claire G. Coleman
Claire G. Coleman’s debut novel, Terra Nullius, made waves as it was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize, along with many other awards. This year she’s back with a new science-fiction novel, exploring belief in one’s country, war, and Indigenous history.
The title comes from a poem by Wilfred Owen, a poet who fought in World War I and died a week before Armistice. He was a pacifist and wrote his poetry in part as protest and also as a record of what happened. The ‘old lie’ is that it is honourable to die for one’s country, that war is a part of nationalism. Coleman uses this poem, and others of Owen’s, as inspiration for the war in her latest book.
This war is fought largely in space, between the Federation (Earth) and the Conglomeration (other planets). Everything is almost like life as we know it – but not quite. Human characters interact with other species during the war. The story begins with several different characters in different places, and it takes the narrator a while to weave a sense of how everyone fits together. Shane Daniels and Romany Zetz are two strong women thrown together in the unfortunate war, and these characters are the highlights of the book.
Ultimately, this is a novel about connection to family, Country and culture, and how these connections cannot be forgotten. It is a novel that questions the lengths to which people will go to protect their country – and Country. It forces us to bear witness to the truth of how Indigenous peoples in Australia have been treated across the Stolen Generations, how Indigenous Australians have been erased from Australian war history and mythology, and to the little-known histories of nuclear testing sites on this continent. It is a book without many surprises, but it uses the form of science fiction to masterfully explore its themes.