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The first Australian First Nations anthology of speculative fiction is playful, bitter, loud and proud

This is not “just” an anthology of Australian First Nations speculative fiction, but also the first Australian anthology of First Nations speculative fiction. And what an entry onto the scene it is!

Review: This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction edited by Mykaela Saunders (University of Queensland Press)

In my view, speculative fiction – the narrative exploration of “what-ifs”, the creative probing into latent possibilities, the imaginary voyaging into potential futures – is the genre of our times. We are on the brink of … something. Environmentally, for sure. But also socially, politically, economically.

What this something is, when it will happen, how it will shape the future: these are the questions at stake. This collection of Australian First Nation voices exploring these very questions – creatively, through storytelling – is a most welcome addition to the scene.

Read more: Friday essay: how speculative fiction gained literary respectability

Country with a capital ‘C’

What makes the contributions to This All Come Back Now distinct – and distinctly First Nations?

First, Country with a capital “C”, in that very First Nations sense of something utterly fundamental and intimately related to the self, is centrally present across these pages. Many of these stories are fully immersed in Country.

It’s often being restored after catastrophe, or is restorative. For example, in Larrakia, Kungarakan, Gurindji and French writer Laniyuk’s piece, “Nimeybirra”:

I want justice. I want retribution. I want vengeance. I want the ugly. I want the wrong. […] In the quiet calm, in conversation with Country, I hear the whispers of another way of being, and that is the call I must follow. That is the only reason and voice that makes sense in the world.

Laniyuk: Country is ever-present in her story, ‘Nimeybirra’.

Throughout, Country’s ever-presence is suggested in little phrases or metaphors (the moths in Martu author Karen Wyld’s “Clatter Tongue”, the mangroves in Bardi writer Kalem Murray’s “In His Father’s Footsteps”). And it’s there in myriad deeply meaningful references to smoke, birds, sand, water, wind, light, air and trees.

Sometimes, the contrast between a story’s setting and Country is incongruent – but at first glance only. A gripping example is Nyungar technologist and digital rights activist Kathryn Gledhill-Tucker’s startling piece “Protocols of Transference”.

It consists of shards of monologue directed towards an unspecified electronic technology, from when it “first spoke” to its final days.

The narrator observes that the collapse predicted by data that had “overwhelmed our scientists” was “avoidable, had they paid attention to our country and kin.”

By country and kin, we mean all of it. We encompass the ground and all its substrate, sand, rare earth minerals, craters left from old meteors that make their way into old stories, hidden river systems, animals fossilised in place, tracks tracing paths from trees to waterholes; trade routes and songlines that have made way for worn paths, widened by horses, then lanes of cars, paved with bitumen, that leave scars of old stories in the geometry of people and protocol.

Read more: Ancient stories and enduring spirit: Loving Country reminds us of the wonders right under our noses

Cheeky and ‘bitter-funny’

Another recurring element in this anthology is a particular kind of humour. It’s playful: Noongar writer Timmah Ball’s “An Invitation” is set in a time that references the “era before buildings disappeared”.

It’s cheeky and tongue-in-cheek, as shown in Gomeroi poet Alison Whittaker’s “The Centre”: “I remember my first time in the digital coolamon”. (A coolamon is an Australian Aboriginal carrying vessel.)

And it’s often bitter-funny.

Adam Thompson.

In pakana writer Adam Thompson’s “Your Own Aborigine”, a “Sponsorship Bill” requires Aboriginal people to be personally sponsored by an Australian taxpayer in order to receive welfare money.

In a story within a story in “Five Minutes”, Kalkadoon writer John Morrissey presents a mocking play on the the relative connection to Country for settlers (200 years) compared to Aboriginal Australians (50,000 years), as aliens invade.

They incinerate settlers in an instant – but apologetically grant Aboriginal people an extra five minutes to say goodbye to Country.

Or consider Wonnarua and Lebanese author Merryana Salem’s play on temporalities in “When From?”, a story about a clandestine time-travel mission, in a world where time travel is possible (but has been banned), to collect “reference footage” of frontier violence, for historical accuracy in filmmaking.

When traveller Ardelia Paves, instructed not to interact with “the population”, protests that “they’ll be massacred”, she’s told:

“Even if you were permitted to interact with the population, Miss Paves, how would you warn them? Last I checked, the dialect was lost […] I acknowledge your anger, I do, but we’re making a film that will tell their story, and we need you to do this so that we can.”

Read more: Supernovas, auroral sounds and hungry tides: unpacking First Nations knowledge of the skies

‘Loud and proud’ First Nations voice

Finally, what sets this anthology apart is its sense that though each “what-if?” story is wildly different from the next, they come together as a whole that is bigger than its parts.

Mykaela Saunders, editor of This All Come Back.

To some considerable extent, this is due to Koori writer and editor Mykaela Saunders’ exceptional editing. Each story stands alone as a unique exploration of its “what-if” premise – set in its own imaginative time and place, with its own original story arc, delivered in its own style. Yet these stories segue seamlessly from one to the next.

Each story is connected to its precedessor through one theme and to its successor through another: they come together like notes in a song. While there are many original voices in this anthology, it also speaks with one loud and proud overarching First Nations voice.

I recommend this anthology to readers interested in good fiction generally and speculative fiction in particular. But most emphatically, I recommend it to anyone who might wonder what a First Nations response to the question of our potential future might look like.

Correction: this article originally stated this anthology was the first First Nations anthology of speculative fiction. However, First Nations anthologies that come under the ‘speculative fiction’ umbrella have been found to exist in other countries, so we have amended the text to make clear it is the first in Australia.

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