They [Do Not] Come in Peace: On Claire G. Coleman’s “Terra Nullius”

By Billy J. StrattonNovember 12, 2022

They [Do Not] Come in Peace: On Claire G. Coleman’s “Terra Nullius”

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

CLAIRE G. COLEMAN’S 2017 novel Terra Nullius joins a body of texts expanding on Gerald Vizenor’s groundbreaking 1978 apocalypse novel, Darkness in Saint Louis: Bearheart. Responding to the economic chaos, geopolitical instability, and warfare resulting from conflicts over oil and other nonrenewable resources in the 1970s, Vizenor’s story offered a glimpse into the future of Native writing, on the “slipstream” of history, as he called it. Vizenor’s story also serves as a reminder that colonialism is not a destination but an ongoing process, a point Coleman reiterates in Terra Nullius. In much the same way that Vizenor infused Anishinaabe epistemology and other forms of Indigenous knowledge in his writing, featuring “trickster hermeneutics” that overturn the “terminal creeds” of American and European imperialism in the Americas, Coleman offers readers a Noongar Aboriginal perspective on Australian history that challenges colonial conceptions of history.

The interventions Vizenor initiated in Bearheart, and that Coleman develops in Terra Nullius, expand the horizons of speculative fiction and SF to include Indigenous ontological frameworks predicated on radically different conceptions of the world and reality. They and other Native and Indigenous writers of SF challenge Western conceptions of historical reality, time and space, and the very universe itself, intending to liberate the past, present, and future from the tyranny of linearity, false history, and binary logic. This reconception of the nature of existence and relationships within spirals of time and space reflects the reimagining of the possibilities of SF and is part of the broader movement Anishinaabe writer and scholar Grace Dillon has termed “Indigenous Futurisms.”

The representation of Native and Indigenous writers in SF is a relatively recent development, due not only to the expectations of the dominant culture that forms SF’s primary readership but also, as Dillon notes, expectations from within Native and Indigenous societies. Although publishers have always placed emphasis on marketability and audience appeal within the context of sales and profitability, Native and Indigenous writers, as well as those from other marginalized groups, can also experience a range of more diffuse and subtle pressures. Prominent among these are the demands to produce works that offer authoritative portals into their respective cultures — typically for the edification of members of the dominant society and as a function of what Renato Rosaldo has termed “imperial nostalgia.”

Dillon challenges the imposition of such restrictive parameters by positing Indigenous Futurisms as “an equally valid way to renew, recover, and extend” the diverse voices and perspectives of Native and Indigenous peoples. Writers from these communities, freed from the burdens of constricting expectations,

have room to play with setting, character, and dialogue; to stretch boundaries; and, perhaps most significantly, to reenlist the science of indigeneity in a discourse that invites discerning readers to realize that Indigenous science is not just complementary to a perceived western enlightenment but is indeed integral to a refined twenty-first-century sensibility.

Coleman’s Terra Nullius is one of the most exciting works to emerge from the global movement of Indigenous Futurisms in recent years, and it contributes an Indigenous Australian perspective to the discourse of SF. Notably in Terra Nullius, the framing of the story as predicated upon an alien invasion remains cleverly concealed throughout the novel’s first half. This unique narrative device sets Coleman’s work apart, even from the speculative works of Native and Indigenous writers such as Cherie Dimaline, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rebecca Roanhorse.

Coleman’s strategy builds suspense while recalling the resonances of works such as H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers in the context of empire and colonialism. That the colonial concept of terra nullius — a phrase meaning “nobody’s land,” invoked in the real-world context of British imperialism in Australia — is itself a fiction deployed to conceal the brutal and unjust nature of colonial aggression emphasizes the connection. Additionally, the religio-legal concept of terra nullius also reduces the land itself — the holistic living earth — to an inert, lifeless thing to be conquered, owned, and exploited for whatever benefits and profits can be derived from it. These effects don’t just apply to Australia, either; they have manifested in practically all places cursed by the violence, avarice, and inhumanity of European colonialism.

This term reflects an antagonistic relationship to the land, one that is repeatedly expressed by alien colonizers throughout Terra Nullius. One named Devil, based on the infamous historical figure of A. O. Neville, the chief protector of the Aborigines, curses the Australian landscape as an “oven-hot, foul-smelling, fauna-infested dump.” Descriptions such as these bring urgency to the profound insights Coleman offers in Terra Nullius on the best and worst of human nature and particularly the machinations of colonial oppression. As with other literary texts addressing the complex and traumatic impacts of colonization, oppression, violence, and genocide from the perspectives of Native and Indigenous people, Coleman’s story can certainly be difficult to confront and process. This is not only because Coleman depicts violent and traumatic themes in her story of “alien” invasion, but also because she exposes facts and events that have been systematically excluded from Australian history. The challenge Coleman’s story presents readers with is that the most basic details and events addressed in Terra Nullius remain largely unknown, or, worse yet, informed from extremely biased and historically dubious perspectives due to the pervasive influence of Eurocolonial epistemologies.

This is a dilemma Coleman seeks to address directly in her 2021 work of Aboriginal anticolonial history, Lies, Damned Lies: A Personal Exploration of the Impact of Colonisation. In this text, which was recently chosen for the University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award, she draws attention to the landmark repudiation of terra nullius in Australian law, known as the Mabo decision. With the land rights of Australian Indigenous people finally validated by the Australian High Court, Coleman emphasizes Mabo’s broader significance in dismantling the ideological basis of settler colonialism itself. The court, as Coleman reminds us, simply acknowledged the reality Indigenous people always knew: “terra nullius was never true in Australia; it was in fact a lie. The courts did not render it untrue by their decision. Rather they declared it to have always been false; we were not suddenly here, we always have been.”

Through Coleman’s literary treatment of this historical context via SF in Terra Nullius, she creates a sense of storied understanding surrounding the events stemming from British imperialism and the gross injustices visited upon Indigenous peoples. Like the horrors unleashed on the inhabitants of earth in texts such as War of the Worlds or The Body Snatchers, Indigenous people of Australia have similarly endured what is now a nearly 250-year campaign of terror following the arrival of James Cook. That history includes violence, land theft, and cultural oppression perpetrated not only with swords, guns, and bombs but also through the weaponization of words and knowledge in the guises of history and law.

While Lies, Damned Lies details Coleman’s experiences with the legacy of Australian colonial history, Terra Nullius introduces readers to this same history through a new cast of Indigenous characters. The novel centers on an Indigenous youth named Jacky who has just escaped confinement in a mission settlement like those that Neville oversaw, intended to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into the dominant settler-colonial culture. Many Australians were made aware of the inhumanity of the policies of assimilation and its basis in eugenicist ideology through Nugi Garimara’s (Doris Pilkington is her English name) Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence and its film adaptation, based on her mother’s escape as a child from the Moore River Native Settlement and her 1,000-mile journey home. Dramatic portrayals of family stories such as this brought increased public attention to the children imprisoned in such settlements, known collectively as the Stolen Generation.

Coleman’s invocation of these themes in Terra Nullius provides an especially compelling frame and serves as an effective cover for the story of alien invasion that she tells. Through defamiliarization, Coleman is able to engage with the attendant violence that paved the way for the colonial assimilation projects of mission settlements in Australia, which, by the way, also parallel the assimilationist policies perpetuated in the residential schools of Canada and the Indian boarding schools developed in the United States. These institutions have recently received widespread attention since the discovery of unmarked mass graves adjacent to former residential schools in Canada, containing untold victims of the genocidal policy.

Freed from the tragic narrative and imposed victimry thrust upon Indigenous people within dominant Australian historical and literary narratives, Coleman utilizes Terra Nullius and Lies, Damned Lies to assert Indigenous historical agency and presence — survivance — while deconstructing the terminal creeds of disappearance and absence that have defined Australia and its original people. This approach contrasts with the monolithic structure of colonial history that is complicit in the erasure of Indigenous people, such as the ideas expressed by Devil and Sister Bagra, who are “dedicated to [their] duty […] to bring religion, to bring education to these savages.”

As Coleman reveals through her own personal experiences and family stories of Noongar cultural survivance in Southwestern Australia through Lies, Damned Lies, the travels of Jacky and other Indigenous characters are drawn from her own memories, stories from ancestors, travels, and visionary insights to show the destructiveness of colonial ideologies. What makes the alien invasion frame so effective for this purpose is that it draws a powerful ironic connection between Aboriginal Indigenous peoples and settler Australians. Coleman offers her unique personal perspective on this historical context, reflective of the process Dillon describes as “‘returning to ourselves,’ which involves discovering how personally one is affected by colonization, discarding the emotional and psychological baggage carried from its impact.” Hence, we can better appreciate how Coleman’s growing body of work can offer a validating corrective to the mountains of inaccurate and intentionally fabricated information that has been put forth as fact for far too long.

Despite the cohesion and focus with which Coleman writes, she has revealed in numerous interviews that she did not choose the path to becoming a writer; rather, it chose her. Coleman describes the story of Terra Nullius as one that “made itself known” to her, a story she “felt compelled to write.” Such chancy origins reflect the creative and imaginative power of the Indigenous storytelling traditions that Coleman maintains a connection to as a descendant of Australia’s original human inhabitants. It also speaks to her keen awareness and understanding, shared by other Indigenous peoples across the world, that “words are weapons.”

Indeed, those are the very first words of the introduction to Lies, Damned Lies, signaling an unapologetically aggressive posture towards colonial history. How could it be otherwise, given the violently brutal history of Australian colonialism?

Words, of course, have not just been utilized to build colonial narratives that served as alibis and justifications for all manner of oppression; they’ve also been used as weapons themselves in the reterritorialization of the world according to imperial dictates. As Coleman continues, “Stories are dangerous for they define who we are, they define our history; they can be weaponised.”

Those articulations take the form of ideologies and propaganda that give shape and meaning to colonial “stories and history.” Words and ideas are made into “tools and weapons of war” to, as the celebrated Australian artist Gordon Bennett illustrated, “dismay, displace, disperse, dispirit, display, [and] dismiss” Indigenous people. Thus, transformed from human beings into animalistic others, the Indigenous people of Australia were condemned to an uncertain existence under the threat of cultural extermination.

The story readers encounter in Terra Nullius from the beginning, with Jacky escaping the cruelty and slavery of a mission school bent on assimilation and cultural eradication, grounds the narrative in the contexts of apocalypse and dystopia. As Dillon reminds us regarding Indigenous Futurisms, the events of “contact and Apocalypse are reciprocal cause and effect.” The Anishinaabe scholar Lawrence Gross has pointed out, in a statement that resonates with Indigenous people impacted by colonialism the world over: “American Indians in general have seen the end of our worlds.” In explaining the force of “the worst effects of genocide” perpetrated on Anishinaabe people following European contact, Gross further observes that, as a result, “the old world of our ancestors has come to an end. Thus, American Indians are living in a postapocalyptic environment.”

Coleman echoes these sentiments in Lies, Damned Lies, arguing that “[n]ovels about the history of Australia are all postapocalyptic; all novels set in Australia are postapocalyptic, because all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alive today are the descendants of people who survived an apocalypse.” Connecting past and present, Coleman further observes that “[m]odern Australia is a dystopia if you look at it from our point of view,” thus combining two of the most popular speculative genres in SF today.

With these distinctive narrative frames in mind, we can better understand the sense of hunger and longing Jacky is wracked with as he searches for the “home” he was taken from at an age before he could remember, while knowing “I belong somewhere.” This search for his “true country” serves as a journey from the perpetual sense of dislocation imposed by the mission school, which aimed at making him into what Michel Foucault called a “docile body,” to a place of knowledge and belonging. His journey reflects an indigenized version of Plato’s unchained figure, freed from captivity in the allegorical cave that is Western colonial culture. Following Jacky’s appearance, readers are introduced to the main colonial qua alien characters who also narrate parts of the story, providing insight into the minds of the oppressors, including Sister Bagra and Devil. Next, readers are introduced to a detachment of troopers led by Sergeant Rohan who have been dispatched by Devil to track, capture, and return Jacky to the mission before he escapes into the “disgusting bush” of the desert.

Juxtaposed against these representatives of the alien invasion as colonial project is a nomadic group of Aboriginal outlaws that have fled deeper into the outback to eke out a “meagre” living in isolated encampments of hovels and shacks. These “lost souls” are led by the courageous Aboriginal woman Esperance and her grandfather, an elder and storykeeper who, like Jacky, “had no home, no sense of belonging to a place” and “no life but that of a refugee.” Between the breach of these opposing sets of characters, Coleman positions a renegade settler and former trooper who has renounced his allegiance to his own alien culture after his involvement in a brutal massacre brought his mind to the “breaking point.” Walking off into the desert to die, a criminal and deserter with the new name of Johnny Star, he collapses “from hunger and thirst” but is saved by an Indigenous person named Tucker out looking for water, who refuses to emulate the inhumanity of the colonists.

Tucker’s outlaws and resistance fighters accept Johnny into their group as one of their own. As their bonds grow, they eventually draft Johnny into the role of leader due to his “training as a trooper […] respect for his abilities, abilities learnt to fight their countrymen.” Coleman illustrates complex interactions between these characters and the invading forces who, like the British colonists before, treat them “like animals in a land that had once been theirs alone.” She engages themes of survivance as elaborated in the works of other Aboriginal writers, such as Kim Scott’s Benang and Taboo, Ellen Van Neerven’s Heat and Light, and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book. Coleman’s work, though, is distinguished by her audacious intentions to expose the brutality and inhumanity of Australian colonialism while using SF to broaden the relevance into one of global or even universal concern.

Coleman’s Terra Nullius, while invested in confronting the legacy of Indigenous survivance within the context of Australian colonialism, also provides a unique story of humanity’s confrontation with an alien invasion — one that is intellectually disorienting and stunning in its narrative emplotment. The sense of estrangement, due to the layers of meaning in the spirals of discovery and conquest, creates a riveting reading experience. At the same time, Coleman creates a narrative that emphasizes an Indigenous conception of nonlinear time, as revealed through the alien invaders Bagra, Devil, Rohan, and Johnny, too: “People from other places came before, those white fellas, they came before, long time ago, but they couldn’t live there, in that country. The white fellas let us have our Country because they couldn’t live there. These grey fellas, they don’t much like the hot and the dry, they like it less even than the white fella do.”

The exposure that Coleman orchestrates — remaking the novel’s settler colonial oppressors into aliens in the form of lizardlike beings, referred to as “Toads,” just before the narrative’s halfway point — renders Coleman’s broader message even more compelling and ambitious. Through narration, Coleman is able to replicate for the reader the sense of shock and disorientation the character Frank Armitage (played by David Keith) feels in John Carpenter’s They Live when Roddy Piper’s Nada forces him to look through special sunglasses to see a world infiltrated by aliens.

This dramatic revelation is so powerful in part because it works to mitigate the sense of voyeuristic dissociation that the presence of a malevolent alien evokes. The shift in perception for non-Indigenous readers activates when readers are forced to turn their expectations away from what they initially thought was a work of historical fiction addressing the oppression of Aboriginal peoples, stemming from the arrival of Cook in 1770. Coleman deftly utilizes the surprising nature of this narrative twist to reinscribe scenes depicting forced assimilation, slavery, and violence within a universal human context: apocalypse and dystopia on a global scale. Thus, interactions that would initially read as the experiences of the Stolen Generation — the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands — are transformed into a set of horrific events that cannot be so easily rationalized and dismissed as part of the supposedly tragic but inevitable colonial history of Australia. It’s a narrative that is “built,” as Coleman points out in Lies, Damned Lies, “on a foundation of lies so deeply embedded in its soul that they pollute all the nation is.”

As Coleman reveals in both books, the real histories of Australia and the broader colonial world do not merely consist of a series of discrete “events” but rather are defined by the “process” of colonialism, which has never ceased but is continually ongoing. The conceptions of knowledge and facts that Coleman reveals in Terra Nullius through the othered presence of the aliens speak to the common understanding, especially among Native and Indigenous peoples, that colonial history is composed of propaganda that has “an uncomfortable relationship with the truth.” In reframing the historical narrative as SF alien invasion, readers unlock insight into Coleman’s choice to tell the story of Australian colonialism through the form of a novel — she nonetheless asserts that the story is created from “a foundation of fact and [she] consider[s] it part of the process of truth telling.”

For Coleman, the presence and actions of characters like Jacky, Esperance, Tucker, and even Johnny Star in Terra Nullius capture a story of vital social, cultural, and historical importance, reinscribed through the lens of SF to “contextualize the 1788 invasion in a way that would help non-Indigenous people understand what it meant for my people.” The psychological capacity to truly put oneself in the place of another is, of course, the foundation of compassion, and a function that Coleman wants her writing to actualize. As she states, “I wanted them to have empathy for my people if they had not before.”

Through Coleman’s generosity of spirit, we see the survivance of Indigenous people after almost everything has been shattered and thrown to the winds, as with those of Esperance’s camp who had “lost their final battle.” Although we bear witness to the scene of another massacre, Esperance’s escape offers the resistance of Indigenous peoples as representative of all humanity, as “she had to live to save everybody.” Despite this lamentable result, Esperance is inspired to continue on as she knows that “[s]omewhere out there were a people supremely adapted to this environment who had been there for tens of thousands of years. The opposite of foreigner, the opposite of alien, they were the people who belonged, who could survive here naked and unarmed.” Thus, in the end, through this woman with a name meaning “hope,” Coleman assures us that “she would find more people” and that “the war for Earth had not yet begun.”

More than anything, a tireless belief in the promise of the future in the face of destruction, violence, and even genocide distinguishes the nature of survivance and the active gesture towards futurity contained in Indigenous storytelling — the power to animate science fiction with new knowledge, ideas, and experience.


Dr. Billy J. Stratton is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Denver, where he teaches contemporary Native American/American literature, critical theory, film studies, and writing. He is a former Fulbright fellow to Germany whose criticism, fiction, commentary, and editorial work has appeared in numerous books and journals.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Billy J. Stratton is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Denver, where he teaches contemporary Native American/American literature, critical theory, film studies, and writing. He is a former Fulbright fellow to Germany whose criticism, fiction, commentary, and editorial work has appeared in numerous books and journals. He is the author of Buried in Shades of Night: Contested Voices, Indian Captivity, and the Legacy of King Philip’s War, and he is a contributing editor to The Fictions of Stephen Graham Jones: A Critical Companion. He was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, and he is currently at work on a fiction project on the social, historical, and environmental impacts of coal mining set in this region. Stratton has been instrumental in efforts to create dialogue and historical understanding at the University of Denver around the issue of Sand Creek.


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