Category Archives: Speculative Fiction


Andrew McGahan. Underground. Allen & Unwin, 2007. ISBN: 9781741753301

You might think that this book doesn’t belong on a list of fiction set in Canberra when you learn that its premise is that Canberra has been nuked off the face of the earth. Still, as our narrator Leo James records his memoirs, addressing himself to his “dear interrogators”, he reflects at times on Canberra, and remembers it as it was before the whole city was evacuated in the face of the nuclear threat from the Great Southern Jihad.

Following the destruction of Canberra, Prime Minister Bernard James, Leo’s twin brother, declared a state of emergency. Years later, it’s still in place. The emergency powers have been used to put in place a range of harsh measures. All Muslims have been corralled into ghettos. South Africa has boycotted us in the cricket because of our inhumane treatment of refugees. A number of joint Australian-US bases help to enforce what is essentially martial law. Some kind of spy communications facility has been built on top of Uluru. Individuals must carry their citizenship papers with them, which must be updated regularly. If, at any of the Citizen Verification Stations – checkpoints – around the country, a person’s citizenship is in doubt, they may be asked to take the citizenship test and recite the oath to prove their loyalty. Anzac Day is now Anzac Week.

This would be a ludicrous story if it wasn’t so close to what we have, or very nearly had back in 2006, when Underground was first published. Remember the citizenship test introduced by John Howard? Pondered lately our escalating war on boat people? Had a moment’s pause at the number of American troops being posted to Darwin? Felt in any way uncomfortable about flag-draped thugs claiming that they determine what is Australian or un-Australian? The genius and terror of Andrew McGahan’s story is that, outlandish conspiracy theory though it is, many of its individual elements aren’t very far removed from where we’ve already been. Apparently Andrew Bolt called McGahan an “unhinged propagandist”, which is to me pretty good evidence that it struck a nerve.

For obvious reasons the Canberra references in the book are limited. Leo is a Queensland property developer, so he has no real love of Canberra:

It was such an inconvenient place. Off in the middle of nowhere. Stinking hot in summer. Freezing in winter. And totally soulless, all year round. Still there were one or two decent restaurants I would miss, and what would happen to the nation’s sex industry, once the mail order warehouses and porn studios of Fyshwick had been vaporised?

The usual ciphers of Canberra as a place are there: parliament house times two, LBG, the Captain Cook Fountain, Mount Ainslie, the Lodge, Anzac Parade and the War Memorial. It is what Canberra symbolises as the seat of government and the physical representation of our democracy that is more important here. The terrorists who planted the bomb in Canberra gave three days’ warning, enough time to get everyone safely out. And, as Leo’s car crawled up the Federal Highway to Sydney with the other evacuees, he watched

an unbroken stream of commandeered trucks passing by in the opposite lanes. They were heading into Canberra, destined for the National Gallery, or for the National Museum, or for various government archives, or for any other such place where the national treasures and records might be in need of rescuing.

…[A]fter forty-eight hours of the most frenzied activity imaginable, Canberra was stripped of virtually everything that mattered.

And that’s it really, isn’t it? The value you place on Canberra depends on the value you place on the things that it contains. Communities, our own personal histories and connections with a place and the people in it. National symbols, a place of debate and democracy, of tolerance and inclusion. Coincidentally, I finished reading Underground on the morning of the federal election. And I worry about how some value the things that Canberra contains.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction

The Day of No Consequence

Gerard Dalton. The Day of No Consequence: Part 1 Canberra. Gerald Dalton, 2012.

The Day of No Consequence: Part 1 Canberra is, of course, part of a series, self-published by the author and available as an ebook via Amazon. Each is billed as a novella, but the Canberra part at least is more like a chapter. Short, digestible, and only $1.85 each, coming to a total of $12.95 for all seven parts. I’m thinking it’s clever marketing. Entice the reader to take a chance for the price of spare change, and hopefully bring them along to buy the whole thing bit by bit.

I won’t be spending the $12.95, but that’s not, surprisingly enough, because Part 1 was terrible. It was interesting and readable and I wanted to go with the story, although speculative fiction is generally not my thing.

Anthony Troy is an astrophysicist whose job is to make assessments about the likely size, trajectory and ensuing damage that will be caused by the meteors that are hurtling towards earth. This is a common enough occurrence that there is an internationally-agreed scale of warnings based on the size and scope of the projected damage. Whole Australian coastal cities move to alternate towns such as Tamworth, Bendigo and Kalgoorlie to wait out the warning period.

This happens in the context of some kind of world-wide system of laws and governance, if not government, that requires humans to wear microchips in their armpits to track their every move, particularly in relation to their carbon footprint. Anthony feels “shielded by the shear [sic] mass of accumulated data on every individual such that he felt he was, in reality, statistically anonymous.”

While this level of surveillance might be generally accepted, it is apparently burdensome enough to warrant an annual event when the system closes down for 24 hours, and it is forbidden “to monitor or utilise any information which could lead to the conviction of an individual for a crime committed on the Day of No Consequence.” Of course, Anthony has revenge on his mind, and the Day of No Consequence is the day to put plans into action. Turns out, he’s not alone.

None of this has very much to do with Canberra. In fact, most of the action takes place at the Sheraton Resort on Denarau Island, Fiji. Anthony does take the train (mindful of his carbon quota) to Campbelltown to liaise with a criminal or two, a segue I found quite amusing, given that I grew up in Campbelltown. Canberra’s contribution is as the location of the Space Watch Centre at Mount Stromlo, where the importance of Anthony’s job consumes all of his energy, leaving him powerless to save his daughter, his marriage or in the end, his wife.

If I had more energy I could pursue all sorts of metaphors for the trade-off between the global and the personal in Canberra and in our own lives. There are some interesting ideas here about where we might find the balance between personal privacy and societal security in the age of ubiquitous surveillance, big data and global terrorism.

The author lives in Dublin, and it is curious that he chose Mount Stromlo and Canberra (and even more interesting is the Campbelltown reference). The other locations for the series are perhaps less surprising: Rome, London, Tehran, Paris, Los Angeles and ‘New Baghdad’. All the research required, though, is a bit of googling (and maybe some better map reading – it’s Kellicar Road in Campbelltown, not Killinger Road. I learned to drive there. The other location references are all correct, so this looks like an error, perhaps by an overzealous spellchecker, to me).

Still, it’s nice to know that we have a place in the mind of the futurists, sitting amongst the hills, scanning the skies and helping to save the world.



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