Dulce et Decorum Est, the 1920 poem that inspired the title of The Old Lie, calls out the glorification of dying in war. Claire G Coleman's new novel takes this one step further, by graphically depicting the degradation, fear, and pain that war brings to nations and to those in the armed forces.
In The Old Lie's imagined future, Earth has been attacked by an alien army, the Conglomeration. Their only chance at survival is by joining forces with an opposing alien coalition, the Federation. It is a grim and frightening scenario that shows the impact of colonisation through the lens of science fiction. In this world, humans are forced to unite against the invading alien forces, ironically causing racism to be sidelined in the face of speciesm that sees humanity threatened by smarter, stronger alien species.
The Old Lie is framed around a cast of Indigenous characters, each seeking a return to their Country, each thwarted in different ways by the planetary war raging around them. There are refugees, victims of weapon testing, fighter pilots and army commanders, united only by their displacement.
As the war rages throughout the book, the true lessons are to be found in the interactions between characters, often occurring in the quieter spaces between violent attacks. The solidarity between refugee Jimmy, and lost child Itta, who cling to each other as the only other humans in their chaotic attempts to travel via asylum seeker ships to Earth, or the emerging love story between pilot Romeo and tech savvy field officer, Harper, are the vessels through which Coleman's ultimate messages are conveyed.
These are messages about the universality of humanity, and the striving for connection in the midst of war - of the way that violence breaks down the barriers between individuals, even as they fight for their lives. The book includes discussions on sexuality and gender identity, without making these the core focus.
The narrative of The Old Lie is at times difficult to follow, and the relentless scenes of suffering and chaos can be exhausting for the reader. But this feels like a deliberate tactic from Coleman, which forces the reader to relate to the characters who are trapped in a cycle of endless suffering themselves.
Like her award-winning novel, Terra Nullius, Coleman has used speculative fiction to present a story that is ultimately about colonisation to an audience that has proven to be resistant to narratives focused on Indigenous characters otherwise. The indigeneity of the characters in The Old Lie is only one part of their identities and their stories, but it is an important part, and one that is explored with insight in this book.
- Zoya Patel is a Canberra author. Her debut book is No Country Woman.
- The Old Lie, by Claire G. Coleman. Hachette. $32.99.