Friday, February 29, 2008

Australia's 'Republic of Letters'

It seems strange to me that there is no tradition of republican speculative fiction in Australia. Sure, there were republican poets such as Charles Harpur writing in the 1840s and 1850, and republican writers such as John Dunmore Lang and Daniel Deneihy in the 1850s and William Lane, Henry Lawson and John Norton in the 1880s and 1890s. But where have these writers been for the past century? There are almost no examples where republican settings or arguments have been explored in Australian fiction. Republican arguments and exploration of the past and imaginations of the future are all written within the framework of constitutional debates. But where do the people of Australia fit into this? Where are their myths and stories to tell and retell and remember about Australia's republican identity? I find it most peculiar there is an absence of contemporary republican fiction writers in Australia.

The thought occured to me if the majority of Australians have been saying for at least the last twenty years that an Australian republic is inevitable (although Mark McKenna established in his The Captive Republic this is a sentiment that has existed since the 1830s), has this been reflected in the speculative fiction stories which have been written? I couldn't think of any Republic-based stories off the top of my head. Why would this be? Have all the Australian fiction writers not really thought about the issue? Do they consider it irrelevant? But even if it is irrelevant to what the author considers the essential part of the story, surely most of the stories set in an Australian future would have a republic as the backdrop? The only recent examples I can find is the science fiction anthology Aurealis, 20/21, April 1998 and the 2005 novel, Pathway to Treason.

At first brush you may well ask what do the Australian Republic and science fiction have to do with each other? In this volume the authors have speculated on the possible futures of the Australian republic. Science fiction writers deal with possibilities. They speculate. They make the future seem real. However, you can't achieve anything unless you imagine it first. Before every great invention and before every great journey is the idea. Without ideas and imagination, we are all trapped in the past. Science fiction has always pointed the way forward.

In Ken Harris's Pathway to Treason it is the year 2020 and Australia is a republic with a President joining the Prime Minister at the helm of the country, although as with the Governor General before, the President is supposedly merely a figurehead, a rubberstamp when it comes to the question of running the country. Peter Elphinstone, ex-test cricketeer and President of Australia is far from satisfied with the way the country is being run. Prime Minister Bill Packard is far from pleased with the President sticking his beak into matters that shouldn't concern him. When the Australian ambassador to Syria is assassinated, the PM is all fired up to join the US in sending troops to the Middle East should America ask him. Elphinstone, on the other hand, is horrified that a war could be about to start and moves to stop the possibility. Technically the President has the authority to affect such a decision, the big question is, does he have the power? It's his willingness to have this question answered that ignites the political fireball. The remainder of the novel revolves around the head to head battle between Packard and Elphinstone as the entire seat of government is threatened.

We need more of these Australian stories with a republican backdrop. They don't have to be political thrillers or constitutional whodunnits but rather an exploration of our future, our republican future.

Three cheers for the coming republic!