Australian invasion anxiety in adolescent fantasy

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Tomorrow, When the War BeganJohn Marsden's Tomorrow, When the War Began and its six sequel novels were published in the years 1993–99. They belong to the corpus of young adult reader adventure fiction, which has been part of the European writing tradition since the great novels of Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott and R. L. Stevenson. Young protagonists fight ruthless enemies against great odds, surviving by dint of their courage, resourcefulness and loyalty to family and comrades-in-arms.

John Buchan's five Richard Hannay novels, which I read as a teenager, refined and modernised the genre. Buchan is relevant here, because his patriotic adventure fantasies had a serious purpose: to entertain and inspire the British Empire soldiers in the trenches of the Great War. In exciting stories like The Thirty-nine Steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916) Buchan's protagonist offers a reassuring vision of a noble British hero fighting bravely against dark forces.

Marsden's work is disturbing because of the way it blurs the boundaries between fantasy and reality. Most adventure fiction takes place safely in remote past eras, as in Rosemary Sutcliff's brilliant Eagle of the Ninth series of adventure novels, which are set in Britain in the twilight years of the Roman Empire. But Marsden's heroes are contemporary Australian teenagers, forced to confront something which would be truly terrifying. Like The War of the Worlds, the Tomorrow series is scary because it begins in normal life.

Marsden himself has said he wanted to shake young Australians out of their complacency. The deliberately jumbled tenses of Marsden's brilliant first title convey an unsettling sense of dread. The novels are starkly savage, but believable: this is really how it could be, Marsden is telling us.

I wonder what young Australian readers take away from these novels — and now, the film? They are, clearly, something more than escapist fantasies. They convey value messages, calling on young Australians to cherish our country, not to take it for granted, and to be prepared if necessary to fight — to kill and die — for it.

My problem here has to do with context. What sort of Australian readership was Marsden aiming for? No one suggests (then or now) that Australia should put out a welcome mat to any armed invasion. But the underlying xenophobic flavour of the books — against an unspecified regional invader, and therefore potentially against any regional country or group of countries — is somehow morally disturbing in our generous and tolerant multicultural nation.

For 200 years, 'White Australia' and 'the yellow peril' had been defining ideas in the emergence of Australian nationalism. By the early 1990s, Australians were adjusting to a multicultural society at home and a new more benign vision of our engagement with our region. But many were still uneasy about Indonesia, and also unsettled by Indochinese boat people arrivals which peaked in the 1980s.

Malcolm Fraser stopped the Indochinese boats humanely, by supporting orderly flows of migrants from refugee holding camps in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. China still seemed a threatening neighbour: the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was a fresh memory.

The generation of boys who grew up reading the Tomorrow series in the 1990s were by 2001 young men manning Australian Defence Force border security vessels, deployed to deter and repel Middle Eastern boat people. I remember the widespread fear and loathing occasioned by this 'unarmed invasion' of boat people.

Adolescence is a time when values are being tested and consolidated. Books matter. I wonder how much the Tomorrow series might have had to do with the entrenchment of such attitudes in impressionable youths? Or did the books simply tap into a vein of xenophobia and invasion anxiety that has been present in mainstream Australia since European settlement?

What do I say to my children about Tomorrow? Do I commend this entertaining survival story of Australian teenagers going bush, guns and bombs in hand, to defend our country against armed invaders with whom there can be no dialogue or accommodation? Do I say — implausibly — that this is really just light entertainment, an escapist fantasy of teenage empowerment, not to be taken too seriously? Or do I attempt a serious evaluation, as I would evaluate Buchan's or Sutcliff's adventure fiction?

For me, Marsden's work definitely merits serious evaluation. And I enjoyed the movie, which vividly brings the first book to life in an entirely contemporary setting: my teenage daughters loved it and were inspired by it too.

As I admire Buchan's ideologically flawed but brilliantly conceived Hannay series, and Sutcliff's haunting evocations of Roman Britain's long rearguard struggle against barbarian invaders, I applaud Marsden's inspiring and believable vision of a brave band of young Australians who will not give up their country without a fight.

Let's take this movie (and the books) seriously, and talk with our kids about the complex questions they raise about war and peace: because our kids will certainly see the movie, and be affected by it.


Tony KevinTony Kevin is the author of A Certain Maritime Incident, about the fate of the Indonesian fishing boat SIEV X.

Topic tags: tony kevin, john marsden, tomorrow when the war began, john buchan, richard hannay, rosemary sutcliff

 

 

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As one old enough to remember WW2 from an Australian perspective and how we had blackouts and food rationing and in Qld as a kindy we had siren practise to run out of the school into the air- raid trench shelters, taking a pencil rubber to put between our teeth. The fear we had when we saw the telegram boy riding down our street- would it be about our Dad ? Was he dead or injured? It was a fearful time. We were all prepared, supposedly, if we were attacked. I have not read the books, but now I will and see the film too. Then I will make up my mind and share my experiences with grandchildren.
Bev Smith | 09 September 2010


My 12 year old son has consumed the entire series and, while I haven’t read the books, I’ve been disturbed by what he has told me they contain.

But I’ve been more impressed by his analysis. He volunteered that there seemed to be an underlying, unarticulated racism in the books, with their malevolent, unnamed Asian invaders.

Australian wars in Asia have always been connected with colonialism. In WWII we fought to defend British, French and Dutch colonies against Japanese colonialism and in the process ended up defending Australia itself. And since then we’ve fought to maintain neo-colonialism (Malaya, Vietnam).

The only exception to this was the troops sent to East Timor after the people there, by stint of heroic sacrifice, obtained their freedom after decades of Australian complicity in their oppression.

Such a pity that John Marsden's novelistic imagination can’t stretch to making that tangle of duplicity and heroism a subject of a book.
Barry Healy | 09 September 2010


I was in about year 8 when Tomorrow came out and was the kind of teenager who loved reading books of the 'dystopian future' variety (The Triffids, Obernewton, Z for Zacheria, the Lake at the End of the World... countless others!) When this book came out I probably loved it for similar reasons I loved these other dystopian genre books: there was something so exciting about imagining a world so different from my own comfortable, pleasant upbringing. Not to be unappreciative of course! I suppose in the teen years it's natural to want to break out of ordinary life in some way or other.

This book (and series) really drew me into a scary yet seamingly plausible future - pretty much the premise for all all dystopia fiction.

For me personally, as a teenager at the time, it didn't feel at all like a xenophobic concept. These books fitted well into a whole literary genre that were more about imagined worlds and challenges than fear of the 'other'.
laura | 09 September 2010


Marsden is a fine writer and the first of this series was truly engaging and exciting. When it came out I was working with some younger people who loved it, so I read it. It is inherently racist. So is any war of invasion. He tapped into the fears of the time. As the series wore on it became repetitive and progresivelt grim, rather like real war is. But perhaps he also ran out of ideas. My concern with all Marsden's work (like Philip Pulman's) is that he writes to teach his own ideas. I find his work hard, somewhat hopeless and deeply self-centered. There is an underlying darknes that does not recede and cannot be conquered. Call me a romantic but I don't think his ideas are productive in the long run. Certainly worthy of engageent and discussion though.
Steve Daughtry | 09 September 2010


I first read this series when I was well into middle age, and I loved it. Perhaps it was the generic link with all time favourite "The Eagle of the Ninth" as well as the Richard Hannay books that I read as a child. However, all these years later I was ready to find racism in any 'war'story, but, unlike others, I didn't find it. Marsden goes to some trouble to say that it wasn't the Indonesians or Malaysians, not in so many words but by implication. New Zealanders were the rescuing heroes, so it wasn't them. I think John Marsden was caught in a bind - he wanted to use the plot of young people isolated by war to further his theme of growing up through adversity, but to have an invasion you have to have an invader. TWTWB doesn't describe a specific race of invaders, or make derogatory remarks about them based on race, so it's hard to say the books are racist. They are very realistic about our potential to learn to kill and maim, however. I don't know if this is a good thing or not.
Joan Seymour Albion, Vic. | 09 September 2010


Marsden deliberately never stated in any of the books that the invaders were Asian, or gave any clues to their race at all. I read the novels as a teenager and thought they focused far more on moral and ethical dilemmas of war - when is it right to kill, if ever, and so forth - than on than the plausibility or otherwise of an invasion of Australia.
Sarah | 09 September 2010


I strongly suspect this invasion mentality comes from nothing more than endless streams of writers telling us we are afraid.
Marilyn | 10 September 2010


I think it is a bit hard to write a fictional account of Australia being invaded and not have the invaders coming from somewhere in Asia. It is not racism but simple geography.

Similarly ADF exercises usually have a fictional Asian country as the source of the threat.

Are we so politically correct that we need to postulate invasion from Sweden or Canada?


chris gow | 10 September 2010


I liked the movie in spite of its Hollywood gloss and occasional absurdity. I was curious about it because my daughter read the book at the time it came out. I confess to being enticed by the premise, and two implications: that we are very lucky to be so remote from the violence that plague many parts of the world, and that perhaps our/my character could be tested by difficult times (which may yet come in other forms).

I think Tony raises good questions, and I think we should meet them head on, as he implies. Any sensible kid (or adult) can understand that boat people are no threat to us (1% of our immigration intake) and that we could treat them humanely and still have very "secure" borders - if they are given good information.

Anyone can appreciate that Australia did once come close to invasion. It's unlikely now but still conceivable. Perhaps that can help us to appreciate what we have here, and treat it well.

If the movie stimulates thinking and discussion, and some people come to understand these simple and basic things, then it can serve a useful role.
Geoff Davies | 10 September 2010


I agree with Laura. I read these books as a teenager and only ever viewed them as escapist fantasy - even if Tony thinks viewing them as such is 'implausible'. I was always conscious of the fact that the invaders were simply a plot device to bring about this thrilling alternative universe. It didn't matter where they came from, and Marsden always was careful not to give any specifics except where absolutely necessary. Further, for better or worse, the stories had no explicit focus on patriotism, as Tony seems to believe. Ellie and her friends didn't fight for the fatherland, they fought for their parents, friends, and so forth.
Patrick | 11 September 2010


Thank you. I agree that readers are very impressionable at a certain age. I am convinced that the novels I read just before and during my teenage years shaped many of the values and beliefs I still hold today. I'm glad it started with novels like "The Chrysalids" (a novel about hypocrisy and 'different' people who were literally outcasts in their own country) rather than something like this... Although the topic may not have had as much impact...but who knows, really?
Janelle | 30 October 2013


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