Enclave, Claire G Coleman’s third novel in five years, continues the project she began with Terra Nullius and laid out explicitly in last year’s collection of essays, Lies, Damned Lies: “I have to do what I can to change the way this country sees itself. As writer Wirlomin Noongar has pointed out, much of classic speculative fiction is “intentionally politically didactic” – the activism deployed in Trojan Horses of breathless plot twists, set pieces and special effects. “It’s a way of saying things that nobody else will let you say,” she told an interviewer, “and that’s how I’ve always used it.”
Coleman’s targets in Enclave are clear: racism, homophobia, transphobia, inequality – all activated, amplified, by an atomized, consumerist society. In the titular walled city, we meet 21-year-old Christine, who is wealthy, alienated, and increasingly stressed by security drones, heat waves, and artificial turf.
But her growing claustrophobia – aptly alluded to by Coleman – pales in comparison to her fear of the “dangerous outside world”, which she only glimpses through heavily censored media, broadcasting heartbreaking vignettes of environmental collapse and unrest. civilians beyond the Wall. Where, she notes, all “criminals, murderers, assailants, rioters, thieves” displayed as a warning on her screens are the same color as the servants carried through the doors daily. Us and them: the Schmittian fantasy that underlies the binary myth of a prison state like Safetown, “everyone watching everyone”.
This weave of surveillance capitalism, colonial violence and climate crisis is an intentional and pressing theme in Coleman’s work. As poet and Gomeroi essayist Alison Whittaker noted of Terra Nullius, it’s part of a growing stream in literature — including Heat and Light, The Swan Book — that confronts the ways in which “the apocalyptic moment is racialized”. “Indigenous people live in a dystopia every day,” Coleman told the Guardian in 2017; as she wrote in Lies, Damned Lies, “the apocalypse is not coming, the apocalypse has begun.”
Enclave opens with WB Yeats’ The Second Coming: “Things are falling apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is unleashed upon the world.” Coleman peppers the pages with his calamitous messengers – a hawk howls, a whirlwind forms a nightmarish “swirl” of trash on a suburban street. She plays with the canon, but also places menacing signs about the unsustainability of the colony’s brutal and exclusionary policy. Enclave is a clarion call against the demonization of the unknown and the temptation to withdraw into a bubble.
It’s not fun to spoil too much: Coleman creates a satisfying atmosphere of suspense, and the twists and turns are part of the political punch as well as the overall experience. But things really kick off when Christine falls in love with a servant girl, Sienna, setting off a series of dramatic events that place her outside the Wall. Suddenly, Christine is the refugee, a vulnerable outsider at the mercy of anyone who might take her in.
Coleman recently discussed how dystopias and utopias are closer (and more confusing) than we think. Christine discovers another world, “a kind of utopia”, surprisingly close, surprisingly… feasible. As a reader, you pause and wonder why we haven’t already. Wiradjuri’s critic Jeanine Leane, in her review of the recent speculative anthology This All Come Back Now, writes about Indigenous futurism and how First Nations fiction reimagines worlds of hope and culture outside of a Western capitalist ideology that seems doomed to self-destruction. Before her abrupt exit from the “golden cage” of the Enclave, Christine clings to “grains of resistance…like a flash of sunshine on a rainy day”; later, faced with a tangible alternative of community and connection, she is almost unable to cope: “No one looked poor, no one looked angry or sad or lost, the faces had a lightness that she didn’t had never seen before; she couldn’t read it.
This solitary character has learned to run away from what could make her whole and happy, to feel shame for the most tender parts of herself. The novel is partly dedicated to “all our trans and queer brothers”, and Christine’s difficult emergence of love for Sienna – “feelings that had no meaning, a heartache, a crack in her soul ” – is one of its main catalysts. But Coleman isn’t letting Christine magically change either. Her newly awakened conscience, her guilt over her privilege, even her physical removal from the Enclave, do not destroy how it shaped her. “You’re probably a fucking racist deep down,” Sienna tells her at one point, “and eventually it’s gonna bite my fucking ass.”
A dissociated narrator can become monotonous, even in the third person, even with increasingly frequent epiphanies of discordant fervour; and secondary characters in Enclave sometimes veer towards 2D. But Coleman shakes things up with strong cinematic visuals, from grim Arkley streetscapes to Mad Max desert sequences, plus some thrilling chase scenes. The book’s tropes aren’t exactly new (techno-fascist administration, savage colonies of twilight zones, forbidden love). Again, do they have to be? Coleman’s novel is constructed as both a page-turner and a parable. If, as she has written elsewhere, “Australia is a story that settlers tell settlers”, Enclave is among those who oppose it.