By Jennifer Conley
MELBOURNE, August 21, 2010 - What is it about invasion literature and film that worries me? In the 50 years before World War I, invasion literature reached craze proportions in Europe. The pioneering work The Battle of Dorking in 1871 was a story about a mythical invasion of England by Germany. It was later reprised, but with a sci-fi theme, in H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds.
In Australia, the Asian invasion idea has occasionally been a part of the popular imagination. In the 19th century, The Bulletin famously ran cover images of the yellow hordes pouring into Australia. The fear—probably born of an awareness of our own, then quite recent, takeover of Australia—gained credibility in the collective psyche following the two world wars. People do invade one another, as our neighbours knew only too well.
Last week, Australia hosted the world premiere of Tomorrow, When the War Began, a film by Hollywood-based Australian filmmaker Stuart Beattie. It is a fabulous adaptation of the John Marsden series of novels about a group of Aussie teenagers who return from a camping holiday to find their country has been invaded. The books never name the enemy. The film, which should be a blockbuster, gives the invading army an Asian face.
When I complained about this to a journalist friend, he said, quite sensibly, that I should not get too anxious about the invader issue in the movie. The film is pure escapism and they needed a credible candidate for invasion. The alternative, he suggested ironically, was New Zealand.
But that's the point. Apparently, we think Asian invasion is credible.
In fiction, surely we can make anything seem possible. P. G. Wodehouse lampooned the invasion literature—and, undoubtedly, the incautious complacency of the British—in The Swoop in 1909, describing a Britain invaded by nine countries at once.
The invasion genre of the time is said to have changed popular opinion, and influenced national policy and politics. Throughout much of this "imagining the worst" writing was an uneasiness about change, including technological change: the first wave of stories coincided with the French invention of the hot-air balloon.
Imagination is a wonderful thing, but there is a point at which we can let it run riot. That's when facts are useful—and we might be just as conscious of the sobering facts as we are of the optimistic ones.
As a nation, we do not really know Asia. Australian elites talk to one another about progress and setbacks in our relations in the region. Broadly, though, the Australian public is incautiously unaware.
Schools are one place we might gain a better understanding of our neighbours, but right now we teach very little, despite there being a lot to learn. Most of us have heard of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales but not the classic 11th-century Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, or any other classic Asian text. It is true that we are seeing more year 12 books offered with Asian references, beyond Graham Greene's The Quiet American, though most are written by non-Asians or expatriates and are generally about war. In any case, few of these are taken up by students and their teachers.
Now, suppressing even further that weak demand, the Tomorrow movie portrays a merciless Asian enemy—a coalition of resource-snatching neighbours, no less.
Asia is our future. China has surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy. Australia's top-four export markets are all in Asia. Last year, sales of Australian products to these four— China, Japan, Korea, and India—dwarfed US sales eight to one. We are undergoing a change in our traditional partnerships, and as our neighbours rise in esteem and achievement, so too will anxiety rise—unless we are willing to uncover what is mysterious and intriguing about one another.
Asialink and the Asia Society recently released a priorities statement for Australia, stressing the importance of raising public understanding of Asia.
Australia needs qualified people to make the most of opportunities, to solve shared problems and to avoid unnecessary pitfalls—but we also need a public knowing what is truly credible and what is not. Otherwise, invasion-mongering is almost acceptable.
The philosopher David Hume said 300 years ago that being able to imagine something means it is conceivable. We can, of course, imagine war and terror, as John Marsden did. But we can also imagine—and achieve—co-operation and mutual support.