My life in outer space

The Dreaming Dragons – Damien Broderick (1980)

The Dreaming Dragons

‘TO THE PLACE WHERE SECRETS LIE SLEEPING…

Alf Dean, an aborigine trained as an anthropologist, knew that his tribesmen, for centuries beyond memory, had warned of a dreadful secret in the mountains of Australia.

His ‘slow-witted’ nephew led him to the secret spot – the same spot where men were claimed by deaths that were secret to the world.

As secret as the knowledge the scientists now share which compels them to press deep under the mountain… deep where the aborigines never go… through the nuclear shield, through the collective unconscious, deeper and deeper toward the center of the earth, closer to exploding the myths of time and space, closer to rousing THE DREAMING DRAGONS’

Blurb from the 1980 Pocket paperback edition.

It is often refreshing to read SF that is written in, and for, a different society. British and American SF, although springing from different roots, have come together by a process of convergent evolution. Eastern European SF, by contrast, existed in isolation for quite a while and one can see, from the work of the Strugatsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem, that stylistically, thematically and symbolically it is a sometimes quite alien, if beautiful, kettle of fish.
Australian SF is something of which I’ve not had a lot of experience. Damien Broderick’s work therefore comes as something of a pleasant surprise.
Alf Dean is an adopted aborigine, and is now an anthropologist. He and his white autistic nephew, Mouse, out on a field trip, discover a passage in an ancient cave which leads to another chamber. Here they discover a shimmering rainbow screen in a metal frame, settled in the dust of millennia. The frame turns out to be a teleport gate leading to an even more mysterious site, a vast white sphere underneath Uluru (known to the rest of us by the less exciting name of Ayers Rock).
This area, known as ‘the Vault’, turns out to be a top secret discovery already being investigated by an international team of scientists and the military. Proximity to the sphere causes madness or death and when Alf collapses he is rescued by Mouse who, unaccountably, seems to have some sort of affinity with the Sphere. When Alf describes an out-of-body experience, the controversial British scientist Bill DelFord is called in.
Between Alf, DelFord, Mouse and the astronaut Hugh, links are discovered between the ancient alien vault, the rainbow serpent of Aborigine mythology and the origins of Humanity itself.
It is oddly structured, setting itself in the present, and then we are taken off into a section where the child Mouse – who is in some kind of psychic rapport with the vault and is writing out information which the vault has somehow accessed. stored and is now retransmitting – transcribes the diary of a Russian scientist who has been infected with a sample of Soviet biological warfare.
Later, we travel to Deep Time to discover how and why the original feathered serpent aliens get here.
It’s a very complex but enjoyable novel, slightly flawed by some improbable dialogue here and there and an unaccountable dearth of female characters. The few that do appear on the page in the initial sections disappear pretty quickly once the novel gets underway. Certainly Alf and Bill leap off the page as fully-rounded characters and as Pringle points out in his ‘100 Greatest SF Novels’ it is a very Australian novel, steeped in the traditions of the Aborigines and very honest about their history and treatment in a white-dominated Australia.
There are some beautiful descriptive passages too, particularly in relation to the land around Uluru, and the novel is a breath of fresh air in a genre sometimes badly in need of it.

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