Academic journal article Antipodes

The Shield of Distance: Fearful Borders at the Edge of the World

Academic journal article Antipodes

The Shield of Distance: Fearful Borders at the Edge of the World

Article excerpt

In the Lucky Country we had no disasters. None, that is, in public. We had incidents, bushfires that were "contained," torrents that "subsided," droughts whose effects were "minimized." Other continents existed in permanent catastrophe, stalked by calamity, starvation, and death as ruined ecologies reeled [. . .] The northern hemisphere, we were told, suffered more than the southern. That had always been true, the palaeontologists said. In the southern hemisphere we remained the Lucky Country. Was it so? Really so?

(George Turner, Drowning Towers 137)

IN JULY 2007, A REVIEW FOR A NEW AUSTRALIAN REALITY television program, Surf Patrol, noted in passing the plethora of local shows that warn of "the dangers lurking on our doorsteps," including Border Security and Sea Patrol ( Bibby 4). These programs follow a tradition of televisual texts, whether fictional or otherwise, that reveal the potential perils of Australia's geographical situation. Whether the threats are from illegal immigrants or dangerous marine creatures, such as sharks or stingrays, such programs demonstrate an underlying unease about the country's position in the world.

Yet the anxiety about the vulnerability of Australia's borders to outside influences has a longer history than current reality television programs. For many years, sections of Australian literature have competed with Utopian impressions of the country by displaying a fear that often manifests itself in apocalyptic renderings of landscape and life (for example, Gabrielle Lord's Salt, Simon Brown's Winter, the Mad Max films). At work in many of these texts is a curious contradiction that seemingly rejects fears by asserting the popular belief of Australia as a "lucky country,"1 isolated from the rest of the world's problems by geography, while at the same time constantly undermining this notion by showing that complacency and optimism can prove unfounded and false, and may very well lead to catastrophe and disaster.

The following discussion examines the tension between security and fear by focusing on Nevil Shute's On the Beach, a key text that demonstrates the idea of the nation's vulnerability to the outside world. In Shute's work, and in many others, Australia's position on the edge of the world is understood not only to exclude it from the world, whereby the end of "the world" can occur even if Australia still exists, but also to shield the nation from crises as a kind of Utopian space free from harm. Australia initially appears to be a relatively Utopian setting while the rest of the world has been destroyed or is at war, and the country's remote location seems to have protected it from the disaster elsewhere, yet this is proved to be a false hope, for Australia ultimately cannot escape catastrophe. While Shute's work is symptomatic of the particular conditions of the post-World War II nuclear era and is by no means representative of Australian fiction generally, the same fearfulness evident in his work can be seen in later popular texts unconcerned with the atomic threat, therefore suggesting that this particular fear remains an underlying strand of the Australian culture.

Nevil Shute's On the Beach remains one of the most famous examples of nuclear fiction worldwide. The novel has been given cinematic treatment more than once, the most successful being Stanley Kramer's 1959 film starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, while a telemovie appeared in 2000, both filmed primarily in Australia. Shute's work is set in Melbourne after a nuclear war has taken place in the Northern Hemisphere. The characters discuss the events, but nobody is certain of the causes or course of the conflict. More than 4700 nuclear bombs were detonated in the northern hemisphere (73), and the participating countries in the conflict are from almost every continent, confusing the issue of culpability and emphasizing the idea that all people share responsibility for the disasters. Radiation fallout from the nuclear war is gradually spreading south and will lead to the death of all human life on the planet. …

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