Former aerospace engineer CLAYTON GRAHAM’s new sci-fi novel, Milijun, kicks off when a lunar exploration uncovers a host of strange, metre-tall creatures with membranes that stretch between their arms and bodies; startled, they take wing in a huge flock and hurtle straight towards Earth. In the following interview, Clayton tells Good Reading about his admiration for old-school sci-fi, his dystopian vision of Australia in 2179, and why the outback is such an attractive landing zone for extraterrestrial visitors.
What attracts you to the ‘old school’ sci-fi greats, like H G Wells, Isaac Asimov and John Wyndham? Were there any particular books that hooked you to the genre?
It’s our connection with the rest of the universe which I find fascinating. Science Fiction has been with me since I was a teenager, where I escaped to new worlds in the cobbled back streets of Stockport, England. Halcyon days, when education and school milk were free, and summers were real summers. I loved the Asimov Laws of Robotics and the depth of imagination in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Jules Verne. H G Wells was probably my favourite with tales of an invisible man, time travel and alien invaders. Well ahead of his time!
Which authors have been successful in imagining aliens or extraterrestrial contact in a unique or interesting way?
I would rank Arthur C Clarke very highly. He was a co-writer of the screenplay for the 1968 film 2001, A Space odyssey, a marvellous film and very influential and revolutionary at the time. Rendezvous with Rama is a particular favourite of mine.
John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos took a more threatening stance but was completely enthralling.
Can you introduce us to the future you’ve imagined for Australia in 2179? How did you go about imagining what this future would be like?
The future of Australia in Milijun is, of course, post-apocalyptic. The country is not what it used to be and is divided into two parts, separated by a linear border running along the Tropic of Capricorn. This is the Wide Australian Border. The last great conflict was 80 years ago.
No human can cross the border undetected, nor would they wish to, for their fate on the other side is not to be envied — or so the propaganda of both camps would have it.
To the north, society is dominated by a dutiful devotion to the progression of the collective human mind and its latent abilities, a culture where excessive individuality is suppressed for the alleged good of the whole. Southward we find a society where life is a pale reflection of a century before, policed against money and power resting in the hands of the avaricious few. Existence is safe, extremists and freedoms are evident but restrained. People are part of the whole but not subservient to it.
There are plenty of post-war examples elsewhere — Germany and Korea spring to mind.
Can you describe your characters, Laura and Jason?
Laura Sinclair is blonde, elfin, and has a teenage son, Jason. Laura is a mother first, above all else. An ordinary mother, really – until she encounters mysterious events! She is separated from Dek, her husband, but a part of her wants him back. She is a normal mother, full of love and forgiveness.
In Milijun she is escaping, at least for a short time, with her son. She is not weak-willed, but neither is she strong. At least until the aliens are sighted.
Jason is a typical teenager. Fourteen years old, tall and slim, he possesses an insatiable thirst for the unknown and is seldom phased by anything. He doesn’t mind challenging what he sees as nonsense, and voicing his opinion accordingly. Perhaps like most teenagers? The fact that he is chosen as ‘The First Seen’ frightens him but he grows into it.
The novel explores the relationship between a mother and son. How far can it be stretched before the links break? How far would a mother go to save her son? Would she be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, or undertake actions she would never have deemed possible prior to the alien incursion?
What did your work as an aerospace engineer entail, and what expertise gleaned from your career helped shape Milijun?
I worked primarily in the design and research of advanced composite structures. The work took me round the globe and thus gave me an insight into various cultures and the different ways they view the rest of the world.
The most important thing I gained from my working environment is that anything is possible. Even if some people say it isn’t!
“I think the immense size and clarity of air make such places a theatre for an expansion of the human mind.”
The Australian outback is notorious for UFO sightings and stories of a paranormal bent – what about the landscape makes the Australian desert conducive to such stories?
Vastness and clear skies will always help! The Australian outback, like much of the USA and Russia, is notorious for its quiet emptiness (from the human perspective). Any alien entity would probably find these areas enticing.
I think the immense size and clarity of air make such places a theatre for an expansion of the human mind.
What significance does the real-life setting of Cocklebiddy Cave have in Milijun?
Cocklebiddy Cave is currently only open to a privileged (and daring) few. It is a fascinating area and one which may in the far future be accessible to the general populace.
In Milijun the caves become a resting point for the aliens, something not too dissimilar to their lunar base. But once again they are rudely disturbed by the actions of mankind.
How did you go about imagining the aliens that feature in Milijun? What were the challenges in formulating an imaginary species that evolved in vastly different circumstances to the organisms on Earth?
Milijun was born in a short story. The ‘RNasia’ wanted to wing their way to Earth so I decided to oblige them. That is only the beginning of the story, of course, and I hope some of the ensuing actions and interactions are something of a surprise.
The ‘technologies’ described in the novel are my own extrapolations of what I see and sense around me, bearing in mind that we live in an immense universe (or universes) and anything is possible. What is supernatural today may be entirely natural tomorrow.
Contemplating the cultural, spiritual, political and scientific ramifications of extraterrestrial contact is a huge speculative undertaking. How did you go about tackling these issues in Milijun? Did you deduce any valuable insights about humankind during the writing of the novel?
I wanted Milijun to explore how humanity would react when faced with an intelligence it cannot understand.
The idea that, like humans, intelligent alien life will more than likely have a spiritual side is fascinating to explore. Humans have developed their spirituality through thousands of years. We are growing a little closer to understanding it, and where our place is in the universe. An advanced alien society will have progressed much further – for example, maybe they will have proven the existence of the afterlife, or maybe they will have entered other dimensions. Anything is possible – we should not deride anything even if it’s outside our comfort zone.
Insights into the human condition come from many aspects of life. Writing Milijun made me realise we are quite a tenacious species but prone to looking inwards, probably as a result of the everyday problems we all face.
If extraterrestrials ever made contact with us – or vice versa – do you think it’d be a beneficial or detrimental occurrence?
If they behave like us it may not be too good! The blogs on my website cover this topic in much more detail, including the actual probabilities of contact, but I believe it can go either way. Contact itself has to have a coincidence of time (species duration before possible extinction) and, of course, space (distances involved).
On the whole I am an optimist. If a species has escaped extinction then their spiritual side would hopefully have evolved to a benign and graceful state in the recognition that the universe is home to creation on a huge scale.
Of course, there is always the black sheep in the family!