“Welcome to the new terra nullius

Reviewed by Emily L. Kring

Drew Hayden Taylor’s familiarity with genre fiction is clear in his exploration of the narrative topics central to science fiction and, like his past work, Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories invokes recognizable genre tropes to craft allegorical readings of the historical and ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples and their lands. “Welcome to the new terra nullius,” he beckons: from a time-traveller’s encounter with Anishinaabe petroglyphs, to the violent incursion of hostile outsiders, to the corporeal effect of abysmal water conditions on reserves, Taylor’s collection of short stories balances recognizability with narrative originality to “expand the boundaries of what is considered Native literature.” Taylor demonstrates his signature irreverent, quip-based humour, pairing it with detailed world-building to engage robots, superheroes, alien invasions, apocalypse, sentient artificial intelligence, time travel, authoritarian government surveillance, and environmental degradation. This combination of detail and sardonic humour makes Take Us to Your Chief an enjoyable read largely bereft of the self-serious gravitas typically accompanying these classic tropes of the genre: one character glimpses an extraterrestrial tentacle and craves calamari, and another wonders if his briefly sentient childhood toy will watch him on the toilet.

Indeed, the most unsettling thing Taylor invokes is a lurking, infinitely complex bureaucracy that stipulates and thus stifles our encounters with things remarkable or wondrous. Kyle, the queer “super-Aboriginal” protagonist of “Superdisappointed,” cannot fly lest he disrupt local air traffic, spook dairy cows, and disturb a “rare and protected bird.” Constantly saddled with legal trouble due to his “status as an Aboriginal superhero”—with his lawyer “writing a book about the legal implications of superherodom, with Kyle as her lab rat . . . or muskrat, in accordance with his Aboriginal heritage”—Kyle’s dilemma recalls the labyrinthine triangulation of Indian status, legality, and identity under colonial authority. Taylor’s constant references to the systems that undergird our social organizations cleverly remind us that his dystopian scenarios are not far from the disturbingly precise mechanics of colonial bureaucracy—tentacles aside, of course.

The stories share a similar voice and didactic style, such that the nine narratives sometimes read as similar versions of each other. Both a strength and a weakness, this sense of familiarity occasionally comes at the expense of a host of distinct, individual characters with whom a reader might become familiar. That said, because Take Us to Your Chief runs the gamut of science-fiction tropes and addresses many issues of relevance for Indigenous literary studies in an accessible, engaging way, it would be an excellent collection to teach in undergraduate classes. The pairing of recognizable tropes with relevant issues could help learners who are new to Indigenous literary studies immediately reject the conception that Indigenous peoples and futurity are somehow antithetical—something Taylor continuously alludes to, with stories referencing specious archaeological claims and settler society’s propensity to ogle Indigenous peoples, cultures, and stories as artifacts of a bygone past. Take Us to Your Chief and Other Stories is a valuable contribution to the fields of Indigenous literary studies and science fiction, and an entertaining collection that’ll ensure you’re too preoccupied with turning its pages to note any spectacular portents—alien or AI—beyond your copy of the book.

This review ““Welcome to the new terra nullius”” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 168-169.

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