A CANBERRA filmmaker-actor-academic who once taught a course at the ANU called “Being Human in the Information Age” has written a futuristic novel set in what looks suspiciously like Australia’s national capital.
“Ben: The Boy From Nowhere” is a work of young adult fiction by Ian Hart, well known to patrons of Canberra REP for his eccentric stage performances and at Screen Canberra, where he has participated in POD projects.
The book is set in Coolabah City, set around an artificial lake called Lake Gryphon, and featuring local landmarks like a water spout and a carillon on Aspro Island – Hart has even published a map. Where the Department of Defence offices sit is an edifice resembling Trump Tower in which the villain, developer/hotelier Ghastly Gorgon lives, below which, feeding the urban myth that Canberra is home to an underground city, lies a web of tunnels and surveillance rooms.
As an educationist and sceptic, Hart does not subscribe to the latter theory, although it’s evident in his book that he’s had an enormous amount of fun horsing around with Canberra’s history and architectural character.
He’s also had fun trying to capture the lingo of a bunch of teenagers at Coolabah High School who bully, text, and bandy around insults like “wanksta” or “greasy snowflake”, while exclaiming “amaze-balls’ at anything surprising.
At one level the book explores the bonds of teenage friendship and what it means to be human. The 13-year-old protagonists, teenage genius Tom Chan, and his neighbour Bethany ‘Biff’ Potts, a Taekwondo black belter with a sharp tongue and punch, are always getting into trouble at school. But when Tom tries to repair the 3D printer in his professor father’s lab, he accidentally clones himself.
The result is the “boy from nowhere”, his new “identical twin” Ben, who has an exceptional capacity for empathy and a photographic memory.
But villainy lurks in the streets of Coolabah City and Ghastly Gorgon, aided by a sidekick called Fräulein Doktor Schmerz, straight out of James Bond, plots to get hold of the 3D technology.
“The book was originally titled ‘My Brother Ben’ and it was told from the point of view of Tom, but now each part of the story is told by different people,” Hart says, proudly revealing that Biff, the petite martial-arts expert is modelled on his own granddaughter.
There are two other narrators, Ghastly Gorgon, the maltreated obese nephew of the villain and Biff’s fashionista cousin Pandora, who turns out to be a bit better than her vacuous classmates.
Hart is a deeply theatrical person and a dedicated follower of the Goons who fine-tuned his skills as a drama student and campus star actor at UNSW, then studied education at Sydney University and film-making at the London International Film School, later working at Film Australia for five years.
His villains are exceedingly villainous, the heroes very brave and those in between satirical caricatures from consumer culture as Hart lays into everything from rampant development in Canberra to Chinese takeaway.
The deliberately wacky, over-the-top melodrama that ensues involves not just Tom, Ben and Biff but their classmates and a rag-bag of very weird, half-cloned creatures, good and bad.
Hart’s quite obvious familiarity with online culture can be put down to his years as head of media resources CCAE, followed by 14 years teaching digital media and educational technology at the University of Hong Kong, a job he and his family loved – he has children and grandchildren still living there.
Mandated early retirement in Hong Kong led them back home to Scullin, from which Hart taught digital studies at the ANU on contract, acted in shows at REP and became involved in film-making again.
As part of a Screen Canberra low-cost budget film “POD” Screen Canberra aimed at connecting writers and content producers with pathways to production and distribution, he came up with the cloning scenario, wrote a script and was a PAGE International Screenwriting Awards finalist.
But Hart says, planning a film is very different from getting a budget to produce it, so when his grandson suggested to him that he turn it into a book, he went ahead, also recording an audio version in his home recording studio.
“For Canberrans I think my book will be a kind of a game,” Hart says.
Google “Ben: The Boy From Nowhere” to secure a copy.