Lights, Cameras, Eco-Action! – Self, Intertextuality, and Environment in “Stark” and “The Bluebird Cafe”
by Cathy Cupitt

“The Force will be with you always,”1 Obi Wan Kenobi told his apprentice Luke Skywalker. Yoda added, “it is in you and surrounds you. It is between you and the rock, the rock and the land, the land and the ship”2.

I think this is a pretty astute metaphor for the environment. We hardly ever really recognise it, yet it always ‘surrounds’ us, and we have a relationship with its components. Usually a utilitarian relationship, as we pick a tomato, kick a football, or breath the air (or levitate a spaceship if you’re a Jedi Knight). The environment is a constant backdrop to both our lives and our fictions, but its presence is often assumed or unnoticed. But more often than we realise we define ourselves by it, by our relationship with it, as Yoda does. In this essay I wish to explore how two recent Australian Science Fiction (SF) novels, Stark3 and The Bluebird Cafe,4 use the environment to define notions of self.

The Self and the Environment

Without wishing to spend the rest of this essay bogged down in a debate about Cartesian philosophy, I feel I must come up with a working definition of the phrase ‘notions of self’. The psychological definition of ‘self’ is:

A person’s framework of self-referential meaning – cognitive and affective perceptions of self-as-object, arising from innate dispositions and social interactions across a lifetime, characterised by thought, feeling and action relative to a social structure of roles, rules, norms and values.5

The ‘notions’ of this definition that I think most important are thoughts, feelings and actions, and it is these aspects of self that I will examine with reference to the environment.

What, then, is the ‘environment’? There are two main meanings of the word. First, it means “surrounding”6, or more explicitly, the “aggregate of surrounding things, conditions or influences”7 of a place. This usage of the term is relative, “it is always the environment of … some location”8. The second meaning of ‘environment’ is: “the biological conditions in which an organism lives, especially a balanced system”9.

Space School: Thinking Star Arks and Earth Domes

Remaking authentic communities into packaged forms of themselves, re-creating environments in one place that actually belong somewhere else, creating theme parks and lifestyle-segregated communities, and space travel and colonization – all are symptomatic of the same modern malaise: a disconnection from a place on Earth that we can call Home.10

The world we are introduced to in Stark is much like our own, in which ecological apocalypse is recognised as being likely and imminent. However, unlike our world, where it is easy and normal to “act on an everyday basis as though [this] fear has no real value”11, in Stark a powerful group of people are attempting to solve the problems associated with humanly caused environmental degradation. Not in terms of changing human behaviour, or by developing a sustainable biosphere, but by leaving the planet for a man-made ecosystem in space.

Where does this fit in to the environment defining notions of self? I think this idea of fleeing the Earth for a ‘clean’ start in space, is a particular ideology that has permeated many modern cultures (cultures influenced by American fiction and television, I suspect). It is a mindset that sees the present environment as no more than a place of production, rather than as a home. This mindset is at the heart of Stark, revealed in all its sinister capitalist (il)logic, and is shared by many of us in the ‘real’ world. I am guilty of it too. It is hard to escape if you’re a fan of SF. For every critique of the ‘tin can in space’ techno-logic (such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Babylon 5 ), there is an inane Star Trek episode selling space as the final answer.

This insidious ‘me first’ attitude is voiced best by Slampacker:

‘Young man you speak for all of us here and also those who attend in spirit,’ said Slampacker. ‘We are all of us engaged in one activity or another that is destroying the environment, we don’t like the fact, we wish we weren’t, but in the long run what can we do?’ (p. 53.)

“What can we do?” he asks. For he is defining himself as something separate, and ‘other’, rather than as an integral part of the environment. According to this self definition the environment is not something that ‘surrounds’, but is something ‘out there’ to be exploited. And if the ecology is out of balance, it is not Slampacker’s responsibility or concern to re-balance it. Instead the solution is a privileged conspiracy of escape, and it is no accident that the cover image chosen is of a resort, not unlike the Historic Museum Village of Copperfield. For it too is representative of a type of ‘space school’ thinking.

It has been suggested that ‘environment’ is defined though “the action of the entering and occupying humans: to have an environment is to have entered and remained”12. But Slampacker, and his cohorts, no longer ‘remain’, they cannot be ‘environed’ because they do not belong anyplace. However, if they were truly ‘other’ the environmental problems so central to Stark would not translate into survival problems for the ‘Slampackers’.

This self-definition of the ‘Slampackers’ of the novel is shown to be false. By failing to define themselves as part of the environment, they destroy the Earth which sustains them. They leave the planet they have made uninhabitable for a created environment that kills them with its awfulness.

Yet even this false definition of self is, I think, meant to be a type of revelation. In the Stark world the characters are all aware of the environment in a way we seldom allow ourselves to be. All too often, nature for us is “present only by the fact of its utter denial”13.

“The impression that human affairs are not in fundamental ways subject to regulation by the environment is created by our ostensible success at regulating it. This blindness to the environment produces unintended destabilizing consequences like skin lesions from the ozone hole, owing partly to the products of cooling technologies that have insulated us from confronting the scandal of our environmental dependence.”14

In The Bluebird Café, the Historic Museum Village of Copperfield is representative of a similar ideology. It is a self-contained snow dome writ large. Tourists can see:

… a monstrous dome, … in which the models of people have come to life and where trees and flowers really grow The surface of the dome is cleaned inside and out every morning by a system of detergent jets and hot-water hoses and fans. The ventilation system of the dome has been described as the ultimate miracle of modern engineering. (p. 3.)

It is an unreal place due to its divorce from the environment. And its presence creates destabilising ripples that permeate the surrounding environment.

It doesn’t age, or get dirty, or have real people living in it. It is “a metaphor of preservation on the principle of enclosure”15, similar to that endorsed by the Star Arks. Nancy Best recognises that the dome is the key when she states that “without the dome Copperfield would be just another theme park.” (p. 6.)

In fact, the dome is not only a metaphor of preservation, it denies destruction. Denies the ozone hole has any potency, by providing a new, better sky. Denies the environmental destruction that mining caused in the surrounds of the original Copperfield, by not reproducing the toxicity and scars inside the park. And it has silenced, by overwriting, the pre-existing history of the land it is sited on. Cute images are all that are left of the Aboriginal presence – their “soul stones” (p. 136) on public display, along with photo-postcards (p. 9.). Also overwritten, of course, is “the suburb of Trevallyn [which] had to be removed to make way for Copperfield” (p. 4.).

Once again this view of our environment as something we can separate ourselves from, and then control, is posited by ultra successful capitalists – The Best People. Again they are secretive and exploitative, as demonstrated by Nancy’s hypocritical letter describing Copperfield as full of “crackpot religion and stickybeak show-offs” (p. 24.)

Within the Historic Village, reality and authenticity become problematic. In an unchanging environment, the forces of life which surround us become invisible. So “it is at once every place and no place; it is on the land, but not of it”16.

Both Stark and The Bluebird Cafe critique the capitalist notions of how to think the world. Particularly the notions of defining ourselves as separate from our surroundings, rather than an integral part of an ecological balance. They suggest that “uprooted as we all are, not attached to any place in particular, anyplace can now be anywhere, and authentic places can become “theme parks” of themselves”17. According to this ideology space is as good a place as Earth in which to live and despoil.

Filming our Feelings: Laughter, Loss and Lovelygod

I think that in Stark Elton taps into the guilt and loss many of us feel in relation to our environment. His humour enables a cathartic release of tension. Elton is very aware of this aspect of humour. “This, he says, is the universal basis of comedy. Personal fear, insecurity, and self-doubt are where it all springs from. Flaws which are missing from the image modern Western society likes to project of its people and its icons”18.

This is not a subtle commentary. We have Dave the dolphin, gone forever due to our hunger for tuna (p. 43-44). We have the members of EcoAction with their confused reasons for becoming eco-warriors. Like Rachel, lost and guilty without any particular focus, and searching for a Cause: “for a long time she had been uncomfortably aware that she was wasting her time and that she didn’t really care about anything” (p. 26.). And then there is Zimmerman, driven mad by an insane world he sees more clearly than anyone else, because Zimmerman is physically part of the environment in a way most of us never are.

One moment he was walking through the jungle not decided on the subject [of weapons of war] either way, the next moment his private parts were hanging off a nearby tree and he knew he didn’t like bombs. (p. 83.)

These people are defined by their ambiguous feelings about the environment, unlike the ‘Slampackers’ who are defined by a rampant capitalist ideology. The cathartic effect of the book undermines this expose of modern mores, however, because it becomes all too easy for us to laugh self-concern away.

Carmel Bird’s development of these themes is much more subtle, and raises issues of representation and inter-textuality. For her, loss and guilt are tied up with how we contextualise and read the landscape. To bring this point home she has created Lovelygod’s story, with all its links to the Australian tradition of ‘Lost in the Bush’. Rather than allowing a fixed ‘closure’, in which we are sure of events, Bird’s narrative postulates multiple versions of Lovelygod’s disappearance, which raises the question: how ‘real’ can different versions of the same thing be?

This theme is also explored through the use of photography. As photographic impressions are taken, we are shown they can offer alternate ‘truths’.

Vincent O’Day studied the print of the picture for a long time, wondering about the effects of the light, the truth of the suggestion in the picture, the meaning of the way in which the natures of Doll and FX seemed to have been transferred. (p. 38).

Photographs are reproduced for the replica Bluebird Cafe (p. 9), they are lost in time when the O’Day’s house is destroyed (p. 121), they are partially destroyed by silverfish (p. 45), they are inside people’s heads (p. 29). All these levels of reproduction, transformation and replication get confusing. I find myself wondering how to interpret a description of a replica of a replica that doesn’t reflect ‘reality’ anyway.

Is this confusion true of the narrative as well? If “Lovelygod’s story echoes the displaced Mathinna’s, the diminutive Truganini’s, and the exotic Azaria’s”19 as well as the mythic Picnic at Hanging Rock, does that make all of it true? Untrue? A reflection of something that never existed? Because of this textual confusion “the landscape of the imagination becomes as significant as, perhaps more significant than the physical landscape”20. In The Bluebird Cafe the landscape of the imagination can be both a “brooding, impersonal backdrop or capricious protagonist”21 at the same time as it is an object for exploitation, and a home. We are lost in a landscape of possibility.

How characters define themselves against their surroundings is no longer a matter of didactic certainty (as in Stark), but becomes a problem to be decoded by the reader, as hinted at by the “Reader’s Guide to The Bluebird Cafe” (p. 155-180).

Wether we should feel guilty about environmental exploitation is only inferred through our insight into Bedrock Mean’s reaction to the loss of her daughter. “The potency of th[is] environmental text consist[s] not just in the reader’s transaction with it but also in reanimating and redirecting the reader’s transactions with nature”22.

This metafictional technique raises many questions of representation, for “if our writing does not reflect some bedrock reality, then what does it reflect?”23 Can our feelings ever really be engaged with, or defined by, the environment? Or will our feelings always be based on our own, intertextually loaded interpretations and representations of our surroundings?


In Stark action is shown to be both generally lacking and useless when it is tried. This is because the characters are flawed by an ambivalence towards the environment. This ambivalence is understandable in the face of the capitalist imperative, and it is a feeling I share. It is all too easy to identify with this description of CD:

CD considered himself an ecologically concerned person. And yet, like everybody else, he would sooner use a clean cup than wash up a dirty one.” (p. 6.)

Can you hear the echoes? Would sooner use a tissue than a handkerchief. Would sooner use a disposable nappy that a cloth one. Would sooner use a plastic milk carton than a glass one. Would sooner cut down old growth forest than establish a tree farm. Elton does not just “‘tell it like it is”, he is also “telling it like we are”24!

How can eco-action be effective when this ambiguity underpins motivations? The nuclear protesters in Stark achieve nothing, because when the ships leave, the protesters return to their suburban homes and associated lifestyles. Likewise, in the ‘real’ world we watch the vain attempts of the Exxon Valdez cleanup on our TV’s. By the third or fourth oily seagull we’ve lost interest, and shortly after that Exxon’s cleanup crew does too. Then there is the EcoAction group. “EcoAction isn’t society; it just lives in the same place, along with the cockroaches” reads the blurb on the back of Stark. But it isn’t really true. They still love the odd hamburger, and hate washing up.

Elton paints a picture in which even the eco-warriors cannot leave behind notions of capitalism, and this is the root of the problem. In our society “it is increasingly apparent that environmental ethics is not explanatorily central; rather, we have to define positions in environmental ethics by reference to a range of theories in other areas such as theory of the self”25.

Eco-action in The Bluebird Cafe is even more fraught, as the narrative doesn’t have the driving linearity of Stark. In this text we find eco-action primarily in the ‘natural’ domain.

The face of an ornamental griffin can be seen peering from a tangle of creepers that are weaving a green veil across the roof as the forest reaches out to reclaim the landscape. (p. 15-16).

This is the only overt eco-action the book describes. People are not defined by what they do in the environment, so much as they are by what they do to it, or what it does to them.

That nature is shown as ecologically ‘active’, and can effect our surroundings, critiques the capitalist definition of self discussed in relation to Slampacker’s thinking. It implies that “the grass will always grow up through the cracks. Nature probably will survive even if people do not. Total control never works”26.

The ‘Force’ of the Star Wars films is intangible. But it is an ideology that recognises the environment as a powerful element, and people as just one of its components (albeit particularly manipulative ones). It is shown to affect how the actors think, feel, and act. It is older than Yoda, and yet can still be present in a callow youth like Luke. It is a very clever unifying concept. That it is such a popular concept suggests that it feeds a spiritual hunger present in a ‘real’ world of exploitative thinking.

We come up with all sorts of names for the environment, and conceptions about it, in our ‘fictions’ and ‘facts’. Despite our ambiguous feelings for it, we still often use it to define ourselves, even if the definition is negative (‘we are not part of it’). For us, it is not now, and never has been, a ‘fixed’ entity. This becomes apparent when you take an example like Port Arthur. The physical surroundings are unlikely to have significantly changed since the recent massacre, and yet for anyone who watches the news, the ‘psychic’ landscape has been changed there. With this in mind, I can well see why it has been suggested that “mimetic representation is a pipe dream that should be abandoned”27.

The world can be seen as a fabric of our own making. “In the vocabulary of literary theory there is only intertextuality, defined as ‘the process whereby meaning is produced from text to text rather than, as it were, between text and world'”28.

Our conceptions and definitions of the environment are dependent on how we describe it, and how it relates to other descriptions. Stark and The Bluebird Cafe are part of the long tradition of ‘telling’. They too will alter how we think, feel and act in the world, and define ourselves in relation to it. To take this argument to its limit, you could say that:

… it is not simply our accounts of the world that are intertextual; the world itself is intertextual. Places are intertextual sites because various texts and discursive practices based on previous texts are deeply inscribed in their landscapes and institutions. We construct both the world and our actions towards it from texts that speak of who we are or wish to be.29

This sounds endlessly recursive to me: the environment can be said to define notions of self, we define the environment, the newly defined environment defines new notions of self …. its enough to tie the old grey matter into metaphorical knots!

But then, as that great eco-philosopher Kermit the Frog is fond of pointing out, “it isn’t easy being green”30.

A critique of this essay is also available online.


Barnes, T. and Duncan, J. (eds.).
“Introduction: Writing Worlds.” In Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text and Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape. London and New York: Routledge, 1992, 1-17.

Bird, Carmel.
The Bluebird Cafe. Milsons Point, NSW: Vintage, 1996 (first published 1990).

Buell, Lawrence.
“Representing the Environment.” In Ecotexts: Nature, Writing, Technology Reader. Nedlands: The English Department, UWA, 1997, 49-69.

Dunbabin, Kerry.
“Carmel Bird: The Bluebird Cafe.” Preludes: A Literary Annual 6 (October 1990), 14-17.

Elton, Ben.
Stark. London: Sphere Books Limited, 1989.

Harre, R. and Lamb, R. (eds.).
The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Holden, Robert.
“Lost, Stolen or Strayed: From the Australian Babes in the Woods to Azaria Chamberlain.” Voices 1(1) (1991), 58-69.

Kershner, I., Brackett, L. and Kasdan, L.
The Empire Strikes Back (film). USA: Lucasfilm, 1980.

Lucas, George.
Star Wars (film). USA: Lucasfilm, 1977.

Mander, Jerry.
In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991 (paperback 1992).

Mapstone, Naomi.
“In So Many Words.” The Canberra Times, 24 July 1994, 19.

Mazel, David.
“American Literary Environmentalism as Domestic Orientalism.” In Glotfelty, C. and Fromm, H. (eds.). The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1996, 137-146.

Morris, Meaghan.
“Future Fear.” In Ecotexts: Nature, Writing, Technology Reader. Nedlands: The English Department, UWA, 1997, 30-38.

Plumwood, Val.
“Plato and the Bush: Philosophy and the Environment in Australia.” Meanjin 49(3) (1990), 524-536.

Sylvan, R. and Bennett, D.
The Greening of Ethics. Cambridge and Tucson: The White Horse Press and The University of Arizona Press, 1994.

The Macquarie Dictionary,
2nd Revised Edition. Macquarie University, NSW: Macquarie Library, 1989.

Wilson, Alexander.
“Technological Utopias: World’s Fairs and Theme Parks.” In Ecotexts: Nature, Writing, Technology Reader. Nedlands: The English Department, UWA, 1997, 117-134.

Secondary References

Bird, Carmel.
“Some of the Ghosts: Growing up in Tasmania.” Australian Literary Studies 14(2) (1989), 251-253.

Bird, Carmel.
The Common Rat. Ringwood, Victoria: McPhee Gribble, 1993.

Gambotto, Antonella.
“Ben Elton.” Lunch of Blood. Milsons Point, NSW: Random House, 1994, 100-105.

Lever, Susan.
“Seduced by Satin and Lace.” Island 56 (1993), 24-28.

Livett, Jennifer.
“Small Worlds.” Island 45 (1990), 28-31.

Tacey, David.
Edge of the Sacred: Transformation in Australia. North Blackburn, Victoria: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

Thompson, Christina.
“Lost in the Bush.” Women’s Review of Books (July 1991), 17-18.

Wood, Danielle.
“Ben Elton: The Accidental Cusader.” The Mercury, 28 July 1994, 25,27.


  1. George Lucas (director and writer), Star Wars (film) (USA: Lucasfilm, 1977).
  2. Irvin Kershner (director), Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (writers), The Empire Strikes Back (film) (USA: Lucasfilm, 1980). This is a paraphrase from memory, but reasonably close to the original.
  3. Ben Elton, Stark (London: Sphere Books Limited, 1989). All quotes are from this edition and page numbers are given in text.
  4. Carmel Bird, The Bluebird Cafe (Milsons Point, NSW: Vintage, 1996 [first published 1990]). All quotes are from this edition and page numbers are given in text.
  5. R. Harre and R. Lamb (eds.), The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Psychology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), p. 558.
  6. Richard Sylvan and David Bennett, The Greening of Ethics (Cambridge and Tucson: The White Horse Press and The University of Arizona Press, 1994), p. 36.
  7. The Macquarie Dictionary, 2nd Revised Edition (Macquarie University, NSW: Macquarie Library, 1989), p. 592.
  8. Sylvan and Bennett, p. 36.
  9. The Macquarie Dictionary, p. 592.
  10. Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991 [paperback 1992]), p. 158.
  11. Meaghan Morris, “Future Fear,” In Ecotexts: Nature, Writing, Technology Reader (Nedlands: The English Department, UWA, 1997), p. 34.
  12. Mazel, p. 140.
  13. Alexander Wilson, “Technological Utopias: World’s Fairs and Theme Parks,” In Ecotexts: Nature, Writing, Technology Reader (Nedlands: The English Department, UWA, 1997), p. 125.
  14. Lawrence Buell, “The Environmental Imagination,” In Ecotexts: Nature, Writing, Technology Reader (Nedlands: The English Department, UWA, 1997), p. 63.
  15. Ian Saunders, Eco-texts lecture. University of Western Australia, 18 August 1997.
  16. Wilson, p. 128.
  17. Mander, p. 158.
  18. Naomi Mapstone, “In So Many Words,” The Canberra Times, 24 July 1994, p. 19.
  19. Kerry Dunbabin, “Carmel Bird: The Bluebird Cafe,” Preludes: A Literary Annual, 6 (October 1990), 14-17. This from p. 15.
  20. Robert Holden, “Lost, Stolen or Strayed: From the Australian Babes in the Woods to Azaria Chamberlain,” Voices 1(1) (1991), p. 58-69. This from p. 61.
  21. Holden, p. 69.
  22. Buell, p. 56.
  23. Trevor Barnes and James Duncan (eds.), “Introduction: Writing Worlds,” In Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text and Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 2.
  24. Barnes and Duncan, p. 3.
  25. Val Plumwood, “Plato and the Bush: Philosophy and the Environment in Australia,” Meanjin 49(3) (1990), p. 524-536. This from p. 527.
  26. Mander, p. 157.
  27. Barnes and Duncan, p. 13.
  28. Barnes and Duncan, p. 2. Quoting from Rylance.
  29. Barnes and Duncan, p. 7-8.
  30. Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie (or was it The Muppets Take Manhattan?)

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