Yesterday morning, Dr Dennis Jensen — who lost preselection for his seat of Tangney this month — self-published the novel that undid him. The Skywarriors is now $6.51 on Kindle.
“Obviously there’s not going to be any particular damage done now,” Jensen told Crikey. “I decided not to do it in 2007 … but given I’m leaving Parliament, I wanted people to see what kind of book it was.”
Jensen feels the book has been mischaracterised by people who don’t understand its genre. After an article revealing the book’s existence in The Australian described the novel’s “surprisingly graphic sex scenes”, subsequent reporting started calling it a work of erotic fiction.
I don’t agree with this characterisation. It’s a fairly standard military thriller in the style of Tom Clancy, whom Jensen nominates as one of his favourite authors. The overwhelming majority of the book is taken up with intensely detailed descriptions of military weaponry and tactics. Scoff if you want, but Clancy’s sales are proof plenty of people love this stuff. Once you read the book, it becomes clear that the The Skywarriors’ eroticism tag is preposterous. The only things described in explicit and loving detail in the 200-page novel are military operations. As for the sex that is in there — well, it’s hardly in there! The one sex scene is brief and towards the beginning — the villain gets a blowjob. Jensen ain’t no Anais Nin — not that he was trying to be.
The plot (skip the next two pars if you don’t want it spoiled) begins in the years immediately after the end of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. A period of unstable coalition governments ends with a military coup conducted by the former head of Indonesia’s armed forces, the populist General Rajiv Rono. His wife doesn’t understand him, but he has a favoured mistress, Jasmine, who does. He touches her breasts, which are clumsily described as not needing a bra, and she gives him a blowjob in the early chapters — this is the most “erotic” part of the book. Rono and Jasmine are united by their shared hatred of Australia. Shortly after coming to power, he launches a number of incursions on both Australian territory and Papua New Guinea. An attempt to place economic sanctions on Indonesia through the UN is vetoed by China (who Rono has secretly on-side), leaving Australia in military conflict with Indonesia. America decides to stay out of it, but the home team still achieves victory.
The Skywarriors after which the book is named are a trio of air force pilots who take part in many of the missions Australia engages in to take back territory. Frank James is a thrill-seeking top pilot whose long-time navigator, a close friend, is killed early on in the book. The navigator is replaced by Jenny Peters, a rookie intent on proving her worth in the male-dominated air force. James and Peters have a rocky relationship to start with, but come to respect and rely on each other as the conflict drags on. Steve “Baldy” Garibaldi is a charming, self-effacing American pilot who joins the Australian forces. He and Peters start dating (no, Jensen never writes them a sex scene), but James also has feelings for Peters. The love triangle isn’t really solved by the end. In the epilogue, some time after the the last mission, Peters and Garibaldi are on a beach discussing how Rono managed to stay in power and blame the whole thing on his (rather sympathetic) military chief, whom he has had killed.
There’s no denying The Skywarriors needs an editor, or at least a second pair of eyes. Elemental mistakes — passive sentences, irrelevant exposition, odd descriptions, missing or incorrect words — are legion.
But if the book has a more serious weakness, it’s that the villains, while occasionally intriguing, seem less and less of a threat as the book goes on. Faced with a changing military situation, Rono doesn’t adapt well. He’s described as a clever, ambitious autocrat, but under pressure he displays few of the characteristics one would think you’d need to attain that reputation. His secret weapon — the Chinese army — is totally and bewilderingly useless. Because of their totalitarianism, the Chinese forces don’t adapt well to the resourcefulness of the Australian military, and are unlikely to learn any lessons from their crushing defeat, one of the Chinese generals explains. The book has plenty of cliff-hangers, but one never gets the sense that victory is anything but assured.
Jensen told Crikey he finished writing the book 15 years ago.
“The political context with the novel now is no longer correct. Times have moved on a long way. This was written in the last days of the Suharto regime.” Asked if he or the government have had any blowback from Indonesian authorities, he said no and that the hoped the Indonesian government would see the spirit in which the book was written. He hopes descriptions of combat are accurate, but he says he had to balance that with telling a good story. “It’s a page-turner.” The book appears to be doing well — it debuted at No. 10 in Amazon’s War category and is 34 in Action and Adventure, though Jensen says he doesn’t have any sales figures yet.
Jensen, who was the first government MP to call for Tony Abbott to resign in February, is suing The Australian over the paper’s coverage of The Skywarriors. He views it as a transparent attempt at character assassination by his rivals — which would never have gotten as much traction if not for the sex scene. “That article wasn’t a balanced representation of the book whatsoever,” he said of the March 31 article. It led on the fact that Jensen had used his parliamentary letterhead to approach an agent about publishing the book — but Jensen, who has previously told The Australian this was a “mistake”, describes that as a “fig leaf” to justify the story. “The whole thing was an attempt to make as much mileage out of the sex scene as they could — they refer to the evangelical Christians who were supporting me.”
Jensen is also fuming about another story published the following day about how he’d moved out of the “family home” to a beach-side property he owned outside his electorate. His opponent, Ben Morton, the piece noted, “lives in Tangney with his wife and two young children”.
“The impression of the first story is that Jensen’s a slut merchant. The second was that Jensen’s left the family and kids and gone to shack up with his new girlfriend while his challenger lives with his wife and young children,” Jensen said. He says his wife left him 18 months ago, after which she stayed in the family home for a while then sold it. The Oz has written that Jensen’s current partner wrote to preselectors mentioning the divorce a month earlier, which it claims undermines Jensen’s belief that the story could have had an influence on the preselection.
Tangney preselectors have twice rejected Jensen in the four elections he’s fought for the seat (which he’s held since 2004). In the lead-up to the 2007 election, John Howard intervened, and in 2009, the Liberal Party state council did the same.
Nonetheless, Jensen, who was the first government MP to call on Tony Abbott to resign in February last year, thinks he had a shot of winning this time, were it not for the stories.
“Early in the week, I had a feeling the whole thing was on a knife-edge. Others thought the same thing. Then the stories were put out on the Thursday and Friday before it.” The result, in the end, wasn’t close — he lost 57-7 to Morton, a former WA Liberal Party state director.