Australian Speculative Fiction: A Genre Overview
By Donna Maree Hanson
Australian Speculative Fiction Project, 2005
Dear Lord, this book is beautiful. It makes me want to move to Australia and join the sprawling speculative community it evokes. Failing that, I'll just sit and stroke it, if that's okay.
Ahem. To start more seriously, Australian Speculative Fiction: A Genre Overview does a wonderful job at what it sets out to do. It would be fair to say that I've never seen a book of this sort that does what it does so well.
What does this book do? Its first function is exactly what the title and subtitle indicates: a broad overview of speculative fiction considered in its most inclusive terms, focusing on the present. The first section (pgs. 1-135) provides one-page introductions to the lives and works of speculative fiction writers. The second section (pgs. 138-153) provides two-page overviews of the lives and works of speculative illustrators. The third section focuses on short fiction venues, returning to the one-topic-per-page model for individual magazines, then moving to a more detailed discussion (i.e., roughly two pages per anthology) when discussing book-length collections. The fourth section focuses on new writers and reduces the coverage to a half-page per writer. The appendices provide tables of contents to magazines and anthologies publishing (primarily) Australian short fiction (meaning some are all Australian, while some are published in Australia but include outsiders).
Australian Speculative Fiction's second function is achieved through its high production standards—this is extremely high quality promotional material. The texture and weight of the paper makes the book seem like a catalog for a special exhibition at an art gallery; it is a souvenir and a wonder in itself. The design makes it immediately useful and again, a bit of a marvel. The authorial profiles that dominate the book start with the author's name in bold, then the text with a small photo inset in the lower left corner, and a photo of one of the author's books in the upper right corner. In most cases, the profile ends with the URL for the author's web site, again in bold. On the right hand pages, the page numbers are framed by cute line drawings that alternate between dragons and robots—obvious icons for fantasy and science fiction—which create a balanced inclusion and continuity in the design elements. Every aspect of ASF states that speculative fiction is worth serious attention, and, quite frankly, that it is worth serious money. If I were an investor, I would want to plunk money down; readers will no doubt find many places to get rid of smaller sums.
I dwell on these factors at length because they set ASF apart from most genre studies published in the United States, which bear the mark of the pulps or the small press. There is dignity and, again, useful self-promotion in this book even when the authors are discussing intergalactic chicken jokes (seriously).
Returning attention to the content, one might rightly ask what depth is possible in such a broad view. The answer is very little. Australian Speculative Fiction should be treated instead as a map. It is useful for guiding the exploration of this literary territory, which will be new to most American readers. In fact, easy parallels can be drawn between the clichéd images of Australia many of us have seen (Ayers Rock, the Sydney Opera House) and the few high-profile Australian speculative fiction authors (Jack Dann, Garth Nix, Sean McMullen, K.J. Bishop, Margo Lanagan) many of us have read and loved. We know what these “high points" look like, but we don't know how they fit into the larger terrain, how they relate, how to get from one to another, what surrounds them, etc. To carry the metaphor further, most of us don't know about the local "hidden treasures" which are just as breathtaking.
At least, I didn't know many of these writers. I certainly plan to seek some of them out and to read works by the better known authors that I hadn't heard of. The most intriguing (and most obvious sign of my ignorance) is Mudrooroo, an aboriginal writer writing Australian magical realism. On the lighter side, I have to check out Justin D'Ath's work, if only for him having the guts to write a book titled Why Did The Chykkan Cross The Galaxy?
But a map is more than a neutral guide to a given territory. It is also a representation of that territory, and necessarily a selective one, so the questions legitimately arise: "What sort of world is Australian speculative fiction?" and, closely related, "What is Australian about the speculative fiction written here?" The answers are varied, interesting, and at times disappointing.
The variations run in themes threaded through the authors' self-descriptions. Many of them indicate that they aren't consciously trying to write Australian science fiction, and some express a desire to push back against the cliché of what it means to be Australian. Others explicitly seek a more universal story and suggest that anything Australian in their fiction is simply that which leaks in.
Some clearly use Australian settings, culture, and history consciously, shaping worlds that are familiar to them but will be pleasantly new to non-Australian readers; Lee Battersby is planning a novel set in Botany Bay, while Andrew Sullivan's A Sunburnt Country is set in an Australia shaped by 30+ years of drought.
Two classes of topics dominate the books described in these pages. One is books that work in specifically science fictional traditions, such as space opera. The other is books that re-use elements from the European fantasy tradition. In many cases, it is clear that the Australian element is barely extant; these writers are just a few more mining a previously established vein. Other times, though, one can see the "Australian-ness" in the author's treatment of the material. Garth Nix's Sabriel/Old Kingdom series is a good example here. The books describe a land divided between old and new traditions, between magical technologies "organic" to the land and new, mechanical technologies. The necromancers in these books use music to augment their magic, allowing them to deal with the threatening undead or strange spirits. Such magic users walk in a different reality from daily life. The land described is politically fractured, and there's a great sense of distance from centers of power and historical origins. Though the books are wonderfully resonant and can be read on their own, all of this seems a displaced commentary on Australia, with elements of Nix's magic system riffing on aboriginal beliefs.
In his profile, author Joel Shepard comments on popularity of fantasy as a creation of a "White Dreamtime" that reworks the European tradition to help Australians find and create their heritage. More generally, what seems to unify these works as Australian is a sense of humor, democratic tendencies (in the works, and in the community), and, like Canadian SF, the clear sense voiced in different ways by different authors that their own culture is not the dominant one. These writers can neither assume their culture is the only one, nor that it is natural. The result is fiction with a texture that is almost as interesting as the physical textures of the pages of Australian Speculative Fiction . . . but perhaps you'd like to pick up a copy and judge for yourselves.