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Editor-in-Chief:
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  • Bluejack
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Publisher: Bluejack

October, 2009 : Interview:

The Coming Dark

Australia, as everyone knows, is at the forefront of the coming environmental apocalypse—hell, we're located almost directly beneath the hole in the ozone layer (which some of our politicians simply regard as a sunroof). Daily, our newspapers are reporting fires, droughts, floods, cyclones, whacked out weather patterns, soil degradation, desalination, excessive salination, koalas with STDs—you name it, we've got it. In short, the wide, brown land is getting wider and browner.

Dust storm hits Sydney
September 22, 2009

Spec-fic writers tend towards the strange, the weird, the unpleasant—that's their writing, not their personalities. We've had the apocalypse penciled in for a while now, so how are some of us going about documenting the coming dark? How is our changing, frayed environment affecting the writing of authors on our side of the literary divide?

A small chunk (really a thin, dietary slice) of these folk grudgingly agreed to answer some questions whilst waiting for the sun to burn and the moon to crash. So I locked them in a small room, put the kettle on and gave them some homemade biscuits to distract them. The subjects ranged across scary strangling vines, Mad Max, whether the environment really is out to get us, and the Age of the Puffin. The writers gromphing down the custard kisses and jam drops (and muttering about mandatory detention) are Deborah Biancotti, Kaaron Warren, Peter Ball and Jason Fischer.

Angela: So, folks, the environment. Friend or foe?

Peter: I'm currently fighting hay fever and the sweltering humidity of Brisbane gearing itself up for summer. I gave up having anything but an antagonistic relationship with my environment years ago.

Deborah: Foe. Why do you think we invented climate control?

Jason: Definitely foe. Make no mistake, the world wants us dead, and is doing its best to shrug us off like a bad idea. And really, it's the least we deserve. At the risk of sounding misanthropic, humanity has earned the right to become a curious footnote in the fossil record. It's high time we made way for the glorious Age of the Puffin.

Kaaron: I love the Puffin. Did you know that there is a dog called the Puffin Hound, which can bend its head back to its spine in order to get into small places to hunt the bird?

Jason: See, even nature itself realises that the Puffin is ascendant! Once these noble birds outwit the Puffin Hound, it is inevitable that they shall not only rule the earth, but eventually colonise the stars. The bird IS the word.

Deborah: Jason is a little weird with the puffin thing.*

Angela: How does the Australian landscape affect what you write and how does the landscape come through in your writing?

Jason: I've lived my whole life in South Australia, the driest state on the driest continent on Earth. At least one of the Mad Max movies was filmed in our state's far north, and our early explorers obsessively searched for an inland sea. They were millions of years too late. A brutal and unforgiving landscape is a pivotal part of nearly everything I write. When we haven't had much rain in two years and swelter in 45 degrees Celsius for weeks on end, it's easy to see how these cruel environments filter into my fiction.

Peter: Australia changes the way you think about age and progress, primarily because finding a building over a hundred years old is actually a big deal when you live here. To discover an ancient landscape in Australia you're relying exclusively on natural settings, many of which scared the hell out of me in my childhood. My first memory of seeing something old came when my parents took me to see a strangler-fig when I was seven or eight—a parasitic vine that'd turned into a local tourist attraction by virtue of its size and longevity. Northern Queensland wasn't the harsh desert that Jason grew up in, but the dark undergrowth of the rainforest meant that killing another tree was the only way the strangler-fig survived and it gave me a feeling of dread that was vaguely reminiscent of the way I'd feel when reading about the ancient evils of HP Lovecraft ten years later. Australia taught me that ancient phenomena are awesome in the traditional sense—hard to comprehend and capable of invoking terror.

Deborah: Jason's got the perfect word for the Australian landscape: unforgiving. And there's something ungenerous about most of it, too: short, stubby, squat plants. We've got a generous amount of space, sure, but most of that is desert and unusable for anything but dying in. I'm not a fan of the "wide brown land" (to quote THAT poem). And don't get me started on the northern rainforests. Sinewy, sweaty, ancient and terrifying. Totally at odds with the comfort of concrete and glass. I do like Tasmania, though (see some local beauty in Peter Dombrovski's photos). But the few times I've written landscape stories, I think it's come off as frightening and alienating—which is exactly how I experience it.

Kaaron: Being away from the Australian bush, living in lush Fiji, all green and overgrown and full of damp, I miss that wide brown land badly. I miss the smell of it, and the dryness of the air. I use the sense of vastness and of danger in some of my stories. We're taught very early on that if you don't understand the bush, you won't survive it if you get lost out there.

The things which scare us are different depending on where we're from. For me, the smell of smoke means a bush fire, which is terrifying. Here in Fiji, they burn off their rubbish all the time, and they eat lovo, which is food cooked in a deep-pit stone oven. So the smell of smoke means cleaning up or a feast. But a small flood can destroy a village so easily, so the sound of heavy rain is what brings a sense of dread.

Angela: Which environmental challenges &/or changes most fascinate you as a writer?

Deborah: Two fundamental items: food and water. There's a growing body of work in 'paranoia literature' about the modern challenges to the production and distribution of food. Books like The End of Food, The Future of Food and Stuffed and Starved are good examples. Sustainability of farming and the costs of the uneven distribution of food are leading to some unsettling dramatic quirks. And the more we try to fix it, the more we screw it up. For example, bio-fuels. We try to make fuel from corn, thinking it'll be better for the environment than fossil fuels. Suddenly farmers in developing countries can't afford to eat because they and all their neighbours are growing corn, no one's growing food crops, and the corn they're producing is too expensive for anyone to afford as a dinner ingredient.

Water, of course, is in worse straits. In Australia (which is 40% desert) we're looking down the barrel of desalination plants to produce enough potable water—but one of the byproducts of desalination is, of course, salt. Masses of it. So what do you do with all the salt? If you dump it on the ground you'll kill farming in that area. Guess you could sell it cheap to the fast food conglomerates and run an ad campaign telling people how good it is for them.

Jason: And salt used to be a symbol of obscene wealth! We simply need to send it back in time in exchange for clean water and unicorns. Much like Deborah, I'm fascinated by a lack of water and other resources, the weakness of civilisation in these distant places, the chance of dying alone hundreds of miles from help, all of these things become important challenges in my particular brand of the post apocalyptic tale.

Peter: I think the most fascinating challenges the environment offers us are psychological rather than physical. While we've spent the last hundred years living in a rapidly changing world, it sometimes seems like our culture's ability to conceptualise that world hasn't caught up with the realities of modern life. We can understand an environmental problem intellectually, but the immediate and local satisfaction of cars and cell phones continue to influence our behaviour far more than the threat of the greenhouse effect. Just as the plight of the individual is a more powerful narrative tool than a threat to the many as the emotional impetus for a story, the immediate concerns of the local environment consistently trump the world-wide impact of our behaviours.

Angela: What types of environments have you used in your writing most often? Urban, pastoral, tropical, industrial? How is this influenced by your current environment (i.e. an escape from, a reflection of, etc)?

Jason: I favour Outback-type settings in my writing, which is more or less a product of my Mad Max fixations above anything else ... As 95% of our population huddles against the somewhat fertile coastline, it's funny that so much of my writing focuses on our brutal interior. I've certainly visited these places, but wouldn't enjoy living there. So in a way this type of writing is an escape for me, a frontier fantasy of sorts.

Deborah: Urban. I live in the city, I work in the city, I love the city. Remoteness freaks me out. The suburbs are too dark and who the hell knows what's going on behind closed doors? I've started using familiar settings more and more. Right now I'm writing an apocalyptic novella which features a lot of my favourite pieces of Sydney as a background for a visit by the goddess Ishtar. Why not, eh? I'm also a crime novel fan (Chandler, Moseley, McClean, Robotham, Child), and one of the things I love about crime writing is how strong the sense of place is, how concrete the details are. I'm following the lead in my own fiction now.

I grew up in Queensland, traveled back and forth along the 'badlands' of the coastal roads between Townsville and Mackay (see Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland). In my mind the idea of 'going bush' is synonymous with chaos, an unruled and unruly place. Whenever I'm asked to go camping I reply, "What about all the axe murderers?!" A few of my short stories show a paranoia about space and distance and the dark. I'm almost, but not quite, agoraphobic, I think.

Peter: I tend to write urban areas with a strong transitive undercurrent—there's a part of me that's drawn to the anonymity of the hotel and the cultural freedom associated with tourist destinations. I grew up in areas built around tourist destinations and retirement villages, so the notion of impermanence is ingrained in the way I think of urban locales.

Kaaron: I often use suburbia as a setting because, as Deb says, there are all those closed doors to force open. But my suburbia is a shift sideways from the one I know. One of the reasons I decided not to become a journalist is because I hate sticking to the truth. So my environments are created to suit the story I want to tell. I love that stuff!

Angela: In the environmental stories you've written, have you aimed the story at near-future, far-future, alt-history, or some other setting? Why?

Kaaron: More your alternate universe, I'd say. I write stuff that isn't quite this world. In "The Left Behind" the time is the future, but not possibly our future, I don't think.

Jason: Usually in the near-future, because that's terrifying enough! I have played with another pseudo-Australian setting in "For Want of a Jesusman" (Aurealis #42), a fantasy world much in the vein of Stephen King's Gunslinger books, or Sean Williams' Books of the Change. The deadly landscape is a constant undercurrent to the stories I've written in this setting. I've married the frightened-settler mindset to this locale, and it all occurs many decades after an apocalyptic event. I was aiming for an Australian feel to a science fiction story, and think I've successfully nailed it. In a roundabout way, this setting is an homage to Terry Dowling's Rynocerros books, which taught me about literary SF.

Deborah: I'm with Jason: near-future stories are turning out to be my favourite. I'm increasingly fascinated by the real world, the nuts and bolts of how it works and the implications of that for the short-term. I love the mundane SF of writers like Geoff Ryman, or the oddness of realistic-but-fantastical stories of your average superhero.

Peter: I lean towards fantasy over science fiction in my work, so I tend to prefer a fractured reflection of the present above all else. Near future settings would run a close second, but the immediacy of an altered version of the present is a useful tool for prompting people to actively engage with the aspects, both present and absent, that are reflected in their local environment.

Angela: Who else is writing the environmental apocalypse with aplomb these days? Your heroes?

Deborah: To go offshore, I'm a big fan of Canadian Peter Watts' end-of-the-world series, Starfish. Watts implies humanity will face destruction because of its own chaotic nature. There's a lot to love about that theory. Also on the subject of end-of-humanity is the work of local lad Sean Williams, who has an interest in the post–human universe (see Geodesica). And then there's the environmental disaster novel, The Last Albatross, by another local, Ian Irvine. And another Australian (well, partly: one of several Brits who fled to Australia after WWII), Nevil Shute. We studied his book On the Beach at school and man, that book has stuck with me.

Peter: Paulo Bacigalupi continues to nail this issue in a way that very few people have when it comes to the physical issues. I remain consistently smitten with the work of Brett Easton Ellis when it comes to interrogating the fact that humanity now exists within a media-soaked environment built on a foundation of excess and conspicuous consumption.

Deborah: And Bacigalupi's references to "futurism" rather than "sustainability" are an interesting slant on working with the environment. Not just clinging madly to what we have now (sustainability), but looking at new ways of dealing and expanding in the future.

Jason: My all-time favourite novel of environmental apocalypse has got to be Gabrielle Lord's Salt. Hands down. This book is simply brilliant, realistic, gritty. Humanity's lingering end is brought about through our own short-sighted stupidity. The land is choked with salt, the water-table is polluted beyond repair, and I honestly got chills from reading this. If I had to pick two runners-up, they would be Stark by Ben Elton and Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Bradon. All of these are Aussie-themed and brilliant, though the last two are definitely of a humorous bent.

Kaaron: Funny you should mention Salt. I met Gabrielle Lord a couple of times when I was starting out as a writer, and got a copy of that book. She wrote in the front "When's yours coming out?" That still stands as a huge inspiration to me! Loved the book, too.

I like the future imagined worlds created by Kim Westwood, and I thought the near-future stuff in the Twelfth Planet anthology 2012 was good, too.

Angela: Australia is a mixing pot of influences from cultures near and far. What other environmental influences do you see in your work, apart from immediate Australian ones? Are you affected by snowy landscapes, Arabian deserts, Italian mountains, American highways? Why?

Peter: I'm rarely as influenced by other locales as I am genres that find ways to recontextualise a locale—I really dig noir film's transformation of the city into a menacing backdrop and gothic fiction's tendency to let external setting reflect internal turmoil.

Kaaron: Right now I'm influenced by the Fijian landscape. The jungle in the centre of Viti Levu, the main island, is deep. There are villages in there three days' walk away. I just watched the movie Vanyan, set in the jungle of Burma, and that captures my fear of being lost, alone and helpless in that environment.

Jason: Definitely American highways. I'm a sucker for a good road movie, and we've got lots and lots of road! I'm a big fan of Australia's riverland (in the fertile south-east of the country), because when we get water we get lots of it. This fecundity has featured once or twice in my writing, as a contrast to the blasted deserts, barren salt–flats, and roving hordes of undead beasties ...

Deborah: And there are some great Australian road movies, Jason! Not just Mad Max, but Roadgames (an under-rated classic), Wolfcreek, Shame (sort of) ... Me, I love the snow. Never seen it in person, but I'm sure it's as stunning as it looks on TV. I've also got a thing for Russian folktales and European settings and Victorian steampunk worlds.

Angela: What form will the apocalypse take and how will you be spending it? How do we go out: with a bang or a whimper?

Kaaron: Neither. I think we'll go through the five stages of death acceptance. We'll fight it until that moment of acceptance comes. Then we'll sink slowly into the mud. We'll blink out. Like the old TVs, which would leave one tiny dot of light in the centre of the screen and the ghost of what was last seen.

Deborah: I like Kaaron's idea that there'll be stages of acceptance. But if the first stage is "denial," I wonder if we'll just get stuck there? Hell, I think we're there already! The big thing about the apocalypse, in my opinion, is: we won't know how it happens even when it does happen. There'll be chaos and confusion and conflicting opinions, people blaming natural disaster or aliens or the vengeance of God—and that'll just be the media.

Jason: I agree with Deborah, we're definitely in denial when it comes to some rather scary realities. Those icebergs aren't unmelting ... As for our apocalypse, I'd love to think it would be some sort of tidy, abrupt event. Something with zombies, so I can finally go postal with virtually no guilt. Steal Ferraris whenever I don't feel like walking, gather up a stash of stuff I wouldn't normally be able to afford, that sort of thing. But the sad truth is that, if an apocalypse comes, it won't be a sanitized Last Man On Earth scenario. It will be a brutal scrabble for fading resources, on a world that is finally grinding us out of existence. The last of us will roam a broken Mad Max landscape, dry-throated and wretched, wondering how it could have gone so wrong so quickly.

Peter: I'd love to believe in Jason's zombie apocalypse, but I think we'll go out whinging. Probably about the fact that no-one did anything about all these problems earlier.

So, there you have it: writing the coming dark according to some of Australia's up-and-comers. We can only suggest you apply some very strong sun block and prepare to welcome our Puffin Overlords.

*Jason may well be alone in his support of the Ascent of the Puffin theory.

Bios of the Interviewees

Deborah Biancotti lives in Sydney, Australia. Winner of the Aurealis and Ditmar awards for her short story writing, she has just launched her first collection of short stories, A Book of Endings, via Twelfth Planet Press. She is working on her first novel, a near–future psychological thriller, and has a novella set in almost–contemporary Sydney lined up for 2010 publication with Gilgamesh Press. Her stories have appeared in Clockwork Phoenix, Ideomancer, infinity plus, and the anthologies 2012, Year's Best Australian SF & Fantasy and Australian Dark Fantasy & Horror. Deborah can be found online at http://deborahb.livejournal.com and http://deborahbiancotti.net.

Jason Fischer is based in Adelaide, South Australia. He attended Clarion South in 2007, was shortlisted in the 2009 Ditmar Awards for Best New Talent, and is a recent Finalist in the Writers of the Future contest. He has stories in Dreaming Again, Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Aurealis Magazine. He can be found online at http://jasonfischer.livejournal.com, and is a contributing member of the Daily Cabal and Last Short Story projects.

Kaaron Warren's novel Slights was published by Angry Robot Books in August and seems to be doing well. She has two more novels coming out, in February and later in 2010, from the same publisher. There's also her Ishtar novella from Gilgamesh Press and a story in Datlow and Mamatas' Haunted Legends anthology. She's won Aurealis and Ditmar awards and is currently based in Fiji. She can be found at kaaronwarren.livejournal.com (for your day-to-day travel talk and fun stuff) and at kaaronwarren.wordpress.com (for your interviews, reviews and writerly talk).

Peter M. Ball is a Brisbane-based writer of speculative fiction. He is a graduate of Clarion South 2007. His first novella Horn is available from Twelfth Planet Press. His short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Interfictions II, Dreaming Again, Apex, and Fantasy Magazine, and he can be found blogging at http://www.petermball.com/.


Copyright © 2009, Angela Slatter. All Rights Reserved.

About Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter lives and works in Brisbane and is a writer of speculative fiction. Her short stories have appeared in anthologies such as Dreaming Again (Jack Dann ed), Tartarus Press' Strange Tales II, the Twelfth Planet Press anthology 2012, and in journals such as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Shimmer, ONSPEC and Doorways Magazine. Her work has had several Honourable Mentions in the Datlow, Link, Grant Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies #20 and #21; and two of her stories have been shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards in the Best Fantasy Short Story category. She blogs here about writing and random things that catch her attention from time to time. She's a graduate of Clarion South 2009 and Tin House 2006. She is both lazy and cunning, which is why she decided it was easier to ask these questions than answer them.

COMMENTS!

Oct 8, 07:05 by IROSF
Comment below!
Oct 17, 08:56 by Lisa Agnew
Australians are very good at the apocalyptic stuff because of environment and separation from the rest of the world (as these people mentioned). New Zealand also has the at-the-ends-of-the-earth thing going on. For a long time, our movies were known as the 'cinema of unease'. The speculative writing industry here is minuscule, mainly because the few publishers will not take a punt on us. Environmentally, we're a little more sheltered than Oz, although the ozone hole is above us as well (and the tsunami warnings are getting a little tedious!)

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