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There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed certain that the next big thing in science fiction was going to come out of Australia. It didn’t; while everyone was looking the wrong way we got the British renaissance instead. Considering this recent anthology of Australian speculative fiction, it is not hard to see why the latest wave seems to have passed Australia by.

Encounters is not, it has to be said, an amateur collection, despite the pedestrian and uninspiring story illustrations by Shane Parker. There are authors making their debut here, but most of the contributors seem to have been doing the rounds for years and one or two have even picked up an occasional award. Yet reading the book one is struck time and again that these stories are under-imagined, under-developed, under-written, and in some particularly dire cases all three.

There are situations here that just don’t make sense. In ‘Boys’ by Ben Payne, a sexually abused girl is haunted by a young boy who tries to give her a glass snowscene. When she refuses, he spontaneously combusts. End of story. Huh? Payne hasn’t even asked himself the most basic question: why? The story consists of a series of scenes held together not by any internal logic or plot development, but simply by the fact that they have been put down in that particular sequence. The editors also failed to ask the most basic of questions: will you rewrite?

But at least Payne is attempting to address something contemporary (and his is also one of the very few stories here with any sense of Australia, most of the contributions are set in a sort of bland and undefined nowhere). Too many other pieces evince no awareness that the world, science, or science fiction has moved forward over the last few years. There is even one story which refers unironically to ‘rocket ships’. In ‘Una, the One’ by Frankie Seymour, we get that hoariest of sf clichés, the last woman left on earth. Freed of humankind, the earth is now an environmental paradise where she talks to the animals (a curiously selective evolution, since in every other respect except the ability to speak they remain unaltered); then a spaceship full of humans arrives through a time dilation effect, and because the crew is male they are rule-bound and bent on destruction, so she destroys the ship. The story is naïve, full of incongruities, and so dated it feels like a revenant from a very different science fiction half a century or more ago.

If no other story is quite as old fashioned as this, there is still very little that feels that it belongs in the present, let alone in the future. For every clunky futuristic fable—‘Crazy Little Thing’ by Stuart Barrow, ‘Remembering Bliss’ by Carol Ryles—there is an equally clunky fantasy set in a fuzzy prehistory—‘Guarding the Mound’ by Kaaron Warren, ‘The Final Battle’ by Scott Robinson. But mostly one’s impression is that the authors have not really thought through what they are trying to do, so that the stories tend to come across as rough outlines rather than finished pieces. The twist in Michael Barry’s ‘Sleeping With Monsters’ depends on something that doesn’t make sense in the world he has created. ‘The Flatmate from Hell’ by Dirk Flinthart is about a vampire who wipes out an anti-social bunch of neo-nazis (I kid you not), but the whole farrago rests on the assumption that there is absolutely no difference between Hitler’s party and modern thugs. While ‘Meltdown my Plutonium Heart’ sketches in a totally unbelievable social background in order to set up the sort of Jacobean revenge story that could only work if the revenge was plotted long before anything was done that needed to be avenged.

Even the best stories here—‘Garden Light’ by Shane M. Brown, a creepy little tale of a ghostly boy in a threatening environment all of which is overlaid on the narrator’s apartment; and ‘The Faithless Priest and the Nameless King’ by Cory Daniells, a rather effective other-world fantasy—would have benefited from a little more thought and at least one more rewrite. Daniells in particular has a very nicely created world, but she should have given at least as much thought to devising a plot to go with the setting. But Encounters squeezes 22 stories into just over 200 pages, which gives an idea of how thin most of them are, and if only two are even half way memorable it’s a very poor average.

Paul Kincaid is the Administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. His fiction has been shortlisted for the BSFA Award, and his criticism appears regularly in SF Studies,The New York Review of SF, Foundation, Vector and elsewhere. He has contributed to numerous reference books on science fiction.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
7 comments on “Encounters: An Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction, edited by Maxine McArthur and Donna Maree Hanson”
Ben Payne

Hi Paul,
Thanks for your comments. Sorry the story didn't work for you. In actual fact the boy in my story *doesn't* spontaneously combust, and I put a lot of thought into the "why" of what does happen. But hey, obviously my intent didn't come through to you, so fair enough.
Leaving aside your reaction to my own story, I do think you're a little harsh in using Encounters as a barometer of Australian talent. While I liked Encounters a lot more than you did (biased as I am) it *is* a small press publication primarily filled with new writers and authors belonging to a particular regional area. If you want to get a guage on the best Australian writing, I suggest you check out Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt's Year's Best Australian Fantasy, or one of Cat Sparks' Agog! anthologies.

David Cake

I'm going to more or less echo Bens comments. At one stage there would have been few enough local collections that judging the Aussie scene by the story quality might have made sense, but there are currently so many things being published, and Encounters obviously primarily the effort of one local writers group, that the real strength of the Aussie scene is that no one involved in it would consider Encounters particularly representative. Not to put down Encounters, the number of such collections and small press magazines is a wonderful sign of the health of the local writing community, and Encounters does what it set out to do well enough, but its primarily a collection of beginning writers with only a few more established ones. Your review is a bit like condemning the British renaissance on the basis of a collection put together by a local writers group from Newcastle.
And maybe Aussie SF is finally producing that next big thing, the way Margo Lanagan is collecting awards these days!

Robert Cook

Paul: Thanks for a refreshingly honest review, an increasingly rare thing these days in the SF/F field.
Ben and David: I agree that gauging Australian SF/F writing on the strength of a locally produced, small press, semi-amateur publication is inappropriate. On the other hand, why send it out to international professional review outlets such as Strange Horizons if you don't want it judged at that level? I understand the need for exposure, but that inevitably comes with the associated risk of the reviewer being honest.

Robert: I don't think David or myself were suggesting that Paul should have reviewed the publication less than honestly simply out of kindness to a small press publication (although contextualising a publication is often helpful to readers, too). I'm sure the editors and authors expected to be judged against a high standard, and if Paul found the anthology wanting, fair enough. My reservations were simply in regard to the expansion of that opinion to include Australian sf as a whole.

Ben, you make interesting points, but consider this: if I had taken the diametrically opposite position and said that here was a sign of hope in Australian sf, would you have said then that I was contextualising from too small a sample?
In fact it is usually in such small press publications that signs of hope and innovation, of freshness and daring, are to be found. And there were some signs - I drew attention in particular to the stories of Shane Brown and Cory Daniells - but they were less than I might have hoped to find.

Heidi Wessman Kneale

Since much of Aussie SF, published in the small zines (think "Mitch?" and "Fables & Reflections"), isn't read outside of Australia, are Aussie writers hiding their candles under bushels or locking their shameful children in the closet?
Should Aussie SF remain insular, or would it be to our benefit to branch out more into the world community?

Paul, you asked: "Ben, you make interesting points, but consider this: if I had taken the diametrically opposite position and said that here was a sign of hope in Australian sf, would you have said then that I was contextualising from too small a sample?"
A good question. I had to think about that. Now my knowledge of Maths isn't always the best, but from what I remember a parallel is this:
Let's say you take a random selection of the population and call that group Y, then take a subsection of that group and call it X; then you analyse X and discover that there are women in that group. That means that, as X is a subset of Y, there *must* also be women in Y. *But*, if you analyse X and discover there are no women in group X, that *doesn't* mean that there will be no women in group Y.
In the same way, finding "hope" in a small sample of Australian SF *does* mean that therefore there must also be hope in the set from which that subset is drawn.
*But*, if you find no hope in that sample, that *doesn't* mean there's no hope in the larger group.
Does that make sense? I hope so, because I doubt I can sustain mathematical thoughts for much longer:)

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