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.