On December 18th 2005, the finalists for Australia's Aurealis Awards were announced. On February 25th, the winners will be announced in Brisbane. This review, of the fifteen short fiction nominations in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror categories, therefore approaches the stories nominated with the assumption that they are the best offered by Australian authors in 2005. The idea of 'the best' is, of course, a highly subjective one, but it is a concept that suggests that the fiction nominated is of a professional level, worthy of being offered to the world in representation of the quality of work produced by Australian authors, and equal to the highest standards displayed by professional authors throughout the world. Last year, Margo Lanagan's 'Singing My Sister Down' dominated the awards locally and internationally, and the country has a depth of talent and ability such that this standard of fiction can be maintained yearly.
I have, then, approached my review of the nominated work with this expectation and—
The work has been found wanting, frankly.
Before the stories, however, I need to provide a brief introduction to the Aurealis Awards for the uninitiated. Australia has two sets of awards for speculative fiction. The oldest of these is the Ditmar, established in 1969. It is a fan based award where the initial voting period is open to anyone who is active within fandom, though how exactly that criteria is judged is beyond me. The finalists emerging from the initial voting are decided by those who attend the national convention that year, much as attendees of the Worldcon vote in the Hugos. The Aurealis Awards, established in 1995, are judged awards, and divided into five categories: science fiction, fantasy, horror, young adult, and children. For each category there are three judges that read, in most cases, both the novels and the short fiction published that year. The proviso of 'most cases' is there because, as can be seen this year in the fantasy category, there can be different judges for novels and short fiction. The most common reason for this is a conflict of interest. The Aurealis Awards were created, in part, to combat the block voting and the favouritism that has stripped the Ditmar of its credibility, but have, as is the case with all awards, come under their own criticism. These criticisms include: picking judges who lack experience and background knowledge of the genres, picking judges who have conflicting interests in relation to the stories, selecting stories from the wrong genres, selecting stories not yet published, the financial and time demands placed on the author and publisher to nominate stories to judges, and the issuing of no awards (as with the novel finalists in the horror category this year). Each of these criticisms is valid this year and the result is an unprofessional taint not just on the awards, but the Australian scene as a whole.
Lastly, in 2004, the organisation of the Aurealis Awards was taken over by the speculative fiction community in Queensland. Much as a new regime does in any business, the Queensland community put their own signature on the award by creating the poorly named Golden Aurealis. One word away from a sexual fetish, the Golden Aurealis is awarded to the work that is viewed as having the most merit amongst the already winning stories: an award for the best of the best, it has, personally, always left me with the question of why you would bother with five other awards if one clear choice can be made, regardless of genre.
That then, is a quick introduction to the award system in Australia. Now, to the fiction.
The Science Fiction Category
As noted earlier, the overall quality of the fiction nominated for the Aurealis Awards this year has not been equal to that of a professional standard. The reader, then, no doubt understands that it is a back handed compliment when I write that the five stories recognised by science fiction judges Keith Stevenson, Lilla Smee, and Ian Irvine, are the strongest selections as a whole made across the three categories. The fiction selected by all nine judges is, overall, uninspiring and undemanding, and in some cases, filled with basic craft faults. That there are stories within the science fiction category that demand a little of the reader, and that push, if not literary boundaries, then the boundaries of the fiction selected within the three categories . . . well, it is this and only this factor that elevates these selections above the others.
As the best story in the science fiction category is Kim Westwood's 'Terning tha Weel' it is, therefore, the strongest choice made across the three categories. Ironically, the story itself has yet to be published; it is due to appear in Aurealis #36 which, at the end of December, when I am writing this, has yet to be released for general purchase. The story itself concerns a group of lesbians who have been banished from civilization by political conservatives after a terrorist attack on Australia. It is a fine example of Westwood's skill with prose, for she has constructed a nearly flawless first person, semi-illiterate phonetic dialogue that, while demanding of the reader, is not frustrating:
It's about tha Wird an tha Narsties, an how Jilly an me ended up ragsharers for a wile, an how nuthing good larsts.
The weakness of the story, however, is a weakness that can be found in much of Westwood's small output: a lack of substance behind the prose. The post apocalyptic world described by Westwood is never fully fleshed out, and while 'Terning tha Weel' makes use of terrorism and how it has been used to strip personal freedom from individuals, it is nothing more than a backdrop. Westwood never makes these social concerns into the sort of thematic elements that would unite the story and show her maturity and growth as an author.
Leanne Frahm, unlike Westwood, is a mature and established author who has been publishing since 1979. Her story, 'Skein Dogs' (Fables and Reflections #7) also raises the issue of personal freedom but, unlike Westwood, Frahm focuses on animal experimentation. JayJay and Emma, a pair of female dogs who have been grafted with intelligence enhancements as part of animal testing programs, are dying from the tumors those enhancements also give. In her final weeks, JayJay requests that they be taken outside the Institute and, once out, they reconnect with their animal instincts. Written in a dependable, workwomanlike style well established over twenty-six years of publication, Frahm's depiction of the animals is effective, but the moral question posed behind the story is, at the end, a simplistic one. Frahm argues that experimenting on animals is wrong because it deprives them of their natural rights, which, if said to me at a bus stop, is not a statement that I would disagree with. As the backbone of a story, however, it does not display an intelligent awareness of animal rights or the complexity of the debate surrounding animal experimentation which, ultimately, stops the story reaching the rich depth and promise that it displays.
Skirting the social concerns offered by Westwood and Frahm is new author Lynn Triffitt's 'The Memory of Breathing' (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #17). Ironically, while Triffitt's story appears in the strongest genre selection, it is the weakest story across all three genres to be recognised. Triffitt's story is set in an Australian Death Camp, so named because it is where the reanimated bodies of executed prisoners are held before being farmed out for duties. The story opens with Janssen, the camp commander, meeting a newly arrived dead girl: a nine-year-old American called Holyoake. How an American girl can be executed in Australia is never explained, and perhaps beside the point, for as Holyoake's name suggests, the story depends on a suffocating sentimentality. Much worse than this, however, is the lack of basic craft that plagues the writing. I could choose any part of Triffitt's story, from prose to pacing or world building to use as an example of bad writing, but I will limit myself and focus on her inconsistent characterisation. The protagonist, Commander Janssen, is a man who has "never felt the slightest desire to start a family," and who views the dead as "just that—dead," but who, when faced with a young girl who is dead (which he must see every day), acts against these traits with no reasoning whatsoever. It is as if the sight of a little girl changes him, fogging his brain with latent parental instincts, perhaps. Likewise, Holyoake, who shot her brother six times after he found out she joined a gang, is absurdly innocent. It is impossible to imagine her killing anything, much less a person. She is too sweet, too nice, to be executed and reanimated by the Government, and Triffitt needed to give her a characteristic outside sickly sweetness for her plight to be believable. Ultimately, it is not just that 'The Memory of Breathing' is badly written story that sets it apart from the other badly written nominees, but rather that it is unwritten. Like food that is uncooked, it is a raw collection of words and ideas that have yet to be formed into a fictional whole that a reader can consume.
Rjurik Davidson's 'The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr. Wu' (Aurealis #33/34/35—the last issue to be edited by Keith Stevenson, who served as a judge for the science fiction category this year) however, has none of the faults that Triffitt displays. Rather, 'The Interminable Suffering of Mysterious Mr. Wu' is a small story that displays the author's use of atmosphere superbly but, due to its size, does not develop beyond this. The story is narrated by an unknown man or woman—Davidson blurs the gender identity nicely with a sexual act—who lives below the mysterious Mr. Wu. The narrator spends his/her time listening to the soft weeping of the man as he drills and builds what is imagined to be art. It is not difficult to work out that the narrator has in fact been created by Mr. Wu simply because no characters other than Wu are developed. In the end, while the story is, to its benefit, sharply atmospheric, and amusing in places, it is too short and too light for the mystery of Mr. Wu to be fully satisfying.
The final story in the science fiction selection is 'Slow and Ache' by Trent Jamieson (Aurealis #36), one of Australia's most unappreciated authors. Jamieson opens with Ache, an advertising executive, being fired because he has become bored with his work; as a consequence, the artificial intelligence in control of the world, Slow, wants Ache dead. 'Slow and Ache' displays Jamieson's weakness before his strength, overloading the reader with new words and new meanings that are never fully explained. The first sentence of the story is "My jackit bristled with elegances, the best money could buy. I had the contacts and the crew. The best company, the best Spartoi on this edge of the solar system," and much of the rest is in a similar vein. The result is that the story is, at times, more frustrating than demanding. On the positive side, however, Jamieson's pacing and prose captures an energy reminiscent of that displayed by Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man.
The Fantasy Category
Here, at the start of the fantasy category, the question of genre is raised. The Golden Aurealis suggests, to me, that separate genre categories are not necessary for the award—if it is possible for one story and one novel to dominate all five genres. However, if it is meaningful to have separate categories, to reward each genre and its work accordingly, then should not these categories be subject to a certain amount of genre-defining rigour? What is the point of separate awards for science fiction, fantasy, and horror if the fantasy category is going to include science fiction, and if less than half of the horror nominees are going to be horrific?
It is a question that I ask the reader to reach his or her own judgement on. For myself, I rather think that the categories are not necessary, or at the very least could be cut down to adult's and children's categories. The question however, is one that is in the background of the fantasy and horror categories.
2005's fantasy short fiction section was judged by Diane de Bellis, Rob Bleckley, and Damien Warman. While not as strong overall as the science fiction category as a whole, their choices were more varied, and included, even, a science fiction story. That story, to my mind, is 'Ones and Zeroes' by Terry Dartnall (Nevarary #8), which tells the story of a man on a unknown planet in a distant future who decides to make the perfect woman, from data he has retrieved from space, to be his wife. Outside the obvious insult to the female gender, Dartnall's story is essentially one long conversation between the protagonist and a computer about artificial intelligence. Unimaginative and populated by one-dimensional characters who exist only to support points in the argument, Dartnall's story rivals Lynn Triffitt's for being the poorest story nominated, but is saved, in the end, by the fact that Dartnall demonstrates basic writing skills. Still, its selection here is baffling to me more than Triffitt's simply because I don't see how such a story could be viewed comfortably as part of the fantasy genre.
Rosaleen Love's 'Once Giants Roamed the Earth' (The Traveling Tide; published simultaneously in Daikaiju!, edited by Robert Hood and Robin Pen) is, with all of Love's work, a beautifully written piece. More an allegorical fable than a story, it tells the reader of a giant, Maika, who turned into an island. To me, Love's work belongs in the same corner of speculative fiction that Benjamin Rosenbaum's fine work is placed. As with Rosenbaum, Love's fiction often deals with social concerns, and the tale of Maika addresses how humanity claims rights over the sea (and the land). It is a fine piece, and rivals Westwood's for being the strongest nominee.
Following Love is Adam Browne's equally beautiful 'The Heart of Saturday Night' (Lenox Avenue #4). Set on the dirty streets of Bangkok, it tells the story of a prostitute, Sua Dao, as she searches for her lost brother, a motorcycle boy and drug addict. Browne rivals Westwood for the most distinctive opening of any of the stories that have been nominated, and it is a delight:
Bangkok! Hae! That toddlin' town! City-busyness sliding all over like a gas, like a fractal fluid, filling every nook and crook and nanny-cranny. (Travel Advisory Warning: Don't stand still too long here, lest you find a Thai family setting up a sugarcane juice stand or bicycle repair shop up the crack of your arse.) And there, down among the dirt and glory, there she is: achingly beautiful Sua Dao, biking it down Sukhumvit Road, the nightstreet cityness so intricate you need maps to navigate the maps, Sua Dao dingdinginging her bell as she flows bright through the traffic.
Unfortunately, Brown is unable to keep this frantic, touring jumble of prose up for the length of the story, and once Sua Dao crashes her bike and is on foot, the reader has to deal with Brown's narrative, which is, with its quest for a lost brother, simplistic at best. Likewise, it can be argued that Brown's use of broken English in dialogue for characters that are prostitutes and drug addicts is a depiction of men and women in Bangkok that reinforces negative Western stereotypes about poor Asians. Personally, I didn't find this to be the case, but if another reader was to argue that their experience of Browne's piece was somewhat racist, I would not be able to fault them.
Moving to veteran author (and last year's Golden Aurealis winner for his novel The Black Crusade) Richard Harland, I must admit that, as with the Triffitt and Dartnall selections, I was surprised to see 'The Greater Death of Saito Saku' (Daikaiju!) recognised. Harland's story of an aging samurai who, going out to fight a monster, is certain of his death, is essentially a list of actions: "He took time and trouble over his preparations. He owed it to the villagers to put up the best possible fight. He went to the shrine in the family room to offer prayer." The form of Harland's story is comparable to a shopping list—apples, oranges, lemons, lots of lemons—and the reader fights to remain focused as the descriptions pass with a bland regularity. The story is not helped by the fact that Harland characterises his samurai by the stereotypes often attributed to his age and profession: he is a samurai, and so he must fight, and not complain about death; and he is old, so he is not as fast as he once was, and so on and so forth.
The final story selected by the fantasy judges is Dirk Flinthart's 'The Red Priest's Homecoming' (ASIM #17; it is also worth noting that this story is a finalist in the Young Adult category). Out of the five stories selected in the fantasy category, Flinthart's is the most rounded in terms of narrative, prose and characterisation, but it is also the least ambitious. Reminiscent of the sort of role-playing-based sword and sorcery exemplified by R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms novels, Flinthart tells the story of the young Antonio Dellaforte who, on the night of Carnevale, meets his long lost cousin, Tomaso Dellaforte—the titular Red Priest. Weighed down with plot, there are times when the reader would even be forgiven for thinking that they are reading a role-playing source book, but the characterisation is deft and the action scenes evocative. It is ultimately disappointing that Flinthart has not taken his considerable ability and give his characters the depth of Fritz Leiber's Grey Mouser and Fafhrd, or provided the reader with wild landscapes comparable to those of Howard, but perhaps future installments will remedy this. Not, of course, that such a concern should be taken into account in relation to its nomination here.
The Horror Category
It is strange approaching the horror category with the awareness that I consider, out of the five stories selected, only three of the choices made by Benjamin Szumskyj, Marty Young, and Sylvia Kelso, to be part of the horror genre. The remaining two stories I would describe as comedies. It is not that I believe that comedy cannot be found in horror, but when the humour of a piece becomes the author's intent, then surely it becomes incorrect to view it as horror? Even Wes Craven's Scream, for all its satire, still maintains the atmosphere of a horror film, and its humour is placed within that genre. In short, the humour of Scream does not work unless it is within a functioning horror film.
Paul Haines' 'Doof Doof Doof' (Dark Animus #7) is the first comedy nomination. It is a piece of crude, bad taste comedy, in which the Big Bad Wolf has been stalking Little Red Riding Hood for years. Haines opens his story with an erotic dream between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood, but before the two can have sex, the scene is interrupted by loud music, played, as the reader will easily be able to deduce, by the Three Little Pigs upstairs. When the Wolf breaks into their apartment, he finds them drugged out of their minds and having sex with Red Riding Hood. In despair, the Wolf boils himself alive. Haines, a new author who has matured well, is always professional with his use of prose and has not produced a badly written story, but the content is forgettable, and does not offer any new insights into either the fables or the world.
Chuck McKenzie's 'Eight-Beat Bar' (Aurealis #33/34/35), the second comedy, sees the author working the tired cliché of being in hell. This is a cliché in both horror and comedy, and, like Haines, McKenzie does not offer any new twist in his telling. Jake, a recently deceased DJ, finds himself in a room in hell with a turntable. It is explained to him by a devil in a disco suit that one song will be put on a turntable and played forever to torture him. The premise is hardly one which an author could build a sense of foreboding and tension from, and McKenzie, who has a solid reputation as a comedy writer who often plays off genre clichés, has not even attempted to do so, making it the most surprising of the horror nominees in at least one way.
The last three stories, however, at least belong in the horror category. All the stories nominated in this category were linked by their brevity, and this is best shown in Lee Battersby's 'Pater Familias' (Shadowed Realms #3), a piece of evocative flash fiction. It tells the story of a doctor who, operating in the 18th century, carried out a craniotomy procedure on pregnant women, putting both baby and mother in danger during childbirth. The first half, in which the unnamed doctor describes the procedure, has a genuine uncomfortableness to it and Battersby, who has been building a solid reputation for his work in the last five years, is to be commended for that. However, he falls into the trap of much flash fiction: he builds up to an unnecessary twist ending. Sadly, Battersby relies on the old horror tropes of deformity and the victimisation of women to provide his twist, ruining his steely, dignified buildup.
James Cain's 'The Ride' (Dark Egypt, May/June 2005) is opens with the horror cliché of a man driving down a road at night with a strange passenger in the back. For most of its length, Cain presents 'The Ride' as an piece of traditional slasher fiction, for which he has a reputation for, writing with dependable prose that verges, upon occasion, on the purple side. His protagonist, Pete, does not know how he ended up with the man in the back of his car, but when the stranger starts hitting on him, Pete decides to murder him and, drunk and high and angry, he eventually drives off the cliff and kills both of them . . . . Or so it seems. The final paragraphs of the story reveal, like a joke told in a pub to your mates, the punch line: Pete's young daughter is praying before bed every night that God will send an angel to save her daddy who, according to the other kids, haunts the area that she lives in. Having read this, it's hard to see the story as anything but an extended joke; alternatively, if it was nominated on the strength of the slasher story it, then it is a selection is based on a twist on one of the oldest horror clichés, but it is not a very intelligent subversion of the genre.
The final horror selection, for publisher, editor, artist, and writer Cat Sparks, is 'Macchiato Lane' (Ticonderoga Online #5). Sparks works the same philosophical vein as Jonathan Carroll and, as Carroll often does, Sparks begins her story with a discussion of the mundane—coffee, in this case—before building into the events that are centred on a question relating to how we, as humans, live our lives. In this case, Sparks interrogates the old adage about being careful what you wish for. Her protagonist, Jeanne, stumbles across an unusual café, where she is approached by an older version of herself and told that she has six weeks to seduce the man of her dreams and be happy. But like Davidson's piece, Sparks's 'Macchiato Lane' is simply too small to sustain the mystery of the café and her future self properly, and it is not difficult for the reader to figure out that the narrator will not find happiness (or what she will discover when she returns to the café).
Would it surprise you to learn that short fiction written by Australians and published in one of the world's top markets, SCIFICTION, was not considered by the judges this year?
It sounds ridiculous, but it's true, and if such a readily available, free publication as SCIFICTION was ignored, with stories from authors as Rjurik Davidson and Lucy Sussex, it is not difficult to imagine that more work was ignored. There is a small comfort in the fact that for many people outside Australia, these nominees will be a touchstone to the lesser known publications and authors of the country. But at the same time, it is an appalling thought that someone could judge the standard of Australian speculative fiction by these fifteen stories. While the work of Westwood, Love, and Browne (and to lesser extent, the stories by Frahm and Davidson) demonstrate the strength of the country's publications, the majority of the stories rely on tired genre elements, lack vitality, creativity, or freshness, and have elementary flaws in characterisation and pacing. If you did not know better, you would assume that this represented the work from an entire population, an entire local scene that did not know how to recognise professional level writing and run a professional level award. It is a harsh suggestion to end on, and one that is, I believe, untrue, though you would have to know the work produced in the scene and capability of its authors and publishers to believe this, for it is not represented in the 2005 Aurealis Award nominations.
Ben Peek is a Sydney based author. He has published fiction, poetry, articles and reviews. His fiction is currently appearing in the anthologies Leviathan Four: Cities, The Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Forever Shores, and Agog! Smashing Stories. He also has fiction in the online zines Shadowed Realms and Ticonderoga Online, as well as the dead tree zines Full Unit Hookup and Potato Monkey. His dystopian novel, Black Sheep, will be published this year by Prime Books.