Size / / /
year's best Australian sf cover

The phrase ‘best Australian’ has a certain air of ambivalence for many Australians, no matter what their field of endeavour. While being the big fish in our little pond at the arse-end of the world is a nice idea, what we really want to be is ‘the best,’ without any caveats.

In the SF world, as in most things, Australia is very much a small pond. Attend one or two cons and you'll be able to name all the names on the local scene and recognise most of them on the street. If you want to publish a novel, the multinational presses are represented but, when it comes to speculative fiction, their Australian subsidiaries are largely only interested in stock heroic fantasies. This conservatism (coupled with the fact that ‘bestseller’ here means about 5,000 copies) dictates that most Australian novelists get their start and make their living overseas. If their books get published in this country, as often as not they’re marketed as something other than SF.

As well as the multinationals, there are a handful of small presses churning out a few short fiction collections a year between them, of middling to high quality. Once in a blue moon, one of them publishes a novel. And there’s a slightly larger number of print and online magazines of a similar range of standards, less than half of which publish to any reliable schedule.

So, being conscious of the frailties of the local market and with a twitching national inferiority complex to boot, when one of the small press collections not only cops a bollicking in an international forum (CSFG's Encounters, reviewed here by Paul Kincaid in November) but the reviewer generalises that the ‘‘latest wave seems to have passed Australia by,’’ it’s a source of angst. Not to mention that it seems a bit unfair to damn an entire nationality of writers because the (apparently) sole collection of recent Australian work one has consciously read doesn't happen to blow one’s skirt up. You know, these POMs, they beat us at cricket for the first time in twenty years and jeez they get uppity ...

Ahem.

Consequently, when I picked up the new Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy (Vol 1), the burning questions in my mind were: Is our little backwater really at the shallow end of the SF meme pool? On the strength of the stories here, which purport to be the best short SF produced in this country for the year in question, can I refute the generalisation made by Mr Kincaid?

(At this point, imagine the reviewer sucking air through his teeth, in the manner of a mechanic avoiding the answer to the question ‘‘How much will it cost?’’, while he marshals his arguments and does some creative mental arithmetic).

Well, the answer to both questions is probably more ‘no’ than ‘yes’, which is good and bad.

A couple of the authors featured are familiar from the spate of Best Australian Etceteras that appeared in the mid-late 1990s and more widely. Others are more recent arrivals. The quality of the collection is uneven, but there’s no particular correspondence between the stronger and weaker entries and the locally and overseas published ones (half of each). This unevenness being so, that the book only contains twelve stories (and 250pp) would have more to do with the margins of small-press publishing in a market as small as Australia than with a paucity of stories to choose from.

Some of the stories definitely brought to mind criticisms that Mr Kincaid levelled at those in Encounters: ‘‘bland and undefined nowhere’’ settings, dated science fiction, clunky story-telling, dodgy logic, the odd cliche. But, blessedly, never all at once.

‘The Tale of Enis Cash, Smallgoods Smokehand’ by Brendan Duffy is a clever, offbeat story, with an amoral hero who introduces everyone he encounters to the pleasures of the cancer-stick. The story is set in ‘Marlborough’ in an early industrial ‘Kent’ (both smoking puns, presumably, since Marlborough is in Wiltshire) that nonetheless features dragons and Arthurian knights. It doesn’t quite come off. The mixed-bag industrial-chivalric era and the distinctly un-Kentish landscape leave it with a curiously groundless feel. The not-quite-authentic American protagonist, who thinks in metric and uses Australianisms like ‘yabby,’ ‘smoko,’ and ‘knackers,’ doesn’t help either.

Ben Peek’s ‘The Dreaming City’ similarly flirts with not-quite-right American characterisation. Nonetheless, ‘The Dreaming City’ is impressive both for the Ash-esque style attempted and its ambition—to capture the essence of the city of Sydney, through a fusion of real and alternative Australian history. Ironically, while the blurring of fact and fantasy is successful, an idea of the city as a unique entity never quite (for me) emerges.

‘Birds of the Bushes and Scrubs’ by Geoffrey Maloney is another ‘undefined nowhere.’ In this case, the effect seems deliberate, but it’s the protagonist who’s meant to be lost—rootlessness needn’t also apply to the (wonderfully described) nightmare city he finds himself in. Discovering afterward that the setting is based on Calcutta brought it together for me, implying that this detail should be in the story.

‘Home by the Sea’ by Cat Sparks is similarly rootless and further flawed by its unsophisticated treatment of time travel. Its internal logic is also dodgy: the oceans have risen, but Gibraltar is still above water. Gibraltar is a whacking great rock, but the top is only about 400 metres (1300 feet) above sea level, which would leave a lot of other land above water, too. Why, then, would there be ‘Waterworld’ floating communities that have no experience of dry land?

‘The Meek’ by Damien Broderick is a story of which I had high expectations. It turns out to be a nuclear holocaust fable rewritten for nanotech war (the grey goo thing). The datedness of the papered-over idea shows. It’s an odd narrative, too, beginning on quite an intimate level but, halfway through, consigning the protagonists to irrelevance and concluding in sweeping generalities.

Personal preference is a consideration, here. It plays a big part in any anthology’s selections, including a Year’s Best. Consequently, while Margo Lanagan’s ‘Singing My Sister Down’ can also be found in Datlow, Link & Grant’s Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #18, Terry Dowling appears in the same volume with a story other than the one chosen by Congreve and Marquardt here and two other Australians, Lucy Sussex and Simon Brown, have stories in YBF&H18 but not here. This may be partly explained by this Year’s Best Australian not explicitly covering horror and being even lighter on that genre (1 entry) than for science fiction (3 entries). I may be wrong, but I don’t think any Australians troubled the scoreboard at Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction #22. But Kim Westwood, appearing here with ‘Tripping Over the Light Fantastic,’ is in Hartwell & Kramer’s Year’s Best Fantasy #5 with ‘Stella’s Transformation’ (originally published in Encounters, by the way). Garth Nix, who doesn’t get a place here, has a story in Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens.

Even accounting for personal preference, though, I’m still surprised a couple of the stories selected (‘Home by the Sea’ and ‘The Meek’) made it into this collection. Thankfully, the rest of the book provides better news. Not all the remaining stories would merit inclusion in a world Year’s Best, but whether I personally liked them or not, I can appreciate the reasons for their place here (the other stories criticised above should probably be included in the second part of this statement). One thing the pieces discussed below all have in common is a distinctive and unselfconscious ‘Australianness’ in their telling, that’s hard to put your finger on but that seems lacking in those covered above. And all but one have an unmistakeably Australian sense of place, either explicitly or through the physical particulars of their settings.

Lynette Aspey’s ‘Sleeping Dragons’ is a solid bit of magic realism founded convincingly in non-Western mythology. Although mining East Asian myths and folklore has become something of a fashion, it’s still refreshing enough to hold this reviewer's attention longer than most conventionally Western dragon tales.

Magic realism, one of the more significant trends in current Australian short fantasy writing, doesn’t generally float my boat, less so tales of musical fandom, like Rjurik Davidson’s ‘Bones.’ This is a very minimalist fantasy indeed, so much so that one might even accuse it of being literary. Still, ‘Bones’ is a strong, unconventional piece of storytelling that showcases the author’s definite talent.

Kim Westwood’s ‘Tripping Over the Light Fantastic’ is, once more, magic realism, but this time spiced with a very dry wit. It also shows the lengths one has to go to, these days, to write an original vampire story. ‘Number 3 Raw Place’ by Deborah Biancotti is another step upwards, more slipstream than MR: understated, elegantly strange and I’m not altogether sure what happened in the end, but it worked. If it made marginally less sense (and featured a backwards-talking dwarf and a giant), David Lynch would buy the movie rights. Brendan D. Carson’s ‘Occam’s Razing’ has the Counter-Enlightenment victorious and scientific thinking exorcised as a sickness of the soul. It’s everything flash fiction should be: the punk music of the literary world, punchy, wry and with just the right balance of absurdity and logic to keep the reader enthralled for its short duration.

My personal favourite is Terry Dowling’s ‘Flashmen.’ Dowling is a writer’s writer and a repeat offender in world Year’s Bests for many years. He’s a stylist who’s as much lyricist as prose writer. He also writes bloody amazing aliens--if you want a lesson in how to make inexplicable alienness work, find a copy of his Wormwood collection. ‘Flashmen’ is Dowling at his best, like Wormwood, a tale of Earth invaded by utterly bizarre aliens and humanity’s struggle to cope. As Congreve notes in his introduction, China Mièville might call this stuff ‘New Weird,’ but it’s been bread-and-butter for Dowling for his whole career. ‘Flashmen’ stands out even more in this collection for being the only example of really exuberant science fiction represented.

My personal predilections aside, the best story in this collection has been judged the best in the world. In November, Margo Lanagan’s ‘Singing My Sister Down’ won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story and the single-author anthology that it came from, Black Juice, won the corresponding award for Best Collection. ‘Singing My Sister Down’ gives a boy’s perspective of his sister’s execution by immersion in a tar pit. It’s one of those squeamish, inexorable pieces that holds you enthralled even while it’s kicking you constantly in the guts. While this story, too, is undefined in time and place, it oozes authenticity. The people, society, and situation Lanagan creates are real in every gritty particular.

Australian SF may well have missed catching the wave surfed by the British SF Renaissance—although that said, Mr Kincaid appears to have compared (Australian) short fiction with (British) novel writing, which can be that ol’ apples and oranges thing, both in terms of trends and the buoyancy of the market. (See here for his thesis on the British Renaissance.) But even if Kincaid’s right, is it cause for concern? The weaknesses of this Year’s Best suggest we shouldn't bask too long in Lanagan’s reflected glory, but it offers enough to show that the best examples of Australian SF are still quietly surfing a wave all of their own.

Ian McHugh is a regular reviewer for The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He’s also sold stories to a modest number of publications beginning with ‘A’. Once he's exhausted the possibilities of ‘A’, he plans to try his luck with publications beginning with ‘B’ and maybe even ‘C’.



Ian McHugh is a regular reviewer for The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He’s also sold stories to a modest number of publications beginning with ‘A’. Once he's exhausted the possibilities of ‘A’, he plans to try his luck with publications beginning with ‘B’ and maybe even ‘C’.
28 comments on “The Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 1, edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt”
Ben Payne

Hi Ian,
Worth noting perhaps that Home by the Sea was nominated for both Aurealis and Ditmar awards that year, so the editors weren't alone in liking it:)
Cheers
Ben

Jeff VanderMeer

Ian:
The only thing I'd say is I'm damn sick of Aussie reviewers who keep mentioning this "we want to be as good as them" thing. Just review the stories. Otherwise it's like this reflexive, knee-jerk thing. As for personal preference--yes, you're right. Your review is based on personal preference. Another thing you don't really need to mention. We didn't think you were an infallible stone oracle sitting on a mountain somewhere. Nor do we need another reviewer prevaricating. Either you liked a story or you didn't. Don't sugar coat it and don't tell us about other year's bests to provide you with cover--it's irrelevant. For that too is some person's personal preference.
JeffV

Sean Wallace

I'd almost have to agree in that this review was deeply flawed, on any number of levels. Me, I don't mind a professionally-written review, with good-clean criticism, but this is not that, at all. I'm very surprised that no one at Strange Horizons properly edited this review. Niall? :p

Hi guys. Given the subject, or meta-subject, of the review, I thought it was interesting to see Ian show his working (for want of a better phrase). I don't feel that affects the validity of his other comments; I'm sorry if it didn't work for you.
(So, who's going to sign up to send me an impartial review of next year's Aurealis and Ditmar shortlists, when they're published? Anyone?)

Jeff, Sean,
I didn't have nearly as many problems with the review as you did. There's no such thing as "just reviewing" stories any more than you can "just read" them, because we all come with the baggage of our background, past reading, etc; no reviewer is, as Jeff says, an objective oracle; and sometimes the cultural context we're coming from when we respond to books is more complex than at other times. In which case, it may help to unpack those issues and make them explicit for the reader. (Example: I had to review David Gerrold's The Martian Child, about his adoptive son; I felt I needed to do quite a long first-person section stating that I was completely in favour of gay people adopting, as in this case, but that I found Gerrold's oleaginous presentation-of-self very hard to take. The point being that on issues like that, the reader's mileage may vary.) So if Ian McHugh has worries - I don't think it's unfair to call them anxieties - about the status of Australian fantastic fiction in relation to the rest of the world's, then I would rather he put those cards on the table. If other Australian reviewers share these worries, it may be worth understanding *why* they do. (I'm currently reading Clive James's latest collection of essays, which has plenty of thought - not a million miles from what Ian McHugh's expressing - about Australia's cultural place in the world. But so has everything he's written for the last 40 years; these things don't get magicked away.) The point on which I agree with Jeff is that I dislike appeal-to-authority as an argument, and I think that's what McHugh does in talking about other Year's Bests. But I think McHugh is entitled to feel ambivalence about what the book represents, and to express it as he has done.
Sean, you say "I'd almost have to agree in that this review was deeply flawed, on any number of levels." I'm genuininely interested to know what those levels are.
(And by the way, Niall, this means I think that there can be no such thing as an "impartial" survey of award shortlists; but you may have had your tongue in your cheek anyhow?)

Sean Wallace

It's not really a question of working or not working, for me, as much as it's simply an unprofessionally-written review, which I was surprised to see, which does affect the validity of his statements. I doubt very much that you could say that this isn't true, on some level.

Sean Wallace

Why particularly make the issues explicit for readers, which sets things up almost as a quasi-apology?

What do you see as the distinction between a professionally- and an unprofessionally-written review?

Jeff, Graham--I actually read the Year's Best paragraph as a survey of the landscape, comparing what's seen as best by Australians with what's seen as best by the rest of the world. But point taken. Oh, and 'impartial' was definitely tongue in cheek. 🙂
Sean--thanks for your email; I've replied.

Niall, perhaps you need a special tag or code or something to indicate the 10-15% of your writing where you're not being tongue-in-cheek? :p

Susan Marie Groppi

Sean-- Why would it be preferable for reviewers to not lay their cards on the table, as it were, when it comes to background and bias?

Sean Wallace

Susan: because it's someone's job to make sure that bias doesn't really creep into reviews—you don't assign, for instance, a vampire book to someone that doesn't like vampire books. That would be a mistake, largely.
I'm not entirely sure where a reviewer's background would be important to me as a reader, either. I want to hear about the book itself, not background material to explain why a reviewer favors or is biased against material. It shouldn't be necessary, if the reviewer is picked properly for the job.
Graham: I emailed Niall a full list detailing the issues with the review, but between the deeply-flawed conclusions and the irreverent tone and approach, I'd say at the very least it was very poorly done and very poorly edited. It's not something that I like to see, at all, in a review.

Ian McHugh

Unprofessional? Irreverent? Well, I won't argue with either of those, but I won't apologise either.
Can I have one of them tongue-in-cheek tags as well? But only for the bit about (my) angst and cricket. I admit, it didn't occur to me that Australians parading the national chip on the shoulder had become a global phenomenon, though. I wrote the review because I'd read Paul Kincaid's review, as I mentioned, and mentioned it because it seemed a good way to lead in and provide a bit of background on the shape of the Australian scene. I figured most overseas readers wouldn't know and that some of them might be interested. Besides which, I like to contextualise what I'm reviewing, rather than reading it in isolation. So, if I'm reviewing a book called 'Year's Best Australian', then its self-proclaimed context is both Year's Bests and Australian SF writing generally.
Although (Jeff) about the appeal to authority in referencing the other Year's Bests, you might have a point there, although that wasn't my conscious intention. I surveyed the 'world' volumes because of my doubts about some of the stories in the book I was reviewing and I wanted to see where else stories by Australians were getting noticed. I was struck by the lack of overlap between this book and the various world Bests. I had a notion to illustrate the (yeah ok, maybe redundant) point that no-one has a definitive view of what constitutes 'the best'.
That said, I'll admit to feeling a twinge of nervousness when I'm dissing someone else's work. I don't reckon I'd argue if someone suggested that was at least partly behind the appeal to world Year's Bests and my (maybe) labouring the point about personal preference. I stand by my opinions, though. And I do think it's valuable to know where someone's coming from when you're reading their opinions. I don't believe you can escape from bias of one kind or another, so how else can a reader take those biases into account?
Ian

Susan Marie Groppi

Sean, I see what you're saying about not assigning vampire novels to vampire haters, but I don't think that's actually a comparable example. In this case, a collection of Australian science fiction was reviewed by someone who's aware of (and interested in) various issues surrounding the Australian SF community; if those issues exist and are out there, why would it have been preferable to assign the review to someone who was ignorant of those issues?
More to the point, though, I'm finding this whole discussion extremely illuminating. I've been wondering for -months- what it is that you're on about when you complain in various places about the lack of professionalism in reviews, and I'm finally starting to get a handle on it. You think that a properly professional review is one that's devoid of the reviewer's personality, and that's certainly a position I can respect. I'm rather fond of the personal touch, though; I think it makes for more interesting writing, and given that I tend to doubt the existence of reviewers who lack bias, I'll always opt for putting all the issues out in the open. I thought this review (like most of our reviews--have I mentioned recently that I couldn't be happier with the reviews department here?) was a great piece of writing, and I'm glad we published it.

Susan, Sean
I've not seen Sean's previous complaints about professionalism re other reviews, but if Susan's summary is accurate - that Sean sees reviews which tend to the personal or the irreverent as unprofessional - that rules out the sf criticism of, say, James Blish, John Clute, Samuel R Delany, Damon Knight, David Langford, Joanna Russ, and Gary Wolfe; plus, further down the food-chain, pretty much anything I've ever written. As Susan says, we're all biassed; good reviewers will foreground enough of where they personally are coming from to allow the reader to understand that bias. Which is not to say that reviewing should be self-therapy. The good reviewer should be able to *stand outside* the work, should refuse to take it on the terms in which it (or its marketing exoskeleton) presents itself. In that sense, all good reviewing is irreverent.

Sean Wallace

Graham (and Susan): I'm not entirely too sure that you can actually derive what my tastes in reviews are, since I've published most of Langford's review collections, along with reprinting John Clute's Strokes, under my Cosmos imprint. They serve a certain purpose, with which I don't have an issue. There's certainly a place and function for them.
But I do have issues with shoddily-premised and -constructed reviews, which this is. It should have been edited down a bit, in my honest opinion—by no means is it a "great piece of writing."
But we can agree to disagree, either way. 🙂

Sean Wallace

Ian, did you submit anything to this anthology, by the way?

Sean Wallace

Either way we're going to disagree about this review, I suspect, with no one getting anywhere in this.

Well, I've found the discussion enjoyable. But we can agree to disagree on that if you like 😉

I don't think it's possible to write a review of anything without the recognition that it is, at the end of the day, only someone's personal opinion. To suggest that there is no personal element in a review is to suggest, I think, that it contains some definitive 'rightness' that can't be challenged.
It seems to me that some reviewers fall into the trap of thinking that they somehow know better than 'regular' readers, or even other reviewers. They say, This story/film/song is crap, as though that's a definitive pronouncement on its quality. What they mean is, *I think* this story/film/song is crap.
For my money, there's no such thing as an incorrect reading of a story. If it worked for you, it's great. If it didn't work for you, it's not great. One person not liking something doesn't mean it's a terrible piece of work.
Not every piece in Bill and Michelle's anthology works for me, but I congratulate the authors, and them, for all the time and effort it took to produce the book. And I congratulate Ian for having the willingness to stand up and air his opinion publicly, and let people know his frames of reference in doing so. That, for my money, is the most honest way of producing a review.

Jonathan Strahan

Karen: Interesting comment. You say:

It seems to me that some reviewers fall into the trap of thinking that they somehow know better than 'regular' readers, or even other reviewers. They say, This story/film/song is crap, as though that's a definitive pronouncement on its quality. What they mean is, *I think* this story/film/song is crap.

but isn't that implicit? If a review is written by someone, isn't it 'what they think'? It seems redundant to explicitly say "I think" or "I thought" or "this is my favorite" all the time. I've always tried to write reviews that state my opinion as clearly as possible, and try to edit reviews by others with that in mind. I've always felt that the byline is a clear enough statement. Same thing with editing a year's best annual. Any selection is subjective, but you wouldn't call it 'the stories that I read and liked the most', it doesn't have the same impact, though it's plainly what the book is.

Heya Sean: I prefer reviews that have an informal tone, myself, & occasionally find reviews that lack this kinda pompous. But I'm interested in your view of a good review. With the proliferation of review sites, maybe you can put your thoughts together for us -- an online article, perhaps? My worry, of course, is that if we start laying down rules for reviewers, all we're going to get is well-schooled, identical reviews.
(Also, this was a reprint antho, not one you could submit to.)
Hey Jeff: >I'm damn sick of Aussie reviewers who keep mentioning this "we want to be as good as them" thing.Heya Sean: I prefer reviews that have an informal tone, myself, & occasionally find reviews that lack this kinda pompous. But I'm interested in your view of a good review. With the proliferation of review sites, maybe you can put your thoughts together for us -- an online article, perhaps? My worry, of course, is that if we start laying down rules for reviewers, all we're going to get is well-schooled, identical reviews.
(Also, this was a reprint antho, not one you could submit to.)
Hey Jeff: >I'm damn sick of Aussie reviewers who keep mentioning this "we want to be as good as them" thing.< We never did have that chat about cultural cringe. 😉 But hey, maybe that's what being Australian is really all about -- wanting to be something else. (Moderator: I need one of them tongue-in-cheek tags here, please.) I thought Ian's comments, given his supplied context, made sense. And I can certainly understand his apparent hesitancy about publishing a no-holds-barred review like this. No wonder he stressed the personal preference thing. Anyhow, just my opinions. And we've already agreed to disagree, right? 🙂 I'm with Graham, this is an enjoyable discussion!

You're right, Jonathan. The whole 'I think' thing is implicit in the fact that it's a review. But I think *g* that too many reviewers forget that what they're expressing is an opinion, a reaction prismed through their own prejudices, biases and tastes, and behave as though it's some kind of definitive pronouncement from on high, unimpeachable and by definition not open to challenge.
I'm not just talking fiction reviews, be they in the spec fic communty or elsewhere. All reviews, be they of film or theatre or art or anything, are by their nature subjective. The judgements they render aren't right or wrong, they're just a reflection of what works for that one person at a particular moment on a particular day. And yet, in some cases, they have assumed a power to influence the pieces' reception out of all proportion.
I guess it's a tonal thing. When someone in an assumed position of authority or expertise declares, This is Crap, there's a good chance it'll have a negative impact on the sales/appreciation of the item being reviewed. The most obvious example of this is the Broadway theatre critics who can close a show in one night. I don't believe any one person's opinion should have that much sway. And I think, too often, that kind of power becomes an end in and of itself. It's a power thing, and I don't like it.
I'm much more comfortable with reviewers who give me a context, who don't talk about themselves as such in a review, but give me a clue as to what their tastes/biases are, so I can see the opinions they express against some kind of informed backdrop. Reviewers who aren't carried away by the importance and rightness of their opinions, but recognise they have no more a monopoly on the definition of 'good' or 'bad' than the next reviewer.
I guess I'm partly influenced by being an ex-bookseller. In that capacity I acted as a kind of reviewer every day, in that I recommended books to customers based on what I thought, and what I knew of their tastes. It showed me that my opinion about the quality of a book was totally irrelevant, that people read and enjoyed stuff that I didn't and that said nothing about them or their tastes, it was just an expression of personal preference.
I think reviews are enormously important. They're a guide to what's out there. But if we're to get honest reviews people have to be free to express an honest opinion, and the folk who disagree with that opinion have to say, Okay, I don't agree with that, which is fine, and not attack the holder of the dissenting opinion as though disagreeing with them is some kind of personal attack.
My bias is I'm suspicious of reviewers who refuse to acknowledge that what they're writing is just a personal opinion. If you remove the personal context, I think you're presenting something as fact. And opinion isn't fact. It can't be. Don't tell me what something is or isn't. To say 'this book is unconvincing' is really to say 'this book didn't convince me' -- and while that is unquestionably true for you, it's not necessarily true for the next reader. And therein, for me, lies the whole difference. Tell me what your response is to it, and allow me to decide for myself whether or not we see things in the same way, or not.
Just my long-winded .02c worth ... *g*

Andrew Macrae

Two things about this review annoyed me:
1. The fact that it treats with any seriousness Paul Kincaid’s glib generalisation about the state of Australian SF. Okay, so whatever you think of his opinions, Kincaid is a good critic and he justifies his demolition of the CSFG anthology with plenty of evidence. But to premise a review of the Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction on this throw-away line in a review of one small press anthology as if it’s sparked a crisis of national identity, I mean c’mon! Are we really that fragile?
2. The criteria the reviewer uses to construct a sense of Australian SF. The first is "a distinctive and unselfconscious 'Australianness'", and I'm not surprised he can't come up with more specific terms, because "Australianness" is a total fiction.
Or rather, it's most often something that is used cynically by those who wish to manipulate mass sentiment, as we saw on the beach in Sydney last weekend.
The second is an "unmistakeably Australian sense of place." Surely Australian SF writers can use settings beyond our parochial shores. No one ever thought any less of Iain M. Banks for setting the Culture novels outside Scotland, or felt that Gibson's cyberspace should look more like Canada. Fundamentally, trying to define Australian science fiction is as boring and pointless as the broader argument about what science fiction is.
I'm with JeffV: stick to reviewing the stories.

Jonathan and Karen,
I kind of agree with you both. Reviewers can be too pompous in the way they state their opinions at times. I've read reviews that made me cringe at the reviewer's self-importance. I do agree, though, that the fact that the review is opinion is implicit. I don't see much difference between the way you express the "unconvincing line", Karen.
To me, it's not about saying "I didn't enjoy this book" as opposed to "this book doesn't work". It's about the ways you contextualise your review. A good review will enable somebody with opposing tastes to your own to be able to read your review and understand that they might like the work you are panning. A bad review will leave nothing for anyone whose tastes are not the reviewer's own. *That's* when it becomes a power trip, imho.
Having said all that, good reviewing is harder than it looks, so I'm slowly learning.
Sean: I tend to think most reviews are too long.
Andrew: Your comments are so Australian. They make me want to eat vegemite and root kangaroos. Each and every one of *my* stories is just a casing for my theme which is that Australians should all be laconic and masculine unless they're chicks in which case they should get me a beer.
Deb and Jeff: I don't want to be as good as anyone. I'm happy if a small dog wags its tail in my vague direction. If it barks in just the right way it kinda sounds like "year's best". Listen...
Everyone: I apologise. I seem to have drifted from serious discussion to rambling. Hmmm.

Well, Ben ... *g*
I think (this is going to get ridiculous *g*) ... that to say, This book is unconvincing, is to state the opinion as though it were an incontrovertible fact, as in, this book is 350 pages long, and that the fact is applicable across the board and is a universal truth.
Whereas to say, This book did not convince me, still states a fact but contains it to the personal, not a universal truth.
Which means, to me, that to say, This book doesn't work, as opposed to, doesn't work for me, is doing the same thing. It's making a blanket statement that says this book fails on all levels in all ways. But that can't be true, because it's almost certain that someone somewhere will love that book. And since that opinion by definition can't be wrong, the flat statement must be.
Either way, I think reviewers should articulate the reasons why a piece of work does/does not delight them.

Martin Lewis

Karen,
Again you are making needlessly explicit what is already implicit and blindingly obvious. Adding the caveats you suggest would only succeed in making reviews turgid beyond belief.

Bill Congreve

Hello all,
Not sure editors should weigh in on this kind of thing. Ian's review was pretty loose, but he makes a few good points, and I don't have a problem with the review.
Would love to gossip about other Year's Bests. Re Kim Westwood, I think we have the better story. Terry Dowling's story appeared in the previous Year's Hartwell SF, but we read back to include Dec of 2003 to bring in the issue of Oceans of the Mind which would otherwise have been snubbed completely in the Australian awards process. Lucy's story was too far into 2003.
I'd like to make the point that, in general, Aust SF writers only have short story markets open to them. There are very few able to break out internationally, and print runs in Australia are very small. If, for the same effort, Harper can sell 5-6000 copies of a fantasy novel, and 3000 of an SF novel, which are they going to pick?
Re submissions, we read a couple of stories of Ian's. Ian, if you have anything this year, now's the time to let us know.
Yes, this is a reprint anthology, but we aren't mind readers and don't get to see everything. All submissions are welcome.
Regz
Bill

 

%d bloggers like this: