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 ...
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’.