Articles editor Joyce Chng sat down with Australian speculative fiction writers and editors to discuss the state of SFF down under.
Joyce Chng: Please introduce yourself.
Gillian Polack: I'm Gillian Polack. I have had six novels published, edited two anthologies, and have a fair amount of critical non-fiction in print. When I'm not a fiction writer, I am academically inclined. My most recent academic book is about the relationship between history and (mostly genre) fiction.
Ambelin Kwaymullina: I'm Ambelin Kwaymullina, an Aboriginal writer, illustrator, and law academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
Tehani Croft: Hi, I'm Tehani Croft of FableCroft Publishing, a boutique Australian SF press. I am also an academic lecturer in the field of Information Studies, and have judged for several Australian literary awards, including the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year, the WA Premier’s Book Awards, and the Aurealis Awards (Australia’s premier science fiction literary awards).
Matthew Farrer: I'm Matthew Farrer. I have published five novels and a clutch of novellas and short stories, most of them tie-in work for SFF-themed game settings: Games Workshop’s Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000, Dark Heresy, and Necromunda; Fantasy Flight Games’ Android; Wyrd Games’ Malifaux, Through the Breach, and The Other Side.
Joyce Chng: Australian speculative fiction ranges from science fiction to gamewriting. What place do you think Australia occupies in the field? Do you think Australian SFF has been ignored or neglected by the US/UK-centric SFF community?
Gillian Polack: Some Australian SFF is not ignored, but most of it goes unseen by the wider critics (and most fans), especially in the US. This is partly because we write in such a broad swath of styles, themes, and subgenres, but it's also because of the nature of literary culture within the US and the UK. More and more the writing that is "seen" belongs to particular places within the genre. Those writers who have links to Locus and Tor, for example, are far less affected by invisibility, which is good. But it's a small amount of the amazing phenomenon that is Australian speculative fiction.
Ambelin Kwaymullina: My primary concern is not the neglect of Australian SFF—although I believe we have many talented writers who deserve more recognition—but the global exclusion of diverse voices across Australian SFF as well as the UK and US. In this respect I don’t believe Australian SFF has historically been any more embracing of diversity than the US or the UK. Australian SFF also has a long and ongoing history of appropriating non-Western cultures, including the Indigenous cultures of the Earth. There is of course a growing awareness of the harm caused by exclusion and cultural appropriation across SFF, but there remains a long way to travel on these issues.
Tehani Croft: Access has been one of our biggest problems, coming from Australia. Until relatively recently, most Aussie SF writers were very poorly known outside of our limited population pool, because of the expense of travel and the unlikelihood of international book deals (not impossible, but relatively rare). With the advent of ebooks, international POD publishing, distribution opportunities such as Lightning Source, and of course, social media, Australian authors have more opportunities than in the past to be read overseas. However, it’s a double-edged sword—the international authors also have access to these things, and a bigger base to draw from, so it’s still like shouting into the void, somewhat—it’s just a more crowded void than ever before.
It’s also fascinating to me that Australian SFF is far more women-centric than in the US and UK. I won’t argue that we don’t have issues with gender still, but it’s always heartening to see our awards ballots with such positive gender balances, and any Australian SFF booklist will have a great cohort of female writers and editors on show. Personally, I believe it makes our speculative fiction field much more interesting, and the issues and ideas explored far more challenging than when the field is dominated by male voices. But I wonder if part of the reason we struggle to get a foothold overseas is due to that disparity?
Matthew Farrer: I am not sure about “ignored or neglected” for being Australian per se; I do think Tehani has a good point about the problems of access. The main barrier I was always conscious of in getting writing out of Australia into a worldwide scene was technical. I was trying to get serious about my writing in the last few years of the pre-Internet era and I remember how daunting it was trying to find out how one approached magazine and book publishers overseas (although my being young and unworldly probably had just as much to do with that sensation). Being able to find out about markets and submissions online was a huge step, ditto being able to send manuscripts by email without messing about with typescript, American paper sizes, and International Reply Coupons.
With the edge taken off the tyranny of distance for some years now, my completely personal and anecdotal impression is that Australian SFF is about where I’d expect it to be in terms of its profile globally. I’m thinking here of the presence of Australian writers on the rosters of international publishers, and the amount of discussion of Australian writing that I see in fan chatter in the various places I participate in it. It’s a relatively small amount, but it seems to me (again, personal and anecdotal) that it’s about in proportion to the size of the Australian creative scene relative to the much larger pools overseas. I’ve also seen publishers make active efforts to come through looking for Australian writing to take to a bigger readership. Angry Robot, for example, was keen to find out about Australian writers who’d previously been under the radar when they were starting out and building their initial lists.
Of course, talking about Australian SFF as a single bloc like this doesn’t address the issue of which kinds of our SFF writing get that profile outside the country and which don’t, as Ambelin points out.
Joyce Chng: When people think of Australia, they immediately associate the country with Steve Irwin, Mad Max, and kangaroos. How does Australian SFF respond to these stereotypical images of Australia? Are there stories that circumvent these tropes or better, flip them on their heads? (Or throw them out of the window!)
Gillian Polack: I suspect that all of us, at some stage, produce stories that laugh at and with these tropes, address them, throw them out of the window, try to replace them. We also often just ignore them. If I were to look for a pattern regarding Australian creative responses to stereotypes, I'd look at it from a slightly different angle.
Some of the most fun I've ever had as an editor was when I asked a bunch of writers to look at cultural baggage for an anthology I did for Eneit Press (later taken up by Borgo/Wildside). I was half-expecting the focus of the incoming stories to be on these tropes, even though I myself challenge them from odd directions and in strange ways. My writers were more like me than I thought, and the stories were amazing and challenging. Baggage may not have been seen by many as an anthology (the Borders fracas brought down my publisher, just as it was getting out there, and not many people are aware of the US edition), but it was and is eye-opening. Most of the stories have been repeated in various anthologies and years' bests and collections, too.
This says something, I think, about how important these challenges are for us, as Australian creators and editors. Mine was by no means the only anthology (it came to mind because it's so important to me, personally), and these writers are not the only ones to be working on these themes. Some of the others have received significant international notice (Dreaming Down Under, for instance) but there are many, many out there.
The need to challenge and to think and to explore new ways of seeing Australian culture is essential to Australian SFF, to my mind, but it doesn't always riff on familiar themes.
Ambelin Kwaymullina: I think my perspective is going to be a little different on these issues. Those same stereotypical ideas include harmful and offensive stereotypes of Australian Indigenous peoples—and it’s not just non-Australians who hold these stereotypes. They are held by Australian writers and they appear throughout Australian SFF novels. So I’d like to see Australian writers challenge themselves to query their own privilege and preconceptions, and I’d like to see publishers start providing dedicated spaces for Indigenous and other diverse voices to speak to our own realities.
Matthew Farrer: Is this a thing that we do? This is probably the question in this whole list that I’ve been having the most trouble with, because I keep trying to think of Australian writing that goes out to engage with those sorts of conceptions and stereotypes and I keep coming up short. The only real example I can think of—Pratchett’s The Last Continent—isn’t actually Australian writing. We all know about those stereotypes, shrimps on the barbie and all the rest of it, but when it comes time to write stories we just seem to ignore them rather than go out to deliberately rebut them. What am I missing?
Tehani Croft: Also Seanan McGuire (as Mira Grant) set one of her Newsflesh novellas here, which well and truly utilised the dystopic wildlife to good effect—again, not an Aussie! Although some of our writers do use the landscape explicitly (the stories I published in the reprint anthology Australis Imaginarium actually had alternate Australian mythology at their core), these are really few and far between. When so much of our speculative fiction is set in the future or other worlds, often Australian work isn’t necessarily distinguishable by its setting or stereotypes. Personally though, I think Aussie writers tend to adopt darker, bolder, and more category-defying styles of writing—we live in a geographically remote and often harsh landscape, and it can show through in our fiction.
Joyce Chng: With recent recognition in speculative fiction awards and a few good anthologies published by small presses and independent publishers, where do you see Australian SFF in five years?
Gillian Polack: I think, despite some obvious problems (some of which have currently caused a rather large hiccup for my own career), the future for Australian SFF is not only positive, but potentially very exciting. Currently, we're seeing new presses and collapses of presses and a load of indie publishing. We're also seeing more gatekeepers who help explain Australian work to those outside Australia. This makes it difficult to predict patterns of where we'll be and it makes it almost impossible to see precisely what will be happening. For me, the new and exciting turn is that many emerging writers are looking for higher skills levels, either through training (including PhDs), or through work with people like me (for those who don't know, the income stream of my writing self tends to be as a book doctor/writing teacher, for my novels themselves are very niche and not much noticed). Each new writer who stops and says "I need skills" and "I should learn how writing for games works" and "Scriptwriting—what's it about?" and who learns deeply, often becomes a part of a learning community. I've seen those learning communities grow, time after time. These learning communities are a very exciting development and promise interesting things for our SFF future.
All the work and all the creativity and the sheer numbers of people putting so much effort and so much wonder out there—Australian SFF will be in a good position. Just not one that's easy to describe.
Ambelin Kwaymullina: I hope to see more Own Voices—that is, SFF stories about marginalised peoples told by writers who share that identity (the use of the phrase Own Voices in this context was coined by Corinne Duyvis, a SFF writer with a disability). I hope to see non-diverse writers educate themselves about the harm they are doing to people living in this world and this time when they replicate harmful tropes across imaginary futures and appropriate real cultures for fictional purposes. I hope to see award judges, reviewers, and editors inform themselves as to the issues involved so that they stop heaping praise upon problematic manuscripts that distort and misrepresent. I hope to see a future where all voices have an equal opportunity to be heard and all voices are heard equally.
Tehani Croft: I completely agree with Ambelin in her hope for a future that is diverse by nature across the board. We need this diversity in more than our authors (who are extremely important, of course), but also in our “gatekeepers”—the editors, reviewers, and literary awards judges are all too often homogenised to even more critical levels than the creators.
And to be perfectly honest, I don’t believe Australian SFF will grow unless the major publishers put their money where their mouth is and hire capable editors who have knowledge of and passion for the genre. A solid manuscript from an established author is one thing; being willing and able to recognise a strong book that offers new viewpoints and ideas in the field, or to uncover new talent, and work with these from an informed perspective, is lifeblood for genre publishing. When so much of our current science fiction (as opposed to fantasy, not in the umbrella context of the term) is firmly situated in the young adult category, and very little is being produced that is aimed squarely at an adult audience, we really have an issue. I personally adore YA, and believe that in Australia we are very strong in this market, but many adult readers dismiss YA as not for them, and so our publishers need to step up, take some risks, and do their homework in employing more editors who know the genre and can think a bit outside the box in terms of what readers are seeking. Small presses do a wonderful job at discovering talent, but no matter how skillful the indie publisher, no matter how good the book, they rarely (if ever) have the financial resources and reach to make that book and author a star, even within Australia, let alone internationally.
Matthew Farrer: The technological and cultural churn in which writing and publishing happens makes me very leery of the prediction game. It’s nice to see authors and publishers from here succeeding, but I don’t think that that represents any kind of stable end state that we can think of as a baseline from now on. Five years from now, we might be looking at those successes as the start of an amazing boom-time for Australian speculative storytelling, or we might be moaning about how bright things looked back in 2017 and wondering why there’s been such a fallow period ever since.
I do suspect that the traditional structures and boundaries will continue to dissolve away. Instead of traditional publishing dominated by large commercial houses here, and independents over here, and self-publishers here, and comics doing their thing over there, and games over there, and so on, I think it’ll be more and more common for writing careers to be mosaics of prose work, media, comics, games, people developing their own projects, as well as working with publishers and studios. That’s a trend I’m seeing already and I don’t see a reason to think it will reverse or slow down.
I do think that as those boundaries dissolve the field will re-cohere around new ones. The Internet has already allowed people to shape their reading way more around what appeals to them, rather than it being shaped by where you live and what publishers can manage to put stuff into your reach. So that’s a trend I see continuing, too: the field dividing into smaller sub-communities around particular styles, subgenres, and story elements.
This isn’t a particularly Australian trend, but a global one that’s reshaping storytelling and reading everywhere in similar ways. (Which is part of my point, I suppose.)
Joyce Chng: How important are the Aurealis Awards and the Ditmars in the recognition of Australian SFF? Would the major publishers then take notice? Likewise, where does Australian SFF see itself in relation with other vibrant SFF communities (with their own regional awards) that are not US or UK?
Gillian Polack: This is one I have difficulty answering. I’m not sure that the awards link in neatly to mainstream publishing, but there are side effects from the recognition. One of my novels was a Ditmar finalist and, when it went out of print, Momentum/PanMacmillan took it on, for example.
I do think that the awards are wonderful tools for readers. Places to start reading, not places to end. For every amazing piece of writing that’s won an award, there are ten or even twenty equally amazing pieces that haven’t. Readers have to start somewhere, though, and beginning from a list that has been suggested by others (whether it’s a jury or a vote) saves a lot of fussing. I know how each award works in relation to my personal taste and I judge my future reading from awards by factoring that in. The Ditmars are more likely to reflect my taste in reading than Locus, for example. I use award lists alongside reviewers whose taste reflects mine or whose judgement I trust. I also introduce myself to an author through the library and then start buying when I discover their personal magic. This is what I did with Alexis Wright’s work, Melissa Lucashenko's, and Meg Rosoff’s, for instance.
Awards can be very useful, then, but are not all-important.
Ambelin Kwaymullina: Awards can be important, and not just the SFF-specific ones, but the broader awards that recognise SFF work, such as the various kid’s lit awards in the realm in which I work.
Historically, awards have done a poor job of recognising works by non-white writers (the same is true of recognition of other diverse writers, but it is in relation to Indigenous peoples and peoples of colour that I have the most expertise, and so I will confine my answer to that context).
There’s a lot of ingredients that go into the lack of recognition. One is that work by non-white writers will often fail to comply with stereotypes and so the (usually) white judges will read these works as being less "authentic" than works by white writers about non-white worlds that do incorporate stereotypes, thereby complying with white expectations of non-white peoples. Another consideration, and one that particularly affects Indigenous writers, is that the very notion of what is speculative fiction and what is not remains grounded in Western definitions of the real which do not reflect Indigenous realities. For example, nonlinear time, speaking with animals, and the presence of those who have passed over in our lives are not at all speculative to me: they are part of my everyday. But the understanding of the ways in which Indigenous peoples use speculative fiction to challenge colonialism and speak to Indigenous futures (Indigenous Futurisms) is poor amongst judges, reviewers, and the SFF community (and kid's lit community) generally.
What awards have historically done a very good job of doing is recognising works by white writers that appropriate the cultures of non-white peoples, incorporate stereotypes of non-white peoples, tell yet another white savior story, or otherwise deal with non-white peoples in ways that are offensive and cause harm. Despite (often extensive) critiques of these works by the people being represented as to the poor nature of the representation, such works are often showered with praise during awards season. There have been a number of recent examples of this in Australia, but it is hardly a new phenomenon: simply a continuation of the structures of white privilege that have existed on this continent since the arrival of the colonists.
Solving this requires, in part, diversifying judging panels and reviewers. But it also requires that anyone on a judging panel take the time and trouble to inform themselves as to representation issues in literature so that they are capable of recognising flawed representation when they see it.
Tehani Croft: I don’t think I can add much to that, but I would like to note that I think awards short-listings and wins are useful on a writer’s CV, particularly when you are looking for representation from agents or seeking grant applications. However, some awards really do have more cachet than others and it’s important to recognise the value of the award you are a finalist for. It’s also important to note that very few awards actually have any impact on sales, though some gain wider recognition from booksellers than others.
Joyce Chng: Lastly, to expand from Ambelin’s thoughtful and thought-provoking comments about indigenous realities in Australia, what are essentially Australian narratives? How does Australian SFF negotiate dominant and marginalized narratives?
Gillian Polack: This is one of the big questions for right now in relation to spec fic narratives. For some of us, the sea change we need is happening, for some it has happened, and some are still operating in a simple culture where marginalised people are either left out of fiction or given marginalised roles. It’s a big question with big and complex answers. I could write a book on it—so I’ll just focus on one small element.
A key part of the question for me is why we’re not talking much about the writers who have been addressing those issues for years or who are addressing them now. If the public discourse changes, more writers will be able to write sensibly and without cultural infractions. The underlying understanding is within reach, but many writers aren’t taking it up because it’s not saleable or not a regular part of their worldview yet, because it’s not a loud enough part of public discourse. We need to shout about these writers at least as much as we shout about the latest thriller writers or elf adventures.
Public discussion can encourage publishers to accept those challenging manuscripts and to market them with vigour. This means more of us accepting complexity, accepting cultural and social responsibilities (of the sort Ambelin talks about, for instance), and talking. Talking a great deal. Learning. Caring.
A whole bunch of people are doing this in private—they read my novels and tell me about them, or they come to my classes and engage in the most wonderful discussions—but the public places are more bereft than they should be.
Ambelin Kwaymullina: As I’ve said before a lack of diversity in literature—including in SFF literature—is not a diversity problem. It is a privilege problem, in that it is caused by structures, behaviours, and attitudes that consistently privilege one set of voices over another. Because it is a privilege problem, it cannot be solved by more voices of privilege writing to the experiences of the marginalised, but has to be addressed by the space being created for marginalised voices to speak.
I am an Own Voices advocate. I do not believe non-Indigenous peoples should be writing to Indigenous experience from first person or deep third perspective. I also don’t believe non-Indigenous writers should be incorporating Indigenous culture and experiences in their work outside of equitable partnerships with Indigenous peoples. Our pain is not your source material, and nor are our cultures. I understand that the Western literary tradition has always borrowed from elsewhere; but you’re not writing about your culture, you’re writing about mine. And my culture, like all the Indigenous cultures of the Earth, has rules about who can tell what story, and when, and why. What is more, Indigenous peoples struggle every day to protect who we are in the face of historical efforts to destroy us and the continuing denigration of our cultures and realities. And the denigration of Indigenous cultures, the exoticising and fetishising of our beings and realities that has long been a part of SFF, was always part of the ideology which underlay the colonizer’s claim to Indigenous lands. This means that SFF, as a genre, has a history of complicity in colonisation that has been written to by others, including John Reider (Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction) and Anishinaabe academic Grace Dillon (Walking the Clouds). I also think SFF can be a powerful tool for decolonisation. But this cannot be achieved by following the same past patterns but rather by forging new ones that respect the boundaries of Indigenous peoples, that create spaces for Indigenous peoples to speak rather than speaking for or about us, and that seek out equitable partnerships with Indigenous peoples—and in so doing, lay the foundation for a just future.
Tehani Croft: There should be a sense of shame among agents, editors, and publishers when they consider how often they simply think “too hard” or don’t even consider looking beyond a regular “stable” of authors—it can be next to impossible for writers to break into a major publishing house in any circumstance, but even those tiny odds drop significantly for people of colour, because the stories they tell might be challenging in some way. I can only reiterate here that until we have more depth of diversity among editors and publishers, or at the very least a greater willingness of editors and publishers to actively seek out and mentor creators from Indigenous cultures (and educate themselves along the way), this simply will not improve, which is not (and really, should never have been) acceptable.
Joyce Chng: Thank you all!