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Monday 16 September 2002

New SF from Australia

Reviewed by Rich Horton

  • AustrAlien Absurdities, edited by Chuck McKenzie and Tansy Rayner Roberts
    (Agog! Press, University of Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia, 2001; 226 pp, Aus$19.95, ISBN: 0-9580567-1-4 [Order from Dymocks])
  • Passing Strange, edited by Bill Congreve
    (MirrorDanse Books, Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia, 2002; 172 pp, Aus$19.95, ISBN: 0-9586583-3-1 [Order from Dymocks])
  • Aurealis, #29
    (128 pages, Aus$12.50; ISSN: 1035-1205 Aurealis website)

Certainly Australian writers are making an impact on the contemporary SF and Fantasy field. The best is probably Hugo Award-winner Greg Egan, but Sean McMullen, Sean Williams, and others have established reputations to reckon with. Population and literary tradition being what they are, publication in England and/or the United States is essential to reaching a wide audience, and to establishing a "name". The major magazines also all are published in the UK or the US. But there is a native market for Australian stories, and it can be worth the while of those of us north of the Equator to seek out books published Down Under.

Recently I reviewed here a fine new Australian anthology, called Agog! Fantastic Fiction, as well as the latest issue of an Australian-edited dark fantasy magazine, Redsine. Here are three more recent collections of Australian SF and Fantasy.

AustrAlien Absurdities came out in 2001 from Agog! Press, also publishers of Agog! Fantastic Fiction. As the title implies, AustrAlien Absurdities is an anthology of comic tales. Most of the stories are original to the book, with three reprints. One of the better stories is a reprint, Jack Wodhams's "The Pearly Gates of Hell", about an immortal man trying to commit suicide: something just not allowed! This piece appeared in Analog in 1967, and it highlights my lack of knowledge of Australia's SF history. I certainly knew of Wodhams, one of the regular authors of John W. Campbell's last years with Analog, but I had no idea he was Australian.

The rest of the book is a mixture of cute stories and tedious stories. Perhaps collections of comic stories shouldn't be read all at one go: the similarity of tone, the (let's say it) lack of seriousness, starts to wear on this reader. But that said there are some fun entries in this book.

I'll highlight a few. Sean Williams and Simon Brown, in "The Truth in Advertising", look at an advertising agency asked to put a positive spin on an alien invasion. Co-editor Tansy Rayner Roberts has one of her Mocklore stories (another appeared in of Agog! Fantastic Fiction), "Delta Void and the Unicorn Soup", in which our heroine, who can adopt a number of different personae along with the appropriate body, is charged to catch a unicorn for use at a restaurant. She runs into difficulties when she encounters a dragon hunter who is shocked at the idea of killing a unicorn. Robbie Matthews's "Dragon Omelette" features a dragon trying to buy the last known dragon eggs. Trent Jamieson's "A Thief is a King in the Hall of Night" has a demon judging a contest between two composers — but what would the demon's priorities be? And Les Peterson's "Abduct Me" is about a journalist who stumbles across aliens abducting humans. When the aliens take his unrequited love's boyfriend, she recruits him to help her go after them. All cute stuff, nothing very profound. The few stories that try for satire fell a bit flat to me.

By and large, this is an enjoyable collection. As I said, some of the stories were a bit tedious. But most brought at least a grin to my face. It's not a lastingly brilliant original anthology, but it's pleasant and funny reading.

Passing Strange is a new anthology edited by Bill Congreve, with a mixture of SF, fantasy, and horror. Again I found it a mixed bag. About half the stories were pretty interesting. The rest were mainly just mediocre. The opening and closing stories were two of the best. The leadoff, Kate Orman's "All the Children of Chimaera", tells of a curiously alternate past world, and a scientist under pressure to produce chimaeras such as hippogriffs or leopard-eagles for his king. He finds a potential solution, but it involves human chimaeras, which brings an entirely different moral dimension into play. The anthology finishes with Chuck McKenzie's "Confessions of a Pod Person", which is just what the title claims: the narrative of a survivor of a failed invasion of "Body Snatchers" as it tries to come to terms with life on Earth. It's unexpectedly moving.

Other fine efforts include editor Congreve's "The Desertion of Corporal Perkins", concerning a revolt among the "soldiers" of a reservation of criminals who have been used as entertainment in staged wars. Robert Hood's "Maculate Conception" is an effective horror story about a man dealing with his wife's leaving him, which moves to a nicely handled twist ending. And Naomi Hatchman in "The Were-Sofa" takes an idea I've seen once before, people who transform not into wolves or other beasts but into inanimate objects like furniture, and produces a sweet and romantic story.

A few more decent efforts and a number of so-so pieces add up to a worthwhile if not spectacular anthology. It is at least equal to, and probably a step or two better than, the run of the DAW mass-market anthologies.

The Australian SF magazine field seems in some disarray. For several years there were two well-regarded publications, the Eastern-based Aurealis, and the Western-based Eidolon. Both seemed close to folding last year, and a new competitor, Altair, also folded. Eidolon may not be officially dead, but I can find no evidence of a print version in well over a year. Aurealis, however, has been sold and a new issue is now available, whole number 29, now edited by Keith Stevenson.

This issue is mostly rather minor stuff. Perhaps with some time and stability things will improve. I did like "Little Yellow Pill", by Robert Harland, about a drug called a "Warhol", which makes the user feel like they were once famous. Chuck McKenzie's "Catflap" is amusing and a bit scary if not believable, about a low-grade criminal who cuts a deal with some rather inimical aliens, with no thought of the effect on Earth. And promising new writer Shane M. Brown offers "Lucy Lucy", which rather movingly follows a cloned young woman trying to make her own life amid a world composed mostly of clones of just a few women, following a plague that killed the rest.

A close look at the table of contents of the various Australian publications reveals a fairly small circle of contributors. Names like Stephenson, Stevenson, McKenzie, Congreve, Sparks, Hood, Roberts, and so on show up again and again, as writers, editors, reviewers, and even artists. But this is only to be expected for a fairly small, rather isolated, country. And the output, on the whole, is enjoyable and occasionally exciting. As I said above, it's definitely worth your while to take a look.

Rich Horton now contributes a monthly short fiction review column to Locus Magazine. His other reviews of short SF and novels can be found on Tangent Online and SF Site. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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