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Science Fiction and Horror Review Column - Aurealis #40
by Keith Stevenson
This is the online version of the SF and Horror Review Column appearing in Aurealis Magazine #40
I must say, I approach this first review column with some level of daunt, but
also a great deal of enthusiasm. I’m daunted because, with the departure
of Bill Congreve, I have some huge shoes to fill. Bill’s first review appeared
in Aurealis 14, in 1994 (on A Place to Fear by GM Hague). Since that time,
he’s consistently provided a high level of expert, credible and balanced
opinion on the books he’s covered. I can only hope I go some way towards
reaching the high-water mark he’s achieved. The enthusiasm comes from
what’s happening in the Australian market lately. This could be another
false dawn—we’ve been through so many—but with the arrival of Hachette
Livre, and its much-respected imprint, Orbit, into the local arena, there is a
level of energy and enthusiasm I haven’t seen for a long while in Australian
genre publishing. Add to that an increasing degree of professionalism in the
independent press, thanks in no small part to Mirrordanse and agog! press,
and the stage is set for a resurgence in opportunities for local writers.
Whether or not the writers are up to the challenge remains to be seen. In
Aurealis 33, in my final editorial, I had a rant against what, for many reasons, has
become the moribund side of speculative fiction: the fiction that is content to
work within the tropes, keep up the barriers and deliver on that great fictional
belief that everyone wants ‘more of the same only better’. To my mind, what
I love about speculative fiction, what gives me the greatest rush and keeps me
coming back for more, is to be confronted with something shockingly, rawly
new; to have my preconceptions turned upside down and my consciousness
expanded; to consider age old questions in a new light with new and profound
implications for humanity. You don’t come across much of that now, but as
Tolkien appreciated, even back in his day, spec fic has the ability, ‘to clean our
windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of
triteness or familiarity’. So, one aim in writing this column is to ferret out
those gems for you and point you towards them.
Another aim is, of course—and unashamedly so, to find the best local
Australian Science Fiction and Horror writing and critique it for your reading
pleasure. The Australian speculative fiction community is a small one, and
’most everyone knows everyone else. That potentially makes criticism difficult,
so here’s how I’m going to approach the books that I read. Firstly, and most
prosaically (but it’s important to state it outright so you know I know it as well
as you do), is that what I write here is only my opinion—no better or worse
than anyone else’s—and you should take it or leave it as you wish. I will. of
course, give reasons for my thinking, and again you can agree with or dismiss
these too. I see this column as a huge, extended writers’ group meeting, where
I’m providing critical feedback to the author on what I think works or does
not work, just as I’m willing to take the same feedback in the collegiate way
these things occur. So, I’ll be approaching works with a writer’s hat on. I’ll also
approach them from the viewpoint of an editor and publisher, and as a reader.
It may get crowded in here sometimes but I’m hoping I can keep the various
voices in line. So… deep breath… here we go.
Saturn Returns: Astropolis, Book One
Hachette Livre Australia/Orbit
As I’ve said before, Sean is one of Australia’s most prolific,
inventive and successful speculative fiction writers in this
or, probably, any other era. He’s also an incredibly nice
person, which makes him impossible to hate; believe me,
I’ve tried. He’s written thirteen science fiction books (although it’s hard to
keep count, so many have been reprinted), including the excellent Orphans
of Earth trilogy with fellow Australian writer Shane Dix. Saturn Returns
marks a return to his solo SF writing at novel length.
In the 879th millennium, former mercenary commander, Imre Bergamasc,
is brought back to life in curious fashion. His genetic information and personality
had been inscribed in a continuous groove running round and round the
inside of a huge metal drum (much like an inside out phonograph cylinder)
which was in turn destroyed 150,000 years before the book begins and then
painstakingly reassembled (although with some important pieces missing) by
the Jinc, a disseminated personality seeking to find the true expression of God,
the wellspring of the first life in the universe. The Jinc use the information to
recreate Bergamasc as a living being, but with some important differences:
some parts of his memory are missing, due to gaps in the reconstructed drum;
and they make him into a woman, which really messes with his ability to adapt
to this new environment. There’s also the question as to why the drum carrying
Bergamasc’s ‘essence’ was nuked out of existence. Given it was safely orbiting a
thousand light years outside the galaxy and supra-light craft don’t exist, that is
one hell of a grudge someone carried.
In the universe of Saturn Returns, humanity can be divided into three main
types: the Primes who, although they take advantage of genetic manipulation
and anti-agathics, are rugged individuals (when they die, that’s it); the
Singletons who have multiple copies of themselves roaming around acting
independently of each other and—depending on the personality—meeting up
to compare notes or to act in concert; and the Forts, vastly intelligent intellects
disseminated through countless living beings—frags—who act as their hands,
feet, eyes and ears. The Forts are able to control their various ‘appendages’ even
when dispersed across light years by virtue of a ‘Q loop’, perhaps some kind of
quantum entanglement effect, which allows instantaneous contact.
Bergamasc and his mercenaries initially fought against the Forts in the
name of individuality, before acknowledging the important role the Forts
played in bringing order to the Continuum and completing various black ops
on their behalf, like a bunch of kick-arse psychohistorians on steroids.
Bergamasc’s escape from the Jinc and arrival in the lightcone of his
own galaxy brings a sobering revelation: the Slow Wave, a phenomenon of
unknown origin, has propagated across the galaxy destroying the Q loop and
the Forts’ ability to function. Without their civilising influence, much of the
galaxy is reverting to barbarism (echoes again of the Foundation books) and,
it seems, everyone wants a piece of Imre Bergamasc. And as he discovers more
about himself and what he’s supposed to have done, he begins to question
whether he used to be a very nice person at all, and considers what—given a
second chance—he’d like to do about that.
There’s a lot of humour in Saturn Returns, not least the reference to
the spatial anomaly of ‘Cat’s Arse’—which has been pondered by many of
us for a long time—and the character of Render, who speaks only in the
lyrics of Gary Numan (and very effectively so). There’s also a great deal of
hope, particularly the fact that, despite convergent technology, AI, uploading,
genetic manipulation and so on, there are still recognisably human individuals
in the universe, who continue to play a role in our collective future.
The structuring of the story shows a great deal of skill. The nature of
Bergamasc’s amnesia means that there is a lot of backfilling on previous
events by the other characters he encounters. In the hands of a lesser writer,
this could have slowed the narrative flow, but not here. The other factor is the
way Sean deals with complex scientific concepts effortlessly, accessibly, and
always in support of plot progression.
Sean has produced some good work in the past; he’s had the opportunity
to flex his writing muscles in a wide variety of projects. In Saturn Returns, I
felt a new assuredness, a strength of voice that was compellingly entertaining
and thought-provoking. Saturn Returns is Sean’s best yet—go out and buy it.
Dark Space: The Sentients of Orion, Book One
Marianne de Pierres
Hachette Livre Australia/Orbit
And so to another Orbit SF release (see what I mean: the
release of two Australian science fiction books in as many
months is unheard of in recent years). This one is a new series
for Marianne de Pierres, creator of the highly successful Parrish Plessis books.
The story is a complex one, told with a lot of irony and humour. In
fact there are three different strands, different voices if you will, some more
reliable than others. Dark Space begins with the discovery of God by Jo-Jo
Rasterovich—think Zaphod Beeblebrox without the extra head but with a
much greater appetite for revenge. Jo-Jo, much like Zaphod, sees that this
near-death experience can make him a lot of money and cleans up on the
intergalactic talk-show circuits. An ‘institute’ is rapidly set up on a planet near
the entity, where the best and brightest of each race are sent to ‘commune’
with it in a kind of divine horse-trading, where God will provide the lucky
acolyte with a new faculty, e.g. the ability to see in other spectra in exchange
for an artistic depiction of beauty.
Enter Tekton, from the planet Lostol, who is a rather stuck up yet
uncertain individual, hoping to be one of the elite ‘godheads’ serving the entity.
As part of the initiation process, Tekton’s consciousness is spliced, so that
internally he has a coolly rational self and a wholly emotional self, both viewed
and controlled by a third impartial aspect, which leads to some revealing (and
amusing) internal monologues—or should that be triologues? The entity’s
bargain with Tekton leads, in a twistingly Byzantine way, to violent events on
the planet Araldis, where Mira Fedor, the book’s main protagonist, lives.
Mira comes from a long line of pilots carrying the genetic marker
allowing her to merge with Insignia, the sentient vessel that is the flagship
of the planet Araldis’ meagre fleet. We meet her at her graduation, where she
expects to be joining with Insignia soon, but the ruler of Araldis, Principe
Franco Pellegrini, plans to strip her of her genetic heritage and give it instead
to his son, Trin. Mira does the only thing she can to protect her birthright,
she flees into the harsh desert world and falls smack in the middle of greater
machinations, which result in an all out invasion of Araldis.
The book suffers somewhat from two elements, the first outside the
author’s control. Orbit pitched this novel as a book about big ideas: the nature
of God and what would happen once we finally encountered Her/Him/It in
deep space. But Book One, at least, of The Sentients of Orion, is not really about
that at all. It’s, as you’ve seen, an adventure story revolving predominantly
around occurrences on Araldis, which may have further reaching provenances
and repercussions yet to be revealed. But the story doesn’t concern itself with,
for example, the psychic shock and societal dissonance which might attend
the discovery of God; in fact, the first page of the book indicates that this isn’t
really God at all, just a highly advanced entity with a penchant for trading
knowledge. As a result, at least for me, my appreciation of the book suffered,
because my expectations going into the read were not supported, which in
turn isn’t fair to the actual story Marianne has written.
The second element is the world building of Araldis, desert planet (yes,
the association with Arrakis was hard to shake too), and—perhaps as a result
of that—I found the world-building there was lacking in sufficient texture and
depth for me really to believe in it as a place. The society smacked too much of
a templated Italian Renaissance nobility; the frontier towns were augmented
wild west, right down to the Winchester rifle; and the differences in biology—
for example the ability of the males to control conception in a woman—was
not fully utilised. My point is that I wasn’t drawn in and convinced Araldis
existed. My sense of wonder wasn’t engaged in this element of the story.
In the scheme of things, these are minor niggles. The book is peppered
with well-rounded characters like Jo-Jo, and Trin, and Mira who is, as one
would expect from Marianne, a multi-faceted and ‘real’ individual, at times
brash, haughty, desperate, fragile and brave. One gets the sense that she has
hidden reserves and will keep going no matter the dangers thrown at her; and
indeed, the final scene with Mira promises that those who have threatened
her world have a whole universe of trouble coming their way.
Dark Space is an exciting adventure, with plenty going on to keep you
turning the pages. The story is primed to enter uncharted territory at the end
of Book One. Marianne has a knack for creating compelling characters in
complex realities—the Parish Plessis novels showed us that—so this is one to
watch as it develops through the next two volumes.
Daikaiju!2—Revenge of the Giant Monsters
Robert Hood and Robin Pen (eds)
Daikaiju!2—Revenge of the Giant Monsters burst onto the
local spec fic scene with a launch of gargantuan proportions
at the last Natcon. So huge was the launch, in fact, that
there was barely room to breathe, let alone move, and the police were almost
called. The parent volume, Daikaiju!, has found a comfortable niche; it’s
already in reprint and showing the world that there are lots of people out
there who like to read about giant things trashing the neighbourhood/
planet/plane of reality. So if you love anything to do with giant monsters,
you will love Daikaiju!2.
Editors Robert Hood and Robin Penn note in their preface that, in
contrast to the original anthology, Daikaiju!2 contains, ‘more stories of a
traditional monster-trashes-city kind’. And that’s certainly the case.
If you count yourself more in the mainstream speculative fiction
readership category, and not a giant monster aficionado per se, then from that
perspective, Daikaiju!2 provides a mix of excellent stories, written by authors
who play with the giant monster conventions and create some exciting and
engaging works—pieces by McArthur, Macrae, Lyn Battersby, and Nahrung
were standouts for me. In amongst these, there are a number of more standard
stories, written by people who are big monster fans first and writers second, and
who consequently demonstrate less originality and writing skill in their work.
It’s all horses for courses really, but Daikaiju!2 is a lot of fun, and Daikaiju!3—
Giant Monsters vs The World will be stomping round a corner near you soon.
The Company of the Dead
The Man in the High Castle
Phillip K Dick
Alternative histories: there are heaps of them. And a great
many revolve around the climactic events of the twentieth
century. With the publication of Sydney writer David
Kowalski’s The Company of the Dead and the release in
Australia of a whole bundle of SF Masterworks in new
editions (see the ‘Future Classics’), I thought it timely to
take a look at the many facets of this sub-genre.
The Company of the Dead is David Kowalski’s first book. It’s been ten
years in the making, and the care and effort David has put into this work is
palpable. Company uses a familiar SF trope, the man who travels back in time
and changes the course of history, but the thought and detail evident in this
story raises it far above the average time travel tale.
In 2012, the second Titanic successfully makes its maiden transatlantic
crossing, but it arrives at an America that is very different from the one we
know. The ‘United States’ no longer exists, but is a fragmented land made
up of The Union (basically the northern states, although New York and the
western seaboard are controlled by the expanded Japanese Empire—which
now includes China), and the Second Confederacy (the southern states), allied
with Greater Germany under the Kaiser. The reason for this state of affairs
is that a time traveller from 1999 found himself back in 1911 and decided
(unlike you or I, who would know you don’t mess with history) to change a
few things. His good intentions lead, of course, where all such acts lead. When
his diaries are recovered from the original Titanic by a German experimental
submarine, it sets in motion a desperate plan by rogue Confederate Bureau of
Intelligence agent, Joseph Kennedy, (yes, one of those Kennedys) to reassert
the true timeline.
Company, in look and feel, is a mainstream thriller, SF more in the vein
of Michael Crichton than, say, Charlie Stross. But it is true to its sci-fi roots;
I can’t fault David on his use of the genre. The most striking thing about the
novel is the complete mastery David shows in terms of plot. This is a very
complex and multi-layered tale, yet I never felt for an instant that it was out
of control; every scene progresses the narrative, and there are some spinetinglingly
good reveals peppered throughout, which are a pleasure to read. This book deserves to do very well, because all the elements that would make
it a success are there.
Looking at the novel in a broader context—and this is true for many
novels of this type including, to an extent, Man in the High Castle—there is
a conceit that ‘our’ version of reality is the preferred one. In Company, this is
underscored by the fact that the altered events lead to a nuclear conflagration
in 2012, but since we’re still some ways off from that date in ‘real’ life, who’s
to say that same conflagration won’t happen to us? I also wondered about
the relative lack of technological progress in the alternative 2012: no mobile
phones, computers that run on punch cards, prop planes etc; and the fifties feel
to the sensibilities of the men and women caught up in the web of the story.
The technology, I guess, is down to a matter of choice, but even with a world
in upheaval, I feel technological advances would have reached a different stage
by 2012. As to the future society displayed, that was much easier to accept.
These people have been on a war footing since the early twentieth century,
a fact that would constrain the development of individual freedom. It was
only when our own freedoms expanded after the Second World War, that
societal change occurred in the 60s and 70s. But that aside, and at some seven
hundred plus pages, The Company of the Dead is a massive imagining which
should appeal to lovers of SF and broader popular fiction alike.
So to Christopher Priest’s The Separation, which will be reissued shortly,
as one of the ‘Future Classics’ series, by Orion Books, an imprint of Gollancz.
The Separation, like Priest’s other work, The Prestige, has already been critically
lauded, winning the Arthur C Clarke Award and the British SF Award.
The story begins when Stuart Gratton, a writer of twentieth-century
histories, receives the war diaries of JL Sawyer during a particularly unsuccessful
in-store book signing. The diaries tell a story of the Second World War which
differs greatly from Gratton’s own knowledge. In Sawyer’s account, Britain
did not enter into a ceasefire with Germany in 1941, but instead fought a
protracted war against Germany and Japan, with America as an ally. Sawyer, in
fact, is one of twins, who live very different lives. Jack Sawyer is an RAF pilot,
who is shot down over the Channel and then works for Winston Churchill
as interrogator of Rudolf Hess, who fled to England in 1941 with a peace
proposal. His brother, Joe, is a conscientious objector, acquitting himself with
such bravery as a member of the Red Cross during the Blitz, that he is one
of a delegation of officials who facilitate a truce between Hess and Churchill,
again in 1941.
Priest manages to balance these two opposing versions of history
beautifully; the book demands you keep on your toes as you move between
timestreams, and the different events and their causes are well realised at an
historic and also a personal level.
If I had one complaint, and maybe this is a male thing, I wanted (at least
partway) an explanation or reason for the divergence of occurrences the book
portrays. The Separation doesn’t deliver this so, if you’re like me, be warned. I
was also mildly annoyed that the plot element surrounding Gratton’s discovery
of Sawyer’s alternative memoir was dropped halfway through. We never find
out what Gratton made of it all. But, hey, lots of people love this book, and I
can see why.
Now to the master. On the surface, The Man in the High Castle is
another alternative history. In it, the Axis powers have won the war, and
poor old America is once again fragmented, with the eastern states ruled
by Nazi Germany, an autonomous Rocky Mountain State, which acts as a
demilitarised buffer zone, and Pacific Seaboard America, governed by the
Japanese. An uneasy peace hangs over the world, with Germany undergoing
internal political struggles while waging a prolonged cold war against Japan.
These events, and their effects on society, are told on a very personal
level, through the lives of Frank Frink, a salesman of fake American curios,
Juliana, Frank’s estranged wife, Joe Cinadella a Nazi war hero, and Nobuske
Tagomi, head of the Japanese Imperial Trade Mission in San Francisco.
Juliana, in particular, is affected by a popular book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,
by Hawthorn Abendsen, which imagines a world where America and Britain
were victorious, and the excesses of the Nazi regime were no longer a threat.
The Asian influences on American society are also delicately realised, in
particular with the reliance Frank and Juliana and others place in the I Ching,
the ancient oriental method of divination (in fact Dick himself consulted the
I Ching regularly in writing the book).
In typical Dick fashion, this is more than an alternative history. In writing
The Man in the High Castle, which in turn is about Hawthorn Abendsen’s The
Grasshopper Lies Heavy, Dick has turned a mirror back on itself, creating an
infinite regression and questioning the nature of reality and our perception of
it. Maybe the world of Castle is a mass-delusion; maybe our own is. Whatever
the case, the ‘characters’ are trapped within its confines. But is the ‘real’ world
any better, and would we choose to live there if we could? For this reason
alone, Castle is a deeply enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
While we’re on the topic, if you are a Phillip K Dick fan, I can thoroughly
recommend I am Alive and You are Dead: A Journey Inside the Mind of Phillip
K Dick by Emmanuel Carrère (trans. Timothy Bent), (Bloomsbury), www.
bloomsbury.com. This finely researched biography lives up to the promise of
its title and is a very personal account of the life of one of the SF greats.
The New Space Opera
Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois (eds)
Well, this is the one I’ve been waiting for. If, like me,
you love science fiction, then you, like me, are tired of
mainstream publishers reducing their SF lists because ‘SF
doesn’t sell’. I’ve always felt that to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy,
because the publishers just don’t market SF, or print enough of it, to create
a market for SF. I may be wrong, but look at the success of SF in movies,
and the fact that SF is popular in young adult literature, which, presumably,
is creating a group of readers who will want to read SF as they continue to
grow up. Industry gurus will no doubt shake their heads at my misguided
optimism, but this is my column. So I can happily say that SF is not dead,
and I need only point to the stories contained in The New Space Opera, to
demonstrate that it is, in fact, as mind-bendingly kick-arse as it always has
been. And I’m not just whistling in the dark, because The New Space Opera
2 is already in the works.
The collection is obviously a labour of love by Jonathan and Gardner,
and all the stories have been commissioned especially for the book, so there
are no reprints. Given that the writers in Opera include Simmons, Reynolds,
Hamilton, Egan, Kress, Baxter, and Silverberg, this is no mean feat. And if some
of the authors are unfamiliar to you, this acts as a good taste-tester before you
plunge into their longer works. I found something in every one of the stories to
challenge and entertain. No reason to hesitate any longer. Just buy it!
In Bad Dreams Volume 1: Where Real Life Awaits edited by Mark S Deniz and Sharyn Lilley (Eneit Press) ISBN 9789197705417www.eneitpress.com
In Bad Dreams is the first of a trilogy of horror anthologies from Swedish-based Eneit Press. The company has strong Australian ties, launching the book at Conflux in Canberra in 2007.
This volume takes as its theme death in decidedly non-supernatural but far from pedestrian form. Further volumes will examine deaths of a different feather. But that’s not to say feathers aren’t in evidence in In Bad Dreams (did you spot the seemless link there?). Each story in the book works in a crow motif as a unifying device and the stories are arranged according to the four seasons. So with all these ideas bouncing around inside the covers, and a lot of new and established authors from Australia, the US and Europe, I was happy to pick up a copy and dive in.
Writing horror, like writing humour, is one of the toughest gigs in the genre because the story will stand or fall on the author’s ability to create a specific and profound effect in the reader: to make them feel terrified. I may be able to tell you an interesting story, I can create realistic characters, vivid settings, snappy dialogue, the works. But if I don’t scare you, or at the least make you uneasy, I have, effectively, failed. Bearing this in mind, I found In Bad Dreams a patchy read. Suprisingly, or perhaps not, the best reads in the antho came from the Australian writers, and in particular those who addressed the theme — the nature of everyday death — head on and subverted it.
The first such story is Kaaron Warren’s ‘Cooling the Crows’. In fact Kaaron was the only writer to embrace the crow theme fully and make it her idiosyncratic own. The story concerns Geoff who is a specialist in ‘cooling’, or getting rid of, the wrong ‘type’ in newly tarted up pubs and clubs. Geoff is no stranger to violence and death — he takes pride in that. But his encounter with Bailey of the Crows, a kind of Ballardesque group worshiping death and dying, delivers some chilling images and leads to a delightfully nasty relationship which leaves you musing on what the protagonists might have gone on to do long after the story has finished.
Rob Hood’s ‘Monstrous Bright Tomorrows’ posits the idea of death as transition, metamorphosis or rebirth as Shuiker, alternately oppressed and enraptured by the ever-present — and deafening — cicadas on his property, is in turn encased underground by an unknown agency. While, as I indicated, this is one of the stand out stories of the antho — playing with a range of complex ideas and effects — it perhaps needed a little more work to tease its layered concepts out and throw them into sharper relief.
The final stand out is Stephanie Campisi’s ‘The Ringing Sound of Death on the Water Tank’. Particularly effective is her use of description — although this could have benefited from a little trimming back in some places — to evoke atmosphere and a sense of place and foreboding as we are drawn to wonder why the unnamed female protagonist is so worried about visiting her rather strange cousin in outback Australia. The inciting incident, when it comes, is underplayed beautifully and all the more shocking for that.
Another thing about the really effective horror story is the architecture around the terrifying idea it presents, the sequence of events, the inescapable and horrible conclusion, the iron-tight logic which slams down around us cutting off any escape, any thought or hope of salvation, and leaves us to contemplate the stark and awful truth at its core. In contrast, it’s relatively easy to come up with an unsettling or sickening image and present it for — if you like — a cheap thrill without explaining it’s antecedents or drawing it to a conclusion, but that’s really a second-class kind of scare. Sharyn Lilley’s linking stories that cover the four seasons fall into this latter category, hooking us with a rather horrifying image but failing to come up with the goods in terms of deeper meaning for the occurrences she portrays. Similarly Mark S Deniz’s ‘Corvus’ is a fascinating idea but one that is relegated to vignette and seems to be more of an attempt to round off the book’s avian imagery than produce a fully-fledged (pun intended) story.
Of the other pieces in the anthology, American writer Jennifer Brozek’s ‘Twenty Questions’ was perhaps the most prosaic, while Michael Bailey’s ‘Defenestrate’ was a — unhappily predictable — single joke piece. Amanda Pillar’s ‘The Letter’ begins with an info dump and contains some clumsy phrasing and stage directions, and Pete Kempshall’s ‘This Train Terminates Here’ has a decidedly unsympathetic protagonist and a ‘twist’ ending that lacks any originality… I think you get the picture that I was disappointed on the whole. The ‘crow’ theme just became annoying, particularly as most authors devoted very little imagination to it, and the promise of a dialogue with the reader about everyday death in all its flavours just didn’t come to pass. Hopefully volume 2 will lift its game.
The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy (Third Annual Volume) edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt (MirrorDanse Books) ISBN 9780975773628 www.tabula-rasa.info/MirrorDanse
What can one say about this third collection of the best Australian SF and Fantasy for the year? Selected by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt, who have the unenviable task of reading EVERYTHING published by Australian authors, they’ve put together a very strong representative selection which we can all feel good about. There’s a lot of great writing out there and, as they say, if you only read one anthology this year, then… A quick round up: Kaaron Warren’s ‘Dead Sea Fruit’ is an unsettling modern fairy tale told in Kaaron’s assured and original style, Margo Lanagan’s ‘Hero Vale’ a beautiful melding of schoolboy coming of age and otherworldly weirdness, and Kim Westwood’s ‘Terning tha Weel’ is a singularly Australian tale told with a great deal of humour and heart. Add to that strong showings from Terry Dowling, Ben Peek, Simon Brown, Geoffrey Maloney, Deborah Biancotti, Lee Battersby, Chris Lawson and Alastair Ong, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Get it from your local specialty store and look forward to volume four.
Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror – 2007 Edition edited by Angela Challis (Brimstone Press) ISBN 9780980281729 www.brimstonepress.com.au
So can Australia support two ‘year’s bests’? After dipping into the latest offering from Brimstone Press, it seems that it can. It’s the same deal as the Mirrordanse volume, everything possible gets read but the slant is – as the title suggests – more towards dark fantasy and horror. Editor Angela Challis knows her stuff and, for such a relatively small writing community, there is only one repeat from the Mirrordanse collection, Chris Lawson’s ‘Hieronymous Boche’. There’s also a pleasant mix of established and lesser known writers. Stephen Dedman’s Aurealis award winning ‘Dead of Winter’ is a delightful ghost-hunter story with a twist and a wry sense of humour reminiscent of Rick Kennet’s Ernie Pine tales. Margo Lanagan’s ‘Under Hell. Over Heaven’ concerns the eternal blandness of limbo and what its denizens would do for a glimpse of heaven – or even hell. Jason Nahrung’s ‘Pain Threshold’ is a darkly twisted time travel story. And – as the story’s previous publisher – I have to declare a special affection for Paul Haines’ ‘Father Father’ which will make you squirm; I can guarantee it. It’s a good book. Add it to your tab.
Sci Phi – the Journal of Science Fiction and Philosophy edited by Jason Rennie available at sciphijournal.com
Sci Phi Journal is a mix of sf stories concerning philosophical ideas and philosophy articles with a science fiction theme. I have to say this is a concept close to my heart. I love the sf form particularly because it allows us to play with the big ideas, the ‘what ifs’, in an accessible and entertaining way. I downloaded the mp3 version which has pretty good production values although the preponderance of American accents was a little off-putting.
Of course the most successfully thought-provoking tales of this ilk are the ones where the philosophical element is not overtaxed, where you find yourself quite naturally pondering the moral or other implications of the tale you’ve just heard as an ‘added extra’ to the sheer enjoyment of the storytelling. And on the whole, issue #1 of Sci Phi pulls this off, as well as containing a goodly collection of Australian authors who, IMHO, contribute the best stories to be found in this issue. Lee Battersby’s ‘You Pretty Thing’ has much to say about the nature of identity and how we can be sure it persists when downloaded into a new body, but wraps this up nicely in a palatable tale of deception. Geoffrey Maloney’s ‘The Oracle in the Red Limousine’ plays with predestination but his lightly romantic tale doesn’t beat you over the head with it. And Stephen Dedman’s ‘Requiem for a Silent Planet’ touches on the morality of surviving on post-collapse Earth. By comparison Stephan Valdmir Bugaj and Ben Goertzel’s ‘The Big Questions Part 1’ is overly didactic and betrays a lack or writing skill. However, that apart, the other stories in issue #1 measure up quite well and if you like this kind of sf, then the US$7 asking price isn’t really a gamble at all.
New Ceres 2
Alisa Krasnostein (ed)
available at www.newceres.com
New Ceres is an interesting concept that takes the ‘shared worlds’ scenario
into a more interactive, twenty-first century milieu. The idea behind New
Ceres is familiar. Create a shared world, in this case a planet that embraces
the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment and bans technology, and
then let a group of authors play around in it. The result is a biannual emagazine,
available on the website for A$5. But it doesn’t end there. Visitors
to the website can join the New Ceres forum, which allows users to actively
take part in and discuss the world building exercise. Whether the idea will
be successful or not depends on how it is marketed and how many ‘users’
find it attractive. But in any event, New Ceres is off to a good start.
Issue 2 of New Ceres features an impressive list of authors, including Lucy
Sussex, Stephen Dedman, and Cat Sparks. Issue 1 is also available through
Orion Books’ new ‘Future Classics’ series
The Science Fiction Masterworks series from Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk) boasts an impressive list of some seventy plus classics. There is much to read and reread here, including fantastic works by Phillip K Dick, Frederick Pohl, Cordwainer Smith, James Blish; the list goes on. This imprint is fulfilling a vital function in the genre, keeping the classics alive and in print and accessible to a new reading
public. And now, it seems, the imprint is being rejuvenated with a fresh group of ‘Future Classics’, being released and marketed in Australia through Hachette Livre.
The series continues with Stephen Baxter’s Evolution, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon,
Greg Egan’s Schild’s Ladder, Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space, and Christopher Priest’s The Separation (reviewed in this column) among the titles scheduled for release with gorgeous new covers in the coming months.
Also among the releases is Blood Music by Greg Bear (ISBN 9780575081092). This
is a personal favourite of mine, because of the way it takes a familiar SF trope and rides it till the wheels fall off. Set against a background of cold war nuclear and chemical warfare threats, Vergil Ulam is involved in breakthrough genetic
research. But when his discovery is shut down as being too dangerous for further research, Vergil injects himself with the resulting chemical to smuggle it out of the lab. As the chemical works on his genetic structure, he finds himself getting healthier. So begins a tale, which could follow the same arc as the movie The Fly, but goes far beyond that premise and dips into uncharted territory, which is as totally believable as it is unexpected.
The titles selected for ‘Future Classics’ justly deserve the accolade. Look
out for them in your local independent store.
The Spiraling Worm
Brett Harrison, our resident Cthulhu expert, reviews The Spiraling Worm: Man vs the
Cthulhu Mythos by David Conyers and John Sunseri (Chaosium - www.chaosium.
HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos—with its unspeakable horrors, tentacled elder gods, unbearable knowledge and creeping insanity—have entertained readers for many
years. And the original Lovecraftian momentum has been maintained by other authors paying tribute to the genre, or even writing legitimate Cthulhu stories under licence. This latest volume is published by Chaosium Inc. who market the Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game and related products.
Worm is an attempt to bring Cthulhu out of the darkness of its 1920s
beginnings into the light of the early twenty-first century technological world
of computers, the internet, cell phones, secret agents, jet planes, and so on.
The authors, David Conyers and John Sunseri, are both fans of the mythos.
Conyers—the Australian part of this writing duo—came to Cthulhu through
the RPG, which led him to write a few stories for fanzines and collections,
and it’s nice to see Australian characters and locations featured so prominently
in the book. Sunseri is a more established horror writer from Oregon, but also
has a good go at Australian characters and locations. Worm follows a cast of
characters through seven interconnected stories: four by Conyers and two by
Sunseri, with the title story a collaboration that serves as the climax to the
book. Some of the stories have been published previously, either in fanzines
In interviews, Conyers has said that he thinks the original ‘unspeakable
horror leads to insanity’ aspect of the Cthulhu tales doesn’t work as well in
this jaded, information-laden modern world, and he’s probably right. So what
we have here are horror-SF-spy-adventure tales, with most of the horror
speakable. The ambiance is more Stargate than American Gothic.
There are some good ideas here, and the stories themselves aren’t half bad.
The characters come across as shallow, but that’s the genre. What surprised
me most is how unpolished some of the writing is. Conyers in particular is
prone to clunky action, clumsy descriptions, awkward use of adjectives and
odd phraseology which brings to mind the less well-written fan-fiction stories
found on the Internet. That’s bad enough. But it was the errors—in fact, logic,
grammar, syntax, and even sometimes spelling—that really surprised me. If
this book had an editor (and it really reads like it didn’t), then he didn’t earn his
keep. The book’s lead story, Conyers’s ‘Made of Meat’, is the biggest offender
in this respect. Here we have soldiers ‘wading ass-deep in a bloody rice field’
(rice paddies are typically 6-18cm deep), and a ballistic (which, by definition,
means ‘unguided’) missile homing in on a laser-designated target deep in the
jungle after being fired from a ship (which is also highly unlikely). Elsewhere
we have ‘you’re’ instead of ‘your’ and the first appearance I’ve ever seen of the
non-word ‘their’s’. Sunseri is a better writer, though also, apparently in this
volume, editor-free. Unfortunately, this awkwardness never goes away, and as
a result, my enjoyment of the stories suffered.
Despite all this, the The Spiralling Worm is an entertaining read, and the
whole narrative comes to a satisfying and not completely predictable climax
which—slightly clumsily, as you’d expect—sets the scene for the formation of
an international anti-Cthulhu team, and many more stories to come.
Australian Independent Publishers Round-up
Current titles available or coming soon include:
Daikaiju!2 and Daikaiju!3
New Ceres 2
Alisa Krasnostein (ed)
Shadow Plays: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction
Elise Bunter (ed)
coeur de lion publishing
Fantastic Wonder Stories
Russell B Farr (ed)
The Workers’ Paradise
Russell B Farr (ed)