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The Year Ahead in Australian Speculative Fiction — Part 2

Our first issue of 2016 provided a glimpse of the year ahead in Australian speculative fiction, listing release dates for adult science fiction and fantasy across many subgenres.

Following interest in this list, some publishers got in touch to suggest other titles we could mention. We decided to publish a follow-up with more upcoming releases, and posted a callout for any other books we could include.

Here, then, is an additional list of books you can look forward to in 2016. Fans of science fiction and horror will find much to add to their reading lists, but fantasy fans can also anticipate ghosts, magic, and visits to other worlds.

Deanne Sheldon-Collins
Reviews Editor

March
Into the Mist
by Lee Murray
Cohesion Press

Into the Mist

New Zealand mountains are a scenic—but fittingly dangerous—backdrop for a thriller in which an expedition of geologists disappear one by one. The novel’s combination of mystery and science fiction promises an intriguing story, and its military focus promises strong action.

April
SNAFU: Future Warfare
Edited by Geoff Brown and Amanda J Spedding
Cohesion Press

SNAFU Future Warfare

The newest in Cohesion’s series of military horror anthologies, this will collect stories on the theme of futuristic battles. Readers who like a dash of the speculative in their action should enjoy this as well as the other SNAFU anthologies.

July
In the Heat of the Day
by Peter Rondel
IFWG Publishing Australia

Environmental science fiction is a topical genre, one that increasingly feels closer to realistic fiction than speculative. Rondel, a short story writer and poet, will move to long form in this novel with an ecological focus.

Star Quake 4: SQ Mag’s Best of 2015
Edited by Sophie Yorkston
IFWG Publishing Australia

The bimonthly SQ Mag publishes diverse fantasy, science fiction, and horror from around the world. This annual anthology celebrates the magazine’s best stories from each previous year.

August
SNAFU: Unnatural Selection
Edited by Geoff Brown and Amanda J Spedding
Cohesion Press

The theme of this SNAFU anthology is bio-horror involving military combat. Harking back to the ‘humans versus nature’ genre popular a few decades ago, the stories will focus on soldiers battling wild animals, whether genetic anomalies or creatures that are dangerous without assistance.

September
The Grief Hole
by Kaaron Warren
IFWG Publishing Australia

The second in IFWG’s Dark Phases series, this will be released as clothbound and limited editions before coming out in trade paperback. Warren’s previous, award-winning novels of horror and the supernatural suggest that this psychological tale of ghosts and anguish will live up to the Dark Phases promise of ‘the best of dark fiction’.

October
Engaging Evil
by Cary J Lenehan
Warriors of Vhast book 2
IFWG Publishing Australia

This sequel to Intimations of Evil, Lenehan’s debut, will continue its swords-and-sorcery heroism. The first novel established a variety of characters and quests to follow, and readers should enjoy re-entering the well-built world to discover what happens next.

Devil Dragon
by Deborah Sheldon
Natural Selection book 1
Cohesion Press

Following August’s SNAFU: Unnatural Selection anthology, Cohesion will be launching more bio-horror releases. The Natural Selection series will comprise novels rather than collections, and Sheldon’s Devil Dragon will be the first. With its prehistoric threat looming against an Australian backdrop, this promises to be an interesting take on the science fiction thriller.

November
SNAFU: Black Ops
Edited by Geoff Brown and Amanda J Spedding
Cohesion Press

The year’s final SNAFU anthology will continue its tradition of quality military science fiction with an edge of horror.

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The Year Ahead in Australian Speculative Fiction—2016

Last year’s Aurealis #86 ended with a look at some of the Aurealis reviewers’ favourite reads of 2015. Assuming that you trusted in our wisdom and spent the last two months reading all our recommendations, I ask you now to move your gaze forward.

But where to begin? 2016 holds a diverse mix of fantasy sagas and science fiction thrillers. Will you start with much-marketed bestsellers by big-name authors? Will you seek out experimental debuts? Are you leaning towards magic or science, history or future, short fiction or long? These are key questions. To help you make your decision, here is a glimpse of releases you can look forward to this year.

While horror and mystery occasionally lurk among these titles, this list focuses on fantasy and science fiction by Australian authors. It also concentrates on adult SFF. Young Adult is a significant genre that deserves a list of its own, and including it here would have overwhelmed the selection. You can expect plenty of exciting YA titles this year, however, so keep watch online and in our reviews for homegrown spec fic that targets YA readers.

Publication schedules are shapeshifters: many of these release dates are tentative, and more will be announced as the year goes on. But I hope that this list gives you enough information to sketch out a reading list, mark some dates on your calendar, reread a few prequels, and grow excited about the year ahead. We’ve included the first six months of the year below. The full list which includes the remainder of the year appears in our current issue, Aurealis #87.

 

Deanne Sheldon-Collins

Aurealis Reviews Editor

 

Release dates not yet available

 

And Then… The Great Big Book of Adventure Tales anthology

Edited by Lindy Cameron

Clan Destine Press

This will be Clan Destine’s first commissioned anthology—a crowdfunded, two-volume blockbuster of adventure stories. Thirty authors have contributed, including Sophie Masson, Michael Pryor, Jack Dann, Kerry Greenwood, and Alison Goodman. Each story will feature some combination of ‘dynamic duo’, which promises interesting relationships and characterisation amid the swashbuckling action.

 

Successor’s Promise

By Trudi Canavan

Millennium’s Rule book 3

Orbit

Canavan is one of Australia’s biggest names in high fantasy. Successor’s Promise will conclude her latest trilogy, a saga about angels, sorcerers, and mechanical magic.

 

The Bone Queen

By Alison Croggon

Penguin

The Bone Queen

A prequel to Croggon’s epic fantasy quartet The Books of Pellinor, The Bone Queen will tell the backstory of Cadvan of Lirigon. As a standalone, this should be accessible to new readers, but Pellinor fans will also delight in a novel dedicated to one of the quartet’s most popular characters.

 

Keep Calm and Kill the Chef

By Livia Day

Café La Femme book 3

Twelfth Planet Press

This series of cosy mysteries, set in Hobart, features a blend of crime, romance, and cooking. As well as this third novel, Twelfth Planet will release a Café La Femme short story during 2016, so this is an ideal time to read (or reread) the series.

 

The Silver Road

By Grace Dugan

Twelfth Planet Press

This reprint of Grace Dugan’s first novel will anticipate Twelfth Planet’s release of her second, The Motherland Garden, in 2017. The Silver Road is a fantasy about three protagonists whose journeys are linked by the conspiracies of a secret society.

 

Shadowmancy

By Jason Franks

Satalyte

A dark fantasy set in a magical academy, this novel follows a young man studying magic in the aftermath of his father’s disgrace. The nature of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ is a common trope, but it remains interesting when a skilled writer uses it to interrogate morality and power. Franks has explored these themes in his other work, and Shadowmancy looks like a promising take on the vulnerable young anti-hero.

 

Tallwood

By Amanda Kool

Satalyte

The blurb for this post-apocalyptic novel reads like a prose poem: ‘She kept quiet, kept her animals quiet. She abandoned sound, made talk with her hands. She changed her weapons, her way of killing. She stayed underground like the rabbit, acting like the prey.’ Dystopia remains a hugely popular subgenre of science fiction, but Kool’s approach to it sounds refreshingly dreamy and surreal.

 

Evolution Annie

By Rosaleen Love

Twelfth Planet Press

Evolution Annie

Evolution Annie was originally published in 1993 and has become difficult to find, so Twelfth Planet’s releasing the collection as an ebook is exciting news. Love writes science fiction with powerful undercurrents of satire, feminism, and philosophy, and it will be intriguing to explore her early work.

 

The Fear Collectors

By Lauren E Mitchell

Satalyte

A mysterious clinic, supernatural conspiracies, and a sister in danger. Mitchell’s debut novel promises psychological horror and high emotional stakes.

 

The Mocklore Chronicles

By Tansy Rayner Roberts

Fablecroft

Fablecroft will be releasing the first two Mocklore novels, Splashdance Silver and Liquid Gold, in a print omnibus. While this will be a reprint of previously published novels, Roberts will also write a new short story collection, currently untitled, set in her wickedly quirky Mocklore world.

 

January

 

City of Light

By Keri Arthur

Outcast book 1

Hachette

City of Light

Urban fantasy is another hugely popular subgenre, and Arthur’s writing delivers the kind of action that fans expect. With its supersoldier protagonist, supernatural antagonists, and dystopian setting, this new series will appeal to readers who like a touch of cyberpunk in their paranormal.

 

Blood of Innocents

By Mitchell Hogan

Sorcery Ascendant Sequence book 2

HarperVoyager

This is the sequel to Hogan’s debut novel, Crucible of Souls, an Aurealis Award-winning bestseller originally self-published and now available from HarperVoyager. Continuing the story of a monk-raised orphan learning forbidden sorcery, this is high fantasy for those who enjoy epics.

 

Who’s Afraid?

By Maria Lewis

Hachette

Lewis’s debut novel is a werewolf story with a difference. That’s a claim you may be tired of hearing, but this tale of a young Maori werewolf shows signs of bringing something new to the genre. A sequel, Who’s Afraid Too?, is also forthcoming.

 

February

 

The Lyre Thief

By Jennifer Fallon

War of the Gods book 1

HarperVoyager

Lyre Thief

This is the first book in a new series that follows on from Fallon’s popular Demon Child Trilogy and Hythrun Chronicles. In high fantasy tradition, the novel will follow several characters as their separate journeys gradually intertwine—in this case, amid a search for stolen music. Swords and sorcery fans should enjoy this saga of gods, battles, and politicking.

 

The Bloody Quarrel

By Duncan Lay

Arbalester Trilogy book 2 (omnibus)

Momentum

This sequel to The Last Quarrel continues its story of occult magic, sinister plots, and political intrigue. This fantasy will appeal to fans of Lay’s Empire of Bones and Dragon Sword Histories series.

 

Kings Rising

By CS Pacat

Captive Prince Trilogy book 3

Penguin Random House

Kings Rising

Pacat originally published Captive Prince, the first in her debut trilogy, as an online serial, after which a commercial publisher picked up the series. Kings Rising concludes this popular trilogy of detailed worldbuilding, dark romance, and tense power games.

 

Dark Child (Bloodsworn)

By Adina West

Dark Child book 3 (omnibus)

Momentum

As a digital imprint of Pan Macmillan, Momentum explores the old tradition of serialised novels through the newer platform of ebooks. Released episodically, these ebooks are then collected into omnibus editions. Bloodsworn will combine the episodes of the third Dark Child book, an urban fantasy about warring witches and vampires.

 

March

Helix: Episode 1

By Nathan M Farrugia

Helix book 1

Momentum

The first episode in a new ebook serial, this will be a science fiction techno-thriller from the author of the Fifth Column series. Farrugia’s training in martial arts and survival should give his action an extra edge.

 

The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower

By Kate Forsyth

Fablecroft

This essay collection is non-fiction, but its study of fairytales and fantasy gives it a speculative focus. Comprising Forsyth’s doctoral dissertation and other pieces on folklore, The Rebirth of Rapunzel will appeal to any reader curious about the wealth of history behind fairytale traditions.

 

The Map of Bones

By Francesca Haig

The Fire Sermon book 2

HarperVoyager

The Map of Bones

This novel will continue the story of a dystopia in which radioactive fallout causes everyone to be born a twin. One twin is always the ‘perfect’ Alpha and lives in privilege, while the other is the ‘deformed’ Omega and cast out—but both die together. This premise provides conflict and the potential for strong characterisation, and it will be interesting to see where Haig takes the story in this sequel.

 

Emperor of the Eight Islands (books 1 and 2)

Lord of the Darkwood (books 3 and 4)

By Lian Hearn

The Tale of Shikanoko series

Hachette

Set 300 years before Hearn’s bestselling Tales of the Otori, this series will take place in the same alternate Japan. Hearn’s familiarity with Japanese culture gave depth to her previous novels’ world-building, and this new tale looks like another atmospheric adventure with supernatural elements.

 

In Your Face anthology

Edited by Tehani Wessely

Fablecroft

The next crowdfunded anthology from the publisher that brought out Cranky Ladies of History, In Your Face will feature new and reprinted stories from authors including Cat Sparks, Sean Williams, and Angela Slatter. The anthology aims to be confronting, but not gratuitously so; it will be a space for authors to explore provocative issues through the lens of speculative fiction.

 

April

 

Limerence

By Charlotte McConaghy

The Cure book 3 (omnibus)

Momentum

Limerence

McConaghy has a gift for creating high emotional stakes and complex relationships, and the Cure trilogy examines the place of love in a dark, dystopian setting. Collecting the forthcoming episodes of a serialised novel, the Limerence omnibus will complete McConaghy’s latest series.

 

A World of Ash

By Justin Woolley

The Territory book 3

Momentum

A World of Ash

A World of Ash will conclude Woolley’s debut series, a trilogy that combines steampunk and dystopia, zombies and intrigue, suspense and heart.

 

May

 

Defying Doomsday anthology

Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench

Twelfth Planet Press

Here is another refreshing take on the apocalypse subgenre—an anthology about disabled characters navigating dystopian landscapes. This promises to be another meaningful collection from a publisher dedicated to representing diverse voices.

 

The Summon Stone

By Ian Irvine

Gates of Good and Evil book 1

Orbit

The Summon Stone

Fans of Irvine’s bestselling The View From the Mirror quartet will rejoice over this new series. This will be the first book in the Three Worlds Cycle to return to protagonists Karan and Llian, who will be fighting to protect their young daughter from a powerful warrior who has ordered her killed.

 

Nevernight

By Jay Kristoff

The Nevernight Chronicle book 1

HarperVoyager

Kristoff has drawn attention recently for The Illuminae Files, his popular and ongoing collaboration with Amie Kaufman. Nevernight will be his next solo novel, and it targets more an adult than a YA readership. At a glance, the premise—an apprentice assassin seeking revenge for her family—reads as fairly standard. However, this looks like a dark, atmospheric fantasy with a strong emotional core.

 

The Fall of the Dagger

By Glenda Larke

The Forsaken Lands book 3

Orbit

Concluding Larke’s latest trilogy, this will be a swashbuckling epic of piracy, spywork, and sorcery.

 

Stiletto

By Daniel O’Malley

HarperCollins

 Stiletto

 This sequel to the Aurealis Award-winning The Rook will continue the offbeat fun of its predecessor. Conspiracies, diplomacy, and bureaucracy collide in O’Malley’s dark but entertaining fantasy thrillers.

 

June

 

Sharp Shooter and Sharp Turn

By Marianne Delacourt

Tara Sharp books 1 and 2

Twelfth Planet Press

Throughout 2016, Twelfth Planet will be rereleasing this series of lighthearted mysteries. Written under a pseudonym by science fiction author Marianne de Pierres, the series has a paranormal element but focuses on humour, romance, and whodunits. Set in Perth and Brisbane, the Tara Sharp novels have a strongly Australian atmosphere and voice rarely found in the urban fantasy genre.

 

Something New Can Come Into This World

By Grant Watson

Twelfth Planet Press

Following last year’s thought-provoking Letters to Tiptree, this will be Twelfth Planet’s second anthology of non-fiction. Bringing together the film reviews of science fiction critic Watson, this collection of essays will span various genres.

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Changes to Aurealis Submission Guidelines

Check out the changes to the Aurealis submission guidelines. The two main changes are:

  1. We’re now open to submissions in English from anywhere in the multiverse.
  2. We now have two reading periods: 1 February—31 May and 1 August—31 October.

Some of the things that haven’t changed:

  • We’re still looking for science fiction, fantasy or horror short stories between 2000 and 8000 words.
  • Subscribers are still fast-tracked through the assessment process.
  • We still don’t publish reprints, poetry or novel extracts, and we don’t serialise longer works.
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Aurealis looking for Readers – extended deadline

It’s not too late to apply to be a Reader for Aurealis magazine.  We are looking to expand our team of Readers. If you love science fiction, fantasy and/or horror, feel you have a discerning eye for a good story, and would like to read and assess short story submissions to Aurealis, please contact our Submissions Manager at submissions@aurealis.com.au with your expression of interest by 31 January 2016. Please include the titles of the three novels you last read, plus the titles of your favourite novel and your favourite short story and why they are your favourites in 50-100 words.

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AUREALIS NON-FICTION SUBMISSIONS

Submissions are now open for non-fiction contributions for Aurealis in 2016. Aurealis is published 10 times a year from February to November.

The Editors are interested in non-fiction between 500 and 2000 words of interest to readers and writers of SF, fantasy and horror. These include humorous pieces, serious articles and interviews. Preference is given to non-fiction where some visuals are included.

This year’s highlights include Lachlan Walter’s ‘Dissecting SF’ series, time travel, flying cars and interviews with Shane Abbess, the Spierig Brothers, John Scalzi, Peter Hamilton and Thoraiya Dyer. Gillian Pollack has been exploring early Aust SF through the works of Linebarger and Shute.

So if there’s something going on (or did go on) in the world of SF, fantasy and horror in Australia that you’d like to share, please let us know. If all you have is an idea, then a little encouragement is all you will need.

Our payment is $20 per 1000 words. Send all non-fiction and queries to nonfiction@aurealis.com.au.

Terry Wood

Non-Fiction Coordinator

Aurealis

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Enter your Science Fiction movie script into the Awards for Excellence in SF screenwriting!

John Hinde Award

Produced or unproduced, the Australian Writers’ Guild is looking for exceptional science fiction

Entries are now open for the 2015 John Hinde Awards for Excellence in Science Fiction screenwriting. Through a bequest from the late Australian film critic John Hinde, the Australian Writers’ Guild is offering $10,000 for the best produced script and professional support for the best unproduced script submitted. Submissions close Monday 4 January 2016.

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Aurealis #83 Released

Aurealis Issue #83Issue #83 of Aurealis is out now, abounding with Brave New Worlds!

Tracy Washington’s genre-bending Unicorn on Mars both intrigues and disturbs, while Chris Large writes of noir murderous jaunts in Perfect Kills. Issue #83 also includes a breakdown of some of the traps and conveniences of time-travel fiction, a whimsical bio of Pamela Juice, and an interview with Peter F. Hamilton.

Buy the new issue of Aurealis now.

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Apocalypse Soon-ish: In Defence Of Ordinary

By Lachlan Walter

Nowadays, it seems that most of the fantastical places that exist within science fiction and its sub-genres (post-apocalyptic fiction, superhero narratives, teen dystopias, literary genre fiction, and so on) only serve to to let us explore The End Of The World, to the point that it almost feels like you can’t sit down to watch a movie or television show without being confronted by yet another variation on the apocalypse or yet another depiction of humanity under threat (written fiction is a different matter, and shall be dealt with at a different time).

Even though these ‘visual fictions’ can use the fantastical places existing within them to frame an exploration of a million different themes and ideas, for many of their creators it seems that the end of the world and threats to humanity have somehow become the sole themes worth exploring. Consequently, these two themes then serve as the default endpoints for their narrative structures – it’s as if the only way to now end a science fiction story is by having the protagonists confront a fast-approaching extinction event or apocalyptic moment. These endpoints, of course, have an ‘echo’ effect regarding the narrative events preceding them, whereby the various characters’ actions, choices, attitudes and evolving psychological natures really only reach resolution in the face of the fast-approaching extinction or apocalypse. In other words, the character development and character-based confrontations that do occur usually serve only to set-up their eventual resolutions during the endpoint. When done well, combining the personal story of characters resolving their differences with the action story of the characters confronting the extinction event or apocalyptic moment can create an interesting textual fusion. Sadly, all-too-often it just adds another layer of ‘noise’ to the mess of action and spectacle, and frequently seems perfunctory and underdone.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs. By conflating character development with narrative resolution, these kinds of fictions deny us the very things that allow us to lose ourselves in a story: empathy and connection. By definition, none of us have experience of an alien invasion, or a destructive AI (or any kind of AI for that matter), or a complete ecological collapse, or people who can fly or possess super strength, or a war against robots. Therefore, none of us can ‘directly’ relate to these situations. But what we can directly relate to are character traits that we all share, the things that make us all human, the things that define all of us: love, community, companionship, joy, purpose. And let’s not forget their more negative but equally important correlates: anger, hate, loneliness, unhappiness, ennui and angst.

These are the triumphs and tragedies that make us who and what we are; they represent the wonder, horror, beauty and ugliness that is life. For want of a better word, they are ‘ordinary’ things, so everyday and everywhere that we are often barely even consciously thinking of them.

And it seems like nowadays a lot of people think that ‘ordinary’ equals ‘boring’.

This kind of disdain isn’t only seen in the proliferation and popularity of narratives that revolve around yet another variation on the end of the world or yet another depiction of humanity under threat at the expense of character development or emotional exploration; we also see it in certain critical reactions to those fictions that eschew this fascination with extinction events and impending apocalypses and instead turn their focus on smaller and more ‘ordinary’ themes. Take James Mangold’s The Wolverine (2013), Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (2015) and Drew Goddard’s Daredevil (2015) as just examples (superhero narratives are fitting subjects for examination, as they seem to constantly be one-upping each other in terms of the dangers faced within). While none of these fictions are ‘perfect’ (if such a thing as a ‘perfect’ fiction even exists), Mangold, Reed and Goddard should be commended for restricting the scope of their narratives and focusing on character-driven and emotion-rich stories where the fate of the world isn’t at stake – they are ‘smaller’ and more intimate than their kin, dealing with themes of betrayal, loyalty, family, redemption, guilt and responsibility. Instead, a significant number of critics chided them for their more human focus and less over-the-top approach, bandying about belittling yet superficially polite terms such as ‘modest’, ‘humble’, ‘small scale’ and ‘perfectly fine’. At times, the word ‘boring’ was even used to describe the emphasis on character and development over that of spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; not because the particular scenes highlighted were actually boring but because they slowed the momentum or detracted from the action or didn’t include a fight scene every 15-minutes.

godzilla

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is another film that received this kind of dismissive critical reception, despite Edwards’ declared intention to give his version of the pop-culture icon a sense of realism (and therefore a sense of ‘ordinariness’). While the film does have its flaws – some of the dialogue is stilted and some of the acting is wooden, and Edwards’ decision to somewhat obscure Godzilla himself rather than show him outright is sometimes taken too far – the line between criticism of technique and criticism of style and thematic intent is blurred. Take the character of Brody as an example. His tendency to look a little blank-faced, to speak in a bit of monotone, to obey orders almost without a thought, and to pare his syntax back to its bare essentials, could be chiefly explained in one of two ways: bad writing and bad acting, or the realistic actions of a soldier in the field who has been trained to be proactive and to make split-second decisions. When we take this second line of thinking further, and take into account the fact that Brody has suddenly found himself not only orphaned but also unable to know whether his own wife and child are alive or dead, his slightly robotic movements, flat speech patterns and almost-automatic behaviour starts to look more like a form of auto-pilot suffered by a soldier undergoing a type of PTSD whilst simultaneously having to keep on fighting. A similar dual perspective exists when we look at the character of Dr Serizawa. His transition from action-oriented character to one that looks on with glazed eyes and a slack jaw could be attributed to overacting and bad writing, unless we consider the fact that he has suddenly had his life’s work vindicated in the most terrible of ways. If we can imagine what he would actually be feeling – if we can put ourselves in his head and imagine the churning emotions, the mixture of elation at being proved right and relief at finally finding an answer after years of searching and horror at what that answer means – then we can see that his almost-complete blankness is actually a fairly appropriate response to what is happening.

These men aren’t supposed to be supermen; they aren’t supposed to just shrug off these incredible and devastating events and creatures or make a smart-arse quip or get their flirt on. And yet it’s almost as if people have come to expect just about every science fiction character to be more than human, even in films as avowedly realist as Godzilla. It’s as if they expect these kinds of characters to be able to shoulder any burden and smile while doing so, or be able to patch-up a damaged relationship and fight off aliens at the same time. And so they’re disappointed when these characters are anything less than godlike. The end result? More and more films and TV shows that sacrifice story, substance and emotional weight for action, spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; poorer and far-less immersive narratives; and far fewer characters like those above, who behave in a realistic way in the face of something that’s almost beyond understanding, and either freeze or become automatic.

I know which themes, techniques, characters and styles I prefer. And I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that most of us would respond in the exact same as Brody or Dr Serizawa.

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Apocalypse Soon-Ish: How ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Has Set a New Benchmark for Genre Films

By Lachlan Walter

Like presumably most diehard fans of Australian genre-fiction, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The hype had been built long before it hit the screens: George Miller had dropped tantalising titbits of information during its production, and the multiple trailers held out hope of something that was not only fast and rugged and thoroughly ‘Mad Max’, but also somehow more real than other contemporary blockbusters. Expectations were high, and no-one wanted another pale imitation of a cinema classic masquerading as a remake/reboot/pseudo-sequel a la Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), Conan the Barbarian (2011), Predators (2010), Prometheus (2012) or Matthijs van Heijningen’s version of The Thing (2011).

mad max 1To cause us further worry, fans of Australian genre-fiction cherish Miller’s original Mad Max series. Its lived-in world, deeply-set sense of place, larrikin sense of humour and almost-punkish DIY ethos are ‘Australian-isms’ that we were all proud to see enshrined on screen in such fresh and original ways, and none of us wanted to see Miller tarnish this legacy.

I’m happy to say that, in what might just be a first, my expectations were exceeded. In fact, I believe that Mad Max: Fury Road might just be the best genre film in a long, long time.

But not entirely in ways that I had foreseen.

The first thing that differentiates Mad Max: Fury Road from most other contemporary genre films is the way in which it weaves its ‘action’ into the narrative (and vice-versa). Too often, action scenes seem to exist solely for their own sake: we seldom see character revealed or story told through action, and the big set-pieces that pad out so many genre films usually serve little narrative purpose. Think of the ‘Metropolis Battle’ in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), the ‘Sieges of Zion’ in the sequels to The Matrix (2003), any of the action scenes from Michael Bay’s Transformers series (2007-20014) or any of the space battles in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005). These types of scenes and set-pieces present themselves as little more than spectacle; the narrative usually stops dead along with any sense of momentum, and we the viewer are suddenly disengaged from the film – we might look upon the images with something approximating awe, impressed by the CGI magic unfolding before us, but this awe comes at the expense of our connection to the characters and the story. Thus disengaged, we become far more aware of everything that exists outside of the film, and it consequently becomes far less immersive.

Mad Max: Fury Road avoids almost all of these pitfalls: most of its action exists either as part of the story or to push the story forward. Its narrative never grinds to a halt to let a pointless visual suddenly dominate and shout: ‘I am spectacle, behold!’ Instead, Mad Max: Fury Road is pure spectacle from beginning to end, spectacle that drives and frames the story. This is mostly because of Miller’s genius at fusing narrative and action. By structuring Mad Max: Fury Road around a chase without end, he ensures that there is always a sense of forward momentum (the chase itself) as well as a confined location (the War Rig), which is almost constantly under attack and home to a number of different characters. The chase begins in the first scene, and Miller initially withholds the reasons as to why it is happening. Instead, we are forced to share Max’s perspective and position, and are bundled up and swept along by the momentum of the chase. This engages us straightway as it provokes questions in us: What’s happening? Why are those particular characters chasing those particular characters? What exactly has been stolen, and how does it impact on the established world? Over the next half-hour, answers are slowly revealed, until Max arrives at the War Rig and certain things fall into place and the next phase of the story and the chase begins.

Here, the War Rig ‘concentrates’ the characters’ interactions within it; with nowhere else to go, their conversations and interactions feel natural, and reveal narrative detail and backstory and so on. Exposition like this tends not to feel forced, as we can all relate to similar situations that provoke unexpected and character revealing conversations (road trips, family holidays, long distance house-moves). However, the fact that the characters confined in the War Rig are always either under attack or under impending attack means that some of these conversations and interactions necessarily occur during the attacks. And so the two become one as the rest of the film plays out, action and story occurring simultaneously, often with each informing the other (for example: a freshly talked-about memory triggering an unexpected behaviour, or the need to shoot straight revealing a newly learned understanding).

The second thing that really makes Mad Max: Fury Road stand out from the crowd is the depth of its world-building, which is manifested in the sense of a wider ‘Mad Max’ universe that exists beyond what we see in the film.

This is something that is all too often neglected in genre fiction, as much of it instead concentrates only on the world inhabited by the protagonists and antagonists, with the story’s wider universe only shown if it directly affects the characters and their arcs. This is to the stories’ detriment, as it can ‘remove’ us from the story because we begin to wonder how the world we’re shown fits into its wider universe. In the absence of any evidence of a wider universe, we then find ourselves less immersed in the story because its existence as a ‘limited’ piece of fiction becomes apparent. This is doubly true of post-apocalyptic fiction, as the universes therein pose very specific problems: Where do food and water come from? How are these neo-societies structured?

Once again, Mad Max: Fury Road avoids most of these pitfalls, and it does so in the best possible way. Rather than making Mad Max: Fury Road’s wider universe obvious and obtrusive, Miller subtly hints at its existence, providing just evidence to keep us within the story. Just a few examples include the existence of The Bullet Farm and Gasoline Town, which are mentioned but never shown, and hint at an established trade network with The Citadel; and the eerie ‘Crane People’ that inhabit the swamplands, which provide a glimpse of a society seemingly completely disconnected from the previous settlements.

However, Miller also ensures that these hints of a wider universe are complimented by a thorough approach to building the world that we do see. This ensures that the ‘logic’ of Mad Max: Fury Road’s narrative is almost watertight, which once again keeps us ‘within’ its world. And even when world-building story features aren’t properly explained or are only alluded to, their sheer existence allows us to more fully suspend our sense of disbelief. We see this time and time again: the ritualistic behaviour and appearance of the War Boys; Immortan Joe’s status as a pseudo-emperor; the brief glimpses of hydroponic and outdoor gardens in and around The Citadel; the offhand remarks regarding the aquifer beneath it; the classist structure of its society; the existence of Gasoline Town explaining where their fuel comes from. These things tell us that the world of Mad Max: Fury Road and the societies within it have structures and hierarchies; they have ways of feeding themselves and access to water; they have ways of travelling and a trade system. In other words, they are societies that are a warped reflection of our own, and because we understand the logic by which they operate, we can once again embrace the story rather than question it.

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The third thing that really makes Mad Max: Fury Road stand out lies in the fact that women drive its narrative and are, along with Max, central characters that possess their own agency. Some people have also made this a controversial aspect, with certain hairy-knuckled critics decrying the fact that ‘Max gets ordered around by a woman’ and that he functions more as a co-main character than an out-and-out hero. These criticisms occur despite the fact that in both The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Max was hardly the one who drove the narrative forward. Instead, to prolong his own survival, he allowed himself to be ensnared in the schemes of others, just like in Mad Max: Fury Road. However, Miller takes this process further by ensuring that in Mad Max: Fury Road, the schemes that Max is ensnared in are thought-up and carried out by women and for women.

But this doesn’t make the film a feminist critique or mean that men’s enjoyment of the film is somehow diminished. Firstly, Miller’s weaving of feminist thought-lines into the narrative is subtle and never allowed to overshadow the central story or the thrill and momentum of the chase. Secondly, because the film is so defiant in its own approach, and because its world has been so thoroughly built and its story and action are so well intertwined, the story of these women feels like a completely ‘accurate’ story within the confines of the film’s universe, and it occurs with enough momentum and rawness to make it seem authentic. It doesn’t feel forced or faked, but ‘right.’ And this is something that not enough genre films do. Too often, men’s stories seem to dominate the narratives of genre fiction, and it seems that this is sometimes because many writers and creators aren’t prepared to think far enough outside the box to posit women-centric stories being the focus of their imagined future worlds. As Miller shows, a good story told well is something magnificent, no matter whether it’s a story about men or one about women.

These aren’t the only reasons why I think that Mad Max: Fury Road might just be the best genre film in a long, long time (a lack of space prevents me from continuing, and such is my excitement that I could just go on and on). But if your appetite needs further whetting, I’ll just quickly say that you should also look to the maniacal glee that Miller pours into the film (yes, that really is a truck carrying drummers and a guitarist and a wall full of amps, whose job is to whip the War Boys into a frenzy); and the sheer rawness that comes from what’s happening on screen being almost completely real (the little CGI that was used was mostly reserved for backgrounds and scenery); and the deft homages to the original trilogy (The music box! The hidden weapons! The fizzing shotgun! The handcuffs and the saw!).

Or just go and see it. You won’t regret it.

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Apocalypse Soon-Ish: Blue-Collar Science Fiction and the ‘Ordinary’ Worker As Hero

By Lachlan Walter

I was in my favourite second-hand bookshop the other day, looking for something new to read, something unexpected, something that I hadn’t already contemplated too many times to count. I browsed and browsed, and found nothing. And then, half-hidden by the inevitable pile of Analog magazines, I found a copy of Menial: Skilled Labour in Science Fiction, a collection of short stories edited by Shay Darrach and Kelly Jennings.

Wow. Just wow.

Before I become too effusive, it’s probably best to mention that not every single story in Menial is great (as always, I won’t name names here). This isn’t that uncommon when it comes to short story collections, and when we talk about great collections, the dullards and the duds can often make the diamonds shine brighter.

This is how it is with Menial.

However, its real impact and its true originality live within its theme, which is probably best paraphrased as, ‘“ordinary” workers as science fiction heroes’. Now, any science fiction fan with even a passing knowledge of the genre would probably be aware of the existence of this type of hero. Various novelists and short story writers have either used them or employed the type as prominent secondary characters, including Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick and John Brunner. Acclaimed screenwriter Dan O’Bannon created two seminal science fiction films centred on blue-collar heroes in Dark Star (1974) and Alien (1979). The mise-en-scene of blue-collar homes, workplaces and lifestyles has almost become the default setting for the vast majority of contemporary science fiction that aims to be serious, realist, or dark and gritty.

But what Menial does differently is bring these types of stories together as a whole. Instead of seeing them as simply picks from the pack that exhibit a point of difference, their existence as a collection allows a certain continuity of thought to occur; ideas and themes provoked and presented by each individual story are easily allowed to grow and flourish, thanks to further complimentary ideas and themes provided by the subsequent stories. The further I read through it, the richer the food for thought provided by these types of stories.

Menial finally left me wondering just what it is that makes blue-collar science fiction so different from regular science fiction.

And what does blue-collar science fiction actually do?

The first thing that makes it different is so obvious as to be staring us in the face: it shows us the existence of the ‘ordinary’ person (and, by de-facto, an ‘ordinary’ world). The existence of something so seemingly banal as ‘the ordinary’ is an aspect of science fiction that many writers tend to normally gloss over or ignore, and so accustomed are we to seeing science fiction heroes personified as either professionals and authority figures, or as belonging to what we could call the ‘underground’, that we often don’t even question these personifications.

As an example, which one of these different character groups seems a lesser embodiment of science fiction than the others? A ‘professional’ group of scientists, inventors, programmers, doctors, astronauts, politicians, bureaucrats, soldiers and military paper-shufflers? An ‘underground’ group of criminals, private detectives, blackmarket couriers, hackers, activists, punks and cyberpunks? Or an ‘ordinary’ or blue-collar group of bricklayers, waiters, labourers, bank-tellers, shop assistants, kitchenhands, posties, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners, orderlies, street-sweepers, garbos and sandwich hands?

If the last group seems more like the cast of a Mike Leigh film than typical science fiction characters, the answer as to why there should be more blue-collar science fiction has been answered. After all, what makes the last group’s stories less important than those belonging to scientists and soldiers, or those belonging to criminals and private detectives?

By using ‘ordinary’ workers as the heroes of their stories, authors aren’t just showing us a side of the genre that is too-often absent—they are also making the genre more relatable. While some of us may actually work in jobs that would fit into the professional group, it’s probably fair to say that most, if not all of us, have worked far less glamorous jobs at some point in our lives. Waiting tables, working in a shop, washing dishes, mowing lawns, serving fast-food, cleaning houses, labouring for builders—these are the most blue-collar of blue-collar jobs, and are probably how most of us got a start in paid employment. When science fiction stories are focused around characters employed in these kinds of occupations—characters who consequently live more blue-collar lifestyles and, stereotypically, have more down-to-earth attitudes—our ability to engage with them is strengthened because we have so much more in common with them. Professional characters tend to either act as an expression of wish fulfilment for those of us still engaged in blue-collar employment, or serve as a throwback to the genre’s roots in real science and science-philosophy; underworld characters reflect the still pervasive influence of crime fiction and noir upon the genre. Blue-collar characters normally serve to ground the genre in a facsimile of reality, a facsimile in which we can see our science fiction reflection.

The crew of Alien are an excellent example of this. While they are technically astronauts—they are travelling through space, after all—theirs is a life more akin to that of a truck driver, a crane operator, a baggage handler or a labourer. They complain about their pay and the conditions they have to work in; they form cliques and circles within the larger group; a hierarchy exists, with status determined by pay grade. And to top it off, their ship is functional and utilitarian, more a factory or warehouse than a high-tech thing of beauty. We’ve probably all been where they are, aside from the science fiction trappings. This means that when the drama kicks in and the crew are faced with danger, the empathy we feel for them is deeper than it might usually be and we can better relate to the choices they make and the way they react.

An excellent example from Menial is Jasmine M Templet’s ‘Leviathan’, which tells the story of a newly employed janitor at a seedy office building in a vaguely dystopian future. This dystopian future is masterfully sketched, albeit in broad strokes. Both this dystopian future and the ‘take it as it comes’ attitude bestowed upon the janitor by Templet bring to mind the themes and setting and overall vibe of Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Highway’, a wonderful blue-collar science fiction story. The actual event that shaped the worlds lived in by the farmers of ‘The Highway’ and the janitor of ‘Leviathan’ doesn’t really matter to them. In the end, despite what seem like massive changes to the societies that they are a part of, their shared way of life remains the same: farm or clean, work hard for little pay. And without spoiling the ending, the unnamed janitor’s reaction to the final revelation of ‘Leviathan,’ whereby he simply accepts his duties in his stride, perfectly encapsulates the ability of blue-collar science fiction to provide a more grounded perspective on fantastical worlds than that of regular science fiction.

The other important thing that blue-collar science fiction can help facilitate is world building. How many times have we read or seen science fiction that is ultimately nothing but a lofty structure supported by some flimsy two-by-fours? To best explain this, you’ll have to forgive me for indulging in a little pop-culture citation:

A construction job of that magnitude would require a helluva lot more manpower than the Imperial army had to offer. I’ll bet there were independent contractors working on that thing: plumbers, aluminum siders, roofers… All those innocent contractors hired to do a job were killed—casualties of a war they had nothing to do with.

-Randal Graves, from Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), talking about the second Death Star from George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi (1983)

Death-Star-II aurealisWhile Lucas undoubtedly deserves praise for the sheer depth and span of his universe—think the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, or the meetings of the Galactic Senate in the prequels—I found that the above quote built Lucas’ world much more thoroughly than any ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ or any of a thousand different CGI crowds. When I mull over Smith’s words, I can imagine these ‘plumbers, aluminium siders and roofers’ who brought those magnificent spaceships to life, as well as all the other ordinary people and blue-collar workers who logically must exist within Lucas’ universe, cleaning up after all those Jedi Knights or serving food to all those Galactic Senators. Suddenly, a universe that was already pretty big is now enormous, and is also much more diverse than we first thought.

This line of thinking, however, isn’t solely confined to the Star Wars universe. Instead, we can apply it to any science fiction world. After all, someone had to build those spaceships; someone has to grease their engines. And all those shining futuristic cities? Someone had to dig the foundations; someone has to sweep the streets; someone has to collect the rubbish. I would argue that every (every!) single piece of science fiction has within its world some connection to ‘the ordinary’ and to blue-collar people, but unfortunately, they are more often than not ignored or glossed over. This is to their detriment, as instead of seeing a whole we’re just seeing a part.

Blue-collar science fiction shows us this whole. Its ordinary heroes, by their very definition, serve to flesh out the different levels that exist within society. And by telling the story of an individual whose lot in life is more like that lived by the vast majority of the population, writers of blue-collar science fiction aren’t just creating stories that are more relatable. Instead, they are also giving us access to future-worlds from the bottom up, and showing us wonders and marvels from a more grounded perspective.

Rush out and get yourself a copy of Menial. You won’t regret it.


For more by Lachlan Walter, check out his previous work in the Apocalypse Soon-ish series of articles.

 

If you (or someone you know) are interested in writing for the Aurealis blog from time to time, message us either through our Facebook site or send an email to lachlan.shrives@gmail.com, and we can have a chat.