Science Fiction Studies

#80 = Volume 27, Part 1 = March 2000

Michael Levy

Science Fiction in Australia

Russell Blackford, Van Ikin, and Sean McMullen. Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction. Greenwood (800-225-5800), 1999. xiv + 247 pp. $65 cloth.

Paul Collins, Steven Paulsen, and Sean McMullen, eds. The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Melbourne UP (fax: 61-3-9349-2527), 1998. xvi + 188 pp. $39.95 cloth; $29.95 trade pb.

David Hartwell and Damien Broderick, eds. Centaurus: The Best of Australian Science Fiction. Tor (800-288-2131), 1999. 525 pp. $29.95 cloth.

Timed to coincide with Aussiecon III, the third World Science Fiction Convention held down under in Sept. 1999, these three volumes, each in its own way, attempt to define the fantastic literature of an entire continent. This is an enormous and daunting undertaking, of course, but I’m happy to report that, despite a few minor imperfections, all three volumes successfully accomplish what they set out to achieve.

The men involved in putting together these books are a distinguished, versatile, and in some cases, rather dangerous bunch. Veteran American editor David Hartwell needs no introduction. Russell Blackford and Van Ikin are among Australia’s most widely respected critics, members of the Science Fiction Research Association, and have both published fiction with considerable success as well. Sean McMullen, author of the novels Voices in the Light (1994) and The Centurion’s Empire (1998), stands second only to Greg Egan among the current crop of outstanding new sf writers to come out of Australia; he is also a distinguished bibliographer as well as a computer scientist. Paul Collins is widely known as both a fiction writer and as the editor of the influential Australian sf magazine Void. Damien Broderick, author of such novels as The Dreaming Dragons (1980) and The White Abacus (1997), as well as the critical study Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (1995), may well be both Australia’s most widely-published living sf writer and that nation’s most distinguished genre literary critic. In addition, it should be noted that Collins and McMullen both have black belts in various martial arts.

Blackford, Ikin, and McMullen’s Strange Constellations is straightforward literary history centered, it should be emphasized, exclusively on science fiction; works of fantasy and horror are essentially outside the authors’ area of investigation unless some claim can be made for them as borderline sf. Moving in roughly chronological order, the book, following a brief introduction, is subdivided into five major historical periods: "Australian Science Fiction to 1925"; "1926-59: The Rise of Traditional Science Fiction in Australia"; "1960-74: International Recognition and the New Wave"; "1975-84: Small Presses and Growing Reputations"; and "1985-98: Serious Recognition." These major chapters are followed by a brief conclusion; detailed and valuable bibliographies of Australian sf novels, anthologies, and magazines; and an equally extensive list of criticism. These bibliographies alone make the book a must purchase for any library with serious holdings in either science fiction or Australian literature. Each of the major chapters is further subdivided, with sections on early fantastic romances, utopias and dystopias, racist speculative fiction, various individual decades, and the effect of Aussiecons I and II on the local product. Writers deemed worthy of entire brief chapters on their work include one of my childhood favorites, A. Bertram Chandler, as well as Wynne Whiteford, George Turner, Damien Broderick, and Greg Egan.

Readers interested in nineteenth-century fantastic literature will find Strange Constellations particularly valuable. Anyone familiar with such better-known British and American works as Mary Griffith’s "Three Hundred Years Hence" (1836), George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column (1890), or George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893), will find a variety of similar, equally fascinating novels discussed here, including Samuel Albert Rosa’s The Coming Terror: The Australian Revolution (1894), Joseph Fraser’s Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets (1889), and Catherine Helen Spence’s Handfasted: A Romance, which was written as an entry in a literary competition in 1879 but was not published until 1994 because, the competition judge declared, its radical attitude toward male-female relationships "was calculated to loosen the marriage tie—it was too socialistic, and consequently dangerous" for publication (28). Equally prominent in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Australia were what Blackford, Ikin, and McMullen call "Novels of Racial Invasion." Most often aimed at the Chinese, but occasionally at the Japanese, Americans, French, and Russians, these novels may have reflected the underlying paranoia of a culture whose own none-too-distant conquest of an entire continent could not bear close moral examination. Among the books discussed in this chapter are White or Yellow? A Story of the Race War of A.D. 1908 (1888) by William Lane, a man otherwise remembered for doing valuable work in the Australian labor movement; Thomas Roydhouse’s The Coloured Conquest (1904); and C.H. Kirmess’s truly obnoxious The Australian Crisis (1909). In this last novel the Japanese secretly establish a colony in the Northern Territory and then, when it is eventually discovered, claim that the babies born there are native Australians and thus can’t be deported. When bleeding-heart Brits side with the nefarious Japanese, loyal Australians are understandably outraged by this "invasion." The Australian stock market immediately crashes, and, to quote Blackford et al., "Soon Japanese prostitutes are burnt at the stake in Sydney race riots, while a gallant group of paramilitary vigilantes called The White Guard is decimated by Asian dumdum bullets in a futile attempt to win back the north" (40). The whole novel sounds like an Australian version of William Pierce’s notorious Turner Diaries (1978). This part of Strange Constellations closes with a section devoted to the only Australian sf novel of the period that can still be appreciated purely for its literary quality (and, I must admit, the only Australian genre work of the period that I’ve actually read), Erle Cox’s Out of the Silence (1925), a morally complicated tale that concerns the discovery in the outback of a gigantic vault or time capsule left by an ancient, superhuman, and viciously racist civilization, and the beautiful woman found in suspended animation therein.

In later chapters the authors discuss the various ups and downs of Australian science fiction during the twentieth century. Prior to the early 1970s there simply wasn’t very much to be proud of, with the exception of such rare high points as James Morgan Walsh’s dashing space opera Vandals of the Void (1931), M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (first published in 1947 as Tomorrow and Tomorrow with most of its controversial socialist ideas excised), and the work of such competent craftsmen and women as Norma Hemming, Alan Yates, Frank Bryning, and Eric North. Nevil Shute’s In the Wet (1953) and his brilliant On the Beach (1957) both qualify as borderline sf, but have little obvious connection to genre science fiction per se. Then, of course, there was A. Bertram Chandler.

Still the most successful science fiction writer in Australian history, Chandler (1912-1984), a British merchant seaman, did not officially emigrate to Australia until 1956, when he was already a well-known professional, but much of his later work has a distinctly down-under feel to it. Best known for his well-done "Rim World" series of space operas centered on the dashing and highly competent Commander Grimes, several dozen of which appeared as paperback originals from the US publishers Ace and DAW in the 1960s, 70s, and early 80s, Chandler is the only Australian sf writer to have been chosen as guest of honor at a World Science Fiction Convention. His author entry and bibliography in the MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy is by far the longest in the book. Among Chandler’s works that Blackford et al. single out for special consideration are Bring Back Yesterday (1961), The Way Back (1976), and one of the author’s last tales, Frontier of the Dark (1984). Also worthy of mention is perhaps his most clearly Australian novel, Kelly Country (1983), an alternate universe tale in which the famous bandit Ned Kelly takes over the entire continent. Although they were neither as popular nor as prolific as Chandler, several other talented writers of the 1960s and 1970s receive well-earned praise from Blackford et al., among them Wynne Whiteford, John Baxter, David Lake, and Jack Wodhams. Also receiving due consideration are the still active Cherry Wilder, Lee Hardin—who recently made a return to the genre with Heartsease (1997) after more than a decade of silence—and Peter Carey, who, despite an early career in the genre, has earned his primary reputation of late as the author of such major mainstream novels as Illywhacker (1985), Oscar and Lucinda (1989), and Jack Maggs (1997).

The last part of Strange Constellations brings us to the current crop of Australian sf writers, names contemporary genre readers are more likely to run into in the bookstores or at their local libraries, both in Australia and abroad. The 1975 World Science Fiction Convention, Aussiecon, which included a series of writing workshops run by Ursula K. Le Guin and others, is seen as a major turning point for many young writers. George Turner, already a major mainstream novelist in Australia, was just beginning to write science fiction at this point, but he took an active part in leading a workshop held in 1977. Thereafter, having produced a series of superb sf novels, among them Beloved Son (1978), Yesterday’s Men (1983), the award-winning The Sea and Summer (1987; published in the U.S. as Drowning Towers), and Genetic Soldier (1994), he eventually grew to outrank even A. Bertram Chandler in terms of critical acclaim if not popularity, before his death in 1997. Other Australian sf writers who have deservedly attained an international reputation in the 1970s and thereafter include Damien Broderick (who began publishing in the 1960s), Terry Dowling, Leanne Frahm, and John Brosnan. Even more recently, in the wake of Aussiecon II (1985), such talented newcomers as Lucy Sussex, Rosaleen Love, Paul Voermans, Sean McMullen, Stephen Dedman, and Sean Williams have appeared. Two major figures of undoubted international importance are Jack Dann, author of The Memory Cathedral (1995), an American who moved to Australia in 1995 and who has taken an active role in the local sf scene; and Greg Egan, the award-winning author of Quarantine (1992), Permutation City (1994), Distress (1995), and Disapora (1997), as well as a string of highly-praised short stories. Although the talented Damien Broderick has undoubtedly replaced George Turner as the dean of Australian sf writers, it’s clear that the much more prolific and pyrotechnic Egan has, in a remarkably short time, become the continent’s most highly-regarded genre figure and, arguably, one of the half dozen most important sf writers in the world today.

Strange Constellations is as good a work of literary history as one could wish for. The book is concise, judicious in its appraisal of the writers under consideration, and as clearly written as one might expect from a work whose three authors all have strong literary as well as scholarly credentials. I do have a few criticisms, but these should be understood as minor, the kind of nitpicking any reviewer is expected to partake in. First and foremost there is at least one error of fact (but how could there not be in a work of this scope?): in their discussion of the science fiction of the early 1990s, Blackford et al. refer to Alice Nunn’s first novel, Illicit Passage (1992), as having "earned the distinction of being the first Australian work to win the U.S. Tiptree Award" (180). Illicit Passage is a fine novel but it did not win the award that year; Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite (1992) did. I also feel that the book’s coverage of Young Adult sf could have been improved. The authors do discuss the work of Gillian Rubinstein and John Marsden, but ignore that of the almost equally talented Victor Kelleher, who rates only one entry in the bibliography, and that of Caroline MacDonald, whose name never appears in the book. Also missing is the enormously talented F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, author of numerous short stories and the highly-successful sf horror novel, The Woman Between the Worlds (1994).

In his Foreword to the MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Peter Nicholls goes on at some length and with great good humor about two subjects. One is the much remarked upon ability of Australia to produce high quality "genre historians and critics" (vii). Indeed, as Nicholls notes, Australians have won three Hugo Awards for their reference books, one by Don Tuck for his three-volume bibliographic work The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1974, 1978, 1982), and the other two by Nicholls himself (along with John Clute) for the two editions of his more critically oriented Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979, 1993), the latest edition of which is generally seen as the finest reference work in the field. The other major topic of Nicholls’s Foreword concerns the necessity for the authors of reference works to be "tough" (he puts great emphasis on Collins’s and McMullen’s black belts). As Nicholls so entertainingly puts it, "You have to be tough even to get a literary encyclopaedia off the ground. This is no business for scrawny scholars; you need to be big. I, personally, am huge" (v). Moving to more serious ground he emphasizes the many problems involved in producing such a work, including the sometimes painful politics inherent in determining the length of various authors’ entries; the impossibility of avoiding small factual errors; the difficulty (particularly in a country like Australia where so many writers are foreign born or now live elsewhere) in deciding who qualifies for inclusion in the book; the type of information to include in the authors’ biographies (suicides? sex-change operations?); whether or not to list short stories; whether or not to list non-genre publications; and finally whether or not to engage in literary criticism as well as biography and bibliography. It’s a daunting list and, although Nicholls implies that he doesn’t always agree with the decisions made by the editors of the MUP Encyclopaedia, he makes it clear that he respects them for having the audacity to plunge right in, especially, he says, because Australia is "a nation that picks more nits than other countries twice its size" (v). I have to admit that I also have a few nits to pick, but more on that later.

Abetted by Sean McMullen, whose original bibliographic work (in conjunction with Graham Stone) evidently provided the initial impetus for this much larger project, and by fiction writer and critic Steven Paulsen, editor Paul Collins has here produced a reference work that in format falls somewhere between Tuck’s bibliography-oriented encyclopedia and the literary-critical reference work of Nicholls and Clute. Collins has apparently attempted to include an entry for every writer who has ever published a genre novel or more than a handful of genre short stories who can reasonably be defined as Australian. He includes both science fiction and fantasy, but excludes horror fiction unless it clearly overlaps with one of his two primary genres. Entries for very minor authors sometimes consist of nothing but birth and death dates and a standard bibliographic reference for each story, augmented by a notation of whether the work is fantasy or science fiction, a novel or a collection. When appropriate, Collins also notes that a work is designed for young adults or juniors. Second level authors receive at most a paragraph of biography. More important writers may be allocated several paragraphs of mixed biography and plot summary. The truly major authors in the field (Chandler, Broderick, Egan) are allotted essays of half a page or more, although even in these cases the content is largely descriptive rather than analytical.

Perhaps the most valuable feature in the book, however, are the extensive, author-by-author bibliographies of short stories, something not found in Clute/Nicholls or most other recent reference works. In some cases, as for example with A. Bertram Chandler, the short-story bibliographies can run to many times the length of the text entries themselves. Traditionally, most research into science fiction has centered on novels; but if, as noted sf historian Edward James insists, the heart of the genre lies in its short fiction, then Collins’s short-story bibliographies may be of enormous importance to future researchers in the field. Another notable feature of the MUP Encyclopaedia is the thematic essays covering such subjects as Bookshops, Cinema, Comics, Dark Fantasy, Early Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Fandom, Feminism, Indigenous Mythology, and so forth. Although detailed, thoughtful, and definitely valuable, these essays rarely attempt to break new critical ground in the manner of the more challenging thematic essays to be found in the Clute-Nicholls encyclopedia. Among the authors who contributed pieces—some academics, some fiction writers, many both—are such well-known names (most of whom rate their own entries) as John Baxter, Russell Blackford, Bruce Gillespie, Phillip Mann (writing on the sf and fantasy of New Zealand), Lucy Sussex, Michael Tolley, and Janeen Webb.

As I’ve already said, there are a few things that bother me about The MUP Encyclopaedia. As much as I admire the bibliographic completeness of the volume, I would have preferred it if the editors had attempted to position their volume closer to Clute/Nicholls by including critical analyses of the major Australian sf writers. Failing this, they might have expanded the already quite wonderful bibliographic coverage to include lists of key critical works for the major writers or for Australian sf as a whole. As Peter Nicholls notes in his Foreword, Australia has a superb critical tradition, but little is made of it here. Van Ikin’s entry, for example, notes his distinguished career as an academic and mentions the fact that he founded the highly-respected Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature in 1977, but tells us nothing very valuable about either its contents or his criticism. John Bangsund, founder of the important early sercon fanzine Australian Science Fiction Review, was not himself an sf writer and thus, unlike Ikin, receives no entry in the encyclopaedia at all. Admittedly his name and his fanzine do come up in Bruce Gillespie’s extended article on Fandom, but no attempt is made in that piece to discuss the critical content of the publication. Nor does Gillespie do much more than note the mere existence of his own award-winning SF Commentary. Please note, I’m not asking here for increased coverage of science fiction fandom; I would simply have liked more information on the valuable literary criticism that has traditionally gone on in Australia’s more serious fanzines.

I have another nit to pick on a related topic. Collins states in his Preface that "The bibliographies cover the period from 1950. It seems superfluous to go back beyond 1950, if only for the reason that most of the works would now be unobtainable and that, apart from being authoritative, such entries would add little to this work" (x). Perhaps the problem here lies in a difference of opinion over the book’s intended audience. If The MUP Encyclopaedia is intended exclusively or primarily for casual readers whose purpose is to check to see if they’ve missed any of the early fiction of their favorite writers, then perhaps bibliographies of pre-1950 authors might be superfluous. On the other hand, if the intended audience is, at least in part, scholarly, it’s much less clear that those early authors are superfluous. As Blackford, Ikin, and McMullen’s Strange Constellations makes abundantly clear, pre-1950s Australia produced a fair amount of interesting (if not always high quality) material. Handfasted and The Australian Crisis may not be fiction anyone would want to curl up in the hammock with, but I can see these early novels providing topics for a number of valuable scholarly works—witness, for example, Janeen Webb and Andrew Enstice’s recent Aliens and Savages: Fiction, Politics, and Prejudice in Australia (1998) [reviewed elsewhere in this issue—Ed.]. Graham Stone and Sean McMullen’s essay on Early Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy in The MUP Encyclopaedia is indeed excellent, but I wouldn’t have minded complete bibliographic references to supplement the Selected Bibliography of Strange Constellations. To be even more picky, I would have liked to see an entry on science fiction with Australian settings produced by non-Australians—for example, Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia (1975) or Michaela Roessner’s Walkabout Woman (1988)—and, once again, separate entries or at least cross references for various important publishers, magazines, events, and people who were not themselves sf writers.

It occurs to me that perhaps I’m being unfair to Paul Collins. Perhaps I’m asking for a different book, one he never intended to edit. Everyone wants his or her own book, and we academics, I suppose, are the worst of the bunch. Which, I assume, is why Peter Nicholls insists, once again, that people doing reference books "have to be tough." Well, all right. The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy isn’t exactly the book I would have edited, if I were Australian and if anyone had asked me to take on the project. What Paul Collins’s encyclopedia does have are some of the best and most valuable bibliographies in the field, not to mention a number of useful historical and biographical essays. Like Blackford, Ikin, and McMullen’s Strange Constellations, it belongs in any serious library collection of either science fiction or Australian Literature.

Then there’s the fiction itself. Several best Australian sf collections have been published over the past decade or two, among them Van Ikin’s original Australian Science Fiction (1982) and Ikin and Terry Dowling’s Mortal Fire (1993), Paul Collins’s Metaworlds (1994), and Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch’s Alien Shores (1994). More recently, Jonathan Strahan and Jeremy G. Byrne have edited two fine volumes of The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy (1997, 1998) and Jack Dann and Janeen Webb have produced an outstanding anthology of original Australian sf entitled Dreaming Down-Under (1998). The latest entry into the best Aussie sf sweepstakes is David Hartwell and Damien Broderick’s Centaurus: The Best of Australian Science Fiction (1999). I won’t pretend to compare or rank these anthologies, since I’m only familiar with the Collins and Strahan volumes, but it has to be said that Hartwell and Broderick have brought together a superb group of stories. Some, like George Turner’s "Flowering Mandrake," Lucy Sussex’s "My Lady Tongue," Greg Egan’s "Wang’s Carpet," and Broderick’s own "The Magi" are likely to be familiar to audiences outside of Australia. Others, by authors somewhat less well known, will be a pleasant surprise. Among the authors represented here, besides those already mentioned, are A. Bertram Chandler, Sean McMullen, Leanne Frahm, Terry Dowling, David Lake, Rosaleen Love, Stephen Dedman, Cherry Wilder, and Peter Carey. My favorite story in the book is Sean Williams’s mindbending "A Map of the Mines of Barnath." Having been published in the United States, Centaurus is likely to have the widest availability of any anthology of Australian sf ever produced. One can only hope that the high quality of the book will attract a large number of new readers to the wide range of fine science fiction being produced down under.

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