I’m still here

Journal: 096

Just when I thought I’d done enough long trips, and just as AWW Gen 5-SFF Week was getting under way, I was given a string of jobs which has kept me away from home two weeks to date with another week to go. Luckily, I had some posts ready, but though I had a break last Mon-Tue, and again this weekend, I haven’t done any writing and thought I had better explain my absence.

First, I took a couple of road rollers from Perth to a mine out from Laverton, north east of Kalgoorlie; the maiden outing for my new road train dolly. 1,300 km

From Laverton I ran empty to Cape Preston, on the north west coast, south of Karratha. 1,700 km

The reason for this was that a contract I had expected for January had fallen through and so I accepted a road train load from Cape Preston to Peak Downs in central Queensland, inland of Mackay. 6,000 km as the shorter, northabout route via the Northern Territory is closed until the bridges swept away at Fitzroy Crossing are replaced, initially with a low level ford in three or four months. And yes, there are only two made roads east-west across Australia.

A week or so in, in the night, crossing western NSW towards Cobar, the truck started to run slow and a check of the gauges showed I had no turbo boost. For a while I had a top speed of 80 kph until I discovered that by revving the engine really high the turbo could be persuaded to resume working. This problem persisted for a couple of days but is currently in remission.

However, I woke in the morning to a big pool of oil under the front of the truck. Crawling underneath I discovered that the dipstick tube had come away from the sump. I blocked the hole and put a couple of litres of oil in and drove the 200 km remaining to Cobar, the next town. I didn’t seem to be losing much oil, so I bought some more and turned north towards Bourke and on into Queensland.

The days were beginning to blur. I had left Kalgoorlie Tuesday morning and was due in Peak Downs during working hours on Saturday, which I thought could manage by doing 1,200 km a day.

I fuelled in Charleville in western Qld on Friday and was persuaded there by some resting Western Australian drivers to take the shorter dirt road from Tambo to Alpha – which they had just taken in the opposite direction – which I did Saturday morning. It was ok, not boggy, but very narrow and poorly signposted. Soon I was in Emerald and on the phone to my contact in Peak Downs. His directions to me were to go half an hour north to Capella, turn east 75 kms to Dysart and then come up the last short stretch to Peak Downs and I’d be there by lunchtime. Which I was, but Capella to Dysart is a mostly dirt farm track through a mountain range. Next time I’m going the long way!

Still, that was the load done and my money – supposedly COD – earned. The poor old truck desperately needed a service and repairs. There is a Volvo dealer at Mackay, but a phone call to my truck driver cousin in Toowoomba (a major regional city near Brisbane) got me a booking with his mechanic, so I used Sunday to run empty there. 1,000 km

Two days rest for me. A refreshed truck. A part load from Brisbane and here I am in Melbourne (via the inland route for road trains) 2,000 km.

I loaded one trailer Friday, spent a day at B4’s farm near Bendigo where mum was also, and tomorrow (Monday) I load the second and I’m heading for home. 4,000 km

Have you been doing the maths (well, arithmetic really)? That’s three weeks and 16,000 km – about the same distance as Melbourne – London.

On the real business of this blog, I was really pleased with the response to the Gen 5-SFF theme, though I had hoped to get a second author interview. She might still write. I hope I didn’t inadvertently write a question that offended her. I’ll write up the summary when I get home. Thank you all for taking part.

Meanwhile the family message service is running hot. Lou is back in Tennant Creek for another year. The last photo I saw was of him camping at Coober Pedy. Psyche is due for another round of treatment; and as I write, Gee’s bush block which featured in my last Journal post, is threatened, though not seriously at this stage, by bushfires. She and the kids are camping at a friend’s place in town, just in case. Time I was home.

Short stories & discussion

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Brona and Whispering Gums have contributed to this Week with reviews of short fiction, and WG further devoted a Monday Musings to discussing Indigenous SFF. I’ll provide links from here so that those (very few) of you who haven’t already seen them might do so. Bron says one of hers isn’t strictly SF but given that we have been discussing that problems we have been putting off dealing with – Climate! – are now upon us, I don’t think that matters.


WG: First Nations Australia Speculative Fiction

I have seen various terms applied to SF, or what I prefer, though Bill doesn’t, to call Speculative Fiction. Introducing their anthology, Unlimited futures, Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail speak of Visionary Fiction. Read on …

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WG: Ambelin Kwaymullina, “Fifteen days on Mars”

In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”. Read on …

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Brona: Everything Feels Like the End of the World, Else Fitzgerald

[A] speculative fiction short story collection ‘exploring possible futures in an Australia not so different from our present day to one thousands of years into an unrecognisable future.’ The manuscript won the 2019 Richell Prize for Emerging Writers. Read on …

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Brona: Before He Left the Family, Carrie Tiffany

[T]he story of a family breakdown told from the perspective of the teenage son, Kevin. Both boys know that their parents only married because their mum got pregnant on the first date. Read on …

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Brona: The Animals in that Country, Laura Jean McKay

What a mad, mad ride Laura Jean McKay takes you on … a flu virus – the ‘zoo flu’ as it becomes known in the book – causes the communication barrier between humans and other animals to disappear. Read on …

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Will there be more? I’m not sure. I was hopeful of another author interview. But, and this is the big but, today is my only day off work, though I may have another forced on me by, you know, 26 Jan and all that goes with it, including not being able to get loaded. We’ll see. Anyway, I hope to be home and unloaded by next Weds latest, when I undertake to take Milly to dinner (and to write up a Summary).

This All Come Back Now

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

It occured to me only at the very last minute that I had had the ideal book in my hands for this Week, and that I had given it to Lou as a present earlier in 2022 and promptly forgotten all about it. The book, This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction is “The first-ever anthology of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander speculative fiction – written, curated, edited and designed by blackfellas, for blackfellas and about blackfellas.”

The editor, Mykaela Saunders has written a comprehensive overview of the book and her selection process in the Sydney Review of Books, 18 July 2022; there was a panel on This All Come Back Now at the Sydney Writers Festival, 21 May 2022; and a Symposium at USyd. 24 Oct 2022 featuring Gina Cole (Fiji), Arlie Alizz (Yugumbeh), Jeanine Leanne (Wiradjuri), Mykaela Saunders (Koori/Goori), Ellen van Neerven (Mununjali), and Karen Wylde (Martu). I can’t see video or audio recordings for these, but I will keep looking.

Louis Holloway is a primary school teacher in Tennant Creek where a large proportion of his class is as you might expect, Indigenous.


It is problematic to talk about ‘Aboriginal writers’ and Aboriginal identities from the critical perspective of a hetero, cisgender white person. But here we are. As a reader, presently your reviewer, it is hard not to try and make sense of the thing as a whole. I found myself listening intently for something that might be construed as common ‘authentic voice’. I also found that to read as an investigator, I wanted an academic framework. My thoughts went to Fannon’s Black Skins White Masks, and to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. The first asks about the effect of colonization on the subjective existence of the colonized, and the second about how our identity incorporates governing ideas which subject our choices to the governance of the dominant paradigm.

Mykaela Saunders – Overture

“Short story anthologies are like mixtapes, and I want you to think of this book as a burnt CD from me to you, … and on opportunity to find exciting writers you might not otherwise have come across.”

In introducing the anthology, Saunders invites us to dip our toes in. While the collection is explicitly curated to present the diverse work of a subaltern community, it is not an argument constructed of parts, but rather exactly what it claims to be.

I have picked some examples which might lend to a reading of overarching theme, but the first is just a great piece of writing.

Jasmine McGaughey – Jacaranda Street

The haunting mystery of Jacaranda Street after interrupted roadworks. Short and viscerally compelling. Jacaranda is a superb example of the short story medium- just enough of a taste to realise a vision and leave the reader with an unsettled sense of something that might be possible.

If MacGaughey has only come to my attention as part of TheAustralianLegend’s project including Saunder’s anthology, then there must be a flaw in the mechanism by which I am selecting texts.

Lisa Fuller – Myth This!

A horror story. In this case, the wise local with secret knowledge and dire warnings is the protagonist. The foolish Steve Irwin from the University ignores her at his peril.

In Myth This! There is a clear depiction of an encounter between two world views. I found myself looking for this encounter as I considered what I was reading. Fuller’s protagonist is careful, competent, and essentially suburban character who worries that she has not taught her children enough of the truths she learned from her mother and aunties.

Elizabeth Araluen – Muyum, a Transgression

“When I crossed there was only little light darkly”

This is poetry in the shape of a story. While I pride myself in my vocabulary and ease of assimilation of text, the reading challenges both, demanding the pace of the spoken word as poetry often does. She is talking to someone. ‘Muyum’ might be a sister’s son, but I’m not sure how closely the language of my online dictionary matches the geography of Araluen’s biography. I was also tempted to look up more than one English word.

Araluen’s protagonist encounters a librarian “I ask him for rivers and he tells me of boats … our words for ‘find’ and ‘take’ jar and unsound..”

Introduced with the memory of her father’s lessons about how to view the world, Araluen argues the nature of things with a librarian and a cartographer (sort of), and leaves a trail of released artifacts as she busts up a museum – she contests governmentality in the sort of stream-of-consciousness that only such an accomplished poet could present engagingly.

Alison Whittaker – futures. excellence

“When I walk under it, my eyes trained on it’s looming insignia, my jaw tilts to the sky. I concede that’s probably it’s goal: an Aboriginal woman, proud jawed, looking to the sky. But it’s an earnest and uncomfortable thing to do…”

A meta-mob uploaded to a digital Australia- partly voluntary, and partly forced- where they are building something sovereign, new and common to all the First Nations, away from the influence of the “mission managers”.

Whittaker also references the development of a new governmentality, as something that is harnessed to frame the new consensus.

Mykaela Saunders – Terranora

“We’re symbiotic, not parasitic, like they were from the moment they got here… We’re all guests here, part of a diverse community of life… And as a lucid, powerful mob, we have an obligation to make sure that nobody is taking the piss or is trying to strongarm anyone else out of their fair share.”

In her own contribution to the anthology, Saunders creates a quasi-Utopian commune, somewhere between a vignette and a story, that asserts a distinct pan-(first)national identity. Saunders posits explicitly an underlying common culture for all of the First Nations, that can be realized when the colonial regime is swept away by its own ineptitude.

The texts I’ve sketched here have been reorganized by my own thinking. I’ve only made a line through a group of things by applying my own lens, and I offer nothing definitive. As a teacher, I’d like to share the McGaughey and Fuller stories with my students (and we read some Araluen poems last year which we’ll keep up with), while some of the others should probably wait until they are older.

I’ve been listening to highlights of the Fannon in the car. I can’t tell how much it translates to the Australian context. He does talk about identifying a subjectivity separate from the colonisers, engaging in discourse which recognizes the subaltern perspective as valid, and the assertion of a collective identity. I am not the individual to make any judgement, but I feel like I can see some of these themes within some of the texts I read, and explicit reference was made by some of the writers who have clearly more academic, as well as lived, expertise than me. 

To a reader, I can only recommend that we take Saunders’ offer at face value – to read a selection of writers we might not have encountered and find what is meaningful or beautiful and follow up what catches the eye.  

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Mykaela Saunders ed., This All Come Back Now, UQP, Brisbane, 2022. 314pp

The Inland Sea, Madelaine Watts

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Naomi, Consumed by Ink, from Canada’s Atlantic coast doesn’t get a lot of contemporary Australian books to choose from, but she saw this reviewed by Kim/Reading Matters and was motivated to obtain a copy for herself. Naomi says that this was not as ‘SFF’ as she expected, but it occurs to me that just over the course of this ‘generation’ Cli.Fi has gone from futuristic to the present we must confront and that new fiction must necessarily take account of that.


Naomi, Consumed by Ink

The Inland Sea is a coming-of-age story in the ‘age of anxiety’ and climate crisis. After graduating college, a young woman (the unnamed narrator) feels at loose ends, and–with the idea of saving up some money and getting away–she takes a job as an emergency dispatch operator. She assures friends and family that she’s up for the job, but as we get more information about her past–growing up with divorced parents and a fearful mother–we get the feeling that this is not the job for her. Read on…

From the Wreck, Jane Rawson

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Marcie McCauley, who blogs as Buried in Print, struggles in the wilds of Canada to get hold of Australian books to read. But she did get this one in time to review it for AWW Gen 5 Week and I’m happy that it follows on from my interview with Jane.


bip-colour-2 Marcie McCauley

Bill recommended Jane Rawson’s From the Wreck (2017) and I read it throughout the winter break, so that I met George gnawing on human flesh, while I was crunching through shortbread fingers and thumbprint cookies with red jam filling.

Don’t let the reference to cannibalism put you off: nobody really knows what happened, we only know that the few survivors of the historic 1859 wreck of the Admella (a ship named for its route between the Australian settlements of Adelaide, Melbourne, Launceston) were not rescued for weeks and had no reliable food source. Read on (if you dare) …

Author Interview, Jane Rawson

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Jane Rawson was brought up in Canberra, studied journalism, travelled the world writing for Lonely Planet, settled for a while in Melbourne where she was environment & energy writer for The Conversation, and now lives in Tasmania. She has had published three novels, a novella, a number of short stories and, with James Whitmore, The Handbook: Surviving and Living with Climate Change (wiki bibliography). If you haven’t read them already, you will see here that her novels fit perfectly within our definitions for AWW Gen 5-SFF.

Q. Jane, in a story in the SMH in 2014, Linda Morris writes, “When A Wrong Turn was published it turned Rawson’s life around. Suddenly, she thought she had permission to take her writing seriously.” That leads to two questions: All that writing you were doing at ‘work’, for Lonely Planet and The Conversation, did you regard that as preparation or practice for your fiction writing; and was A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) the first novel you wrote?

A. A wrong turn was not the first novel I wrote, though it was the first novel I had published. Formaldehyde, published two years later, was the first novel I wrote (though by the time it was published, it was a novella). I wrote that in 2000, as part of National Novel Writing Month; the version that was published in 2015 had been significantly rewritten, particularly the ending – at first I was rewriting for style and coherence, but my later rewritings were because over fifteen years my views on how the world worked and what was ethical, particularly in romantic relationships, had changed a bit.

By the time I wrote Formaldehyde I’d been working as a professional non-fiction writer for nine years. I’d mostly written about environmental issues (my first four years of work as an editor in Canberra) and travel (at Lonely Planet, starting in 1996) and I’d never really thought about getting into fiction, even though I’d always been a huge reader of novels. If I had writing aspirations – and I’m not sure that I did – they were more to do with becoming a journalist. It wasn’t until I wrote 50,000 words in 30 days in 2000 that I discovered how much fun writing fiction could be (and also how impressed people were when I said I’d written a novel – that was definitely a factor). Of course it then took me another 15 years to get a book published and sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been more fun to stick with writing and forget about publishing.

Q. Morris describes A Wrong Turn as “an off-beat, genre-defying, head-spinning story that defies all the rules of narrative, space and time.” Sadly, I haven’t read your short stories, a couple of which were published prior to 2013. Were they, if not SF, at least fantastical, as well? I guess I’m asking, did you start out consciously to be an SF writer?

A. Don’t be sad! You can still read them [Links below]. ‘A Dynasty of Square Standers’, 2008, later turned into ‘A wrong turn’. At this point it was about two teenagers forced to see all of America by their parents, and was a response to Lonely Planet readers who claimed to have ‘properly done’ a destination, unlike most half-arsed tourists. It was surreal, but not SF. ‘Instructions for an installation’, 2003, was the last thoughts of a woman about to be turned into an art installation – again, surreal, but not SF. And ‘In Registry’, 2009 was a lot of questions I had about random things, pretending to be a short story about an entry-level public service clerk – surrealism, again. I have so far never written a realist short story or novel, but most of my writing does take place in a world identifiably our own, but skewed in odd ways. I never really set out to be one particular thing, I’ve just written stories about the ideas that most obsess me (and a lot of those ideas are odd).

Q. It is clear the coming environmental catastrophe is an influence on your work. Many writers are addressing this, and to a lesser extent, the rise of the surveillance state, by writing ‘dystopian’ fiction without acknowledging the deep roots of dystopian fiction in SF. You do acknowledge that you write in the SF tradition, but there are also elements of surrealism and Magic Realism in your writing. What are your influences do you think? What have you been reading?

A. I’m definitely influenced by SF, though I think the books I devoured as a younger reader were on the lighter side of SF. I was very into Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut and, before that, CS Lewis (his space stories as well as the Narnia books) and George McDonald’s Princess and the Goblin.

If you want to find out what I’m reading now, why not subscribe to my newsletter at janerawson.substack.com? I read all kinds of things: my favourite books this year included Ed Yong’s detailed and inspirational investigation of animal perception (An immense world), which has influenced a lot of the writing I’ve done lately about nature; Hilary Mantel’s novella about the sad history of a 19th century Irish giant trying to make it big (sorry) in England (The giant, O’Brien), which has been a huge influence on the voice of the novel I’m trying to write; and Benjamin Labatut’s berserk non-fiction novel about mathematical discovery, When we cease to understand the world, which is inspiring me to find new ways to write about facts without being boring. I’ve also really enjoyed three Australian novels this year that mess with ideas of realism – Adam Ouston’s Waypoints, about a man who wants to recreate Harry Houdini’s Australian attempt at flight; Sophie Cunningham’s This devastating fever, which is about writing and ghosts and colonialism and the climate crisis (includes jokes); and Rhett Davis’ Hovering, about a city that won’t stand still (and how confusing it is being alive now).

Q. I enjoy all your work – ok, I gave The Handbook to my greenie daughter – but there is a special place in my heart for Formaldehyde, a very short novel which might almost be described as absurdist or surreal. You complained once it didn’t sell very well, but did you have fun writing it?

A. What a whinger! I mean, for a surrealist novella published by a tiny publisher it sold pretty well. I had so much fun writing it! It was the first book I wrote, and I tried to cram every idea I’d ever had into it. I wrote it in 30 days, and that mad rush inspired all kinds of wild things to come out of my subconscious and connect with each other. I loved the feeling of existing more, for those 30 days, in the world of my book than I did in the world of my life.

Q. A History of Dreams starts out like your other novels, with little touches of ‘magic’, but as you progress, the tone becomes more serious. The topic you are dealing with, systemized misogyny, is serious, and I appreciate the parallels you imply between those 1930s National Guard times and today. Your dystopian near past is an accepted stream in SF, but did you make a conscious decision to treat the subject seriously, rather than through satire, say? Or do you think I am misreading you?

A. I do think it’s my most serious book, though there are a few jokes here and there. I wanted to write something very character-based, and which took seriously the relationships between a group of female friends who didn’t always like each other very much. Really understanding the four women in the book, and letting them work through the ethics and implications of standing up to a powerful force they’d be unlikely to defeat, was my main interest. So I guess that generated the form the novel took, which veers from a kind of 1930s ‘girls-own annual’ school days story into an oppressive dystopia.

Q. Finally, two supplementary questions which are not really anything to do with SF. My inner geography nerd keeps asking: your evocation of Melbourne’s inner western working class/industrial suburbs in A Wrong Turn was great, but From the Wreck (2017) and A History of Dreams (2022) are both set in a closely described Port Adelaide – with which I used to be familiar, though not so much these days – why?

A. I’m glad you enjoyed my near-future Yarraville/Kensington (I was a bit freaked out when the areas that get flooded in the novel were last year flooded in real life). And I’m also glad to hear you say my Port Adelaide is closely described, because I really bluffed my way through the geography in both those books – there was a lot of work on google maps and Wikipedia, though I did do some spot checks for accuracy when I made brief visits to Adelaide. The location of those two books is because they’re both based on my own family history, and my mum’s side of the family is from the Largs/Semaphore/Port area of Adelaide. ‘From the Wreck’ is based on real-life events to do with the wreck of the Admella and takes place in the Seaman’s Home where my great-great grandfather worked, so I wanted its historical portions to be as accurate as possible. By the time I finished it I’d fallen ridiculously in love with imaginary Adelaide, so I was stoked to spend another five years hanging out there while I wrote ‘A History of Dreams’. Whenever I’m in Adelaide I visit locations from my novels, forgetting that I completely made up the incidents that occurred there.

Q. And also from A History of Dreams. One of your characters is reading PC Wren’s Beau Ideal, which I read and re-read through my adolescence. How did you come to give her that particular book to read?

A. It was a book my mum always used to talk about when I was a kid, and which her mum also loved. Weirdly, I have never read it. I probably ought to.

Thank you Jane, for taking the time to discuss your work with us. And let me say how happy I am as a reader that you didn’t “forget about being published”.

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Jane Rawson short stories:
A Dynasty of Square Standers (2008) (https://janerawson.com/writing/a-dynasty-of-square-standers/)
Instructions for an installation (2003) (https://janerawson.com/writing/instructions-for-an-installation/)
In Registry (2009) (https://janerawson.com/writing/in-registry/)

Jane Rawson novels:
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) (my review)
Formaldehyde (2015) (my review)
From the Wreck (2017) (my review)
A History of Dreams (2022) (my review)

Future Girl, Asphyxia

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Apparently, I recommended Future Girl to Melanie/Grab the Lapels a couple of years ago. Perhaps I bought it for my then 17 year old granddaughter. It looks familiar, and I never write down what I buy. Melanie loved it and I have no hesitation reposting her review for this week. As you’ll see, Future Girl was published in the US as The Words in my Hands.

It wasn’t strictly my intention but I think that the SFF/dystopian theme has the potential to direct us towards some of the more leading edge writing of this generation (and I wish more than ever that I had included Grunge within the definition as well).


fbd8238d4fecda17e61d97c950bcafc1 Grab The Lapels

Piper is a deaf girl with hearing aids in a private high school with hearing students. Her best friend, Taylor, often serves as a hearing guide of sorts, which resonated with me. I often ask my spouse what another person said, be it the cashier, the neighbor, or our nieces and nephew. However, while my reliance often occurs when I am not wearing my hearing aids because I didn’t feel like it, Piper is relying on very little hearing and years of speech therapy because to her, deafness is a medical issue. Read on …

Gunk Baby, Jamie Marina Lau

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Welcome to AWW Gen 5-SFF Week! Let the discussion of Australian women’s SF, dystopian and fantasy fiction commence.

And about that ‘Week’. After being on a break, ie. unemployed since Dec. 10, I am now flat out for more or less just this week, so we’d better call it a fortnight (and even then, if all goes well, which it didn’t last time, I will be on the other side of the country looking for a load home) so I can pay some attention at least to your posts and comments.

I didn’t see Gunk Baby come out – at the beginning of 2021 – and I don’t think it was paid much attention, which is odd as Lau’s first novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island (2018) was short-listed for the Stella and it appears Lau’s three-book deal with Brow has been taken over by the multi-national Hachette.

Pink Mountain was a classic debut – a young woman at arts school drawing on her inner suburban adolescence for good/standard grunge autofiction. Gunk Baby is not a sequel, or not the sequel I predicted anyway – “a portrait of the young woman as an art student” – but the story of a short period in the life of 24 year old Leen (Ling) setting up a Chinese ear cleaning/massage business in a suburban shopping centre.

I have squeezed it in under the Gen 5-SFF banner not because it is fantastic or dystopian (except right at the end), but because it has the feel of being set just a few minutes into the future. Of course it doesn’t help that however we might like to think otherwise, we boomers live a few minutes in the past, not fully aware of the present, not as twenty-somethings see it, anyway.

Within the SF tradition, in the 1970s, a number of writers, Sladek, Sheckley, but PK Dick in particular, were able to describe then present-day suburban USA in a way that made it seem slightly unreal, and Lau has that same ability. The ability to make us picture work and living spaces as they might be built tomorrow, sparse and uncluttered, with only the latest gadgets and appliances.

Leen’s father is a “consultant” who has dragged his wife and daughter all round the world. Leen has chosen to settle in the suburb of Par Mars in, let us say, Melbourne. As in Pink Mountain the city is unnamed, but has a Melbourne-ish feel, with occasional references to “Westmeadow” and “Bell St” (an important thoroughfare running east-west across the northern suburbs). Leen’s mother is in Kowloon, and they speak often, in video calls, ‘Face Time’. The father is more distant, wherever he is currently working, but pays Leen’s bills.

Gunk Baby may be a satire on a particular type of consumerism, but it is a consumerism Leen lives with uncomplainingly.

The K.A.G. outlay, for example: so addictive. The genius behind the design of something beautiful is that it can stand alone. We live in an age where we would like things to stand alone, to be one with itself, so that we can, as its consumer, become the one to define it, the one to understand it and its purpose, and curate it alongside other things … we’ve been conditioned to need the product. And a product is rarely ever a product without its brand.

K.A.G. is the principal tenant of the Topic Heights shopping centre where Leen has her ‘Lotus Fusion Studio’. Every few weeks it adds a new product line and forces out a smaller neighbouring store to take over its space. Leen who has been couch surfing ends up sharing a house with Luis who has been made K.A.G. store manager for his total commitment to the job. Everything in the new house is new K.A.G. products being tried out.

I … roll over, pull myself up out of our bed, out of the K.A.G. Elegant Cross-Hatch Sheets in a shade of blue that comforts. The floor is always cold in the mornings. The concrete floor with our Shaggy-Mix Rug in light brown … I look in the big perfect mirror. I’m wearing my K.A.G. Insulating Fleece Pyjamas, white thin stripes and beige everything else. These are not my sexy pyjamas; they’re slightly different. If I’m not in my sexy ones, I’m not in the mood. It’s a silent language… I look at [Luis] in the mirror. I have my K.A.G. Frosted-Glass Toothbrush in my mouth …

Leen’s friends are a wide mixture of East Asians and caucasian, all known to each other, all connected in one way or another through Topic Heights, but she, I guess, compartmentalises. Luis is in one ‘box’; in another are her girlfriend Doms and Doms’ partner Vic, a chemist who has a home lab making artificial urine for faking drug tests; there’s Farah, her receptionist (and budding novelist); and in a fourth are Jean-Paul and Huy. Jean-Paul is gathering followers for ‘acts of resistance’. Leen’s role is to attend meetings where Jean Paul lectures for hours, and to drive Jean Paul and Huy round in her old Saab 9000, leaving while they apparently attack, kidnap, vandalise Topic Heights managers, returning to pick them up, not unaware of what is being done, but also not responsible.

The style of writing is largely emotionless, you have to make your own mind up about the rights and wrongs of what is happening. The end when it comes is inevitable, but still startling. Lau is a fine talent, not mainstream, but well worth following.

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Jamie Marina Lau, Gunk Baby, Hachette, Sydney, 2021. 345pp

see also:
Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (review)
Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this? (review)

Ma Jones and the Little White Cannibals, Kylie Tennant

Here I am at home, doing bugger all really for the past week or so, some reading, some writing, some business stuff. I’m due to be audited – for my accreditation as a WA transport business – on Friday, so I’d better get that organised. And yes, I’ve done the bulk of my xmas shopping, dragged Milly around Fremantle looking at book shops, rewarded myself with the second Elena Ferrante (years ago I gave a copy to Gee but never borrowed it back), and a hardback two-volume set of Frank Dalby Davidson’s The White Thorntree, one of the earliest Australian novels to tackle suburban life (strangely, from the man who wrote Man-Shy and Dusty).

For the AWWC this month I’ve reviewed Kylie Tennant’s relatively lightweight Ma Jones and the Little White Cannibals, which has been sitting on my shelves since my 70th birthday when B2 gave me a couple of first edition hardbacks which I should have read long since.


Ma Jones and the Little White Cannibals (1967) is a collection of linked stories in which three middle-age-ish women, Leonie, who is the narrator, Honoria Cheeme, and their matronly friend Ma Jones, solve “problems”. I have not read CK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories for many years, but that is what this collection puts me in mind of. Read on …

Voss, Patrick White

Brona’s Books AusReading Month

The 1950s seem to have been a time for introspection about what it means to be an Australian, or rather, how it was that the archetypal Australian had come to be a working man from the bush, independent, resourceful, hard working when necessary, and contemptuous of authority – all attributes which had been freely applied to the soldiers of the Second AIF, now just returned from fighting the Japanese, and before them, to the First AIF, the original ANZACs.

Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties came out in 1954, Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend in 1958 and, between them, Voss, in 1957. Not directly influenced by either, but part of the same discussion and informed by White’s own war service, in the deserts of North Africa.

You can’t write about White without writing about class. White was of the class of whom the working men in the bush were contemptuous, the squattocracy. His family owned large properties throughout NSW; all his adolesence was spent at boarding school and university in England; and during the war he was an intelligence officer in the (British) Royal Air Force.

Yet, it seems his roots as a writer were in Australia and he returned here permanently in 1948. I said in an earlier post that he wrote Voss from his study in inner Sydney, but in fact he and Manoly Laskaris lived on their hobby farm in Castle Hill, on the outskirts of Sydney until 1963 when they moved to, I think, White’s late mother’s house in Centennial Park.

Patrick White was one of the great writers of High Modernism, so Voss is much more about its eponymous hero’s interior, than it is about Australia’s, which in any case White had barely experienced. But I want to write about some other aspects of the novel.

This novel is White’s great contribution to the dominant myth of Australianness, the lone bushman, but he is cognisant also of its limitations. He posits one man against a hostile interior, but that man is a loner only in that he must be the leader; in Voss, crossing Australia is an upper middle class venture, supported by wealthy merchants, with, of the lower classes, only the ex-convict, small-landowner Judd playing an important role; the Australian legend excludes women, the Bulletin‘s version is openly misogynist, yet White has Laura riding alongside Voss, in spirit if not in fact; the mythical Australian bushman of the 1890s on whom all subsequent iterations of the Australian legend are based is white, Anglo. White subverts this by making his hero German, and by making the attempt to include Aboriginal actors and culture.

The bushman of the Australian legend, of say Such is Life, is a complainer, yes, but he is comfortable in the bush, on his own or with companions (‘mates’). Voss is not comfortable, and the bush – often waterless brigalow scrub and desert – sends him mad.

Voss of course is not Ludwig Leichardt and more often during my reading I felt dissonances rather than resonances. So Voss has walked up the NSW North Coast, from Newcastle to Moreton Bay (Brisbane) but Leichardt had also walked (or ridden) from Brisbane to Port Essington (Darwin) which would have revealed to him the nature of much of the country, and in particular that there were no great rivers in the north east quarter of the continent. Leichardt would have been both better prepared than Voss and more competent.

The other aspect of Voss as historical fiction which played on my mind is that White, in the 1950s, knew that the Australian interior was arid and hostile. Even without ever going further north and west, a year as a jackaroo (gentleman station hand) at Walgett would have made that clear! But Leichardt, in the 1840s, would not have known, and may well have believed that around the next corner he would come upon a Lake Baikal, a Great Lakes, or a Mississippi running in some other direction than North East (sailors mapping the mouths of the Ord or Fitzroy Rivers for instance, in the north west, had no reason to believe that they didn’t extend far into the interior).

What I am saying is that White’s description of the geography Voss faced was as accurate as research could make it, but he gives no hint of the beliefs that motivated Voss to set out on a 5,000 km walk into the unkown with a party of just six men (though in the end it is the two Aboriginal men who attach themselves to Voss at the last point of ‘civilisation’, and especially Jackie, who prove themselves the most valuable members of the party).

I have been chatting with Bron about whether Voss is still my number one Great Australian Novel, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not. It is a brilliant novel of its times, and probably still one of the great works of Modernism. But. Early accounts of Australia have Aboriginal people as shadows between the trees, as servants or stockmen (unpaid except for ‘rations’), as missing. Only from the 1920s do writers attempt to bring them into focus – Ion Idriess first, then Xavier Herbert and Eleanor Dark. White does well to treat the Blacks accompanying Voss, Dugald and Jackie, as real people, though of course they are still servants. You might imagine that Thomas Keneally was following on from White in making Jimmie the protagonist of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1972). White’s accounts of tribal Aboriginal culture are less successful and today wouldn’t be attempted.

Much as I love Kim Scott’s Benang (1999) and the important work of re-imagining first contact in That Deadman Dance (2010), number one must be Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) which is both brilliantly written, and holds the possibility that our acceptance of its truths might lead us forward to a place where we are partners rather than settlers in this country.

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Patrick White, Voss, first pub. 1957. Audiobook from Bolinda, read by Humphrey Bower. 19 hours