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

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)

Atwood, Le Guin & SF

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

One book has captured the spirit of present and near-future USA like no other, and that is Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale (1985). On writing ‘1985’ I am astonished that it is so old, obviously America has been growing into Atwood’s predictions for some time. The TV series of the book premiered in 2016, and the sequel, The Testaments, was published in 2019.

A Handmaid’s Tale sits over us, over all discussions of the rise of the Right in the US in particular, as Animal Farm, 1984 and Brave New World did over discussions of Communism and totalitarian government – not always accurately – when I was a young man (in the 1960s and 70s).

Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) and Margaret Atwood (1939- ) were friends, east coast gals with a university – Radcliffe “in the pre-Second Wave years” – in common.

Seated on little divans in front of over 2,000 people [in Portland, 2010], they seemed like two old school chums swapping gossip even when they were deconstructing modern realism and debating whether or not the human race is doomed.

Claire L. Evans — Space Canon, Gizmodo, September 28, 2010

Le Guin, the queen of SF, however is forced to tiptoe round Atwood’s refusal to acknowledge that she writes Science Fiction. Atwood argues science fiction is for space travel and things we can’t yet do, while what she does is speculative fiction, stuff that we have the means to do right now, right here on Earth (Moving Targets).

That is to say, she – and these days any number of writers of “dystopian” fiction – choose to write within one strand of SF, which has a history going back more than a century, while disclaiming all their antecedents and preserving, in their own minds anyway, their literary purity.

In her summary of the two writers’ discussion, Evans offers this breakdown: “could happen (speculative fiction), couldn’t happen yet (science fiction), could never happen at all (fantasy).”

If you’re still one of those who cling to the myth that there is ‘literary’ fiction and there is genre fiction, Le Guin was fierce that “realism is a genre like any other, and that all writing is by definition literary“. Further, “realism is limited in terms of what it can actually discuss. The modern realistic novel, she lamented, has devolved into tales of well-off East Coast people with problems” which might come as a shock to writers in the rest of the world. Atwood and Le Guin did agree that “speculative and not-quite-real fictions have more freedom to tackle sweeping subjects unavailable to the realist.”

Le Guin’s strongest critique of Atwood was a year earlier, in a review of Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009).

To my mind, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and now The Year of the Flood all exemplify one of the things science fiction does, which is to extrapolate imaginatively from current trends and events to a near-future that’s half prediction, half satire. But Margaret Atwood doesn’t want any of her books to be called science fiction.

Le Guin, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009

Le Guin makes the point that in ‘realistic’ fiction we expect characters of some complexity, while in genre fiction we expect ‘types’, though “the supposed distinction is so often violated in both directions as to be nearly meaningless”. She then goes on to explain why all Atwood’s characters are ‘types’, “these were figures in the service of a morality play”. Le Guin does not say, but it’s true, that one of the great strengths of her own Science Fiction is the complexity of her central characters.

A year after Portland Arts & Lectures 2010 Atwood defends herself at some length:

Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty-Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty-Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.

Atwood, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011

There she goes again, distinguishing one branch of SF from another, and then attempting to claim the branch she likes as anything but SF. In one hundred years time when Earth’s remnant population is living on Mars will she move The Martian Chronicles over to her side of the ledger? At what stage does The Postman change sides, or Neuromancer, or The Matrix? If the US somehow doesn’t become a fascist theocracy after these midterms or 2024, does A Handmaid’s Tale then become SF in Atwood’s mind?

Basically, she says I write in the tradition that extends forward from Jules Verne. I just don’t wish it to be called SF. Sorry, MA, you don’t get to choose.

And because I am a Le Guin fan, let me end with something Atwood wrote on Le Guin’s death in 2018

Not only was she one of the literary greats of the 20th century – her books are many and widely read and beloved, her awards are many and deserved – but her sane, committed, annoyed, humorous, wise and always intelligent voice is much needed now…

Isn’t it, just? And, Atwood goes on ..

In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing ..

Atwood writes from a different angle, but in her ‘speculative’ works she is clearly asking the same question. Atwood and Le Guin, two greats of SF.

This post is both a lead in to the problems of defining ‘dystopian’ (no, no, no, not SF) fiction in AWW Gen 5, and my contribution to Marcie/Buried in Print’s MARM 2022.

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Image:
Portland Arts & Lectures 2010: Margaret Atwood & Ursula K Le Guin, reported in Cultural SF and Movie Learnings, 30.09.2010 (here). Literary Arts recording (here)

Essays referenced:
Claire L. Evans, ‘Space Canon’, Gizmodo, 28 Sept., 2010 (here)
Ursula K Le Guin, The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Guardian, 29 Aug., 2009 (here)
Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin bring off-the-wall humor to Portland Arts & Lectures, the Oregonian (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘The Road to Ustopia’, Guardian, 15 Oct., 2011 (here)
Margaret Atwood, ‘Ursula K. Le Guin’, Guardian, 25 Jan., 2018 (here)

The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa

‘Research’ indicates Yoko Ogawa (1962- ) must be one of Japan’s most accomplished writers. Until I picked this book up I hadn’t heard of her, though quite a number of you obviously had, from your comments when you saw I was reading it, no doubt from its shortlisting for the 2020 Booker.

Wikipedia says Ogawa “has published more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction” only some of which have been translated into English (9 maybe). I’m most impressed by her co-writing An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, which sadly doesn’t seem to be one of the ones translated.

My first impression of The Memory Police was that it was both slow and dry, and it may have taken me till halfway to get over that. By the end I was entranced.

Is it Science Fiction? Most of the reviews say it is, and I have very little (ok, no) knowledge of the SF tradition in Japan. It is certainly SF in the way that Murakami is SF; which is to say surreal rather than sciencey. One reviewer draws parallels with 1984 and Brave New World. I guess the Memory Police of the title are a bit Brave New World-ish, but for me the dystopian element was minor.

The basis of the story is that a young woman writer living on one of Japan’s lesser islands, in a small village on the coast, a bus and train ride from the regional centre, is writing a novel about a young woman. We see excerpts from that novel, they are not labelled but are in slightly different type – Courier rather than Times, maybe, and I didn’t pick them up straight away.

The story of the novel we are reading is that things are disappearing, that most people quickly forget what it is that has disappeared, and that those who cannot forget are rounded up and interned by the Memory Police.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. … It took patience to figure out what was gone.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast … I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything.

The young woman’s father, an ornithologist, has died. Her mother, a sculptor, is one of those who don’t forget, she shows the then little girl keepsakes, relics long gone, but then she too is gone, or taken by the Police. Her old nanny dies, and so she is alone in the house, her only friend the old man, the nanny’s husband, who lives in a boat stranded on the beach. A ferryman whose ferry has disappeared.

The story of the novel being written is that a girl is in a class learning to type. Lessons are in a church with a clock tower. She becomes the lover of the young man teaching them. Her voice goes away and she can only speak to him by typing. And then the typewriter seizes up. Her lover takes her up to the room behind the clock, a room full of broken, seized typewriters …

A family, friends of the young woman writer’s parents, are rememberers. They come to her, bringing some of her mother’s sculptures, on their way into hiding.

The editor, R, who is working with her on her novel, also remembers. The old man proposes that they hide him, that she hides him, in a space below her study floor. R comes, leaving behind a wife and baby. Every night she brings him food and pages from her writing. They discuss what has disappeared. Her tries to convince her of the importance of remembering even a small part of what has been lost. Of course she is all he sees and they become close.

Then novels disappear. She gives R her manuscript, which already has no meaning for her, and some books selected almost at random. The townsfolk gather to burn books in great bonfires which burn all night. The library itself is torched.

I followed the arc of the last book as it tumbled through the air – and suddenly I realized that long ago, I had stood at this same window with my father and looked out at a similar sight… “A bird.” I remembered. But this memory, too, was soon erased by the flames, leaving nothing behind but the burning night.

Now she cannot write. But R persuades her to keep trying, to write a word, a line, a sentence.

Disappearances continue. Her novel comes to an end. This novel comes to an end.

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Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, first pub. 1994. Translated from the original Japanese, Stephen Snyder, Vintage, London, 2019. 274pp

Enclave, Claire G Coleman

Claire G Coleman routinely reposts reviews of her books on Twitter (as does Nathan Hobby of his). She even reposted my recent review of her Lies, Damned Lies (via a Liz Dexter post). I think they’re both brave to read them in the first place!

But, CGC, don’t repost this one, I don’t think it’s your best work.

Not that I think anyone should be deterred from reading it. I loved Terra Nullius (2017) and I loved The Old Lie (2019). Indigenous.Lit and especially the current wave of women’s Indig.Lit, to which Coleman belongs, seems to me to be both innovative and full of life.

Like her first two, Enclave, which was released just last month, is Science Fiction, though falling easily within ‘Dystopian’ which all you regard as safe, not-really SF. But for me, this one did not flow as easily – the descriptions felt forced and there is a concentration on just one character – a privileged young white woman, Christine – where the other two had a wider cast.

She stared, half-blind,at the cold screen of her smartphone. Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails…

Christine, a university student in the last year of a maths degree, lives at home with her parents and younger (year 12 ish) brother. Her father is on the committee which runs the walled city in which they live. Her mother, notionally a designer, is an alcoholic, one of the women who lunch, all plastic-surgeoned into near identical faces. The city is patrolled by black-uniformed security forces who live in their own walled compound outside the Wall. Servants, non-white of course, come in by train each day to do all the work. Outside the Wall is a wasteland of broken buildings and scrublands.

The news from outside is of wars, desperate populations, burning cities. No one travels.

Surveillance within the city is constant, by fixed cameras, inside and out, and drones.

A new year starts; her brother begins a Business course which will lead him into the ruling elite; Christine enrols to do her Masters. Her father buys her an apartment which she allows her mother to furnish. Her (platonic) best friend Jack has disappeared and she is lost without him; her mother encourages her to drink.

Coleman seems to have the trick of building the story up in one direction for a while, and then surprising us by taking it down another. This is more muted in Enclave but still, having spent the first part establishing Christine’s life of privilege, she then snatches it away.

Christine takes increasing notice of one of the servants, Sienna. They kiss.

Chill and heat chased each other up and down her skin, fought for the territory of her face.
The hand fell away from her neck. The mouth she would die for pulled away from hers and she chased it, almost caught it before it spoke.
‘Christine’, Sienna warned. ‘We can’t get caught.’

But they do, captured on cameras in Christine’s bedroom.

I currently have two other works of women’s SF on the go, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994). Piercy in a later Introduction discusses women’s SF at some length and I’m going to have to get hold of a written copy (mine is on Audible), before I write a review.

SF is quite often bursting with ideas, and that is true of Enclave, and the whole literary thing suffers at least a little. But Piercy and Ogawa both write smoothly, while developing the characters of their respective ‘heroines’ with some depth – often a strength of women’s SF compared with men’s. Coleman has interesting characters around Christine, but they are not fully developed and I don’t feel that she uses the resulting space to fill out Christine as much as she might have.

I’m also not sure what Coleman was trying to achieve by having a white heroine. Yes, she wanted, as she always does, to highlight racial inequality. But the depictions of Black-white relations are sketchy, and incidental to the main theme which is surveillance and authoritarianism. In my opinion her Indigenous heroines are more effective.

Enclave has two changes of direction, so is a novel in thirds rather than halves. The middle third is an adventure, a struggle to survive, and the last third is – well not a utopia as I’ve seen it described – but Coleman’s current home and my old home, Melbourne, as a model society (and CGC, I love the trains!).

A short review, but what can you do when any description of Christine’s progress must necessarily be full of spoilers. We’ve discussed before that books whose writing I found awkward (Lucashenko!) you found lively and real, so you’ll probably all enjoy this one too. You’ll certainly enjoy the ideas Coleman discusses. Ignore me and give it a try.

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Claire G Coleman, Enclave, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 307pp.

For a much more thoughtful review than mine try Alexander Te Pohe’s in Kill Your Darlings 14 July 2022 (here).

A History of Dreams, Jane Rawson

The best authors in Australia today – and they are among the best in the world – are Alexis Wright, Gerald Murnane and Kim Scott. I would certainly drop everything to read new books by them, but my favourite authors are Marie Munkara, Elizabeth Tan, Claire G Coleman and … Jane Rawson. So here we have Jane’s latest (and next month Claire G Coleman’s publishers release her latest, Enclave). Life is good.

We used to see Jane Rawson here blogging, I see her on Twitter, and I don’t have it in me to call her Rawson. Jane’s ‘About’ says she lives in Tasmania – for some reason I pictured her living in Williamstown (Melbourne) – and that she grew up in Canberra. Her first two novels were set in Melbourne, this and her previous novel are set in and around Port Adelaide which she seems to know quite well.

I used to know Port Adelaide quite well myself. I’ve lived and worked for trucking companies based there. Even now, or at least when I’m running Melbourne-Perth, I routinely drop into the trucking/industrial suburbs immediately east of the Port. For some reason though I’ve only rarely been to the residential suburbs, Semaphore, Largs Bay, Taperoo, Osborne, on the peninsula above the Port, where the four young women who are the protagonists of this novel grow up. (If you want to see the real Port Adelaide watch Bad Boy Bubby – warning this movie includes incest and death by cling-wrap). Ok, that’s enough wasting space, but I do like seeing geography-I-know in my fiction.

I have written as recently as last week about Australian SF set in dystopian near-futures. Well this is SF set in a dystopian near-past; a reimagined 1930s and 40s where the politics of the New Guard become dominant and Australia sides with Germany and Japan in WWII.

Jane’s particular focus here is not the War, but to explore the father knows best philosophy of that time – and of two of our three past prime ministers! – if it were to be further hardened in law so that women were unable to work, were forced into marriage and child-bearing.

A History of Dreams starts out innocently enough, with schoolgirls Margaret and her younger sister Esther being bullied by boys on the train home from Adelaide Technical High. Matt, a senior boy Margaret has looked up to (and helped with his homework) all her life, fails to step in, but the boys are eventually dispersed by Margaret’s friend Audrey, a ‘revolutionary’ whose father is a trade union leader.

Margaret was well on her way to securing her spot at the top of the class and privately Esther expected Margaret would go on from Adelaide Tech to beome the world’s most famous lady palaentologist. If not her sister, who else would discover Australia’s first dinosaur skeleton? When she did, Esther would write an opera to celebrate the discovery.

The three girls form a ‘club’. Audrey reveals that she has been trained by her maiden great aunt, the latest in a long line of spinsters, to become a witch, able to put dreams in potions which when dropped in a drink induce dreams or nightmares. A fourth girl, Phyllis, who lives in much poorer circumstances than the other three, joins their group (initially maybe just for the cakes).

Margaret’s father refuses to let her go on to uni, and finds her a job as a clerk in a bookkeeper’s office until she is able to find herself a husband.

At this point I am thinking about Marie Munkara. This is an angry book, a satire on misogyny as Munkara’s are angry, satires on racism; and I am expecting a black comedy. In fact, I wonder now if that is what Jane was initially intending. But it gradually becomes something else, more dramatic, as the political situation worsens and the young women are variously raped, imprisoned, fall apart from each other, then slowly regather themselves to take their places in the resistance.

And then you cannot help but think of Charlotte Woods’ The Natural Way of Things; to think of the systemized misogyny Woods’ outback jail implies, which is here made explicit; to think of the escaped internees returning to the cities to fight back.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. That’s for the author to reveal in her own good time, but it is totally believable, and the ‘witchery’ is properly woven in as any unusual power is in good SF (or SFF).

The story is told in the third person mostly from Margaret’s POV, but sometimes from the other girls’. The resistance find Margaret a job within the Public Service. Here she meets her new boss –

‘They tell me you’re very good,’ he said. ‘Personally, I don’t see why we need to get a woman involved. Plenty of excellent fellows here, perfectly capable of understanding what women want. But I’m sure they know what they’re doing upstairs.’ He smiled thinly at her.

In some ways this was the book for a month ago, before the federal election. But on the other hand what is now understood by ‘everyone’, how out of touch the Prime Minister was with women, how the government, the Liberal Party, was just one long chain of white male privilege from private school to university college to political office jobs to Cabinet, was back then barely spoken of.

Jane starts out with Phyllis reading PC Wren and no, not Beau Geste, but my favourite, the book which informed my adolescence, Beau Ideal. The whole point of Beau Ideal is to do the honourable thing, whatever the cost, a lesson which was lost on me when it came to the test, but which maybe Jane wants us to think about as the four heroines push through considerable adversity.

I guess I was hoping for another quirky Formaldehyde but authors have to be allowed to grow and explore, and Jane Rawson has done that here in a big way and has come up with a powerful book for our times.

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Jane Rawson, A History of Dreams, Brio Books, Sydney, 2022. 302pp.

see also my reviews of earlier Jane Rawson fiction:
A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, 2013 (here)
Formaldehyde, 2015 (here)
From the Wreck, 2017 (here)