Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Doomsday Book (1992) is an award winning SF work by a (female) US author, which is mostly a stock standard Oxford University don adventure story/Hist.Fic, which Melanie/Grab the Lapels and I agreed to read together and review in the first week in May [Since I wrote that, Melanie has pulled out. We are struggling to find books we both like].

The SF bit is that it is set in the future (the 2050s) and that ‘historians’ have access to software which will transport them into the past (and hopefully bring them back).

The uncanny bit, given when it was published, is that there is an outbreak of a fatal influenza virus centred on Oxford which causes the government to immediately contain Oxford within hard borders – which works, given that the virus doesn’t break out – but mask wearing is pretty laissez faire, and within the hard border the virus spreads alarmingly. As we experienced/continue to experience with Covid-19, doctors and hospitals are overrun.

The Hist.Fic section, which feels like the majority of the novel, is life in a C14th village 30 or 40 kms outside Oxford. I’m not sure about the name (of the book). The original Doomsday Book was the record of a survey of all the shires undertaken in 1085. Kivrin, the young female historian who takes a trip back to just before Christmas 1320, has access to descriptions of all the villages she might land amongst, including an archeological dig taking place outside Oxford in the ‘present day’, and also makes a record of her own – speaking as though praying, to a recorder which looks like a bone spur (in case she dies, is unable to return).

As usual, I am reviewing an audiobook from imperfect memory, supplemented by Wikipedia, weeks later and with many other books in between. But this is my overview. Once Kivrin has been transported we switch backwards and forwards between the parallel stories of Oxford in the 2050s and the same part of England in the 1300s, at the same time of the year, the days before and after Christmas, though, for no doubt historically accurate reasons, the calendars don’t line up, or at least the Christmas Days don’t.

Kivrin’s superior in the History Dept is Prof Gilchrist at Balliol, but her friend and mentor is Prof Dunworthy (from another College). The actual time transfer is done by Dunworthy’s tech, but from Balliol. Immediately after the transfer that tech gets seriously ill and is hospitalized in a coma. Gilchrist, who is a pompous ass, closes down the transfer site and it eventually appears, thereby loses all the data needed to return Kivrin to the ‘present’.

Dunworthy’s best friend is the doctor, Mary Ahrens, who is in charge of controlling the epedemic, whose outbreak coincides with Kivrin’s time travel. Her 12 year old great nephew, Colin, is travelling by train to spend christmas with her when the hard border is imposed, but he sneaks through it anyway. Dr Ahrens is naturally fully occupied, so she offloads Colin onto Dunworthy, and he spends the whole course of the novel doing boyish adventurous things in that old Enid Blyton spirit. As Dunworthy does in a more John Buchan-ish way.

Kivrin’s landing date, 1320, has been chosen to avoid the Black Death, which arrived in England in the 1340s, and she has anyway been fully vaccinated and pumped full of anti-virals. On arrival though, she, like the tech, is seriously ill. She is found in the woods and taken to a (pretty rough) manor house some miles away. Which means she has only a vague idea of her landing point, to which she must return on a given date if she is to be recovered to the 2050s.

She is accepted into the household as a lady with amnesia who has been set upon by brigands, and, when she has recovered, takes a role of something like governess. From there, the bulk of the novel is to do with her discovering where and when she is, and her growing relationship with the family – all women, the men have been detained in Bath for a lawsuit, but also for other reasons which slowly become clear – and with the primitive village priest.

Dunworthy meanwhile must defeat Gilchrist’s obstruction in order to effect Kivrin’s recovery; must keep his college, which has been filled with refugees, including a party of stranded American bell ringers, fed and happy; must of course deal with the epidemic gaining strength around him, and with the strong rumour that it was caused by ‘leakage’ from Kivrin’s time-travel.

There is another strand to do with an American grad student who has the ‘dig’ excavating the village and church which was Kivrin’s objective, and who begins to look in the churchyard for Kivrin’s skeleton (and the tell-tale bone spur).

And like all good Oxford don adventures, it all ties together in a satisfactory, intellectually stimulating, and entirely non-sexual way. Warmly recommended.

My reaction though, was that I had had enough of well-written, character-driven women’s SF (thinking also of Margaret Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time) and so I immersed myself for a satisfying 18 hours in the ‘straight’ (ie. boys’) SF Zero Point by Neil Asher; with a wicked, Stalinist Earth Government seeking to gain control of a space station whose ‘owner’ has expanded his mind throughout the ship; and a rebel base on Mars. It felt like home!


Connie Willis, Doomsday Book, 1992. Audible version, 2008, read by Jenny Sterlin. 26 hours

The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham

12 Books of Boyhood. #3

John Wyndham (1903-1969) is the one Science Fiction writer most of us have read. I was probably introduced to him by having to read The Kraken Wakes in fifth form. I can’t say when I first read The Midwich Cuckoos but the edition I have now, with the cover above, is a 1976 reprint.

Mainstream SF begins, I think, in US, and specifically New York, pulp magazines after WWII. We were wondering where Wyndham, who is of course English, fitted in with this: if he was part of that mainstream or a side track carrying on after HG Wells (1866-1946). But there is more of a crossover than you might think (than I thought, anyway). So Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) for instance, was serialized in magazines in both England and the US in 1897. And Wyndham also was published initially in US pulps.

‘Worlds to Barter’, Wyndham’s first story, 1931

[Wyndham] first started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 till 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications…. In 1946 [after War service] he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’. (Penguin bio.)

The Day of the Triffids (1951)
The Kraken Wakes (1953)
The Chrysalids (1955)
The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
The Seeds of Time (1956) short stories
The Outward Urge (1959) with Lucas Parkes
Trouble with Lichen (1960)
Consider Her Ways and Others (1961) short stories
Chocky (1968)
were all subsequently published by Penguin.

Two further novels were published posthumously, Web (1979) and Plan for Chaos (2009) (Wiki)

Despite his publication in the US, Wyndham writes a very English story, set in English villages with English upper middle class, male heroes.

The English village of fiction consists of a pub, a church, houses and surrounding farms. The lower classes – the tradesmen, farmworkers, shopkeepers, farmers, all their wives – are rarely named, forming a bucolic background for the people that matter: the squire, the vicar, two or three genteel spinsters, a writer maybe, bankers and other city chaps commuting to the city, and of course their wives and older daughters. And so it is with Midwich, though, as it has no access to a railway, instead of city chaps there is a nearby research establishment in a converted Victorian mansion, the Grange.

Richard, our narrator, and his wife return from a trip to London to discover a police road block preventing them from reaching home. They can see ahead of them on the road a pile up of a bus and a few cars. When they attempt to walk home, cross country, first the wife collapses, then Richard. Eventually a policeman with a canary in a cage determines that there is a perfectly circular boundary around Midwich which may not be crossed by man or beast without the man or beast dropping to the ground unconscious, and on retrieval, unharmed. And it is further determined this boundary is almost certainly a dome, a hemisphere.

The airforce is called in, and photograph, at the centre of this containment zone, a large egg. A day later, the egg and the containment zone are gone. Most of the inhabitants awake unharmed, though one family has died in a house fire and five or six others having collapsed outside have died of the cold. One man has died in the garden of a woman whose husband was away, and she cops a beating for her trouble.

It is some weeks before the realization sets in that every woman of the appropriate age in Midwich, 65 in total, is pregnant. (In passing I am pleased that Wyndham made the lower limit of this appropriate age 16 or 17). Of course quite a number of especially the single women and girls are suicidal (and that wife cops another beating).

Richard is asked by his friend Bernard, who is in one of those ministries covered by the Official Secrets Act, to act as the ministry’s eyes and ears. The squire, Zellaby, is a philosopher of some note and the three, with sometimes the Vicar and sometimes their various wives, when they are not off making tea, attempt to nut out what is going on.

The vicar’s wife and the squire’s wife call a meeting of all the women, explain the situation as best they can and they all undertake to support each other. When the children are born, the squire’s wife, Angela, has an ordinary son but all the rest of the children, or as they become, the Children, are identical – 30 boys and 28 girls (there’s a couple of deaths) – with large golden eyes.

It slowly becomes apparent that the Children are able to exert control over first, their mothers, then, over anyone nearby. The wifebeater’s child is discovered with a bruise to his cheek and the wifebeater nearby having apparently beaten himself half to death. As the children get older, growing at twice the rate of normal children, the Ministry converts the research establishment to a residential school and all the Children move there.

When a Child’s life is threatened and one of the villagers dies, Zellaby deduces that the Children are thinking as one – or rather, as two: all the boys and all the girls.

I won’t spoil the novel for you. Wyndham utilizes Zellaby to do a great deal of philosphizing about the nature of Evolution, the unsatisfactoryness of ‘missing links’ and whether or not the Children represent the next step up, a replacement for Homo Sapiens. It becomes clear Bernard hasn’t been telling Richard and Zellaby everything that the Ministry knows. It all comes to a climax very quickly.

I’m still not clear whether I’ve read this before, but it takes the reader back a long way, to those few brief years after WWII when Britain thought it was still the centre of the world. What the Americans thought of it I can’t imagine.


John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos, Michael Joseph/Penguin, London, 1957. 220pp,

Empathy, Fay Lee

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

Empathy (2022) is good, straight SF – not ‘dystopian’ or ‘Cli-Fi’ or any of those other things – from an Australian author and an Australian publisher, Hawkeye. And still it doesn’t say SF anywhere on the cover, nor on the author’s website. The author sent me a review copy, presumably after reading some reviews from our recent Gen 5-SFF Week. I guess she’ll read at least this far, so Fay, were you told not to use the term “SF”, do you think you’ll sell better as a “thriller”, or is there some other reason?

Hawkeye, whom I have not run into before, are a small, Brisbane-based publisher, specializing in new authors, and it must be emphasized, offering “traditional” publishing contracts.

The world Empathy is set on is some future Earth where the mega-rich have established ‘Sky Towns’, domed cities floating above the grime and troubles of the planet below, but tethered from time to time to Earth to re-supply.

Later, I floated in the infinity pool while Gerry slept on a lounge chair, recovering for the soiree. Leaning on the edge of the pool, I looked down down at the polluted metropolis squatting beneath me. At one edge, a darker smudge stained the haze. A riot was in progress. I traced the pattern of the city and guessed it was work of refugees, sick of being excluded from the privileged suburbs of the endemics.

As you can see it is written in the first person, by a ‘pleasure nymph’ whom I am sure has a name, but skip reading (re-reading) the first few chapters, even where she is introduced or people greet her I can’t see that a name is used. The problem is that when I am reading I carry a picture of the protagonist(s) in my mind rather than names and so am often stumped when they are referred to in the third person. And I don’t take notes.

A pleasure nymph is an escort whose skin and nerves have been enhanced so that touching her produces a feedback loop of pleasure. She feels the customer’s pleasure and feeds it back to him (or her). But she also acts in that geisha/escort role of greeting and entertaining the client’s guests.

Our nymph has just resurfaced from being kidnapped and tortured – tortured so that the victim attached to her felt her torture, it turns out – and then has suffered a period of blackout where her body has been rebuilt both to enhance her responses and to include bionics which allow her to change shape from female to male.

This is about the extent of the world-building, once these elements have been established the story devolves into a crime thriller with half a dozen well written characters with whom we get familiar. Gerry, mega-rich, a ‘grandee’ of the town; Marissa, a former refugee who has become wealthy and has recently been admitted to grandee status; fellow nymphs, Elise, Wentao, Rochelle, Kareena; a policeman from the surface, Ianto.

Our nymph has to restablish herself with her clientele. She holds a soiree wherein we are introduced to all the main characters; finds that she has a booking to attend a party at Marissa’s – who turns out to lean in the direction of sadism; where she meets and begins a sort of relationship with the policeman. Gerry has her for a night and is so impressed he attempts to ’employ’ her for the next 20 years, paid in advance at her usual rate, which she rightly it seems to me, regards as an attempt to return her to the slavery from she had escaped as a child.

How can I explain that I need my freedom? That I don’t want to be locked into a contract for a trip to the moon and back – always back? It would bind me to a man for years after he was tired of me, a man who could continue to dictate my movements, my dress, my food, my acquaintances – I try not to imagine two decades of enforced celibacy – long after he stopped thinking of me as anything more than a thing to be ordered around.

There are two crime threads. One is to work out how and why she was kidnapped. The other evolves through the course of the novel. There is the usual excitement, double crossing and reveals. Lee has obviously put a great deal of thought, not just into the plot, but into developing our nymph as a sympathetic character and into how both the emotions and the economics of her situation might work.

This is Science Fiction in the old way. A well thought out ‘world’, and a plot that rocks along. Not literary at all. But it is also Women’s SF, a distinction I have been exploring/trying to make for a few years now, which depends far more on the character of the (female) protagonist than straight, men’s SF, and on character development. Sure, it’s escapism, but it’s well done.


Fay Lee, Empathy, Hawkeye, Brisbane, 2022. 209pp

Fay Lee’s website (here). I can’t see that there is an e-book version but you can always ask.

I put a link in my own recent review of Future Girl to Kimbofo’s review for AWW Gen 5-SFF Week of The Hush by Sara Foster but I suspect not many of you saw it.

Future Girl, Asphyxia

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

I opened AWW Gen 5-SFF Week with Melanie/Grab the Lapels’ review of this work which I had intended to pair with a review of my own, but my copy was late arriving, work intervened, and I’m only now ready to post. Future Girl (in America, The World in My Hands) is YA and SF – set in a Melbourne a couple of decades in the future, in which fuel shortages and hyperinflation have led to widespread unemployment and poverty – and is based on the author’s own experience of growing up deaf and of being introduced late to signing (Auslan) and the Deaf community.

Melanie, for those newcomers who have not yet met her in these pages, is a blogger from the American mid-west, who relies on hearing aids and is now, in her thirties, learning signing (ASL), and learning, and teaching us, about being Deaf. Her review then shows a great deal of empathy with Future Girl‘s protagonist, 16 year old Piper. So I won’t go down that path myself, which in any case, I know nothing about except what Melanie has told us over the past two or three years.

Firstly, the author. Asphyxia is a writer, artist and performer whose career so far spans twenty or so years. I had wondered, on reading Future Girl, if it were written by a 16 year old, it certainly feels like it, but no, it was written – very well – by an adult woman for 13-16 year olds, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she had been aiming a bit older than that.

The presentation of the book is excellent. Piper is a painter and this is ostensibly her journal (of the months June to Dec of an unspecified year) which is filled with drawings, painting, stencils and collages. The story flows too well for a journal, but the progression from day to day does give it a bit of a ‘first this happened, then that happened’ feel.

Asphyxia, though she now lives in hippy heaven on the NSW north coast, is a Melbourne person and this shows in her descriptions of inner northern Melbourne streets, centred on Northcote and Fitzroy. Piper goes to a private school two or three suburbs away, as she has to come home on the tram up Church Street.

The most horrifying aspect of Asphyxia’s imagined future is that ‘tree vandals’ have stripped Melbourne’s tree-lined streets and, it later turns out, all the exotic trees of the Botanic Gardens, cut them all back to the roots.

The story of these six months is that Piper meets a boy, Marley, 19, a CODA – child of deaf adult – who has been immersed in Deaf culture by his mother, Robbie, but who is also drawn towards living ‘normally’. Piper’s mother is a scientist with Organicore who has invented supplements which prevent cancer, obesity and [something else] to go in Organicore’s artificial food products. Marley’s mother, on the other hand, grows all her own food at home, in a walled garden (to protect her from thieves).

The major problem in this future Melbourne is that (petroleum-based) fuel is scarce and prohibitively expensive so that farmers are increasingly unable to deliver fresh food to the supermarkets, and Organicore is unable to get ‘Recon’, its artificial food to consumers. You might think that this could have been averted by increased electrification – but not in this universe anyway. Organicore, despite being a monopoly, and having installed its own stooge as Prime Minister, is going broke and Piper’s mum is let go.

Piper, increasingly unhappy with her failure to connect with her hearing fellows, drops out of school; is inspired to begin her own food garden; and is co-opted into a protest movement.

News Melbourne

McBride’s Daughter Rejects Recon in Bid to Solve Food Crisis

Piper, the sixteen-year-old Deaf daughter of former Organicore scientist Irene McBride, has turned her back on manufactured meals and is taking her chances growing wild food. In a move that’s proven popular with her neighbours, Piper’s created a thriving community garden on the nature strip down the middle of her Northcote street, which she expects will provide an abundance of vegetables, eggs and meat for the community.

The government introduces food rationing. The government-owned, Organicore-controlled messaging service “Cesspool”, which has replaced the internet, fails to transmit any messages about food growing or protesting.

Breaking News: McBride’s Garden Scheduled for Demolition:

In a heartbreaking move, as we prepare this story for the feeds, the local council has classified Piper McBride’s community garden as ‘litter’ and insists it be removed.

Piper takes her art to the streets, is arrested and jailed.

There is the usual YA angst with best friend, boyfriend and parent. All ends well.

I could rant about the failure of the author and the publisher to acknowledge their debts to a long tradition of SF, but what’s the point.


Asphyxia, Future Girl, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2020. 373pp.

A few days ago, Kim/Reading Matters posted her review for AWW Gen 5-SFF Week, The Hush by Sara Foster. All the books we have reviewed for this period are listed on the AWW Gen 5-SFF page.

City of Illusions, Ursula le Guin

Marcie/Buried in Print and I have been discussing off and on doing another read-along, and one of Marcie’s suggestions was le Guin’s Hainish cycle, which has a consistent SF universe, but a number of discrete stories.

The cycle consists of – in order of the period of their setting:
The Dispossessed (1974)
The Word for World is Forest (1972)
Rocannon’s World (1966)
Planet of Exile (1966)
City of Illusions (1967)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994) Short story collection

The underlying story is that humans originated on Hain. That the Hainish, a peaceful race, occupied many planets, including Earth, sometimes with variants on humans who had been genetically engineered. They invented instantaneous communication, using a device called the ‘ansible’ (which name has been taken up by many SF writers since) and faster-than-light (FTL) travel, but only for objects, not for themselves. Inter-system travel for humans is possible at near the speed of light, which means that while travel may appear near instantaneous for the travellers, objectively years, and quite often centuries, have passed.

Over the (vast) period of these books, the Hainish civilization rises, as the League of All Worlds, falls back, and rises again as the Ekumen.

I’m sure those para.s above are indicative of why so many of you pass when it comes to SF, because it all seems so contrived, unnecessary and difficult to follow. For geeks like me these made up worlds allow the exploration and restatement of every day problems in new settings; and yes they provide a deal of escapism.

The importance of Ursula le Guin is that she was a major writer who chose to write within the SF genre; whose character development was unique in SF and fascinating in any context; and that she explores gender issues, ecology and cooperative systems of government in ways and to depths that are unique in any genre.

I have previously reviewed The Dispossessed, but was not meaning to preempt a possible read-along when City of Illusions fell to hand (I was actually looking for Gaskell’s Ruth to do a long promised review, but it’s in hiding – a common occurrence when I move books so that they will be closer when I need them). I’ll go ahead with this one now and in a year or two no doubt, Marcie and I and anyone else who wishes to join in will knock off the rest. In fact, just a few hours before I posted this, Lou (Louloureads) posted a review of The Word for World is Forest.

‘My’ copy, with the cover above, cheaply bound, pages yellowing with age, is inscribed to Milly, Mothers Day 1984 – a recent work from our favourite author, as I was just starting a new job after a period out of work, and we were living in a rental in Blackburn (Melbourne), with three children under seven, while we looked for a house to buy, which we did shortly after.

The period of this book, it becomes clear, is two thousand years in our future. The League of all Worlds has been attacked and has pulled back. Earth is ruled by a human-looking race called the Shing from the city of Es Toch – a wonderfully imagined city of transparent buildings which appears to have been constructed over the Grand Canyon. The people of Continent One (North America of course) are few, isolated into small communities and are living primitively, though with some remnants of their earlier civilization, in particular laser guns which don’t appear to need recharging.

“What do we really know of the time of our greatness? A few names of worlds and heroes, a ragtag of facts we’ve tried to patch into history. The Shing law forbids killing, but they killed knowledge, they burned books, and what may be worse, they falsified what was left. They slipped in the Lie, as always.”

The story commences in the vast Eastern Forest. A man with strange yellow eyes, intelligent, but entirely without memories emerges into a clearing. The community there, the house of Zove, even with their rudimentary telepathy, cannot know if the man is an idiot, or a Shing pretending amnesia, or a tool of the Shing, or a victim, a man whose brain has been wiped. But they take him in, give him a name, Falk, teach him, he becomes the partner of the teenage daughter of the house.

Falk and Zove determine that Falk must go on, alone, that his arrival at Zove’s house was but the first part in a long journey, and so Falk sets out, walking, to cross the continent to Es Toch.

This then, or at least the middle part of the novel, is the story of a long pilgrimage, as was Le Guin’s following, better known, work, The Left Hand of Darkness. In that, Le Guin used the shared ordeal to interrogate notions of gender. Here, the ordeal is not always shared, though it is at the end, and what Le Guin is exploring is Truth and Lies. What can be believed? Falk decides early on that he must take the stance of always telling the truth, that only then will he have a basis for detecting the deceits of others.

Falk finally comes to the edge of the Eastern Forest on the banks of the Great River, crosses over to the Prairies, gains a companion, walks and walks, together they cross into the mountains, and so he comes to Es Toch.

There he discovers that the Shing can Mindlie – lie telepathically – and he must work his way through that. Yes, this is in part an adventure novel, and is only in small parts concerned with relationships. All the author’s focus is on Falk and how he deals with, how he thinks through, the problems he must confront. We do not end with a great victory, just another step forward in a long journey.

I can’t at this late stage in your reading lives persuade you to began reading le Guin, but I love her, her work, her insights, her stories, and I was very glad to be back here, in this small corner of her universe, after an absence of nearly 40 years.


Ursula K le Guin, City of Illusions, Ace Science Fiction Books, New York, 1976. 217pp.

see also:
The Dispossessed (theaustralianlegend)
The Word for World is Forest (Louloureads)

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 …


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 …


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 …


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 …


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 …


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.  


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 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”.


Jane Rawson short stories:
A Dynasty of Square Standers (2008) (
Instructions for an installation (2003) (
In Registry (2009) (

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 …