|A Report on the Origins & Hazardous Effects of|
|Miracle Ingredient A|
Eidolon is five years old. Its welcome presence has coincided with - and ultimately, contributed to - a minor renaissance in science fiction writing in Australia. I suspect this mini-boom began purely by chance, with the fortuitous appearance in 1990 of Aphelion Books, Eidolon and Aurealis - and the unremarkable fact that a number of Australian SF writers also happened to be doing well that year - but the initial random spike seems to have kicked the whole system into a new equilibrium, with a sustained flow of successful work from new writers maintaining a strong climate of optimism, which in turn encourages the next wave of aspiring writers.
I think this is a good thing, not because it matters, per se, how much SF is being produced in Australia, but because a constant stream of visible successes makes it more difficult for commentators to continue peddling that bizarre old mythology of insurmountable odds, David-and-Goliath struggles and martyrdom to the cause, which has often served to distract and discourage would-be SF writers in this country - writers who deserve the same chance to succeed as their colleagues elsewhere, and who could well do without this kind of misinformation being thrown at them. In lean times, nationalist demagoguery always flourishes - but in the '90s, it ought to be easier than ever to see that writing SF in (and/or about) Australia is scarcely more difficult than doing the equivalent in London or New York. The only objective "marginalisation" of Australia - geographical isolation from the centres of Anglophone publishing - has hardly been an issue since the invention of little blue stickers bearing the words "PAR AVION".
"Australians do find it difficult to break into American markets," suggests Terry Dowling in an interview in Locus, June 1994 - but at least he confesses in the same sentence that "I don't even try," and in the same paragraph that he's never even bothered sending a story to Asimov's, instantly rendering his opinion on the subject transparently irrelevant. Not everyone is so disarmingly candid. I'm not sure how much work Damien Broderick, Leanne Frahm, Sean McMullen, Lucy Sussex, Stephen Dedman, Rosaleen Love, et al, need to publish overseas before this myth finally bites the dust. And I'm not suggesting that getting published, anywhere, is trivially easy. It isn't. The point is: Americans find it difficult to break into American markets, too. They just don't have their nationality to fall back on as a convenient excuse for every rejection slip.
The writers who face serious problems are those with small SF markets in their native tongue. Hundreds of millions of people on this planet have English as their first language, and the SF readership of the Anglophone world is as accessible to English-speaking Australian writers as it is to anyone else - barring rare cases where artistic integrity really does demand obscurantist dialect or epic fantasy poems in transliterated 'strine. (And let's face it: idiomatic Australian speech is now largely just a middle-class pretension, indulged in by a few faded, Whitlam-era hypernationalists, as dated as the fanatical Anglophilia of twenty years before. The urban Australian dialects now come straight from L.A., and the rural straight from Nashville.)
However. SF writing in Australia does continue to labour under one minor but troublesome burden - one which is largely home-grown. There is a peculiar ideology, and accompanying rhetoric, which pervades much of the commentary about SF written in this country. It appears in magazine editorials and essays, book reviews and anthology introductions, and - most strikingly - in the pronouncements of those writers who (inexplicably) take it upon themselves to speak as if on behalf of the entire nation.
The essence of it is this: Australian SF is claimed to be intrinsically different from SF written anywhere else in the world. Special. Exotic. Unique - but not merely in the sense that every work of any degree of originality is unique. No, real Australian SF contains Miracle Ingredient A, which no other SF in the world can possess!
Here are some excerpts from an interview with George Turner, in Aurealis #1:
"In this latest story George Turner once again shows the essential quality he has brought to contemporary Australian science fiction - his Australianness. Unlike many other Australian science fiction writers, he makes no attempt to ape American models (we shouldn't "give in to them", he says).
His fiction is deeply rooted in his environment; his Australianness is not a superficial gloss spread over a standard plot, it is essential and all-pervasive. "Australianness," he says, "is not a matter of familiar names and places - and mentioning wallabies and kangaroos and Ayers Rock doesn't get you anywhere either. It's the sound of the prose. The English speak like Englishmen, the Americans like Americans - and Australians speak like Australians. Australianness is an attitude of mind. We think differently about things; we react differently to things."
While most science fiction writers are doing little more than "committing incest with each other", it has taken Australia's Grand Master to show the way into the next century."
I read a history of Zaire a few months ago. The parallels here with the proclamations of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko during the period of Zairean Cultural Authenticity are uncanny.
We think differently about things? Differently from everyone else on the planet . . . and yet, somehow, all the same as each other? I think not.
And you might think that the term "Australian SF" would imply nothing more than "SF which happens to have been written in Australia" - which can't possibly be a meaningful literary category, any more than "SF which happens to have been written by people with brown eyes". Yet the rhetoric of Miracle Ingredient A is all about pretending otherwise. We can't "just" be writing plain old SF - for some reason, that's far too horrible to contemplate. So we must be writing something special, called "Australian SF".
It seems that, even in the midst of a boom in SF writing in this country, there's a bizarre refusal to accept that Australian writers could ever compete on equal terms with writers elsewhere. The very idea of doing this is frequently pilloried as implying the "imitation" of US or British writers - whereas in fact it simply means writing about whatever we choose, in whatever tradition suits us, as good writers do everywhere. No one invents a brand new genre or a brand new form - and it's hardly a greater act of originality to borrow from other Australian writers than to borrow from anyone else.
Here's Terry Dowling, in the Locus interview cited previously:
"We either imitate their product and compete on their terms, or we go our own way. In Australia at the moment, you've got writers who are working in the established forms they've inherited from Britain and the United States and they're doing fine, and they're serving a real market over there - people who will buy the next fantasy trilogy because they want more of the same. There are other people who want something different, something Australian that's different."
Some kind of lingering insecurity seems to be driving a self-conscious and myopic obsession with the alleged special qualities of Australian SF - as if individual work which succeeds on its own terms can never be enough; as if no one could possibly wish to read SF written in Australia unless it's either selling out to some unspeakable lowest common denominator, or it can boast some magical attribute which no other SF in the world can offer. There has to be some special advantage; we have to have cornered the market in something. And there seems to be a barely-articulated perception that there's some awful deficit in Australian SF which desperately needs Miracle Ingredient A to compensate - some trace mineral missing from the soil, maybe? - and a false assumption that, by default, we're always starting from behind.
Never mind whether Miracle Ingredient A exists or not. What if it really is essential? After all, why should anyone read Australian SF, if we're just doing what everyone else is doing? But yes, folks, this is a trick question. Because "everyone else" is not actually riding in the one bandwagon, as the question implies; there is (surprise) orders of magnitude more diversity in non-Australian SF than there is in Australian SF. For a start, try comparing Don Webb and Bruce Sterling - who both happen to reside in Austin, Texas; so much for the geographical determinism which supposedly moulds all Australian SF. "What everyone else is doing" turns out be whatever they like. Now that's behaviour worthy of imitation.
Here's Dowling in Locus again:
"Freedom comes from knowing you're not American, you're not British, you're not this or that; you are a very new country, and anything goes. That's our 'larrikin' tradition - like the Crocodile Dundee thing, the Mad Max thing."
Repeat after me: We are all larrikins. We are all individuals. And yes, here they come: all the tired, homogenizing national stereotypes, anchored like a convict's ball-and-chain to the literature that's supposed to be so new and free.
The irony is, the perceived need for a "uniquely Australian" SF, presented glowingly as some kind of wonderful feat of non-conformity on an international scale, just puts pressure on new writers to conform - to learn to produce a brand name product - and gives readers everywhere the perception that Australian SF is (or is claimed to be) some kind of literary Lourdes water.
OK. Does any of this really matter? Plenty of new writers seem to be ignoring the prescriptive tones of the prevailing rhetoric - and plenty of readers have no trouble seeing through it. At the very least, though, it still seems a great shame that so much energy, and so many words, are expended on trying to sell ourselves this unnecessary snake oil.
Putting aside possible teratogenic effects on developing writers, what are the other symptoms of exposure to Miracle Ingredient A? On critical writing, say? Once the premise that all Australian SF is special has been swallowed whole, all kinds of absurd conclusions and strange behaviour follows. Australian SF "deserves" to be written and talked about interminably . . . even when there's nothing to say. For an extreme example, take "A Lateral Leading Edge: Australian SF and Cyberpunk" by Sean McMullen and Terry Dowling in Eidolon #14. McMullen's series of "Australian Content" columns have contained numerous worthwhile observations - but this essay was a mind-boggling exercise in barrel-scraping:
"Cyberpunk itself is difficult enough to write about. [ . . . ] Writing about cyberpunk in Australia is harder still, because there has been so little of it. Thus we are going to have to explain the term itself [ . . . ] as well as explain why it had such a poor following among Australian SF authors."
Yes, the entire essay really is about how cyberpunk didn't happen in Australia. And there are a few perfectly intelligible comments buried in it about cyberpunk in general, but the "need" to tie everything in the universe to Australian writing keeps getting in the way. You can imagine sequels on the paucity in Australia of magic realism, alternat(iv)e history, Mars novels, and share-cropping. Whatever happened in Australian SF must be fascinating . . . even if nothing happened. At times, the myopia becomes positively surreal:
"Neuromancer won the Hugo at the World SF Convention in Melbourne [ . . . ] Interestingly, Melbourne was also the city of origin of the Tessier side of the Tessier-Ashpool family in William Gibson's first three novels, and in general Australia and Australians often feature in cyberpunk work from overseas."
Yeah, and Skylab fell on us because it was homing in on Miracle Ingredient A.
Writing on SF is hardly unique in exhibiting this kind of stultifying parochialism. Still, I think it's reasonable to expect a far broader perspective than that of, say, the Ten Network's evening news, not just from SF itself, but from the commentary which surrounds it. And a broader perspective doesn't mean stretching the canvas all the way across the Pacific Ocean, until it rips. It means admitting sometimes that Australia simply isn't in the picture at all.
Has the cult of Miracle Ingredient A remained within the country . . . or has it leaked out across our borders? Could it? Why would anyone wish to participate in a fantasy which arises largely from another nation's insecurities?
Well, there's a strand in most societies which encourages exactly this kind of interaction: patronizing foreign cultures (in all senses of the word); viewing them as exotic. (For a fascinating analysis of this phenomenon, I recommend Edward Said's Orientalism.) And of course, once you've puffed something up as "exotic", it's easy to burst the bubble and make it ridiculous.
Here are brief quotes from overseas reviews of some recent Australian SF novels. For the record, the first two reviews are for Voices in the Light by Sean McMullen, and the third is for my own novel Quarantine - but the works themselves are irrelevant; it's the peculiar mind set of the reviewers that interests me.
(1) In many ways, Australia is an ideal setting for science fiction. A kind of alternate California, a land of sun, sand and desert facing the Pacific Ocean from the opposite direction, Australia is an exotic, wonderful place, young technology mixing with ancient primitivism . . . the patina of Western culture laid over a vast land suffused with mystic Aboriginal heritage.
- David Alexander Smith,
The New York Review of Science Fiction, September 1994
(2) They do things differently in the far south, standing on their heads all day, which is really night. (There is an Australian map of the world which has south on top, but it doesn't work: Australia itself just looks like a scallop falling into jaws.)
- John Clute,
Interzone, December 1994
(3) You can say Australian soaps have cardboard sets and wooden actors, you can say Australian lager tastes like, well, something you'd rather not drink . . .
- Martin Feekins,
The Burton Mail,
19 September 1992
All of these examples are fatuous, certainly - and (2) & (3) create truly bizarre non sequiturs as the openings of science fiction reviews - but shouldn't this kind of thing simply be shrugged off as static? If this was the lowest reviewing ever sank, writers would be in heaven; there's no malice here, just a cringe-inducing lack of sophistication. (1) is purely well-intentioned, (2) is probably an attempt at wit, and (3) is plain, old-fashioned, populist boorishness. And as it happens, all three reviews were generally positive about the books themselves; it was only dealing with Ingredient A that had the reviewers spouting gibberish.
Still, I suspect most Australians are too inured to this kind of thing to think twice about it; we've developed too high a threshold of tolerance to being patronised. In any case, it's always difficult to analyse examples like this when you belong to the "target" group. So, I think it's worth examining how the same modes of rhetoric scan if the nationalities are reversed. Can you imagine any of the following as anything but parody?
(4) In many ways, California is an ideal setting for science fiction. A kind of alternative Australia, a land of sun, sand and desert facing the Pacific Ocean from the opposite direction, California is an exotic, wonderful place, young technology mixing with ancient primitivism . . . the patina of Western culture laid over a vast land suffused with mystic Native American heritage.
- Review in Science Fiction of
Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge
(5) They do things differently in the far north, where the nights last for six months, and even the polar bears start to look attractive after a while. (There is a conceit among some Canadians that their country is more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than its powerful southern neighbour - but it just won't wash. Methinks the lumberjack doth protest too much.)
- Review in Eidolon of
Elisabeth Vonarburg's The Silent City
(6) You can say that the English have failed to tickle our funny bones with The Benny Hill Show and Are You Being Served? You can say that "English cuisine" is an oxymoron . . .
- Review in The West Australian of
Aldiss's Report on Probability A
Would anyone believe these were genuine? I don't think so. The real life quotes are every bit as ludicrous . . . but (4) (6) are instantly recognisable as hoaxes.
Why? I think it's because, one way or another, the rhetoric of Miracle Ingredient A is entirely compatible with the awfulness of (1) (3), even if it didn't literally engender them . . . but so far as I know, no one in Canada, the US or the UK has even tried to propagate a mythology of their own SF which is tied to their own most moronic national stereotypes, the currency of tenth-rate comedians and Jungian cultural analysts.
Miracle Ingredient A puts all Australian SF in precisely the same arena as beer advertisements and Neighbours, as Paul Hogan tourism commercials and Crocodile Dundee. And it's all about the selling, the whoring, of a nation of eighteen million people as if it were one thing: indivisible, homogeneous.
I've said almost nothing here about the actual content of Australian SF - because frankly, I don't care whether other Australian SF writers set their works in Australia or elsewhere, and I don't care whether they're inspired more by M. Barnard Eldershaw, Cordwainer Smith, Stanislaw Lem, or Larry Niven. That is the business of each individual writer, and I wouldn't dream of making proclamations on the subject.
And it may sound paradoxical, but Australians can cease writing "Australian SF" - and start writing real SF, SF with no adjective, like everyone else - without changing a single word of their fiction. Let me make this explicit: the last thing this essay is about is calling for less (or more, or different) writing about Australia in Australian science fiction. That's not the issue.
What I am calling for is less writing about Australia - or more intelligent and analytic, less collectively self-obsessed, self-congratulatory and self-mythologising writing (but when there's nothing worth saying, I'd settle for just plain less) - in critical articles and editorials. Miracle Ingredient A isn't in any of the books, or any of the stories. It resides entirely in the commentary woven around them, doing its best to distort the perception, and limit the possibilities, of SF written in this country.
And I look forward to the day when this imaginary - but nevertheless, curiously toxic - substance finally goes the way of phlogiston and the aether.
Originally appeared pp. 32-38, Eidolon 17/18, June 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Greg Egan.
Reprinted by kind permission of Greg Egan.