THE GILDED AGE
1998: A Year in Australian Science Fiction

Jonathan Strahan

The Australian SF scene has grown steadily throughout the 1990s, with more work by more writers being published each year. This has lead to claims that Australia might be experiencing some sort of Antipodean Golden Age of SF. While this noticeably failed to eventuate during 1998, it was a good year with a number of successful conventions held nationally, and a variety of promising work published.

As has been the case for several years, the year in Australian SF began in February with the presentation of the 1997 Aurealis Awards at a ceremony held in Melbourne bookstore, Slow Glass Books. In amongst wandering shoppers, awards were presented to Damien Broderick, Lucy Sussex, Jack Dann, Janeen Webb and others. This year heralded a change in the awards, with former Aphelion publisher Peter McNamara taking on the role of convenor. It remains to be seen if this will have any long-term effect on how the awards are run.

The longest running, and most energetic, series of conventions held in Australia are Western Australia's "Swancons". The twenty third annual Swancon was held 24-27 April at the Orchard Hotel in Perth. Guests included Lois McMaster Bujold, Tess Williams, Simon Brown, Stephen Dedman, Jack Dann, Sean Williams, Janeen Webb and others. The convention was typically exhausting, with highlights including HarperCollins Australia's mass book launch for Sean Williams, Jack Dann, Janeen Webb, Jeremy G Byrne and others, a masquerade, and a lot of panels. As always, the sleep to alcohol ratio was poor, but the convention was a major success.

The 1998 Australian National Science Fiction Convention, Thylacon 2, was, by way of contrast, a much more relaxed affair. The convention was held in Hobart, Tasmania from 5-8 June 1998 at Hadley's Country Comfort Hotel. Attendees avoided the cold weather outside by huddling around a large open fire for panels, drinking, and enjoying Tasmanian hospitality. The major event of the convention was the presentation of the 1997 Ditmar Awards. The Ditmars were presented after one of the best convention banquets of recent memory. With most nominees in attendance, the evening ran over length, but seemed to be enjoyed by all. Thylacon 2 also saw the launching of the controversial MUP Encyclopedia of Australian Science Fiction. Assistant editors Steven Paulsen and Sean McMullen joined with Peter Nicholls to launch the book, with Nicholls re-iterating his warning from the book's introduction that compiling encyclopedias is dangerous work.

Following the announcement that World SF Convention would come to Melbourne in 1999, there was a widely-held expectation in local SF circles that 1998 would see a number of major works published. To some extent that has proven to be the case, although a surprising number of books have been held for 1999 to coincide with the convention itself. There was very little change to the activity of the major publishers in Australia during 1998. HarperCollins, Transworld and Pan Macmillan all continued to publish domestically written science fiction and fantasy with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Once again, HarperCollins Australia proved to be the most vigorous publisher of domestically written genre fiction, producing several commercially successful fantasy novels (including Sara Douglass' Pilgrim, Traci Harding's Masters of Reality, and Sally Odgers' Translations in Celadon), as well as two interesting SF novels (Sean William's well-regarded The Resurrected Man and Alison Goodman's entertaining debut, Singing the Dogstar Blues). Douglass is clearly the most successful genre writer in the country today, with her Tencendor novels typically selling in excess of 30,000 copies each. HarperCollins also published the only three anthologies to come out in 1998. These included Paul Collins' mixed reprint/original anthology of fantasy fiction for younger readers, Fantastic Worlds; the second volume in the Strahan/Byrne series of Year's Best volumes; and Jack Dann and Janeen Webb's Dreaming Down Under. Easily the most striking book to be published by HarperCollins during 1998, Dreaming Down Under is an enormous original anthology of Australian SF featuring 31 stories by 30 writers. The book, which begs comparison to Peter McNamara and Margaret Winch's equally enormous 1994 anthology Alien Shores, proved to be as comprehensive as it was entertaining, with major work by Damien Broderick, David Lake and others.

No publisher in Australia came close to equalling the sheer number of genre titles published by HarperCollins in 1998, but several did produce important or interesting work. Omnibus Books published A Dark Winter, the first in a new fantasy trilogy for young adults by popular children's author Dave Luckett. A Dark Winter is Luckett's first work for older readers, and has widely been recognised as one of the best fantasies of the year. Pan Macmillan, who published a large number of fantasy novels in the early '90s, concentrated on science fiction-related titles during 1998. Most notably, Pan published Burning for Revenge and The Night is for Hunting, the fifth and sixth volumes respectively, in John Marsden's enormously successful young adult SF series which began with Tomorrow, When the War Began. The seventh and final volume in the series will be published in 1999. Other books of genre interest from Pan included Richard Harland's Taken by Force and Richard Ryan's Funnelweb. Transworld Publishers continued its gradual move into the publication of Australian genre fiction with the George Turner Prize-winning Splashdance Silver. The novel was very much a journeyman effort in the Terry Pratchett vein of humorous fantasy, but was fairly well received. Random House, now part of the Random Group alongside Transworld, also published several genre works of interest. Most noticeable were fantasy novels by Kate Forsyth (The Pool of Two Moons) and Caiseal Mor (The Tilecutter's Penny). Penguin published the mass market edition of Isobelle Carmody's Darkfall alongside two new fantasy novels from Ian Irvine, A Shadow on the Glass and The Tower on the Rift, while Allen & Unwin published Archie Weller's Land of the Golden Clouds and Bernard Cohen's Snowdome.

Some of the best genre fiction written by Australians is now being published outside the country. Probably the single most outstanding work of science fiction by an Australian to be published during the year was Luminous (Millennium), the second collection of short fiction from Greg Egan. It covers work published between 1993 and 1998, and features all of Egan's Hugo-nominated short fiction. The other major work of science fiction by an Australian to be published outside the country was Sean McMullen's The Centurion's Empire ( Tor). The book marked a welcome return for McMullen, and received good notices here and abroad. Other books of interest were Kate Jacoby's Exile's Return (Gollancz) and Jane Routley's Fire Angels (Avon).

Media-related fiction has had an increasing influence on the genre internationally in recent years. However, very few Australian writers have written media tie-in fiction, perhaps because writing epic fantasy fills a similar niche for the struggling writer in this country. One of the few exceptions to this is Kate Orman, who has produced a number of novels for the UK-based Dr Who franchise. During 1998 Orman had two novels, Walking to Babylon and Seeing I, published by Virgin, with Walking to Babylon gaining particularly good notices.

There was some outstanding short fiction published by Australian writers this year, most noticeably by Greg Egan, Stephen Dedman, and Simon Brown. While a large percentage of the best of this work was published either in overseas magazines or in the anthologies published by HarperCollins, there was some good fiction in the local magazines. Particularly worthy of mention was Aurealis' "Republic" issue, easily their strongest issue in several years, which featured excellent work by Russell Blackford and Simon Brown. However, despite the debut of Altair-an SF magazine published out of Adelaide that featured some good journeyman work-the continued lack of a regularly published SF magazine continued to be of concern. With Aurealis and Altair both being bi-annual, and Eidolon typically only managing three issues per year, there is real need for a high profile magazine in this country to provide an energetic domestic market for local short fiction writers. Disappointingly, there were only two collections of short fiction published in 1998, Greg Egan's Luminous and Simon Brown's Cannibals of the Fine Light (Ticonderoga). The Brown collection is his first, and the first collection of Australian fiction from Ticonderoga Publications. The book featured much of the best of Brown's short fiction, including several extensively re-written pieces.

There are two other books that deserve mention here. First, 1998 saw the publication of The MUP Encyclopedia of Australian Science Fiction, edited by Paul Collins, with Steven Paulsen and Sean McMullen. The book has proven to be controversial since its publication, garnering criticism for its accuracy and for a perceived bias in certain entries. The other book that deserves mention is The Rabbits (Lothian), a picture book written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan. The Rabbits is a stunning metaphorical examination of the impact of colonialism, and is a major artistic achievement for Tan who has been active in Australian SF circles, providing cover art for major publishers and illustrations for both Aurealis and Eidolon magazines. This is Tan's second picture book, following on from 1997's award-winning The Viewer.

So, 1998 was another good year. There were several interesting debuts, a number of well-received novels published, a controversial reference book, a beautiful art book, and a thumping great big anthology. Back in the '70s nobody would have dared dream of such riches. And 1999, frankly, looks even better, with new novels by WorldCon guest of honour George Turner, Greg Egan, Sean McMullen, Sean Williams and others all due for publication. It should prove to be an interesting year.

A slightly different version of this article
originally appeared in Locus.

©1998 Jonathan Strahan