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Aurealis: Australian Fantasy and Science Fiction
Issue 20/21 - "Vend-A-Nation"

Sean McMullen's "Rule Of The People" had me intrigued from the very beginning. The story doesn't have a hook, as such, but relies on a longish opening sequence to establish a feeling of 'otherness' for this tale of Melbourne in the 1860s. The city has become home to a group of Olympian gods and semi-divines, such as Thetis, Vulcan and Proteus. More importantly, it has also become the home of Julia Branchester, a 900-year-old 'raptor', a mortal who has learned the knack of slaying vampyres and absorbing their essence to extend her own life (although no vampyres get the bucket in this particular story).

In "Rule Of The People", the gods are in trouble. Not only has Branchester forced from Proteus the secret of shapechanging, knowledge no mortal should possess, but the immortals are also finding themselves falling under the sway of Australia's egalitarian res publica, reducing the majesty of their divinity. One of the gods decides that something has to be done . . .

Although some of the story's period dialogue feels strangely clunky and forced, its ideas and narrative drive make it a good read. This is, apparently, the second of McMullen's 'raptor' tales to see print [see "Slow Famine", Interzone - ed.], and "Rule Of The People" does have something of the feel of an excerpt about it. McMullen may be building up to a book on Julia Branchester and her strange world; I hope so.

Thematically, Russell Blackford's "Byzantium vs Republic of Australia" ties in with his brilliant "Lucent Carbon" (Eidolon 25/26), and makes an interesting companion piece to that work, both concerned with artificially produced immortality. Where "Lucent Carbon" deals with the moral issues from a more directly philosophical standpoint, "Byzantium" deals with them from a legal view. Doctors Fox and Costas are on trial for the unlawful homicide of businessman Jason River Zelestis; the two scientists had uploaded the businessman into a computer (at Zelestis's request), the process killing his physical body.

What the legal bent of the story does to the language Blackford uses is startling. A lot of the story is swallowed in dry legalese, but instead of hindering its reading, Blackford uses it to establish a tense narrative pace. This shouldn't be surprising, I guess, since much the same effect was achieved in television shows like Perry Mason and LA Law, where the court's formalised language and etiquette actually created a confined fictional space which stored tension the way a tightly coiled spring stores energy.

Blackford's second major achievement with "Byzantium" is to create within the framework of courtroom and trial a good deal of empathy for the characters involved, particularly the biologically challenged Zelestis, whose presence in the story is largely restricted to being the subject of legal debate. A remarkable effort.

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©1998 Simon Brown.

Aurealis is edited by Dirk Strasser and Stephen Higgins. The magazine debuted in 1990, and has published 21 issues to date.

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