Reviews of Recent Publications

It's very easy to fake a sincere interest in Australian SF. All one has to do is waltz into the local specialist bookshop, nod solemnly at this month's dearth, bemoan the paucity of fine writing in the country today whilst shaking one's head in truly heartfelt disappointment, and pluck the latest US Masterwork from its gargantuan, clinquant dump-bin near the door. On occasion this ploy will fail, and the stunningly covered Rynosseros will force its way into one's field of vision and after-dinner reading time, assuaging any faint feelings of guilt and justifying completely the eight or nine Ditmar nominations already filled out and ready to post. Yet what more can be done? Don't those couple of collections and that Damien Broderick re-release constitute the sum total of Australian Publishing for the year? And why bother trying after all?

Despite impressions to the contrary, an occasional advertent glance into the Twilight Zone between the sunlit pastures of "the genre" and the bleak and troubling literary landscapes of Modern Fiction can uncover a veritable menagerie of fringe fantasy and gentle sf, which hides there, neglected and melancholy, shunned by both realms and just waiting to rush up and nuzzle the hand of anyone who pays the slightest heed. Some of it will reward the literary David Attenborough with a welcome excursion from the well-trod pathways of more traditional "genre fiction". Some of it will, siren-like, beckon the reader to her doom in the swampland of mediocrity. Certainly, to ignore this "borderline" material is the simplest course - out of sight out of mind - but what happens to the Australian Lucius Shepard lurking between the covers of the small-press literary collection on the bottom shelf behind the Penguin stand at Angus and Robertsons? Would you want this promising writer of the future to languish in obscurity, quietly cursing the reading public in his cups after another poorly attended wine, cheese and poetry evening? Or would you rather read him in Omni, or even Eidolon?

Enough generality. David Brooks' Sheep and the Diva, and Kit Denton's Burning Spear are both collections of science fiction and fantasy with a "mainstream" feel to them, and both have been produced by publishing houses which have seen fit not to brand them "SCIENCE FICTION" in block capitals on the cover, spine and every other page. Thus, both have entirely escaped the notice of the official lists of eligible works for this year's Australian Science Fiction ("Ditmar") Awards, and the SF shelves of both mainstream and specialist bookstores, at least in Western Australia.

Burning Spear
Kit Denton
Cover Art by Nigel Buchanan
(Francis Allen, $12.95, 123pp, tpb, 1990)
Reviewed by Jeremy Byrne

Kit Denton's name should be familiar. A long-time radio journalist, he wrote a novel called The Breaker, which became Breaker Morant on the silver screen. Burning Spear, the title story of the collection of his short fiction released this year, originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) in 1964, and a couple of the other pieces appeared in Chance in the seventies, yet most of this material is unpublished - the previously untapped reservoir of a long career. While of variable standard and generally belonging to an "older school" of Science Fiction, the twelve short pieces in this very prettily produced, if somewhat slim volume demonstrate considerable narrative prowess and positively glow with an unashamed "Australianness" that's neither parochial nor provincial. With Harlan Ellison and Terry Dowling set to release Down Deep, a collection dedicated to the mystery and magic of our little island, and in the light of Australian SF's ever quickening retreat from the Cringe, Denton's collection seems quite timely.

There is some fine writing here - in "Smartarse" with its superbly unpredictable twist, in the clever reverse psychology of the anti-war sentiment in "Sergeant" and in the title story, strangely beautiful in its irreality - yet the "Boys Own Annual" feel of many of the pieces dates and diminishes them somewhat. Despite this, if collections were judged like albums of popular music, Burning Spear would rate well. The book leaves one with a feeling of well-roundedness. It has a thematic integrity that engenders an "Ah, so that's Kit Denton's SF" sense of understanding. The author of Burning Spear knows what he's doing and it's the high-points of the collection that linger beyond the final page.

Sheep And The Diva
David Brooks
Cover Art by Kay Watts
(McPhee Gribble, $12.99, 149pp, tpb, 1990)
Reviewed by Jeremy Byrne

David Brook's "Du" fronted that nonpareil of Aussie Sci-Fi, Urban Fantasies. The oddly soothing, densely mysterious feel of that tale-of-a-city persists through the nineteen short subjects in Sheep and the Diva. Somehow reminiscent of the precise yet satisfyingly word-rich style of several of the great Argentinian fantasists (if it's fair to group them in this way), Brooks' writing has a depth of focus to it which is difficult to forget. Not all of the nineteen are classifiably "genre" [see "In Print" on this subject - Ed.], but all are strange, off-beat and lots of other non-committal adjectives one uses to indicate a sense of other-worldliness or fantastique. Cities feature strongly in Brooks' work, and indeed his ability to imbue his writing with a sense of place is perhaps its most remarkable feature. The development of Setting - the presence of a location, whether it be a gothically mysterious gormengast like "The City of Arches", a town called "L.", defined by the ethical turpitude of its inhabitants, the almost Vancian, oxymoronic maze-without-walls of lost Mysander or a magical garden where the innermost secrets of one's soul literally blossom into reality - is one of the best-realised of Brooks' skills with words. As storyteller, he is often more concerned with the texture of his writing than any constraint to plot. If the reader feels she has visited his imagined world, that sense is far more important than what she saw there. This is not to say that Brooks cannot plot, just that he is not obsessive about his narrative. In fact, in "Letter from Tandelo", arguably the best story as well as the most "fantastic" of the pieces, the plot is clever and particularly satisfying in its development.

Sheep and the Diva is not typical. It is self-contained and rewarding as a consistently stylistic collection. Like Burning Spear, it has a wholeness beyond the individual pieces in it, a meta-story about its author's perceptions, philosophies and imaginings, his attempts to lift the covers on his dreams so we can take a peek, and that is perhaps the finest fiction therein.

There is more out there, beyond the often self-inflicted blindness of classification, that begs to be noticed. It may be difficult to find, and it's unreasonable to expect production quality as high as that of the two examples I've cited. Nevertheless, make the effort to shop around and bear with the budget-inflicted limitations inherent in many small-press publications. But don't seek it out for the sake of completeness, and certainly don't buy it out of some sense of economic patriotism, of a feeling of loyalty to the local writers. Expect to enjoy the variety. Look forward to the unfamiliarity. Learn from the experience.

Review Material Received

Below is a comprehensive listing of material received to date by Eidolon from book publishers for review.

RYNOSSEROS, Terry Dowling, Aphelion Publications, $12.95, 288pp, tpb, May 1990

FORESTS OF THE NIGHT, Tanith Lee, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $10.95, 388pp, pb, August 1990

THE 1991 TOLKIEN CALENDAR, Art by John Howe, Unwin Hyman Ltd., 12-month calendar, August 1990

WARLORD OF HEAVEN (STAR REQUIEM 3), Adrian Cole, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $19.99, 356pp, tpb, August 1990

SUNFALL, CJ Cherryh, Mandarin Australia, $9.95, 157pp, pb, September 1990

TAKE BACK PLENTY, Colin Greenland, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $19.95, 359pp, tpb, September 1990

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Barbara Hambly, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $9.95, 242pp, pb, October 1990

SADAR'S KEEP (BOOK TWO OF THE QUEEN'S QUARTER), Midori Snyder, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $10.95, 362pp, pb, October 1990

THE CHILD GARDEN, Geoff Ryman, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $10.95, 299pp, pb, September 1990

THE ADVENTURES OF TOM BOMBADIL, JRR Tolkien, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $10.95, 75pp, tpb, October 1990

THE WAR OF THE RING (HISTORY OF MIDDLE EARTH VOLUME 5), JRR Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien), Unwin Hyman Ltd., $49.95, 476pp, hc, October 1990

THE RETURN OF THE SHADOW (HISTORY OF MIDDLE EARTH VOLUME 6), JRR Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien), Unwin Hyman Ltd., $14.95, 495pp, tpb, October 1990

WINTER IN APHELION (THE ADVENTURES OF SKARRY THE DREAMER), Chris Dixon, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $9.95, 220pp, pb, October 1990

HEATHERN, Jack Womack, Unwin Hyman Ltd., $29.95, 255pp, hc, November 1990

As you may have noticed, this issue displays a paucity of review material, though one glance at the above list shows that it's not from lack of response on the part of the publishers. The Committee have discovered that firstly, we are not professional-quality reviewers ourselves and secondly, that people are unlikely to send us reviews unsolicited (and in fact we don't encourage such activity). As such, we have decided that it's time we actively sought reviewers for "In Print".

If you're keen enough to be reading the rubbishy bit at the very end of the last part of the review section then you could be just the sort of person we're looking for. Reviewers need not have any particular qualifications, but a solid analytical ability, as well as a readable prose style, would certainly be an advantage. The "payment" for any review we accept is the work sent to you for review. If you are interested in reviewing for Eidolon, send us a letter, enclosing some details about yourself and a sample of or reference to some critical writing you have done in the past, and we'll be in touch.

Originally appeared pp. 80-84, Eidolon 3, December 1990.
Copyright © 1990 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the various authors.