Sean McMullen's

Recognition, Australian Style

This will be my last regular article for Eidolon's "Australian Content". In association with all the other changes to Eidolon, this column will henceforth be thrown open to a range of writers with something to say about Australian science fiction. Now, stop and examine your conscience: did you just ask yourself did he jump, or was he pushed? Actually . . . the change was my own suggestion. Having made the transition to novel-length works, I found myself needing to spend a lot more time writing fiction. Combine this with making time for a reasonable family life, and doing a bit of exercise, then complicate it with increasing responsibilities at work . . . and my supply of spare time went into the red. So, why should I burn up time researching and writing articles on Australian SF that other specialists could write off the tops of their heads?

Two themes have been woven into my writing about SF all through the history of this column: getting Australian SF published, and subsequent recognition for Australian SF. My somewhat quantitative style goes back another four years, however, to 1986 when I gave a rather revolutionary talk on the publication of Australian SF to the Melbourne SF discussion group, the Nova Mob. It was revolutionary because rather than following the conventional approach of voicing subjective opinions based on personal experience, I based my talk on the statistical analysis of my (then) new bibliography of Australian SF. The results caused quite a stir. Several of the emperors of local SF were found to be exceedingly short on clothing, while some of the less prominent authors were found to have very impressive records. Most interestingly of all, I deduced that a lot of the effort of past years that had gone into helping local SF writers to make their first sales had been spent on authors who had produced a handful of stories, then stopped writing! Since that talk in 1986 Australian SF has changed out of sight. There are now stable markets for both short and long SF, but they are markets in which beginners must vie with experienced authors for space. As always, they can also try overseas. Is this cruel or unfair? I do not think so. For example, Stephen Dedman's fourth sale was to the US magazine Strange Plasma, while Greg Egan's fourth was to Interzone, and my third sale was to Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is possible for beginners to compete against professionals, and it does not appear to have harmed Australian SF in the late '80s and early '90s. Getting into print is only half of the picture, however: the other half is recognition.

Like publication, recognition has also changed for the better since 1986. Australian appearances in overseas awards ballots are now more common than ever, and George Turner and Terry Dowling have even brought home a couple of wins each. Turner's The Sea and Summer also became Australia's first (and so far only) Nebula Award Nominee, while three Greg Egan stories became British SF Award nominees. Egan stories have also topped the Interzone readers poll twice. Scarcely any of the big overseas 'recommended reading' lists and general popularity polls are without Australian names, and such authors as Egan, Turner and Dowling have had works in several international 'best of the year' anthologies. Back at home there have been improvements in recognition as well. The Chandler Award has been introduced for lifetime achievement in Australian SF, Aurealis runs an annual readers poll for its fiction, Eidolon runs a Recommended Reading list, and children's SF and fantasy has been increasingly prominent in Australia's mainstream awards. One area of recognition that has seen virtually no change at all in this period, however, is that of the Ditmar Awards in the category of original Australian SF.

The Ditmar Awards are Australia's national SF awards, and they are decided upon in roughly the same way as the Hugo Awards are overseas. Those fans attending or supporting the annual national SF convention vote to nominate a shortlist covering several categories in the run-up to the convention, then vote again on the finalists. The categories vary from year to year, but an award for original Australian SF has been on the ballot every year since 1969. For the past decade this has always been divided into long and short fiction. Participation varies. In particularly good years there have reportedly been over 100 voters, at worst, only a couple of dozen of those who are eligible to vote have done so. In most years participation tends to be between a quarter and a third of those eligible to vote.

Thus the award is determined by a few dozen Australian fans out of a growing field of original fiction. For example, in 1994 eligible works ran to 19 novels (the best ever) and 70 shorter works (the third best). For the nominees, a nomination is a sign that their work is at least being noticed. For the winners, it is a licence to write the powerful grabber "Award Winning" in their publicity material. Whatever its faults, the Ditmar system has managed to honour most of Australia's more prominent SF authors, although seldom for their best works. Thus it also provides a mirror for the changing face of Australian SF over the 26 years since the first Ditmars were awarded, although the image therein is often pretty distorted.

It was born in controversy. The idea for a local SF award gained serious momentum in 1968, but there were many issues to be thrashed out. A committee of fans and authors, including Ditmar Jensen and Lee Harding, struggled to decide on such matters as the form of the trophy, the rules, and the name. The name was a particularly severe problem. Various Australian-sounding names such as Australis and Southern Cross were proposed, only to be shot down, and the patience of all concerned began to wear thin. In 1990 Jensen confessed to me that in a fit of exasperation he proposed his own name . . . and this was the compromise proposal that was accepted! Money for the trophies was donated, and the Ditmars were on the launch pad.

All that was needed in the fiction category was some original local science fiction. Australian SF of the late 1960s was under the influence of the New Wave movement, and this involved bold and radical experiments in both prose and subject matter. Australian authors had been watching its development for five years or so, and were starting to get the hang of it. The 1969 Ditmar winner for original Australian SF was A. Bertram Chandler's novel False Fatherland (Horwitz, 1968). Horwitz? Well, not quite: the novel was first published in two parts in Fantastic in March and May 1968 as Spartan Planet, but no matter. The theme is of a castaway human colony descended from a wrecked starship's crew - which has given rise to a society that is both monosexual and homosexual. A chance discovery by another starship reintroduces heterosexuality, which is generally welcomed as a much better idea. Not one of Chandler's stronger novels, to be sure, but it raised a few eyebrows in 1968. One of the two other nominees was "Final Flower" by Stephen Cook (First Pacific Book of Australian Science Fiction, 1968), a short story describing a spaceman's suicide by stepping into a carnivorous plant. Disturbingly enough, Cook later suicided himself.

In a sense the best work to be nominated in 1969 was the anthology The First Pacific Book of Australian Science Fiction, edited by John Baxter (Angus & Robertson, 1968). Only a quarter of the 12 stories in this anthology were original, but it was the first anthology of Australian SF, and it introduced the local brand of the genre to the general public for the first time. By reading the winner and two nominees for the 1969 fiction Ditmars, one can get a pretty good overview of Australian SF throughout the 1960s through the works of most of the more prominent authors. The local genre at that time was firmly British based, with a tentacle or two in America, and while it was entertaining, it seldom produced anything profound.

By 1970 the first stories from a bold attempt to foster Australian SF, Vision of Tomorrow, were on the ballot. Vision was sponsored by Sydney fan and millionaire Ron Graham as a British-Australian SF magazine which would provide a market in the international arena for Australian authors to work in. In a literary sense it was a success. Vision stories won the original Australian SF Ditmar in 1970 and 1971, while Vision itself won the short-lived Best International Publication category in the 1970 Ditmars. Lee Harding's "Dancing Gerontius" (Vision of Tomorrow, October 1969) was the winner with 89 points, and was a decidedly New Wave account of a Bacchanalian sort of euthanasia in the future. Jack Wodhams' "Anchor Man" (Vision of Tomorrow, August 1969) was second with 46 points, but while Harding's story had polled 4th with the magazine's readers poll, Wodhams' story had polled 1st. This was also the shape of things to come, because works winning Ditmar awards are frequently out-performed in other areas of recognition by other nominees. Wodhams' other nominee, "Split Personality", had been published in Analog in November 1968 . . . pointing the way to future controversies over eligibility and validity of works for the Award.

The 1971 winner was also about euthanasia, but was realist rather than New Wave in its prose. Chandler's "The Bitter Pill" (Vision of Tomorrow, June 1970) traces the depressing decline of a man in what should have been regarded as his prime of life as his society pressures him to "do the proper thing" and suicide. Soon after this issue Vision folded due to distribution problems, and Australian SF was to be without a flagship for some years to come - although in a way the Ditmar Awards themselves took over that role as the display case of Australian SF. An anomaly in the 1971 nominations was David Rome's novel Squat, for although it had been published by Scripts in 1970, it already been published by Horwitz in 1965!

1972 marked the beginning of an uncertain era for Australian SF, and the Ditmars reflect this. Two of the nominees were technically invalid - they were reprints - and the three others were all published in the US. This pointed to a shift away from Britain as the main overseas market for Australian SF. Harding's "Fallen Spaceman" (If, June 1971) was the winner, and it was also the last story to be published in an overseas magazine to win a Ditmar for 19 years. Jack Wodhams had been having an unprecedented run of success in US magazines over the previous five years, and in 1972 his first novel, The Authentic Touch (Curtis, 1971) was a nominee. Unfortunately it was rather underpowered compared to much of his short SF, and it failed to attract sufficient votes to win. Although Wodhams has had 7 works nominated for the fiction Ditmars, he has never won the award. The uncertainty reached new depths in 1974, which saw no award at all due to some sort of administrative bungle that has never been explained to me satisfactorily, but after that a sustained recovery began. The 1975 awards were notable for several reasons. Firstly, they were for fiction written in the last year before Aussiecon 1 (Australia's first World SF Convention) was held, and support for local SF improved dramatically in the wake of that high-profile convention. 1975 was the first year in which a work by a woman reached the final ballot. Cherry Wilder's story "The Ark of James Carlisle" (New Writings in SF 24, 1974) was possibly the most significant work. Not only was it the first work by a woman to reach a Ditmar final ballot, it carried quite a strong environmental message, at a time when such themes were even rare in the overseas SF scene. The winner that year was Chandler's novel The Bitter Pill (Wren, 1974), an expanded and more optimistic version of his earlier short story. This was also to be the last locally published novel to win a Ditmar for five years. Chandler's last Ditmar of all was for The Big Black Mark (Daw, 1975), and appropriately enough it was one of the Grimes spacefaring-as-seafaring novels for which Chandler had become famous.

Until now I have followed the early Ditmars in detail because they display certain features present all the way through to today. They are vulnerable to administrative laxity on the part of organisers who are generally learning how to run them for the first time anyway. The final ballots are riddled with ineligible or questionable works, although such works seldom win. The current big names in local SF almost always get a nomination or two in any five year period, but some surprisingly good works don't win. Finally, the Ditmar nominations do reflect changes in direction in Australian SF, such as the rise of environmental issues and female authors, and the decline of the New Wave movement.

The years following Aussiecon 1 saw a great upsurge in the publication of Australian SF in Australia, yet it was not until 1982 that a novel, originally published in Australia actually won a Ditmar again - a 5 year gap since Chandler's The Bitter Pill won for Wren. Winners had included an amateur short story, a book about Australian gnomes, and a novel republished in Australia only months after US publication, yet during one of the greatest periods of expansion in the local publication of Australian SF most of the Ditmars went to Australian works published overseas. Curious. However, of the 11 Ditmars awarded for fiction over the following five years, from 1982 to 1987, only one was published overseas. Curiouser. A look at the nominations is helpful: from 1977 to 81, 44% were published overseas, but from 1982 to 1987 only 21% were published overseas. I shall not bore you with publication statistics, but suffice it to say that variations in local and overseas publishing do not reflect this difference. My only conclusion is that after five years of practice following Aussiecon 1, the local publishers finally managed to improve their game sufficiently to attract a better variety of fiction from local authors. There is a very important lesson here. Attracting and developing good authors to your publishing venture takes a surprisingly long time - five years in this case.

Individual followings and reputations were in for a shake-out by the early '80s. 1981 was the first year in the history of the Ditmars when no work by A. Bertram Chandler was on the final ballot, although he had two works that were eligible. Lee Harding's last appearance on a Ditmar Ballot was in 1980, but although Displaced Person (Hyland, 1979) was one of the best selling SF novels ever to be published in Australia, it failed to win. The last of Jack Wodham's 7 nominations was in 1982, but while Harding's output trailed off to almost nothing after 1983, Wodhams has continued to have a moderate amount of SF published since. Authors such as Turner, Taylor, Dowling, Frahm and Broderick had begun to replace the stars of the '60s and early '70s, but these people represented more than just new names and styles. They showed that women, academics, and writers of fantasy had now become established in Australian genre fiction.

Let us consider each of those three phenomena in turn. As far as trends in gender bias among the voters are concerned, just 10% of 1970s nominations were for works by women, rising to 14% for the 1980s, then 22% for the first half of the '90s. The proportion of nominees to become winners goes 10% for the '70s, 11% for the '80s, and 20% for the '90s thus far. Thus women have been steadily gaining a bigger share of the nominations and winnings, yet what overall share of the market do they have? Figures can be deceptive: in absolute terms they have written 30% of all identifiable genre works, but they tend to dominate in areas such as children's fantasy - which tends to be seen less often by the average fan voter than, say, magazine fiction. In magazines, women have been writing about 15%-20% of the fiction in recent years, which is more in line with the figures for Ditmar nominations. Remember, however, that these figures are from a small statistical base, and are easily distorted. For example, add 1989 to the '90s figures and women suddenly account for 25% of the winners - so that they seem more likely to win once nominated. In spite of the vagaries of statistics, however, women do appear to be expanding their share of Ditmar-style recognition as they expand their share of the overall market.

Fantasy had begun to gain a foothold in Australia from the mid-70s, but it was not until the '80s that it began to make a real impression. During the '80s fantasy works got 18% of the nominations, and an incredible 36% of the wins but after this dramatic show of support, fantasy nominations have dropped back a little. The continuing base of support for fantasy in the Ditmars shows that it has established a permanent place for itself, however. A somewhat more unusual phenomenon of the Ditmars during the '80s was the proportion of authors with an academic background in English. Such authors snared about 40% of the nominations and over half of the winners, but by 1995 this had dropped back to a quarter of the nominations and a third of the winners. Many readers say that it does show up in the style of much local SF of the '80s. There are certainly many works that are cleverly constructed from quite elegant prose, but are a rather formidable task to read. A factor which might have contributed to the decline in the latter two categories is the rise in hard SF in Australia during the '90s. An increasing number of people have been arriving on the scene who are both literate and technologically educated, and have raised the proportion of local SF that is scientifically convincing, exciting and innovative. Greg Egan is perhaps the best example of such authors.

One important factor that we have not discussed is the smallish voter base. A dozen or two primary votes would be enough to win in some ballots, so how vulnerable are the Ditmars to vote rigging? I'm afraid my knowledge of fan politics does not run deep enough for me to speculate on this, but if it has happened, I suspect that the relevant works must have had something going for them or the conspirators concerned would not have bothered. This does not excuse such jiggery pokery, of course . . . On an individual level, the voter base is so small that it actually makes statistical sense for authors to vote for themselves. I feel a bit squeamish about voting for myself and so I don't, but this is just me and it is not particularly sensible. Both of my Ditmar wins have been by a mere vote or two on fifth preference, but if I had voted in the relevant category the margins would have been fairly comfortable. If you do get a Ditmar nomination, by all means vote for yourself in the final ballot and don't feel bad about it. You would feel a lot worse about losing by one vote. Another problem concerns the number of good works eligible for nomination. There is an increasing trend for nominations to be spread over a large number of good works, so that you can get a dozen or so works with 4 or 5 nominations - and they can't all go on the ballot. Once again, I have no solution for this, I am just mentioning it as one of many problems besetting the Ditmars in the '90s.

As an Australian award the Ditmars ought to say something about the personal popularity of local authors, so based on the figures, who looks most popular? Terry Dowling has had 9 wins from 16 nominations, followed by A. Bertram Chandler with 4 wins from 15 nominations. George Turner comes third with three wins from 10 nominations, then Harding, Lake, Taylor, Broderick, Frahm, McMullen and Egan have managed two wins each. Among the female authors, Leanne Frahm has done best with 2 wins from 5 nominations, followed by Lucy Sussex with one win from 7 nominations, and Cherry Wilder with a win from 3 nominations.

Until 1989 short stories in anthologies had been winners in five of the previous nine years, but in subsequent years the short fiction award became dominated by magazine fiction. SF magazines were again becoming a dominant force in Australian SF, and four out of the next five Ditmars for short SF would go to magazine fiction. As a rule, if you want a Ditmar in short SF, then get published locally, preferably in a magazine. Over the past 22 years only one story published in an overseas magazine has won a Ditmar (McMullen's "While the Gate Is Open", F&SF March 1989), and only one from an overseas anthology has ever been a winner (Frahm's "Deus Ex Corpus", Chrysalis 7, 1979). On the other hand, if you want to win a Ditmar for a novel-length work, then have it published overseas because four out of the last six book-length winners were published overseas. Why is it so? Well, short fiction can get lost in the sheer volume published overseas, but overseas distributors seem to do a good job with getting books into the country of origin of the author. That's my theory, anyway.

What can be said about the Ditmar winners and nominees of the 1990s? Works published overseas comprised 30% of the nominees and 40% of the winners, which is up a little on the 1980s, but not by much. As I said earlier, hard SF is gaining in popularity, while fantasy has a reduced but stable share of the nominations. The artwork that is such an important part of the presentation of genre fiction is gaining better recognition in the Ditmars as well, especially since the visit of Michael Whelan to Australia in 1992. While the separation of artwork into professional and fan categories in 1994 had a few teething problems, it was at least an indication that our local artists deserve more attention.

So after all the foregoing, are the Ditmars not worth the price of a stuffed and lacquered cane toad, or are they the last word on quality in Australian SF? No prizes for guessing that the answer is somewhere in between. In general, they recognise good authors for overall achievement, but it is unusual for the award to be given for the author's best work - and I include my own Ditmars in that statement. While I am proud of my two winners, I recognise that they are not among my eight stories that have received international recognition or one sort or another. As for the best story on the ballot winning . . . I must admit to dusting carpet fluff off my jaw after my story "While the Gate is Open" beat Greg Egan's "The Caress" in 1991. Examine the works of Terry Dowling, George Turner, Greg Egan, to name but a few, and the same pattern is present. So, anyone with a Ditmar winner or more than a couple of nominations deserves to be taken seriously, but do not judge the author on the strength of the winning work. The Ditmars have done a reasonable job through 25 presentations over 26 years, and I think that they are worth the trouble taken over them. For all the talk of reforming the Ditmars to make sure that the best works are included, however, I think that the system will continue as it is. One day a work that has missed out on a Ditmar will probably win a Nebula, and I don't think that anything can be done about it.

Before closing, I would like to thank those readers who voted two winners and one nomination my way in the William Atheling Awards for criticism, all three of which were for articles appearing in Eidolon. I really do appreciate that. Thanks, too, to the Eidolon editors for putting up with me for so long. In return I hope that I have been able to introduce some hard facts to illuminate areas of Australian SF that had hitherto been covered only by rather dubious folklore, and that I have been able to introduce you to some of the real highlights of the local genre. Perhaps the best highlight of all is that we are currently in the greatest age of Australian genre fiction, and that it seems to be getting better all the time.

Readers who want more information on the Ditmar Awards could look up the earlier articles are listed below. Statistics will vary as new publications are constantly added to my bibliographic database. A complete list is available from Marc Ortlieb (PO Box 215, Forest Hill, Victoria 3131).

Originally appeared pp. 35-42, Eidolon 16, February 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted by kind permission of Sean McMullen.