Permafrost Dreams

The observation of phenomena should be a careful, considered process. Evidence should be collected and weighed, information systemetised and evaluated, and, ultimately, some form of report lodged. Where sociological, cultural or even economic phenomena are involved, further consideration needs to be given to the effect of the observation itself. It is, if you will, an application of quantum theory.

And that brings us to the state of science fiction in Australia today, and the considerations that lie behind this editorial. If we make an observation of the system which lies behind the writing, publishing and marketing of science fiction written by Australians within Australia, do we change that system? Do our remarks have after-effects that we cannot predict, and may not desire? Well, here is where we find out.

The August 1995 issue of Locus magazine included a report on the state of science fiction in Australia written by Terry Dowling and Sean McMullen. The report was a brief but thorough overview of the Australian scene and spoke of the many successes being experienced by Australian writers, both here and abroad. An American correspondent later asked me whether I saw things in the same positive light. I could only answer, not really.

The professional science fiction writing scene in Australia is, in fact, very small. There may be some dozen or more writers of professional level, including at least Damien Broderick, Stephen Dedman, Terry Dowling, Greg Egan, Rosaleen Love, Sean McMullen, Lucy Sussex, George Turner and several others that I might mention. Of these, less than half make their living solely from writing. There are also a number of writers who create very good stories but have been unable to create a regular market for their work here or overseas, including writers who are just getting started like Sean Williams and Rick Kennett, for example.

Divorcing the success of writers from the success of the industry for a moment, the Australian SF industry is yet to establish itself, peaking and troughing unreliably. There are two SF magazines in Australia: Aurealis and Eidolon.

Eidolon's slowly growing circulation is still very small. Aurealis's circulation has dropped from a high of 10,000 copies to somewhere around half that today, and they have gone from quarterly to biannual. There are a few horror 'zines around, principally Bloodsongs, but it can't be sold over the counter which must restrict its circulation.

In the book market, there are two small presses, Aphelion and MirrorDanse. Aphelion have averaged three books a year for the past few years, printing approximately 2,000 copies of each title. Of these, only Rynosseros by Terry Dowling and Alien Shores have sold out, and I understand the publisher may be scaling publication down to one title in 1996. MirrorDanse has produced three chapbooks, with print-runs of up to five hundred copies. While the work published is of high quality, the income to authors and potential market penetration is limited by the print run. This leaves new writers, and more established writers with restricted market appeal without publishers at the moment.

As to the mass market, no one in Australia currently publishes hardcover editions of science fiction by Australians in this country outside the young adult market. For example, Greg Egan is published in hardcover in the UK and George Turner by Morrow in the US. Pan MacMillan and HarperCollins (two large English publishing houses) publish mass market paperback editions of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Pan MacMillan started publishing fantasy by Australians (Martin Middleton, Tony Shillitoe, Shannah Jay etc.) about four years ago.

With one or two exceptions these books were fairly successful, selling three to five thousand copies due to newsstand distribution, but were poorly received critically. HarperCollins in Australia, in keeping with the HarperPrism changes in the US, is just starting to look to publish science fiction and fantasy by Australians. Novels are scheduled from Sean Williams, Simon Brown and Sarah Douglass, and they are looking at more as we speak. The line, launched with BattleAxe by Sarah Douglass, has begun strongly, and it will be interesting to see how well they will do.

This should not be considered to be as grim an assessment as it might at first seem. Considering our population and market history, we are taking strong, positive steps towards developing a local market that will help encourage the development of new and upcoming writers. So, how is Australian SF's golden summer? It's neither. Rather, the first lively green tendrils can be seen in the permafrost, and we have reason to hope.

Jonathan Strahan

Originally appeared pp. 4 -5, Eidolon 19, October 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Eidolon Publications.