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I enjoyed most of the fiction. "The Godfather Paradox" was a new twist on the changing-the-past-never-gives-you-what-you-want theme, with a lot of convincing historical detail-I'd be perfectly willing to believe that Christopher Cates was a real person-and [featured] a typically wonderful Shaun Tan illustration. "The Other Side of Paradise" was great fun, and "Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral" was moving and strange, with the eerie dream-logic association between the pressure of the ocean depths and the hydraulic press. "Blind Seeking the Blind" was very stylishly written, but the plot didn't really hang together for me. "The Perfect Gun" dragged in places-at times it seemed to drop into a pace more suited to a novel-but overall it was very satisfying. Like Kathleen Ann Goonan's Queen City Jazz, it read like a kind of exorcism of the obsessive regurgitation and re-enactment of so much contemporary culture. I thought Sean Williams' "A Map of the Mines of Barnath" in #16 was even better, though: Alien rewritten by Tarkovsky. And "Critical Embuggerance" was as entertaining a walk through Robin Pen's Country of the Mind as ever.
George Turner's essay, "A Dissatisfied Client", seemed to ignore most of the cases where science fiction has delivered more or less what he seems to think it should; John Brunner, for example, didn't even rate a mention! Stand On Zanzibar was [published] in the '60s, true-but then it did what it did so well that most later works on similar themes have attracted far less attention, because of the very fact that they've been written in its shadow. But a large proportion of near-future SF now assumes overpopulation, food shortages, and various degrees of environmental catastrophe as background to be taken for granted-neither magically banished, nor treated as the central theme.
The real-world solutions to the worst of these problems have been understood for decades: improved education, economic power, and control over fertility for women, and a shift away from energy-inefficient meat consumption, are the two trends that matter most in opposing overpopulation and food shortages. Just how bad things will become in the fifty years or so before the global population stabilizes, no one really knows, but Turner is unfair both in claiming that SF ignores the whole issue (just because not every work is as pessimistic as he'd prefer), and in expecting it to offer some special new insight that everyone else has missed. And when SF does offer anything new, Turner derides it as "silly" super-technological fantasy.
Technology will affect what happens in the next fifty years. The limiting factor in food production is not "the sheer bulk of material suitable for conversion into food" as Turner claims, but energy in the form of sunlight, and there's no reason SF should ignore the fact that genetic engineering will improve crop efficiency, making more of this energy available-or the fact that biotechnology will influence fertility control as well.
Beyond all these obvious steps, though . . . if anyone is aware of a more useful strategy, I do hope they're not wasting their time writing an SF novel about it, but are doing their best to bring it to the attention of a vastly wider audience.
It seems all too easy to be dismissive of science fiction at the present time. Somehow it has failed to meet a set of requirements it was never envisaged as fulfilling. It's interesting to see a viewpoint expressed that puts more in things perspective.
Dear Richard, Jonathan and Jeremy
I found the articles by Greg Egan and George Turner particularly interesting. Greg has a point, of course. This excessive concentration on "Australianness" isn't confined to the world of science fiction, however. Peter Carey's The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, for example, didn't even make the Miles Franklin short list, presumably because, in the judges opinion, it did not reflect "Australian life in all its aspects" or some such nonsense. (Speaking of Carey, I'd have thought that Tristan Smith would have warranted some sort of review in your magazine. Although not marketed as such, it's surely the most accomplished piece of science fiction ever produced in this country.)
I sympathize with George Turner's position. Science fiction in general appears to be at a low ebb at the moment. Apart from George himself and Greg Egan, there are very few science fiction writers whose work I look forward to with any great degree of anticipation whatsoever. I used to be a great admirer of Iain M Banks, but he appears to have lost the plot of late, while D G Compton (a long-time favorite of mine) has, according to my information, abandoned the genre completely. You only have to survey the science fiction/fantasy rack at any bookstore to see just how much dreck is being published these days. For what it's worth, if George is looking for an author with a touch of genius about him, I suggest he try Cormac McCarthy-although I'm probably not telling him anything he doesn't know already. (Not a science fiction writer, of course, but almost Faulknerian in his vision.)
Best wishes and congratulations again on a fine magazine. Australian SF owes you a great deal.
Thank you for your kind comments, Andrew. However, you might want to consider this when looking at science fiction today: how much of it is genuinely disappointing and how much of it fails to meet a set of criteria that have grown richer and more complex with your own growing sophistication as a reader? It seems that many readers start reading SF during their childhood years, and then become disillusioned when it fails to meet their adult expectations.
Dear Jonathan, Jeremy and Richard
It was interesting to see two of our leading dystopians sharing the non-fiction podium this time. Taking their articles together, I'm reminded of Freud admitting to Romain Rolland that he'd never had a "oceanic" (ie spiritual) feeling, and am convinced that not only do many writers work different sides of the mountain but that some can't really conceive of an equally valid alternative to their side.
I long ago accepted that George has a narrow, to my mind quite limited view of what SF is and should be doing. While it was good to have him berating us again, perhaps he should just accept that as well as SF, right from the start we had its good-time, somewhat braindead cousin sci-fi, and that most of what he decries is this. As Damien Broderick points out in his interesting and valuable Reading by Starlight, "an opportunistic market has forced a return to the 1930s". We're talking about people earning livings as storytellers, not performing some higher duty, though, alas, some of us are driven by demons.
As for his gripes about the mainstream and lack of recognition, perhaps he should simply remember that the modern novel is actually quite a tired literary "white elephant" in most instances, that the perceived mainstream is quite likely a misreading of events, that it will be precisely things like science fiction, the cinema and mainstream, surrealism, the videoclip, jazz, advertising etc. which stand to be seen as the representative mainstream forms of the present century. Apparently Van Gogh only ever sold a painting to his brother. Shakespeare and Dickens were writing popular entertainment, not literature.
Despite its odd and unfortunate tone, it's easy to agree with much of what Greg said in his article. There may not be a Miracle Ingredient A as he describes it, but that won't save us. There will always be misconceptions about what is uniquely Californian or Australian, South American as opposed to Spanish etc., just as there will be astrologers, dream books and reification in plotting the psychopathology of the mentally ill.
Greg suggests that critics and reviewers, many with excellent credentials making carefully considered observations, persist in identifying such a quality because of misperception or orientalism. It's easy to see why he'd stipulate the latter. All societies have needed and will continue to need the Exotic Other (and will invent it if it isn't available). Despite the looming spectre of global homogeneity, I'm sure there will [always] be exotification as a useful economic strategy. It's great for tourism. We too might wear our baseball caps backwards, but in a land where the year begins and ends in summer, it cannot ever be the same. Still, misperception then? Reification? Or astute observation despite the dangers Greg feels we should be alerted to?
Since Greg does allude to my Locus interview so much, let me give the rest of the picture as a way of highlighting what I consider to be the main issue here. I was honored that Charlie Brown wanted to do an interview, delighted when it appeared, and was reasonably pleased with it considering I has my worst cold in eight years and-a cardinal rule broken-didn't get to review the copy before it appeared. They were very accurate with the transcription, and I'm probably 60% happy with how it turned out. Not that I would have changed the thrust of the remarks that Greg cited. I believe there can be a distinctive and important Australian quality (can be, not automatically is) and that it can make a difference.
So there I was, rugged up, sipping my mug of Theraflu, with Charlie asking again and again, "Yes, but what makes Australian science fiction different?" I quite frankly did not know and still don't. I'd tell him so, and he'd ask the question again. My point is that others perceive it, sense it. I often do, though not as others might think. The year before, speaking of what was appearing from Australian writers, Charlie had said. "We need you", meaning that the prevailing US/UK genre scene stood to gain an important freshness and vigor from a different perspective, a different mindset and possibly a different methodology, even from (paradoxically, given Greg's remarks) a lack of self-consciousness, political correctness, excessive concern with certain prevailing vested interests, etc. Reviewers of Mortal Fire and other recent Australian genre anthologies have expressed a similar sentiment.
I have a stake in this of course. My Tom Rynosseros work has been called distinctively Australian by quite a few reviewers now. Even this magazine ran a considered and gracious review of Blue Tyson by Michael Tolley, where he described it as "authentically and uniquely Australian". If such were the case merely because the Tom stories are set in Australia and written by an Australian, then I believe a great deal is being missed (or cannot be related, to make this distinction). I don't consider that claims like Tolley's and by those other critics are true simply because of Australian authorship, setting and decor. In a sense, the setting and subject matter are incidental; I suspect it's the human issue and a prevailing set of perceptions and set of sensibilities which make it otherwise, and which they are sensing: something we're quite possibly too close to to identify properly yet.
Where my own work is concerned, the commentators who seem to have come closest to the mark are Damien Broderick when he says: "Despite a sense of brooding development, the books resemble a Thousand and One Nights of the future, a medieval display of epiphanies locked into a certain timelessness", which highlights what are for me important, universal, non-specifically Australian literary objectives perfectly (no one quibbles about an Arabian setting for Scheherezade's tales, cultural forms, terminologies etc.), and Van Ikin when he allows the possibility of an important (for me) double focus, one that is both relevant to a vital local experience and yet a common, universal one: "A myth of sheer being emerges . . . The profound myths of Twilight Beach break the old chains of identity, portraying Australia as a realm where conditions allow an exalted existentialism". When I cite Shakespeare, Melville and Patrick White-parochial yet universal writers all-among my influences, then the nature of this process becomes even clearer.
Patrick White received a Nobel for excellence in showing how the human spirit transcends whatever context it is in, and I believe that an Australian experience-an Australianness-flavors that achievement in a crucial way. Is this parochialism? If so, then we're in that same grab-bag with all those others parochial, orientalising, often transcending authors like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Bores, Twain; those using Miracle Ingredients E, R, B and so on to get beyond the parochial and inevitable self-mythologising. The self-consciousness and parochialism Greg noted may just be a determination to understand process. Perhaps we simply need to remember how paradigms and mindsets are in fact made.
I do happen to believe in an "Australian experience", and while I suspect that Greg and George would hardly be ones to read David Tacey's The Edge of the Sacred with any sympathy, it doesn't alter the fact that they're probably the ones who need to grok the issues. Having read their fiction and public commentaries I suspect they probably can't. Perhaps there are just experiences of reality some folks miss out on or, to allow the contrary viewpoint, that some folks persist in finding. So be it.
The real problem becomes one of labeling generally, something I told the Word Festival in Canberra in 1993 (and which I refer to on pages 186-187 of An Intimate Knowledge of the Night). It's wonderfully ironic that in accusing some Australian writers and critics of parochialism, Greg (like George) should remains so parochial himself by persisting in seeing SF as distinct from a perceived mainstream, urging us to start writing "real SF, SF with no adjective, like everyone else". How about making that "real fiction, fiction with no adjective, like everyone else"? That way we get rid of both cultural and genre cringe, George's mainstream starts to be seen for the diverse, non-generic, non-elitist, unpredictable bastard it's always been, and an Australian experience simply becomes part of making it a truly representative global phenomenon.
Dear Eidolon et al
And it was worth it. There's simply so much in this ish that it's hard to generalize. The fiction was of a high standard, I thought, with K J McKenzie's and Harlan Ellison's being my nominal favorites (although I enjoyed Stephen Dedman's a great deal as well); every story had something to offer. Artwork, likewise fine overall: particularly liked the woodcut-esque illo for Andrew Whitmore's story. And Hoover must be rolling in his grave!
The non-fiction was exceptionally interesting this issue. The
Pen was in fine form, covering more ground than usual; "Post-Brechtian
Contra-Dynamics"? And Greg Egan . . . what can I say? I agree
with him completely. Nationalism (for me) has always been conceptually
inseparable from racism (its better-dressed twin brother, if you
like), and to say that there could be such thing as "Australian-ness",
or "English-ness" or "Pakistani-ness", seems
(to me) to be short-sighted in the extreme. But I wouldn't be
surprised to find "Miracle Ingredient A" defended vigorously
in the next issue. Anything to cling on to; the "rest of
the world" looks quite scary when you insist upon making
it something other.
Regarding Lucy Cohen Schmeidler's article and the use of Australia, or Australian place-names, as an exotic, far-off detail: when I was a young lad, it used to give me a buzz every time Australia was mentioned in SF, no matter how fleetingly. Most often in sweeping lists-like "Bangladesh, New York, Moscow and Sydney" or "London, Cairo, Melbourne and Capetown"-designed to encompass the whole Earth in one lazy gesture. But I was always disappointed that Adelaide, the closest to a home town I'll ever have, was never mentioned. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine, even Hobart . . . but never Adelaide. Is it really that dull down here? (I guess I already know the answer to that one. Sigh.)
George Turner's article-for all the important and valid things it had to say-left a slightly bitter aftertaste, the origins of which I was only vaguely aware of until I actually sat down and thought about it. These origins were as follow:
"the generally low standard of sf writing"
This may well be the case, if you lump gaming fiction and shared-world etc. in with the rest-but does that mean that James Morrow is a bad writer? That Robert Holdstock (at his best) is a bad writer too? And what about Karen Joy Fowler and Howard Waldrop and Terry Dowling? Or Greg Egan and Kim Stanley Robinson? Who is to judge what is "good" and what is "bad", anyway?
It seems to me that what George wants from an SF novel is three-fold: he wants a work of literature, a work of speculation, and a work of relevance; that is, it must be written well, must have new ideas, and must be pertinent in some way to our own society.
My response to that is: so? That's what every SF reader wants from a novel. Yet how can any one author be expected to (a) write like Ballard, (b) think like Robert L Forward, and (c) have all the skills of a social (and psychological) analyst-at the same time? No wonder George has been disappointed by recent (and, presumably, all) SF: there are only so few superhumans born every century.
And that raised an important question: would the market today support such a superhuman? Does the average punter even want cutting-edge sf . . ?
"the serious novelist's job"
If you were to ask me what a novelist's job is, I'd reply that it is to develop a plot, to construct characters with which a reader can identify, to educate, and to entertain: basically to tell a story that will broaden the mind. It seems to me that, although science fiction is often perceived to be a predictive tool-"examining the present and evolving the future from it"-this is not the defining nub of the genre. But then, maybe I'm not "serious" enough.
Predicting the next fifty years is the hardest thing any science fiction author can do (apart from predicting the next twenty): invariably the trends/data/gut-feelings on which you base your predictions will turn out to be either wrong or incomplete, which renders your book dated and unread within a decade, regardless of what other merits it may possess. If a writer wants to take a short at immortality-as all writers do, let's face it-then setting a book in the near future is a sure way to ensure that it will be quickly forgotten (unless he or she actually gets it right). So an author's socially relevant novel today, warning the reader about a possible future, may be relevant for only a handful of years, after which, what use is it to anyone?
Assuming for the moment that overpopulation is "the most menacing threat to world stability yet to appear" (which is probably fair enough, taking into account overpopulation's secondary effects, such as disease, pollution and depletion of non-renewable resources-although this assumption does ignore other serious threats like meteor strikes and natural climate change viz solar flares or a sudden reversal of the terrestrial magnetic field) yes, people are interested in learning about these things; look at the extraordinary success of Ben Elton's Stark as a perfectly good example of grim predictions selling. But we have to ask ourselves what we, as writers, are going to teach them. And is it our job to do so?
By choosing to write such a "serious" novel, an author might well come to believe that our future is going to be gloomy and depressing in whatever particular way. Does that mean, then, that she should henceforth write novels only in this gloomy and depressing world? Is it her job to act as an early warning system? Is it her responsibility to do so? Would she betray some sort of human duty to warn everybody else if she chose to become optimistic for a change, to ignore the problem by setting fiction in a distant or alternate future simply because she wanted to write about happy people for a change?
Don't get me wrong. I agree: a balanced argument would be good. As the future gets grimmer, everyone looks for shelter in romances and adventures and space operas (which is like tucking your head in the sand while the legendary Illinois Enema Bandit is on the prowl: a rude shock seems inevitable).
But, at the same time, I don't think that this is the role that science fiction as a whole is intended to play; and I therefore believe that it is unfair to damn science fiction as a whole for failing in this regard.
Besides, who knows what's going to happen? Maybe, against all odds, there will be some scientific cure for our woes just around the corner. Maybe the death of the planet, and billions of people in the process, will turn out to be good for humanity as a whole, in the long run.
I guess the greater part of what I'm trying to say is this: how can George Turner, or anyone else, belittle the optimists when there's a chance, no matter how small, that the pessimists might be wrong?
"why do I continue to write the stuff"
Lastly: while I am one of the many people eagerly awaiting the next George Turner novel, I found it quite sad to read why it is being written. Surely the worst reason to write a book-when it's the only reason-is because you promised your publisher one.
Anyway, that's enough nit-picking at George's article. I simply wanted to congratulate Eidolon on a fine issue, and to thank you for continuing to support my work. Seeing "The Perfect Gun" published at last was a real thrill, especially with such complementary artwork. Three cheers for Shaun! And thanks for everything. That's it until next time.
What George didn't talk about, but what he should have, is the truly disguised SF novel; where the genre's traditional schticks are immersed and marinated in such style that the content becomes secondary to the way in which the story is told. We are diverted by the sheer elan of the technique and style that we simply forget that this theme, situation, what have you, has been done to death over and over, ad nauseam, ad infinitum. Or that the concerns are facile and meaningless. The likes of David Brin and Gregory Benford, who once promised so much in their exploration of strangeness, now leave an empty feeling. Terry Dowling sometimes gives you a sense that "there is something going on here", and yet by the end you have a skeleton of a story. Sometimes the paucity of the rewards simply does not justify the huge effort put into reading such literature.
What is going on?
Yes, there is so much material out there George, so why in hell aren't we using it, and better still, abusing it? For me there are a number of reasons, off the cuff. One that comes to mind is the all-pervading political correctness that seems to have seeped into the very blood and bones of our culture. It stops us from making decisions, expounding opinions and alternative beliefs by providing socially acceptable rules and limits. This is exactly what SF shouldn't be about. We should be exploring perversions, differences, newnesses in a startling and direct way. Another reason is that technology is catching up to the bulk of established writers: the cliché 'the future is now' needs to be taken seriously by those writers who ignore SF as a product of the times, those who blindly see themselves as beyond any Marxist 'social product' literary interpretation. Issues that concerned writers in the sixties are still being reworked and rehashed by anyone with a reputation, and producing no new insights, hacking no new paths in the jungle of the imagination. The heritage, the huge hulking honeypot of stock SF, is too tempting not to dip into. But the real reason, in my opinion, is all too human. As thinkers, we have become lazy. Extrapolation, clear-headed thinking about the consequences of present-day realities, the very hallmark of good SF, has become almost obsolete. If you don't believe me then try to give me an example of a literary trend that is post-cyberpunk, because we are living cyberpunk now. I bet you can't.
So what's happening to the future?
The future is a wild and unexplored place. The further we go, the stranger it will get. Robert Silverberg once wrote that good literary visions of a far future for him had the quality of a "long sustained nightmare". Powerful stuff. And I know exactly what he means. I'd like to say "Help me, Eidolon, and get dangerous!" but I realize that you depend on your writers. I'd like to say "Help me and get dangerous" to them.
Oh, and Eidolon, on a similar note, but arrived at by totally different cognitive processes, is my exception to Rosaleen Love's "Sex and Death". Please, if you have not, or if you have forgotten it, read again the masterful "Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death" by the late James Tiptree Jr; and I make no apology for asking you to find out for yourself who James Tiptree Jr really was. Make comparisons, and keep your conclusions to yourself or risk controversy.
S. Petar Belic
PS: The reason why Castle of Eyes did so poorly in terms of retail sales was because of its cover art. Frankly, it was appalling. Realistically and unfortunately, and especially in this particular genre, a lot of readers do start by judging a book by its cover.
Thank you for your comments and spirited agreement with George's article. The cult of novelty is well-established in older science fiction circles, and it is always entertaining to read another restatement of it. As to your comments regarding James Tiptree Jr and her fine story, and your comparisons to Rosaleen Love's story: I can only refer you back to the text. Surely with close reading the differences are self-evident.
Lucy Cohen Schmeidler
PS: An Australian e-mail correspondent wrote me that my essay "made a useful, happy counterpoint to Greg's piece."
Originally appeared pp. 108-114, Eidolon 19, October 1995.
Copyright © 1995 Eidolon Publications. Individual contributions are copyright to the respective authors.
Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.