New Adventures in Sci-Fi - Sean Williams
Ticonderoga, April 1999, tpb, 224pp, $19.99.
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan
Sean Williams' first full-length collection is aptly named. Since starting his career in the early 1990s, Williams has systematically learned his chosen trade by exploring the tropes and traditions of the SF field, ultimately working towards developing his own distinctive voice and vision.
Even though the book features just one alien invasion and one major space battle, Williams has still managed to capture the essential energy and inventiveness of classic space opera. "The Soap Bubble" is an elaborate first contact tale where the crew of an exploration vessel save their five-year mission from an erosion of morale and social cohesion by packaging their mission reports to Earth as episodes of a Star Trek-like TV show. It is a story that allows Williams to explore the psychodramatic urges that drive us, simultaneously making some salient observations on the genre itself. The other space opera - the amusingly-titled "The Jacky Onassis Swamp-Buggy Concerto" - has the crew of a spaceship modify their landing craft to race through the lethal methane atmosphere of a world inhabited by an alien race who communicate through music. This is a world where only the tone-deaf survive.
The book's major SF story is the impressive "A Map of the Mines of Barnath". The brother of a man who disappeared into the enormous mines of Barnath travels to the planet to discover what became of him. The mine administrator offers to take him on a "Grand Tour", and tells him of the mysterious director of the mines. Each stratum of the mines, built by Races Other Than Human, is a quantum level larger than the one above it, and time moves differently the further down you go. The story is one of the best in the book.
There is more to Williams than science fiction, and about a third of New Adventures in Sci-Fi is horror or dark fantasy. "Going Nowhere" explores the haunted empty spaces on the highways crossing Australia and is clearly a rehearsal for his best known story, the Aurealis Award-winning "Passing the Bone" where a murdered father races across eastern Australia, from the opal mines of Coober Pedy to the streets of Sydney, to pass on his inheritance to his young son before his body decays beyond functionality. While it has all of the gruesome humour of a classic Weird Tales story, it also has a genuine pathos. Other stories deserving of mention include the eerie "Entre Le Beaux Morts en Vie", where decadent immortals consider the price of their future; "Reluctant Misty & the House on Burden Street", in which a house is more haunting than haunted; and "Atrax" (co-written with Simon Brown), where the fear of spiders nearly kills a shuttle pilot.
New Adventures in Sci-Fi showcases the variety of work that Williams has published in the past decade, and emphasises the increasing depth and maturity of that work. If there is a feeling that only better lies ahead, it is because of the progression made clear in these pages. Anyone wanting to understand science fiction in Australia in the 1990s needs this book. Highly recommended.
|©1999 Jonathan Strahan.
This review originally appeared in Locus.