Centaurus: The Best of Australian Science Fiction - David G. Hartwell & Damien Broderick eds
Tor, July 1999, HC, 528pp, $US29.95.
Reviewed by Jonathan Strahan

Centaurus gathers together a selection of 29 SF stories written by Australians and published between 1971 and 1999. Only the second anthology of its kind published outside Australia, it gives a very modern view of a colonised secular nation and of its visions of the future.

The oldest story in the book, A. Bertram Chandler's rather awkward "The Mountain Movers", has Lieutenant Grimes visit the outback region of a colonised world that is a thinly disguised Australia. When one of his travelling companions discovers that a massive Uluru-like rock is actually a spaceship, it comes as little surprise. The story does, though, reflect the somewhat ill-informed and patronising views of late '60s/early '70s Australia - a nation still dominated by white Anglo-Saxon migrants like Chandler himself. It contrasts strongly with the newest story, Chris Lawson's sophisticated and ironic "Written in Blood". Lawson tells of two Muslim Australians, a father and daughter, who travel to Mecca to commemorate the death of their wife and mother respectively. There they meet a man who has discovered how to inscribe the Qur'an on DNA - it becomes an act of faith the makes possible a test for religion. Like modern Australia, it is an intensely modern and non-secular tale.

While it is possible to put an "Australian" interpretation on many of these stories, few of the writers seem obviously concerned with reflecting an "Australian" experience or nationalistic worldview. And, generally, those that do are the weaker stories in the book. Instead, it is the variety and individuality of the stories that stands out. Greg Egan's "Wang's Carpets", (now part of his novel Diaspora) is easily the strongest story here. His view of a vast biological computer running alien virtual reality worlds is chillingly Stapledonian, but not particularly Australian. The same could be said of Sean Williams' "A Map of the Mines of Barnath, which tells of a man who has disappeared into the enormous, alien mines of Barnath, and is strongly reminiscent of Greg Bear's "Hardfought". Terry Dowling's haunting Ballardian tale, "Privateer's Moon", comes from his "Rynosseros" sequence and tells of a house built to be played as a musical instrument by the prevailing desert winds. There are many other excellent stories in the book - Lucy Sussex' "My Lady Tongue", Stephen Dedman's "From Whom All Blessings Flow" and Cherry Wilder's "Looking Forward to the Harvest", for example - but the story which surprised me the most is the seemingly easily dismissed "The Colonel's Tiger" by Hal Colebatch. Written for Larry Niven's Man-Kzin Wars series of anthologies, it is a surprisingly intelligent look at a world that has renounced war, and at first contact.

Broderick and Hartwell have assembled a book that will be published to coincide with the third World Science Fiction Convention to be held in Australia, and that is intended to give non-Australian readers an overview of Australian SF. As such, it succeeds, and succeeds admirably. Highly recommended.

©1999 Jonathan Strahan.
This review originally appeared in Locus.