SHORT FICTION REVIEWS 3
Eidolon: SF Online - Reviews

Dreaming Down-Under—Jack Dann & Janeen Webb eds.
Voyager Australia, November 1998, tpb, 557pp, $24.95
Reviewed by Simon Brown

Dreaming Down Under is a heavy tome. It weighs in at about 100 kilo, and I need a fork lift to shunt if from my bookshelf to the reading table. More than that, being the anthology it is, and the time when it was published, it carries with it the expectations of a great number of people, and not just its editors and contributors. Perhaps because of its size, and the stated ambitions of editors Dann and Webb, DDU came into the world with signs and portents, and I think many were looking for it to fulfil some kind of prophecy about the Golden Age of Australian SF.

Putting aside arguments about whether or not this country is experiencing such a golden age, the book itself does present an almost complete picture of the state of SF short story writing in Australian at the end of this century; almost complete because, as Dann and Webb admit in their introduction, there are a few noticeables missing from the contents page. However, it makes no sense to me to criticise a book for what it doesn't have when there is so much else on offer.

DDU has thirty-one stories, each accompanied by an editors' introduction and an afterword by the author. The afterwords are almost as much fun to read as the stories themselves, although in a few cases they retrospectively transform the fiction from a story into a thesis nailed to a cathedral door, disappointing when an author should trust her or his tale to not only tell a story but on occasion deliver a message as well.

Out of these 31 stories by 30 authors, I've chosen 15 for the column, six of which make my essential reading list, a remarkable percentage.

The anthology kicks off with Sean Williams' best short effort to date. "Entre les Beaux Morts en Vie" ("Among the Beautiful Living Dead" for all you plebs out there), is about immortality - of a sort. A select few of the world's most wealthy and powerful can become "revenants", pale versions of their former selves that are - barring accident or murder - effectively eternal. Martin Winterford, himself a candidate for the process that produces revenants, visits the "Fool's-Death House" in Switzerland on an errand for his sponsor, his rich and influential uncle, but also finally to decide for himself whether or not he wants to join the circle of immortals.

While at the House he meets the Reve Guillard, one of the very first revenants. The meeting is not accidental. The revenants know of Winterford's imminent decision, and are keen to discover what changes will be heralded by his introduction to their circle, and Guillard is the most influential of her kind; will Winterford be her ally or her enemy?

Williams gradually fills in the world he paints for us with remarkable assurance; as we read, we gradually become aware that there is much more going on in the background than we first suspect, and though not essential to the main story, adds remarkable depth to his future of revenants, interstellar colonies, android "rems" and conglomerates of artificial intelligence.

In the end, the choice Winterford must make for his own future will not be based on a personally moral decision, but on a decision that best serves the needs of his family and, perhaps, the future of all humanity.

Russell Blackford's "The Soldier in the Machine" introduces us to Rhino: "Two metres tall in his scuffed leather Nikes, plus the gray horn implant arching up out of the top of his forehead, he's two-hundred kilos of beef and steroids …"

A real charmer, and bodyguard to Honey Fantasia, who performs in a "miracle band". They arrive in Bangkok at the bequest of the mysterious Colonel, a dealer in high-tech bioware who needs to deliver a package to a research lab in Adelaide. While in Bangkok, Rhino meets a couple of SACIDs, people modified to have "superinstantaneous cognition", basically the ability to "… evade before you shoot; … [correct] before you evade." They are almost superhuman in their ability to take on any opponent and win. The problem is, the Colonel's business rivals also have SACIDs to call upon, and Rhino is an essential part of the plan to get the package out of Bangkok and to its buyer.

As with Williams' story, we have a whole future world here that is dramatically different from our own. Many of the changes are only hinted at, but the impression is of a society dominated by global tech and communication companies, and under the sway of enhancing drugs and incredibly complex bioware. Blackford convinces the reader that this is the future we will have, with all its gritty, dark and forbidding particulars. A kind of cyberpunk on speed.

Blackford's universe, power of description, use of dialogue and sharply delineated characters, makes "The Soldier in the Machine" a great read

Lord, how to describe Damien Broderick's "The Womb"? UFOs, paranoia, new age religion and a nifty take on Hubbard, Heinlein and belief structures generally makes for something of a roller-coaster ride, but Broderick is too experienced an author to let us fall out of the car.

Commodore the Reverend Daimon Keith establishes the Church of Jesus Christ, Time Traveller, the name later changed to just Scionetics, after almost a lifetime of abductions by grey aliens. He knows what is going on, and with a kind of dedication best described as casual rather than fanatical, goes about telling the rest of the world.

His daughter, Rosa, recently reunited with him, is our key to understanding Keith and his view of the universe. She tells him she doesn't believe his stories about alien abductions. "It doesn't matter … " he tells her. "Call it a metaphor, if you like." And that's the point. We can call Keith's version of reality nothing more than a metaphor, but a metaphor for what? What is the meaning? And dutifully, as a father should, he explains this to Rosa too: "… we love to write the universe into a text, and then to interpret it as if someone else had written it."

The universe has no meaning or relevance for us humans. What meaning it does have is what we have put there ourselves. A hard pill to swallow. So, are Keith's stories about abductions nothing more than his own metaphor for helping him understand his place in the universe? Of course. Is Keith himself aware of this? Of course. But then why does he resist his own fantasies? Are his psychoses becoming real? Or were they real all the time?

The story itself provides no answers, just lots of clues. What stops "The Womb" fragmenting into a series of philosophical conundrums is Broderick's creation of Keith, and the exposition of his relationship with his daughter. It is the essential human element of the story that keeps the reader going, wanting answers, wanting some kind of confirmation of Keith's or Rosa's reality. As Keith explains to his daughter: "… our brains are good at … making up stories …"

In Tess Williams "The Body Politic" the story is subsumed by the message. Williams writes so well it is forgivable, but I can't help wonder how much better the telling would have been if the characters, the prostitute Lilly and her client - the "Joe", had been more important than the fable. The "black widow" theme isn't new in our genre, and needs more than moral impetus to give it fresh life. Nonetheless, there is a finely realised future in this story, lurking in the background like a third protagonist. "The Body Politic" is, I think, a failed experiment, but for all that the story lingers in the memory, testament to Williams' skill as a writer.

David J. Lake's "The Truth About Weena" is an alternative version (or perhaps, in a sense, a sequel - it's so damn tricky with time travel) of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, with George Hillyer as the author and Wells (here called Welles) as a scientist friend of the Traveller. It is Welles who explains how the Traveller starts a new time line every occasion he takes one of his temporal trips. On one of these journeys, the Traveller brings Weena - the Eloi girl he fell in love with on his first trip to the future - back with him to Victorian England. But is it the same Weena? And what effect will she have on the fictional future of Wells's original novel?

Lake's affection for Wells's work shines through, and at no time did I feel that he had really taken any liberty with either the spirit or the characters of The Time Machine. When I finished reading "The Truth About Weena", I almost wished the 20th century had turned out the way Lake describes it; there's a great deal to be said for science fiction that explores the possibilities of a calmer, more united and more peaceful world. Lake expresses that yearning for utopia with sublime ease.

Rosaleen Love's "Real Men", more sound bites than story, takes as its starting point an actual incident in 1997, when someone poured diesel fuel over the Melbourne Grand Prix track. If, as one outraged politician asserted - "Real men drive real cars" - then perhaps the perpetrator of the fuel spill was an "unreal" man? Love cleverly, if a little maniacally, explores corollaries and their implications for the way we assume so much about the world. By the end of "Real Men", the allusions and metaphors start to climb over each other, and even Satan makes a guest appearance. "Real Men" is a hoot, and travels about as fast as a Formula One jalopy skidding sideways on a diesel spill.

Jane Routley's "To Avalon", despite the title, is more an example of magical realism than straight out fantasy. Four young Australians on a kind of cultural pilgrimage make their way to Glastonbury Tor, one of the supposed sites of Avalon; on arrival much of the glamour of the place is dispelled by the number of other visitors and the mundane presence of sheep: "But when they got to Glastonbury Tor … there was no magic … [It] was more a kingdom of sheep than a kingdom of faerie."

But our viewpoint character, Gina, does eventually find there magic of a sort, and ironically enough it will involve that most common (for Australians, at least) of creatures. The real charm of "To Avalon" comes from the quickly sketched-in characters of Gina and her three companions, ordinary people looking for an extraordinary experience. By emphasising the everyday, Routley neatly delivers a gentle surprise at the end of the story.

Terry Dowling's "He Tried to Catch the Light" attempts to deliver magic of a different sort, mystical rather than mythical. Ham Donauer, religiously speaking, is a blank slate. Isolated since birth from any religious influence or experience whatsoever ("controlled deprivation"), he is the subject of an elaborate experiment established by his own wealthy father to discover what a human knows a priori, "naturally and intuitively". Trained operators mentally link with Ham while he is in a dream state to observe what he is actually thinking and perceiving. One of the observers from the latest experiment had made a momentous revelation from her sojourn through Ham's mind: "God is just a by-product of our perception of light."

But Dowling's purpose here is not to establish some kind of rational explanation for spiritual experiences. After the last experiment goes horribly wrong, Ham struggles to explain to the scientific team running the operation that humans are governed by more than simple logic, that not all things are necessarily knowable or need to be knowable: "Humanity is also intuition, gestalt knowing, conviction."

Aaron Sterns' "The Third Rail" shows us a New York through a fever-induced miasma, a city that has become a nightmare for the lonely, frightened narrator. Life in New York is a case of us and them, "them" being subject to random acts of horrifying violence committed with an almost detached ennui. For most of the story we're convinced that the narrator is one of "them", a terrifying prospect, but ultimately his true status, bestowed upon him with the message that the "city looks after its own", may prove to be an even worse fate. Sterns' writing draws you into his personal nightmare; the story, told in the present tense, has great immediacy and economy. Effectively, chillingly, done.

Isobelle Carmody's "The Man Who Lost His Shadow" also uses a city, Prague, as backdrop for an exploration of estrangement and isolation. The narrator discovers his shadow is missing, and his attempt to find it leads him through a cityscape as casually violent as Sterns' New York, but in this tale it is less a case of "us and them" and more a case of "I alone". Characters met in the story are in a sense reflections of the narrator's own loneliness and confusion, guiding and propelling him along a psychological journey without any hope of salvation at the end. Strangely, "The Man Who Lost His Shadow" is filled with neither despair nor nihilism, but with a kind of revelatory light. As a study of loneliness, of humanity set adrift, it is a moving and memorable experience. What makes the story work, what keeps it so finely balanced between cliché and absurdity, is Carmody's exceptional skills as an author.

From Carmody's reinterpretation of Persephone, to Kerry Greenwood's reinterpretation of Dionysus and Ariadne. In "Jetsam", the narrator is a judge in a near future society who presides over cases involving gang members and drug users, in a legal system that can be bought by those with wealth and influence, and where citizens determined not to be happy or well-adjusted are subject to "Compulsory Counselling". Almost like Australia in 1999, in fact. She flees her apartment and work to spend a cold and stormy day at the beach, leaving behind any device that would enable her to be contacted. There, she discovers a man washed up by the sea, still alive but terribly weak. She helps him to a nearby cave where there is some protection from the elements and over the next few hours slowly nurses him back to some kind of health.

Greenwood's protagonist, as much a victim of her society as those she judges, finds a kind of momentary release with the man, a playing out of the Dionysian festivals held in ancient Greece. The enforced mores and behaviour of the state are thrown away in an action without regard to consequence or propriety. And in the morning her god is gone, and the storm has passed over. But the promise that there is more to life than regulation, obligation and service, ensures the story is upbeat in tone and gently affirming.

Claudia Dejerine, in Chris Lawson's "Unborn Again", is a pathologist who suffers from Parkinson's disease; in a desperate gamble to stave off the disease, she undergoes an operation in Hong Kong that involves grafting brain tissue from an aborted foetus onto her own brain. The operation is successful, but the long term effects threaten her sanity. Lawson's moving story succeeds so well because the character of Dejerine, and her arguments with her own conscience, provide both drama and message, with the story always coming first.

If "Unborn Again" reminds us in tone and implication of some of Greg Egan's medical SF, it is an indication of its narrative power and emotional punch rather than its influences. Like Egan, Lawson's strength as a writer lays in his ability to convey convincingly new technology and its possible implications, and bringing to this a human perspective that touches us deeply and morally.

Sara Douglass's medieval tale, "The Evil Within", blurs the boundary between fantasy and horror. Friar Arnaud Courtete is sent by Bishop Fournier to investigate reports of an infestation of evil in the Pyrenees town of Gebetz. Fournier is concerned that Gebetz's parish priest, the young and inexperienced Father Planissole, has let things get away from him, and he wants Courtete to check up on what is going on. If things are truly as bad as Planissole seems to be making out, Fournier tells the friar, he will send Guillaume Maury and his hunting pack to take care of things, a fate perhaps worse than any infestation.

Gebetz is indeed infested, but as the story's title suggests, the real evil lays under a cloak of innocence, of normality. How Courtete and Planissole, at first mutually antagonistic but increasingly forced together as allies, deal with the problems besetting Gebetz makes not only for a good yarn, but also an intriguing insight into how the mind of medieval Europeans - who implicitly believed in evil's ability to manifest itself in the form of demons and imps - may have worked. With such a heritage, it is no wonder that tales of the macabre and bizarre still resonate so strongly in our modern imagination.

Robert Hood's "Tamed" develops even further the concept that our own imagination creates the monsters that bedevil and threaten us. Torm is searching for the one who can help rid the world of these manifestations - the "drontagis corruption". He attaches himself to the household of Bryalt, someone Torm believes has the ability to resist, even influence, the corruption and the metamorphosed humans and devils it creates. In reality Bryalt is barely holding back the corruption, and when his mother dies, worn out from hard work and fear, the evil on their farm breaks out in full force. Torm's hopes, however, are kept alive by Bryalt's sister, Eisha, who reveals she too has influence over the drontagis.

Hood's fantasy world is only partially realised in this story, but there is enough there to keep the reader intrigued, wanting to learn more. Most effective, is the corruption itself and how it is manifested, by twisting and changing the dead into a form both horrifying and psychologically atavistic. Torm and the others are confronted with the darker sides of their own psyches.

Ian Nichols delves into beings that are far more ancient than we humans - the elder gods, once our manipulators and parasites, and always looking for a way to reassert themselves at our expense. "The Last Dance" is a curious blend of two ghettos, rock & roll and SF, something rare in Australian writing, although much more common in stories from American authors. Nichols manages to make the story feel distinctly Australian, not just in its setting, but in its description of the people living in the country, scrabbling a hard and often unrewarding living from the desiccated soils of Western Australia.

The narrator is member of a rock group invited to an isolated pub for a dance, but the band members soon learn their music is going to have to do a lot more than get the locals on their feet and jiving. It is new music against old, human energy and inspiration against the influence of beings almost overwhelmingly powerful, and to whom we are still drawn like moths to a candle.

Though the old gods are defeated in the end, there is no sweet victory. The welcome and weary return of the band to the city from whence they came is surrender of a kind, and a parting shot at the gap between those who live isolated and lonely lives apart from the metropolises that are our species' greatest achievements. It almost feels like the band is leaving the locals behind to their own fate, while the ancient ones, licking their wounds, wait patiently for the next opportunity to arise again.

©1999 Simon Brown.

Jack Dann is the Nebula Award-winning author of The Memory Cathedral, The Silent, and The Man Who Melted amongst others. He is also the editor of the Magic Tales series of anthologies with Gardner Dozois, and the much lauded anthology of Jewish science fiction Wandering Stars.

Janeen Webb is a Ditmar and Aurealis Award-winning author, and an internationally heralded critic.



Essential reading

Quite a list this time round, but not surprising considering the overall quality of Dreaming Down Under.

Russell Blackford
"The Soldier in the Machine"

Damien Broderick
"The Womb"

Isobelle Carmody
"The Man Who Lost His Shadow"

David J. Lake
"The Truth About Weena"

Chris Lawson
"Unborn Again"

Sean Williams
"Entre les Beaux Morts en Vie"



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