The latest issue of Aurealis is, I think, the best yet; four stories in particular caught my attention, and two of them were good enough to reach my essential reading list.
Sacha Davis's "Mating Habits" is his first published work, and a remarkably assured piece. It is a variation on the "black widow" theme so popular in the broader genre, but played with a unique twist and from an alien perspective, making it all seem quite fresh again. Daramyr, a sentient arthropod of some description, is nearing the end of her pregnancy; her companion and nurse, Myranymr, is jealous and spiteful, and weighs heavily on Daramyr's patience. It is not giving away too much to tell you that Myranymr ends up contributing more than moral support. Davis spoils some of the effect with a last paragraph that is both unnecessary and belaboured, but overall he has successfully written a strange mix of feminist fable and horror story which makes no pretence at delivering a message, only a good yarn.
Kaaron Warren's "The Glass Woman" is a masterful tale of repression and exploitation, and works as a kind of metaphor as well as a chilling slice of horror. The reason the story works on all these levels is due entirely to Warren's skill as a writer. Here, for example, is her opening paragraph:
"Feeding time. The Glass Woman in her glass box swallowed tomato soup, home-made, bright red, and we watched as it travelled to her stomach where, when she moved gently, it swayed like liquid in a wave machine. "
The Glass Woman is kept in a glass cage, where men can view her for a fee. The more they pay, the more intimate actions they get to see and the greater their chance to interact. The narrator is another woman who is brought along by her husband, and on more than one occasion. But women, in cages or not, are there at male convenience and not their own. Despite this, the interaction between the narrator and the Glass Woman seems to be all one way, the narrator receiving little in return for her empathy. Ultimately, the narrator herself is perhaps nothing more than a voyeur, one with greater sympathy or understanding, but nonetheless drawn to the Glass Woman's fate as exhibit, as analogy.
But there is much more at play here than narrative. Metaphor gets such a strong look-in that by the story's end you cannot be sure who is really prisoner, who is really human, and who - ultimately - is really victim.
Naomi Hatchman's "Worm Song" describes an encounter with a human from the alien's viewpoint, in this case large, intelligent and telepathic worms - the product (or possibly by-product) of human science. Krilli and her fellow worms are burrowing tunnels through dangerous ground - at least one of them has died in an explosion - when they come across what may be the last human of all, a woman trapped in the remains of some kind of laboratory. The encounter provides the worms with some hope for their own future, while marking the end of our own species.
In many respects, this is a very 1950s' example of science fiction, the kind where human technology brings about the downfall of the human race. While "Worm Song" is a good read, the story itself is not entirely convincing and may have benefited from a longer telling, something Hatchman is demonstrably capable of pulling off.
Anthony Morris's nightmarish "Love Sick" shows how great love - and the memory of it-can manifest itself obsessively, even perversely. Morris shows us a future inhabited by people subject to diseases only slightly less horrific than the drugs necessary to keep them under control. So desperate is the need for medication that a thriving and illegal trade exists in their use and manufacture -humans are even employed as biological "factories".
The story recounts a short period in the life of Czery, used by a drug middleman to fraudulently obtain a popular medication for redistribution. To do this, Czery must himself become infected with the appropriate disease so he can convince doctors and chemists to give him the medication which he will then pass on to the middleman. The core of the story, however, is Czery's all-consuming love for his wife; how this affects him, and its tragic revelation, ensures "Love Sick" will stay in your memory for a long time.
The first issue of Harbinger, the latest semi-prozine on the Australian SF block, has eight stories, seven by Australians. The stand-out is Brendan Carson's "Bianca the Untaken", a grim tale of passionate love betrayed by a mixture of generosity and a kind of emotional naivety. The two main characters - male narrator and Bianca - sparkle, and while you just know something is going to go wrong, you can't help barracking for the young lovers as their relationship develops. And then along comes Melanie ...
The best story in Harbinger's second issue is Edwina Harvey's "Only Women Bleed". William is a vampire who survives by keeping his blood lust under strict control, feeding only on the menstrual blood of his mistress. His current mistress Annabella is on the verge of menopause, and such is her love for him she recruits her own replacement, Eve. But Eve's loyalties are not to William, and tragedy ensues.
The story's introductory and closing scenes are both distracting and unnecessary, and Harvey occasionally overwrites when she should be more restrained and underwrites when she should be more exuberant. However, the idea behind the tale is strong enough to impress deeply. "Only Women Bleed" is genuinely tender and dramatic, and a neat twist on the vampire myth.
Another new magazine, receiving more attention in the mainstream than within Australian SF circles, is Abaddon. Slickly produced and A4 in size, it contains a peculiar mix of fiction and postmodern criticism. The first issue has four stories, the most interesting of which is Reno Nevada's "Ethel and Her Cross-eyed Typing". To describe Ethel as unworldly is an understatement; she floats in the sky, sniffs department store windows, and eats her lunch alone in the women's toilet. Her greatest trick, however, is to transform normal business letters into delightfully offbeat epistles, eg "We wish to advise that your weekly compensation payments are now currently under review" becomes "We, your weekly compensators, wish to advise you that payment in imminent as a blue sky. "
While slight, "Ethel" is an amusing exercise in magical realism, something Australian SF could do more with.
The best Australian story in Altair's third issue is Trent Jamieson's "Naked". Cerdic and Beatrice are machine-enhanced biologics in a war against a human-created machine intelligence called the Silver Calm. The enemy is so strong that defeat is inevitable, but in one last desperate gamble Cerdic and Beatrice plunge into a black hole. In the same way many stories written during the 60s New Wave submerged science beneath a kind of metaphysical veneer to cover up the physically impossible, Jamieson attempts to divert the reader's critical faculties with flashy language and a narrative rhythm that is almost poetic. While not succeeding entirely, the story is still a worthwhile and interesting read.
Bill Congreve's collection Epiphanies of Blood ends with a superb novella, "The Death of Heroes". Joanne, a vampire, lives with her three children in Western Sydney, struggling to bring them up while keeping their true natures secret from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult trying to fit in with society as a normal single-parent family while keeping up a reliable source of blood for her growing brood. Joanne manages this by adopting society's left overs, the forgotten and the neglected people who have no home or family of their own - those who won't be missed, in other words. Her predation is never cruel, merely necessary, but the logic of her family's lifestyle makes for a repressive, secretive existence always threatened by the possibility of exposure.
In a series of well executed flashbacks, Congreve shows us what happens when Joanne's defences are broken through, and the pain and grief she goes through makes her determined never to let it happen again.
The weak link in her preparations, however, is her neighbour. It is never made completely clear how Joanne allowed Tozer to become so inextricably linked with her own family, especially someone so selfish and innately domineering, and it is Tozer who in the end forces Joanne and her family to flee their settled life in Sydney in search of another safe haven.
There is a great deal going on under the surface of the narrative, some of it alluded to but never fully explained, and some of it that surfaces with horrifying and tragic results. With "The Death of Heroes", Congreve has created a story that mixes Grand Guignol with a kind of gentle pathos, quite a remarkable achievement. No wonder Ellen Datlow has picked it up for the ezine Event Horizon. Look out for it.
©1999 Simon Brown.
Abaddon, Spring 1998
Harbinger, Issue 1
Harbinger, Issue 2
Bill Congreve's Epiphanies of Blood
"The Death of Heroes"
"The Glass Woman"