Sean McMullen's

The State of Quarantine

The trip to Perth is long and expensive, even for those of us living in the rest of Australia. Still, that is where the 1993 Australian National SF Convention is to be held, so those of us who can afford it (myself excluded) will be going there next Easter. It should be worth the effort. Last January [1992] I used Swancon 17 as an excuse to make my first rail trip across the Nullarbor Plain, yet the convention ended up being the highlight of the trip. It was better attended than most national conventions, the organisation was good to the point of being manic, the programme was excellent . . . and as one of the invited guests I was scheduled onto eighteen of the items in their packed programme! Like good guests should, I had done my homework on West Australian SF writers and publishers, and I was impressed. They publish more SF per head of population than the rest of Australia, and the quality of their work is as good as anything from the eastern states - and often better. Thus, with apologies to fans in general and Terry Pratchett [The Guest of Honour - Ed] in particular, here is a lead-up to the 1993 National Convention in Perth that says little or nothing about either. This article is an overview of some West Australian SF that has been published in recent years, and I have tried to select works that can still be bought or borrowed fairly readily.

On the cover of Greg Egan's latest novel Quarantine we are told that "15 NOVEMBER 2034: THE STARS WENT OUT". We are soon given a description of the event - with meticulously well-reasoned physics - by a narrator who is speaking thirty two years after the event. This narration is in the present tense, and by a detective investigating the abduction of a severely retarded woman who has unusual savant powers. He has a number of commercially available brain modifications; an underlying theme in Quarantine is nanotechnology that can modify and enhance human behaviour. This is quite reasonable. Human beings are remarkably powerful and adaptable when considered as tools, so if people can reliably and intelligently direct and focus themselves, a lot of glitzy, expensive hardware can be dispensed with.

The setting quickly moves from Perth to New Hong Kong, in the Northern Territory. The detective is "recruited" by the conglomerate that was responsible for the abduction, and by some quite well-reasoned applications of quantum physics theory we are given a reason for Earth's quarantine and a connection between that event and the abduction of the girl. The detective becomes involved with the technical investigations of the conglomerate's scientists (a good device for explaining some difficult physics to the uninitiated), yet the eventual success of the project gives the investigators more than they bargained for.

Having read and enjoyed all of Egan's thirty two published works I had expected a lot of Quarantine. I was not disappointed, and enjoyed every word. What worked best for me was the book's basis in quantum theory . . . however other reviewers have found this very aspect rather heavy going. Okay, so I may be atypical: I studied physics at university, I earn my living with computers, and I have a particular fascination with quantum mechanics, so where does this leave the general reader? My overall feeling is that if you liked Sterling's Islands In The Net or Gibson's Neuromancer then Quarantine should be your type of SF.

Quarantine is reminiscent of Egan's 1990 story "The Caress" (Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, January 1990), which comes across as a blend of Raymond Chandler and William Gibson, yet with a sharp precision and innovation that is Egan's own. As in the novel, a detective in the next century investigates a strange crime linked to powerful commercial interests, yet behind the whole edifice of murder, genetic engineering and abduction is the obsession of one powerful man with the 1896 Khnopff painting The Caress. Egan's choice of painting is good: it is an alluring, enchanting symbolist work which has many elements of the Art Deco movement that was soon to follow, and its image was constantly before me as I read this story.

"The Caress" is the best of Egan's impressive list of short SF. It reached the Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot in 1990, was placed on the Locus poll and recommended reading list, while back in Australia . . . it only got a Ditmar nomination! Hmmm, that was a close one: a serious contender for a Nebula which missed a Ditmar, and it might easily have won the former. Australians are going to have to read Egan's SF more carefully or risk looking very silly.

Egan has had over thirty shorter works published, varying in standard between good and excellent. I have them all, but I must be one of the few people apart from the author himself who can say that - and I had to work hard to get some of them! Much of his short fiction is hard to find outside the overseas magazines that most of it first appeared in, and a collection of his best work is well overdue. For those of you wishing to catch up on his best work in a hurry, Gardner Dozois' 1991 and 1992 The Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies have two Egan stories each - a feat that even veteran overseas authors would be proud of. These are "Learning To Be Me" and "The Caress" in 1991, and "Blood Sisters" and "The Moat" in 1992. Egan's "Neighbourhood Watch" (Aphelion 5, 1986/7) was republished in Karl Wagner's Year's Best Horror series, and his first SF story of all, "Artifact" (Dreamworks, 1983), was republished in Van Ikin's Glass Reptile Breakout (CSAL, 1990).

Even an attempt to review only the Egan stories that have achieved some sort of significant recognition would blow my word limit for this article before I had dealt with any other West Australians at all, so I shall confine myself to a few highlights. "The Moat" (Aurealis 3, 1991), came second in the magazine's readers' poll, and has been republished in Aurealis: The Collector's Edition (Chimaera, 1992). It features a stunning application of genetic engineering, allied with Australia's geographic isolation to produce a radically new type of fortress. "The Extra" (Eidolon 2, 1990) has just been republished in Asimov's SF Magazine. New developments in medical technology are already providing ways for the very rich to extend their lives. Today they can have portable emergency wards shadowing their every movement, tomorrow they could keep a microcephalic clone for spare parts. Egan's extension of this idea is the stuff of nightmares, yet is also good science. What impressed me particularly was Egan's generosity in selling such an outstanding work as this to a new and struggling local magazine. Eidolon and Aurealis have inspired similar loyalty with several of Australia's major SF authors, but "The Extra" is the best of the evidence that local authors do not send reject-drawer works to local magazines.

I have other favourite Greg Egan stories, such as "Axiomatic" (Interzone 41, November 1990) and "The Moral Virologist" (Pulphouse 8, Summer 1990), but these are hard to obtain unless you collected the issues as they were published. While I am consciously trying not to quote statistics in this particular article, a few are in order to finish the section on Egan: 28 short stories published or republished overseas, two novels, stories voted first in the Interzone readers poll two years running, two stories in the Nebula Awards Preliminary Ballot, five stories on Dozois' recommended reading list, seven stories on the Locus lists, three Interzone covers, six stories republished in 'Best of . . .' anthologies, two stories nominated for the British SF Award . . . and two Ditmar nominations! My conclusion from that last fact is that while good Australian SF has a fair chance in overseas markets, Australian readers tend to quarantine themselves against short fiction published there. Australian short SF published overseas has won the Ditmar Award only twice in 24 years.

I doubt that any individual would want to follow Greg Egan, so I shall attempt to spread the load. Perth's Eidolon magazine first appeared in mid-1990, run by an editorial committee and paying little more than the cost of postage and copying for its SF, yet it was bold and well presented, and attracted work from authors ranging from Greg Egan, Terry Dowling and George Turner, through riff-raff such as myself, to rank beginners. Some Eidolon editors had a shot at writing SF themselves, so let us look at these editorial stories and see what can be concluded from them.

Eidolon 1 contained three stories: one by Terry Dowling and the others by editorial committee members Keira McKenzie and Richard Scriven. McKenzie's "The Feathered Dancer" reads like a small fragment of an epic, and the introduction confirms that this is the case. It is a fantasy based on dance, and traces conflicts between a student prodigy and his teachers. The style is ornate without being tiresome, and it would be interesting to see whether the author will come up with a related longer work. Richard Scriven's "Lucky At Last" is pure SF, set in space and narrated by an astronaut with near-immortal body . . . who is stranded in interstellar space. Eidolon 2 was an all-WA issue as far as fiction goes. "Tizzy's Tail" was by another editor, Jeremy Byrne, and is - literally - about what the cat dragged in. It struck a chord. My own cat once dragged a fully grown and very aggressive rat in while I was taking out my contact lenses, then gave me a tutorial on rat catching in the pantry.

One could summarise all three stories by saying that while they are a little overdone in places, they read well and entertain, and are fine as far as grammar, structure and characterisation are concerned. They are also those authors'/editors' only ventures into fiction, according to my records. That's okay. Editors have to be literate and know their SF fairly well, but they do not need to be prolific authors. The editorial committee is currently composed of Byrne, Scriven and the charismatic Jonathan Strahan, while Robin Pen has contributed his "Critical Embuggerance" column since the first issue. The combination seems to be a good one, as Eidolon and its contents dominated the Ditmar Awards for 1992. Eidolon itself won Best Fanzine, an Eidolon story won Best Short SF [Sean McMullen's "Alone in His Chariot"], and an Eidolon article [also by Sean McMullen] won the William Atheling Jr Award. Nick Stathopoulos, who supplied many of the magazine's illustrations in the 1991 issues, won the Ditmar for SF art.

Philippa Maddern moved to West Australia from Melbourne a few years ago. Her computer fantasy "The Subconscious Computer" was also in the second issue of Eidolon, and is her 12th published story since 1976. For those who do not have access to this increasingly scarce issue, her two previous stories were in anthologies. "Confusion Day" first appeared in Urban Fantasies in 1985, and was republished in Glass Reptile Breakout in 1990. "Things Fall Apart" received a Ditmar nomination after being published in Matilda At The Speed Of Light in 1988. It is the best of her recent stories and illustrates the unpalatable truth that while modern medicine can work miracles, they are not free miracles.

Stephen Dedman's first Eidolon story was also in issue 2, and was reprinted from the US magazine Strange Plasma. "Spin" has a sort of cyber-gladiator theme, yet Dedman is not a one-style author. "But Smile No More" (Aurealis 2, 1990) is a near-future story of bio-tech modifications to human behaviour, and it won him an honourable mention in the first Aurealis readers poll. Remove humour from people and you produce very efficient and disciplined workers . . . but would you want it done to yourself? Dedman's first stories appeared in Aphelion 3 and 4 in 1986, he has had one Ditmar nomination, and recently he has made more sales overseas [including sales to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Pulphouse]. He has carved out a promising career in the six years since his first professional stories appeared, and he is demonstrating that he has the persistence that is just as vital to an author as raw talent.

Sue Isle's career began with the Nineties - she was one of the lucky ones who came on the scene just as Eidolon and Aurealis began to provide a stable market for aspiring local SF writers. In "Nightwings" (Aurealis 1, 1990) an entity invades a student's PC and attempts to learn about the human world through his homework and SF story files . . . which is probably no worse as a first contact than some of our TV shows playing to solar systems up to forty light years away. "The Last Guardian" (Glass Reptile Breakout, 1990) was one of three original stories in Ikin's anthology, and "A Sprig Of Aconite" appears in Bill Congreve's Intimate Armageddons (Five Islands Press, 1992), a recent Australian horror anthology. Like Dedman she has managed to sell to overseas markets. Although I have not seen her stories in Laughing Cry or Sword And Sorceress 7, they are impressive sales and should reflect impressive works. Isle's SF can be a bit raw in places, yet there is vitality and enthusiasm in it. If she can keep herself writing for years on end to build up her CV and polish her style, her future as an author could be promising.

Perth artist Shaun Tan has been providing illustrations for the Melbourne-based Aurealis magazine since it was founded, and he began to illustrate for Eidolon two issues ago. His style has been developing well over the past two years, and he has won a quarter of the Illustrators of the Future international competition. The versatile Keira McKenzie did Eidolon's permanent internal decorative work and the cover symbol, and she also contributes illustrations for SF stories. McKenzie received a Ditmar nomination for her art in 1989, and it will undoubtably not be her last. Craig Hilton has also illustrated for Eidolon (issue 3), and has six Ditmar nominations and one win for his fan art. Check the back of the third Swancon 18 Progress Report for an excellent sample of his work, then ask yourself why he does not do more professional work. The answer is probably that being a fan artist is fun and being a doctor pays the bills really well. Doing art or fiction to a professional standard takes a lot of time and opportunities are a lot scarcer that with fan work. Why bother turning professional? I wish I knew. [Liesl Yvette, another Eidolon regular and Ditmar nominee, while currently resident in Melbourne is also a West Australian.]

Van Ikin began selling SF as a teenager in the late Sixties, but although he has 15 professional stories to his credit, he is better known as an editor and reviewer. He edited the amateur magazine Enigma while at Sydney University (in which he published Terry Dowling's first amateur story in the mid-Seventies), then became Dr Van Ikin and moved to the English Department of the University of WA. His important anthology Australian Science Fiction (UQP, 1982) introduced the reading public to the Nineteenth Century origins of the genre in this country. While his selection from the multitude of works in the period 1845-1979 could never have been really representative, it was at least a start and awoke the interest of a lot of readers. His second anthology, Glass Reptile Breakout And Other Stories (CSAL, 1990), covers the period since the mid-Sixties but includes four stories by West Australians - Stephen Dedman, Sue Isle, Philippa Maddern . . . and Van Ikin. He is currently editing a third anthology with Terry Dowling. His long-running (if somewhat irregular) fanzine Science Fiction has entitled him to put "award winning" beside his name, and has done a lot to raise the profile of Australian SF, and SF criticism in academia.

David King is another West Australian author turned editor. Like Van Ikin he sold his first story as a teenager (to Paul Collins' Worlds anthology series), and three of his nine sales were to the great Omega Science Digest. He had the anthology Dreamworks published by Norstrilia Press in 1983, and jointly edited Urban Fantasies with Russell Blackford in 1985. In terms of Ditmar voting these were the two most successful anthologies ever, and Greg Egan's first SF story, "Artifact", was published in Dreamworks. While it is undeniable that many Australian fans of the mid-Eighties liked what King had put together, sales were down. Dreamworks managed to break even, and Urban Fantasies made a loss. The old distribution bugbear had something to do with it, but much of the problem was probably due to King trying to steer the contents toward an experimental New Wave type of writing whenever he could. While this may have pleased the literati, the general readership appears to have scratched its collective head and bought the like of Neuromancer instead - you can't sell 15 year old New Waves when cyberpunk is sitting on the next shelf winking its LEDs enticingly. About a quarter of the stories in these two anthologies were by West Australian authors.

Pamela Klacar is someone about whom I have little information. She is reputed to have edited the mid-Eighties magazine Far Out from Port Headland - which makes her a West Australian - and she has had SF stories in the Computer and High Technology supplement of The Australian. Far Out bought and published very short SF stories by new authors, had national distribution, but folded after three issues in 1985-86. It was a brave attempt, but in my opinion was fundamentally flawed from the start. You cannot help new authors to improve merely by allowing them to get into print in a protected venue. They need to push against standards set by more experienced authors. Further, very short fiction is not for beginners: once you drop below 5,000 words it requires considerable skill to produce a good story.

One book of note that could be classed as West Australian fantasy was not in fact written by a West Australian, but by Queenslander Gary Crew. Long before James Cook's Eighteenth Century voyage of discovery to Australia there were numerous European encounters with the Northern, Western and Southern Australian coasts. Crew's "Strange Objects" is partly the story of survivors of two famous wrecks, those of the Tryall and the Batavia, yet the setting is the West Australian coast in the Twentieth Century. The novel was intended for older juvenile readers and is structured rather like a history project. It was awarded the Children's Book Council Book of the Year Award in the Older Readers category.

For those of you intending to visit West Australia regardless of whether there is a convention going on, try tuning in to RTR FM 920 at 7pm on Saturdays. You will catch Grant Stone's The Faster Than Light Radio Show, half an hour of headlong SF commentary, interviews, serials, readings and sound effects with the astonishingly dynamic Grant Stone. After being interviewed by Grant and hearing his show last January I was left wishing that we could tune in from Victoria. If you have the time to visit him where he works at the Murdoch University library, ask to see the SF collection that he maintains there. It is reputed to be the most comprehensive fanzine collection in Australia, and contains a lot of general SF as well.

A glance at the names in the contents pages of the first ten issues of Eidolon will show that the rest of Australia depends heavily on Western Australia for the publication of original SF and artwork, but Eidolon is not alone. The literary magazine Westerly has published stories by such SF writers as Russell Blackford, Lucy Sussex and Rosaleen Love, and Jean Vormair's A Rainforest In Time was published by Jarrah Publications in 1988.

Flying back to Melbourne after my January visit, I had the feeling that the rest of us are isolated from Western Australia, rather than the other way around. For a relatively small population, the West contributes a disproportionate amount of Australia's SF activity. Greg Egan has achieved success overseas with his well-crafted and highly original SF on a scale previously unheard of for an Australian resident; Van Ikin has gone a long way to popularising Australian SF both in the academic community and with the general public; and the Eidolon people have proved that you can make a success of a SF magazine with hard work, limited funds, attention to detail and sheer enthusiasm. The state where Quarantine was written is not isolated, but contains a thriving and creative SF community that often provides a lead for the rest of Australia.

Originally appeared pp. 40-45, Eidolon 11, January 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.