Friday, May 20, 2011

Dreaming Down-Under

There is something faintly patronizing about identity-based subgenres of imaginative fiction.  They suggest, if unintentionally, that one's success is limited to a particular niche, and can never be comparable to the talent of masters of the genre as a whole.  To describe Terry Dowling or Margo Lanagan as a "great Australian writer" (a phrase that seems to invite the addendum, "one of the few remaining in captivity) is to miss the point.  They are great writers, full stop.  Likewise, Dreaming Down-Under is not simply an effective collection of Australian speculative fiction: it is effective SF, full stop.

On its original release in 1998, this massive anthology came massively hyped, with major marketing and a laudatory preface by Harlan Ellison.  As a demonstration that Australian imaginative fiction is every bit the equal of what's on offer other English-language countries, it deserves all that promotion; as a set of stories in its own right, it falls a little short.  The very scope of the anthology works against it: among its 31 stories, some quite long, are a few brilliant entries and rather too many solid but faintly unsatisfying pieces.  All have interesting concepts and are at least reasonably well-crafted, and in a slimmer volume, the minor works wouldn't be much of an issue, but here they create some risk of reader fatigue.

Perhaps the most common difficulty for these stories is one of scope.  Several are excerpts from, grew into, or are otherwise connected to novels by the same authors, and unsurprisingly these tend to feel incomplete or tentative, like an appetizer with no main course.  The longest story, "And Now Doth Time Waste Me," was unfinished at the time of author George Turner's death, and although one can hardly fault the editors for including the last work by a major talent, the tale comes to an abrupt halt just as its parable of immortality gone wrong begins to take off.

Other stories fall short due to insufficient evocation of the depth necessary to suggest a vivid alternative reality.  This can be a failure of prose style, as in "The Marsh Runners" and "The Third Rail," two dark tales that lack the intensity they'd need to terrify rather than mildly disturb, or of world-building.  It is not enough, in speculative fiction, to detail only those aspects of your milieu that relate to the story at hand.  You must fill in the incidental details of this future, this fantasy world, this nightmare dimension.  This is a difficult task to complete in a short story, and not many of the contributors to Dreaming Down-Under manage it.

There is, however, plenty of variety, with a diverse blend of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and many different forms of each, from the complex sci-fi world-building of Sean Williams' "Entre les Beaux Morts en Vie" and Cherry Wilder's "The Dancing Floor" to the horror-tinged futures of "The Body Politic" (Tess Williams) and "Unborn Again" (Chris Lawson), from Rosaleen Love's whimsical fairy tale "Two Recipes for Magic Beans" to Cecily Scutt's darkly metaphorical fable "Descent."  If readers had imagined that Australian genre fiction limited itself to some notion of distinctively Australian settings or themes, Dreaming Down-Under proves them wrong; the ideas, dreams, passions, and fears explored by these stories are universal, and the volume is worth reading for anyone interested in contemporary talents who may, by a quirk of geography, be lamentably unfamiliar.

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