Cat Sparks (ed.)

Agog! Press (2006)

ISBN: 0809562383 

Reviewed by Ben Payne (this review was first published in February 2007)

Over the years, Agog! has emerged as the standard bearer of Australian SF in the twenty-first century. As such, it sets itself a tough standard to reach with each new anthology. It is to the credit of the editor and the writers within that it continues to reach it.

Ripping Reads contains a fine mix of those authors who are well-known names (such as Margo Lanagan and Simon Brown), those who are rapidly becoming well known names (such as Ben Peek and Deborah Biancotti), and a couple of newer authors to round out the collection (David Conyers and David Kane).

Overall, the standard is a high one. If there is a general criticism I might make of the stories in the anthology, it is this: that the endings of the tales frequently do not do justice to the imagination of their world-building. As such, some of the stories work more strongly as springboards for the imagination than as structurally complete pieces. The best pieces are those that nail both.

The collection begins with Geoffrey Maloney’s “When the World Was Flat”, an absurd take on an alternate sixteenth century England. The story is perhaps an odd one to lead the anthology with, as it takes a little time to get into, but once the reader acclimatises to the world and style of the story, it picks up pace, and it becomes very enjoyable, not to mention amusing. I felt the alternate history angle led to expectations of an ending which tied into it, and was thus a little disappointed with the final conclusion. Some of the toilet humour, too, felt a little jarring. However, on the whole it is an excellent story, and it’s good to see an established author experimenting and testing himself.

Dirk Flinthart’s “One Night Stand” is a supernatural horror story featuring an Elvis impersonator. If it sounds like a one-gag story, it’s not. Rather than playing for cheap laughs, Flinthart utilises his considerable flair for prose to depict a strongly-drawn character, and to invoke a depth of pathos which transcends the tropes it makes use of. A well-crafted, moving story to add to the author’s already-impressive oeuvre.

Kim Westwood’s “1Blue” depicts a clash between two cultures in a post-apocalyptic landscape. An intriguing background that raises more questions than it answers, it suffers from the lack of a sympathetic protagonist to anchor the reader’s interest. As it stands it is an interesting snapshot rather than an engaging story.

Anna Tambour’s “See Here, See There” is a fantasy story which stands above the stereotypical by virtue of its original protagonist, whose visual handicap is construed as mystical virtue. The viewpoint character is interesting enough to hold the reader’s interest through the plot, although I felt that the conclusion, while believable, is perhaps not interesting enough to fully do justice to the well-written story that precedes it.

The same might be said of Andrew Macrae’s “Truckdreamin”, an inventive science fiction story set on a highway featuring a poverty-stricken drifter and sentient roadware. The world-building is impressive, as are the political and social implications it raises, without ever tackling full on. However, the action-movie climax from which the protagonist is distanced is less engaging than what has gone before.

Jeff Vandermeer provides two short pieces, “The Secret Lives of Rick and Peggy” and “The Secret Life of Maria McCune”. Both are snapshots more than complete stories, offering glimpses into peoples’ lives through the author’s typically enjoyable prose. I felt perhaps I lacked the intimate knowledge of Lovecraft which may have made the former more satisfying, but the latter was an enjoyable interlude.

Margo Lanagan’s “A Pig’s Whisper” is a creepy horror tale of two children lost in the woods. I must admit that I don’t think I understood what this story was about. It seems to be an attempt to incorporate various Australian mythologies into a horror story. However, I felt as though I only caught one or two of the references. As it was, the story left me cold.

Simon Brown’s “Along Came a Spider” is a fantasy story centred around a father and daughter and their travels between worlds, and their quest to return to their preferred reality. Their method of travel, though, is reliant upon spider venom. Intriguing in its detail, this is a well crafted and characterised story with an air of melancholy.

David J. Kane’s “Very Like a Whale” is a bar-room meeting between two characters, and an ensuing story-telling episode. It failed to hold my interest due to the notably unlikeable central characters, and hence I had little interest in the story that emerged.

Tansy Rayner Roberts has been writing comic fantasy stories for some time now, but “Rosebuds” represents a big step forward for her both in terms of the humour of her writing and the emotional weight the story carries. The gags come fast enough to keep the reader reading, but there is an intelligence behind them, and when the story slips into darker character study, the transition is both smooth and gripping. While the story ends well, the very final development felt tacked on, as though it belonged to a different story to this one, and didn’t convince entirely. But nonetheless, this is a fine story, and one of the strongest in the collection.

Paul Haines delivers “Lifelike and Josephine”, a neat horror tale of plastic surgery and obsession in a futuristic setting. Perhaps suffering from being wedged between two of the collection’s stronger stories, I felt that, while interesting, the story never really took off. Where much of the author’s other work underscores its dark exterior with an unflinching gaze into the human soul, this one seemed not to get far past the surface.

Ben Peek’s “The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys” clearly has the catchiest title in the collection. The novelty value of the title, though, belies an intelligent, carefully crafted story of an underground world and a distant war, and a mysterious set of letters. Peek’s setting is both original and convincingly demonstrated, his characters are believable and sympathetic. Unlike some of the author’s other work, this story is gently evocative rather than sledgehammer-like in its tactics, but it nevertheless has some thoughtful things to say, both about war and about the people it affects.

Jay Lake provides “Different in the Lands of Glory”, which tells of a family awaiting the rapture. Another gentle, unobtrusive story, which makes its point quietly but well.

Sue Isle’s “Daughter of the Red Cranes” is an interesting tale of China in the near future, having descended into chaos following some form of genetically engineered plague. The setting is fascinating, and the story contains plenty of suspense, but the ending felt unconvincing, and an artificial end to what would perhaps be stronger as a longer tale.

Deborah Biancotti’s “Stealing Free” is an almost pseudo-mythological story of a salamander seeking to find freedom from its bargain with a terrible queen. Biancotti avoids the humourless pomposity too often evident in mock-mythological tales, instead delivering perhaps her most readable and wryly amusing story to date. Typically, for Biancotti, though, the story is also full of philosophical and psychological depth, and while it can be read as quite a satisfying story at a surface level, readers looking for more will find plenty to ponder over later on.

Chris Lawson’s “Screening Test” tells of a young man’s return to his old neighbourhood, and his discoveries regarding the psychological experiment which led to his escape. The story has a point to make, but it is also very well characterised, and it is this, along with the convincing detail of its setting, which ultimately make it stand out. The revelation which the central character undergoes at the story’s climax is very powerful and moving.

David Conyers’ “Aftermath” is a harrowing military SF story set in near future Africa. There is violence and cruelty aplenty. I found the story one of the more interesting in the collection, chiefly for its well imagined background, rather than anything particular to the story itself.

Adam Browne’s “Bladderwrack” is typical of the author’s imaginative flair. It tells of Saucy Jack and Bagfood, trapped in the bilge of a ship. Anybody familiar with Browne’s work will not need telling that with this story, the point is less what happens than the way it’s told. This wasn’t my favourite of Browne’s stories that I’ve read, but I enjoyed it.

“Lady Bountiful’s Lies” sees Cory Daniells returning to the world she visited in the CSFG’s Outcast anthology, and further exploring the strict caste society and the oppression of the twisted. It marks another intriguing entry into the world, but I suspect that there are more powerful explorations of this world marked for a longer work.

Jason Nahrung’s “Pain Threshold” is an original horror tale based in Brisbane. The protagonist encounters a young man who is even more of an outcast than he seems. The story is well written, but I didn’t really feel much for the characters.

The collection rounds out with “World’s Wackiet Upper Atmosphere Re-entry Disasters Dating Game”, from Brendan Duffy. I’ve been a fan of much of Duffy’s work, particularly his Agog stories. There is a lot of promising material in this tale, full as it is with intelligent and imaginative speculative detail on life in a future apartment block, bordering on a warzone. Duffy is both insightful and cutting in his SF ideas. I felt, in the end, however, that in this case the story is perhaps too jam-packed with ideas, at the expense of readability. The density of prose that results makes the story somewhat slow going, particularly as the story is extra long and somewhat light. In the end, I felt that the story would have been stronger at perhaps half the length, or, at the opposite extreme, given greater depth in a novel.

If the term “world-class” has any meaning, then Agog! Ripping Reads is a world class anthology; that is, comparable in quality to the best anthologies and magazines on offer. My picks are the Flinthart, the Rayner Roberts, the Peek, the Biancotti, the Conyers and the Lawson. But it comes as no surprise to hear that even those stories I liked least have managed to pick up acclaim elsewhere. While not a perfect collection, Agog continues to set the standard for local writing, and to compete well with writing on a worldwide scale.

One not to miss.