Edited by Cat Sparks

Agog! Press (2004)

ISBN: 0-958056-73-0

Reviewed by Devin Jeyathurai (this review was first published in November 2005)

Most days, if you asked me to choose between a good short story and a good novel, I’d pick the short story. This isn’t really anyone’s fault. It has more to do with the way my life is structured. I work all day and the only times I have to read on a regular basis are when I’m on the bus in the morning, when I’m on the bus in the evening, and briefly before I fall asleep. You can then understand why a short story is perfectly suited to my lifestyle. I can fit a complete story into a forty minute ride to the office in the morning, and then head into work without feeling like I need to read just one more page. On the way home, I can read a slightly longer short story, and finish it off before I hit the sack.

The experience of reading a short story is different from reading a novel, and markedly so. A novel is more languid, more expansive. A novel has more room, more space. A novel can explore ideas and plotlines and character more slowly, more deeply, differently.

By contrast, a short story needs to work quickly, grab the reader by the (eye)balls and drag them along for the ride before they can change their minds. Forget about establishing background, or those long dreary descriptions. A short story is kinetic, it moves. Some short stories start in medias res and require that the reader catch up on their own. Often figuring out what’s going on is part of the fun.

All the same, there aren’t very many markets for speculative fiction short stories, and correspondingly few ways for readers to get hold of them. That’s why I applaud Cat Sparks’ effort to showcase new Australian science fiction shorts in anthologies like Agog! Smashing Stories (and Agog! Terrific TalesAgog! Fantastic FictionAustrAlien Absurdities and Daikaiju!). I can’t vouch for any of the others, because I haven’t gotten around to buying or reading them, but when writing about Agog! Smashing Stories, the word that springs to mind is “solid”.

I know, that’s a funny word to use to describe a collection of twenty stories, especially when each of them is completely different, with no connection between them other than the fact that they are Australian. But that’s what this collection is; it’s solid, it’s robust. And while each of the stories in it is a good example of science fiction in its own right, taken together, they demonstrate the remarkable range of Australian science fiction, and the amazing talent that populates the field.

Take Rob Hood’s “Regolith”, which opens the collection. A pair of archaeologists find the burial chamber of an aristocratic scholar and kabbalist who sought the secret of eternal life. A worker on the moon is part of a project to bring water back to the moon. Making the connection between the two, this story bridges present and future, the Earth and the Moon, and manages to throw in a peculiar sort of haunting in the process. I know Hood’s propensity for ghosts, and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s managed to wedge one in here. Maybe not a ghost. Maybe it’s an echo, or an intention. It’s still marvellously subtle, and clever, and not a little spooky … but hopeful, too.

I’m going to be a little less specific about Jeremy Shaw’s “Humosity”, because this story, about being genetically inhuman, manages to say a lot about being human. If I told you that this three-page story was actually about a man who’s obsessed with ladybirds and compasses, you might not want to read it – but take my word for it, you should, because working out what’s going on in the background is the point of the exercise.

Martin Livings “Maelstrom” has the flavour of an episode of Sapphire and Steel about it. It begins with Voight identifying the body of an acquaintance who died in mysterious circumstances, and before you know it – well, let’s just say there are larger forces at work here. It’s not like Voight is devoid of resources. He effectively raises the dead in order to discover the source of the problem, and before the night is over, he’ll be called upon to use his talents more than once. He locates some likely suspects, but soon finds his life at risk. He also finds his partner, Niall, and has to find a way to take advantage of Niall’s talents to neutralize these creatures who look human but who are far more. And why does he go through all this torment? Because it’s his job, that’s why.

I find myself hard-pressed to describe Deborah Biancotti’s “No 3 Raw Place”, not because I’m loathe to reveal story details, but because this is one of those pieces that is all about atmosphere. Reading it, one is filled with an ever-increasing sense of unease, and Ms Biancotti never once lets up. If you’ve ever been left alone at home, and felt alienated and desolate then you might understand where this story is coming from … if you took those feelings and doubled or tripled them.

Marianne De Pierres gives us yet another heroine to love in “Gin Jackson: Neophyte Ranger” – not quite as prickly as a certain Ms Plessis, but still a strong woman having to cope in a less-than-civilised environment. I’m not going to belabour the fact that they’re similar, but the worlds they operate in are quite different, and I’m waiting to see more of Gin’s activities so I can understand better the world she lives in.

“The Border” is another disturbing (and disturbingly short) story, and Richard Harland squeezes all the tension he can out of it before delivering that final short, sharp shock. I’m reasonably sure that the protagonist is a little disturbed – who else would become convinced that the people in Moldavia want to eat her baby – but by the time you reach the end of the story you’ll wonder if perhaps your faith in commonplace reality is a little misplaced.

I could go on. There’s so many other good stories in here, including Justine Larbalestier’s haunting urban fantasy, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, Ben Peek’s “R-Rated” story of a man getting his eventual comeuppance from a government that’s taken ratings systems a little too far, Dirk Flinthart’s taking liberties with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius in “Gaslight a Go-Go”, Brendan Duffy’s charming tale of postmodern teen rebellion called “Come to Daddy”, Simon Brown’s “Water Babies” that turn out to be anything but, Paul Haines’ “They Say it’s Other People”, a clever little mind-fuck that even I didn’t see coming, and Bryn Sparks’ exploration of identity and … uh … clones’ rights in “Seven Wives”, and Trent Jamieson’s “Endure” and Louise Katz’ “Weavers of the Twilight”, both of which quite defy my ability to explain.

The main drawback to anthologies is that with this much variety, there’s no guarantee that any reader will like all the stories, or that all the writers will be of “equal” ability. The story I really didn’t like was Kim Westwood’s “Temenos”, because it didn’t make much sense to me, and nothing was explained. In my own estimation, some of the stories here have rough edges, and there were a couple that didn’t work for me, either because not enough was explained of what was going on, or because the setup or the characterization was just that little bit too far-fetched. I think many of them could have been a little shorter – Dirk Flinthart’s “Gaslight a Go Go” belaboured the point a bit, and I got impatient with the Simon Brown story. None of these rough edges, however, is rough enough to really get in the way of enjoying the stories.

Still, this is a book that succeeds at what it’s set out to do. It showcases new writing, and presents an amazing range of material. I’d buy this book just to read the author bios at the back because so many of them make me laugh, but the high quality of the writing, the originality of the ideas and the sheer variety make this a real treat.