Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild Publishing (2003)
Reviewed by Kathryn Linge (this review was first published in September 2006)
Published in 2003 and edited by Michael Barry, Elsewhere was the third publication of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG) and published with the assistance of ArtsACT. The CSFG have a history of publishing ‘themed’ anthologies and this one is no exception – as you might be able to tell from the name the anthology deals with ‘other places’. Surprising, huh? Barry is certainly very upbeat in his forward, which documents the development of short Australian speculative fiction since the first CSFG publication in 2001. From his interview in Donna Maree Hanson’s Australian Speculative Fiction: A Genre Overview we learn that Barry wanted an anthology of stories that were more experimental than usually found in Australian speculative fiction. Certainly the interpretation of ‘other places’ in some stories deviated quite widely from a simple description of a fantastical land, and this refreshing outlook is probably the best aspect of the book. Unfortunately some other aspects are not so great. The book itself is solid and printed on good quality paper but the overall impression I get is of a book that has been somewhat hastily put together – see, for example, the incorrect spelling of ‘Australian’ in the third paragraph of the introduction. Nit picky? Possibly, but it does sap confidence somewhat when you’re reading a forward that is promising great things in the ”Autralian market”. The layout is readable but the first (oversized) capital of each story seemed to encroach over other letters in some cases and I’m not sure that Les Petersen’s images have really been given their due, as they are both small and poorly reproduced.
Two stories shone out over others for me – “Orion’s Womb” by Carol Ryles and “State of Oblivion” by Kaaron Warren. In “Orion’s Womb”, a spaceship pilot reflects on her ambition to live amongst the stars. The story is warm and ultimately positive and the writing has a lovely rhythm. “State of Oblivion? is genuinely disturbing. A disparate group of people live on the top of a mountain in the harsh bright light. How did they get there? Nobody can remember and they are satisfied with their oblivion until Neal arrives. The suspense and dread in this piece builds up slowly, although I thought it slightly marred by the very last passage of dialogue, which seemed rushed. It felt like I was being forced to the conclusion before time. Although, despite the rush, the ending was both satisfyingly ambiguous and shocking.
There are further stories that are still worthy of a 1 on the DAMN Index, if not rising to the heights of “Orion’s Womb” and “State of Oblivion”. “The Birdcage” by Cat Sparks is mostly just plain weird (in a good way) and scary (also in a good way) and the final scenes pack several punches. Man eating plants aren’t the most original subject but Sparks weaves them into a unique world complete with weird-arsed religion and protagonist-coming-to-terms-with-her-past. My only criticism is that the story did sometimes resort to ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, which made the tale a bit forced in some places. “A Stone to Mark My Passing” by Lee Battersby marks one of the first ‘serious’ stories of his that I’ve read. For the most part I’ve found his ‘lighter’ fiction silly and a bit twee, rather than properly humorous so it was refreshing to read something a little heavier. In “A Stone to Mark My Passing”, David comes to terms with a traumatic event thanks to a mysterious stonemason. It’s well written and has some lovely lines – I found “chewing away the stone and leaving a memory of a man’s life” particularly effective. It’s a fitting end to the anthology, although I still found the writing slightly self-conscious – things like references to Tom Bombadil seemed an unnecessary addition rather than a natural part of the story. In “Night Watch” by Jay d’Argo, vampires are real and they live in the rather ironically named town of Sunrise. The story is essentially a crime thriller (with vampires) and, while the story take a while to get going, the obligatory twist at the end is ok. The best aspect of the story is the description of Sunrise, where humans are used as “flagons” and “kegs” to feed the Vampire community. Creepy. “Sword of Liberation? by Maxine McArthur is a story of forced martyrdom. A girl is given the “gift” that will kill her alien oppressors and free her people. But will they be free? Like most cases, this is not the black and white situation that it first appears. Despite the potential for sensationalism, McArthur keeps her tale understated, whilst still reinforcing the futility of war and payback.
“Impossible Railways”, by Zara Baxter, is clever wordplay if not much else. Still, it’s sweet and very readable and I suspect you can read more into the wordplay if you try. Also in the ‘pleasantly readable’ category is “Oilcan Sam” by Scott Hopkins, which moves nicely across the page, describing a Hackers-type heist with code and funny words. It’s a straight up breezy little story that Hopkins has seen fit not to spoil with a twist, which would otherwise have made it more complicated than it need be. Finally, there’s “The Mind of the Almighty” by Anna Key. This is the story of a religious spider. A religious spider with attitude and resourcefulness. It’s clearly written and pleasantly different – one of the best examples of how ‘other places’ can be interpreted in an unusual way.
So that’s the ‘good’ stories, what about the rest? The rest aren’t bad, but they are mixed. So – in no particular order: “One Rainy Day in a Circus Far Away”, by Craig Cormick, had the makings of an intriguing and thoughtful tale, but became overloaded. It’s the story of a father and son at a circus – but no ordinary circus. The circus is a church where economic theory is preached as gospel. Clowns spout the “heretic prophecies” of communism and socialism for laughs. The son enjoys the laughs, whilst the father yearns for a better time. It’s here that the story left the tracks for me as we learn that all the “wives and mothers” are now gone. How this ties back into the basis of economic theory is not explained, and I was left confused and unsatisfied with the final images of a unusual trapeze act.
“Devil in the Text”, by Richard Harland, is fairly straightforward but still enjoyable. A community of monks are first baffled and then completely distressed as books in their library become erased. The build up of suspense is effective, although the ending fails to provide full impact, and the story can be read as a commentary on the dumbing-down of society.
“617 Instances of Eleanor and Rising”, by Robert Hoge, provides a nice visualisation of data transfer and hacking, but I don’t think it relates to how such things work in real life. Three years after publication, the story of information and copyright law remains relevant but I felt the climax was overly dramatic, as if Hoge was trying to put more urgency into the story than it really warranted.
Tessa Kum’s “The Hero and the Swordsmith” tells of a hero returning to his home of old so he can honour the Warrior that went before him and guide the Warrior who will follow him. It’s short, not really my thing, but has a nice balance between narration and dialogue.
“Widdershins”, a bit of fluff from Stuart Barrow, sees Xerxes investigating and testing Canberra’s secret occult history and would probably have benefited by inclusion of a map for those unfamiliar with Canberra’s layout. I suspect the story is full of puns that went over my head, being unfamiliar with both Canberra and the Dark Arts. I got the joke in the end, but it was eye rolling rather than amusing.
In “Other” by Donna Maree Hanson, Devlin has given up everything to repay the damage he has unwittingly brought upon a very ecologically sensitive planet. It’s a big price. Hanson’s writing evokes some very vivid images of the planet and its decay and it is these images that stayed with me long after I read the story. The plot itself was a bit confusing to start with – and I couldn’t work out who the “Other” was. But, to be fair, I think this ambiguity is by design rather than by accident and it probably makes the ending more satisfying, if poignant, once all the threads have finally been teased apart.
“Web of Reality” by Alison Venugoban is very slight – nothing more than an image. And while it is a cool image, told in great detail, it seems to be an exercise in style rather than a tale of any substance. “Kidnapping”, by Euan Bowen also felt a bit slight. It starts off very promisingly – a dark tale of a kidnapping filled with foreboding and I got the impression that Bowen is trying to question what makes a real monster. But the momentum petered out halfway through and the ending was abrupt. In the end it didn’t feel like a complete story. Ben Peek’s “The Recipe” is funny – really funny and quite black. But I’m not sure this ‘fable’ is much more than an extended joke at the expense of the traditional big fat fantasy. The slightly modern twist to some of the puns jarred a little with the medieval setting. In “Armageddon Café” by Mik Bennet, Death and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse meet up in a bar. It’s almost a cool story – until you realise what’s going on. After that, the symptoms that the bar partons undergo as each Horseman arrives seem overdone and obvious. The story also seems to just describe a scene. Alternatively – there’s a beginning and middle, but the end seems wanting.
“Merrie Dawn” by Chris Andrews is one of the longest pieces in the book and therefore has more development than most – or at least tries to. It describes a father’s quest to find a cure for an alien disease that infects him and his baby daughter. I found a lot of description of the futuristic world heavy handed and hard to believe – calling standard things by fancy names (e.g. plaspaper) does not make them futuristic in my book. The science was a bit odd too and seemed to have little basis in reality. “The Surge” by Cory Daniells is another long piece – more successful than “Merrie Dawn” – that describes life on an atoll slowly sinking underwater and the conflicts that arise from the shrinking land area. While it’s a straightforward story, it hints at a complex world that intrigues. I did feel, however, that the story was marred by the point of view changing halfway from the main protagonist, to her grandson, and then back again. It made the story feel jilted and it seemed to be just an easy way out to describe the grandson’s motivation. I did also wonder if Daniells used it as a mechanism to keep the overall word count lower rather than for any literary reason. “Heritage Planet” by David Walker is also longer than most and starts well, investigating the implications of heritage listing an entire planet. However I found the ending and its surprise twist flat and unsatisfying. While most of the story can be seen as a raillery against tourism and package holidays, it ends up as something else.
I felt detached whilst reading Nicole R Murphy’s “Run the Program”, where a City Controller protests against tampering in her computer systems by climbing a flagpole. What was the point? There is perhaps some interesting commentary here on what people can expect if they give control of even their emotions to the state, but I felt it difficult to care. “Chance Meetings” by Robbie Matthews investigates the consequences of a land invasion of Australia – by elves. In its own way it reminded me of both Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden and Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. However, the mix of reality and magic didn’t work for me – the war described is unbelievable because it is not horrific enough and the resolution, brought about by a far older (and Australian) magic, is too neat. “City, seen by Lightening” by Dave Luckett is a description of a decidedly weird and fantastical place that is ultimately explained with something akin to ‘Oh it was all a dream’. It wasn’t enough for me. Chuck McKenzie’s “Alien Space Nazis Must Die!” has more depth than it first seems – but not much. McKenzie weaves two worlds – one where aliens have bad German accents and are Hollywood-villain stupid and a second where aliens are simply naive and speak like I email (i.e. without proper grammar). In its own silly way it investigates some pretty heavy topics – religion, atheism, life after death. But it is silly and the ending is not that surprising.
In summary? Looking at the DAMN Index, Elsewhere seems to rate ok, scoring 57.7. But if we look at it from another point of view, this review has taken me over a year to produce. Sure, that’s partly my fault because I got distracted from it but at least in part it’s because I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. My overall impression is that this book is ABC (A Bit Crap). Despite the theme of ‘other places’, the anthology remains a collection of disparate pieces. It’s pleasant enough to read but will you want to own it? Will you want to read it again? I don’t.