Russell B Farr (ed.)

Ticonderoga Publications (2007)

ISBN: 9780958685689 

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce (this review was first published in April 2007)

Farr begins this anthology by talking about his experiences in Australian SF, and consequently providing me with a reading list as long as my arm. He also tries to define what is meant by “fantastic wonder stories”, saying such a story “has to open the door to a new world, but not just any old world. A world real yet unreal, with an element of the mundane that is quickly replaced by a sense of the extraordinary”. For (most of) the stories in this collection, that’s exactly what happened.

FWS opens with a poem, by Steven Utley, called “The Can-Opener”. It captures the reflections of someone whose job is about “the flawed fabric of spacetime”, thinking about how some other Him, in some other universe, has more intelligent interviewers to deal with. It’s humorous, lightly pathetic (if that makes sense), and – in opening up the idea of multiple realities – is a very good first piece.

Next up is “Burning Bright” (yes, a nod to Blake) by Kylie Seluka. It’s fantastic – and brutal, too. I am fascinated by tattoos, and dressing up, and the different ways we can make people see us based solely on external appearances, so this story was right up my alley. Wayne is a bit of a loser, who is trying to make life more interesting by finding his “animal chi” – the animal he associates with. Having done so, he can then start to make himself more like that animal – with everything from just clothes, through to tattoos, to implants. Wayne starts to let his animal chi take him over, with predictable yet chilling results.

“There was Darkness”, by Martin Livings, is an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic world where people have turned to extreme religion for solace. The religion, of course, has to have hard rules: in this case, sight is blamed for the apocalypse, and so must be destroyed. Here, Pieter DeCastille – Seeker of the Fifth (fifth sense) – is doing his job, although it hurts him. This is a really well written piece: to write without actually describing what something looks like must be a demanding exercise.

Hands up those people who have a loan, have had a loan, or dread the thought of getting a loan? Patty Jansen must either have a fear or a hatred of banks and their managers to write “Bigger Fish”. The entire story is the same scene, repeated over and over again, as the years progress: Michael going to the bank to ask for a loan. In the Afterword, Jansen says that it was inspired to some extent by the story of “The Fisherman and his Wife”, which I hadn’t picked up but makes a lot of sense. Although this one isn’t overtly horror, it still made me shiver at the end: because, although the situation is ‘fantastic’, it still struck a real nerve.

Rowena Cory Daniells, in “Soul Shaper”, has created another chilling story for this anthology. This one takes the idea of psychiatrists/psychologists helping people to work through problems to its extreme: Soul Shapers, Psychological Resonance Interfacers (PRIers) actually shape people’s personalities in a sort of virtual reality. They smooth out tendencies’ rough edges (like perfectionism and overbearing-ness), and build up areas like self image in order to improve the person – for at least some, to help them get a good career. What the story is really about, though, is the relationship between Millais and his erstwhile lover and research partner Garuda, as well as a classic spy/infiltration story. It’s all tied up nicely together, along with a lovely classical reference that I really liked. Again, a nice and self-contained story that works really well.

Robert Hood has cursed his main character in “Luxury Goods” with the name of Luxury. She starts off as a fairly normal person who gets pulled into the mafia-like world of smuggling: not drugs or weapons in this case, but Virtual Enhancement software, which the Kordanians have banned. Luxury gets involved in order to help her boyfriend, but things don’t go quite the way they are meant to – of course. Luxury is a great character: she is strong, and independent, and adapts really well to the situations presented to her. The issue of genetic modification and all the different ways it could be done, and the ways it could get out of hand, is also fascinating to explore.

“Goon of the Month in Lagerland”, by Nick Evans, is much more light-hearted than any of the preceding stories. It’s a bit like Who Framed Roger Rabbit on steroids – there’s an entire town that is basically geared towards tourists, and it’s owned by AniNation (Inc), an animation company, who are changing the place into their image. The story starts with Kiah, Ken and Tony toon-nap a Toon-eating, six foot five cartoon Robot, whom they name Bach. Basically, the mayhem goes from there – and the conclusion was totally inspired.

Sonia Marcon’s “Phantom Limbs” is horrible. It’s very well written, but it’s about a man who is essentially a human salamander – his limbs grow back when they are removed. Consequently he’s been kept in a government institution since he was a kid. This story is written in two times: one, he’s remembering how he ended up there; two, it’s in the present tense, and he has managed to escape from the institution. In the Afterword, Marcon says that she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and that this was part of the inspiration for this story – thinking so much about “the body” – which makes sense. I didn’t enjoy this story – I think you’d have to be a bit sick to say that – but I do admire the writing.

In the middle of winter, when going to the beach will mean freezing winds, “Sandcastles, Spaceships and Worms”, by Peter MacGregor, will be a great story to read. The narrator goes to the beach to fish and find inspiration. One day he arrives to see a small boy building sand castles, and space ships, and worms. As I see it, essentially this story is about inspiration, acknowledging (and using) your creativity, and challenging the reader to think about exactly what they have and will accomplish in their lives. It can also be read simply as a short, sweet, poignant story. For both of these things, I enjoyed it.

As a geek, I spend a fair amount of time online – I read a lot online, and email is My Friend. “Lonely as Life”, by Simon Brown, almost makes me feel like turfing the computer out the window (almost, I said). Here, most people interact in TrueWorld – which is virtual – and talking to people in RealWorld is quite eccentric: even to produce children. Peter Arpe is a mathematician, basically, who gets a job to figure out exactly how old the Earth is. How he relates to people, and the revelation that the Earth is coming up on 4.5 billion years old, and how he changes because he gets a real cat and therefore spends more time in RealWorld, is what this story is all about. It’s sometimes a bit unclear as to just how much time it is normal to spend in the RealWorld – it seems to change from the start to the end of the story. That’s the only issue I have with it, though. TrueWorld is lonely and depressing. I hope we never get to this point, because – no matter how much time I spend online – I know that really interacting with real people is still important.

Magic doesn’t often seem to have real repercussions for its practitioners. Enter Deborah Biancotti, with “A Scar for Leida”. Here, every time Katya practises magic, she gets a new scar – and this is basically her advertising too. With Leida, though, Katya has made a mistake: Leida has imagined her relationship with Tarakh, and therefore his betrayal. It takes a quite unexpected tack towards the end, but it works.

“’P’ is for Power Station”, by Geoffrey Maloney, seems particularly appropriate in 2007 Australia, with the debate about nuclear power for Australia once again flaring up. This story is based around the conflict between solar and nuclear power, along with the threat of terrorism from the Green Luddites (a great name). It’s also got a nice bit of anachronism in that the main players in the two energy fields play croquet together (much like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, the two richest men in the world, playing bridge together), and a really weird Christ-like moment towards the end. A nice little story.

In an extreme story of colonisation, “The Colonist and the Choirmaster” by George Ivanoff sees a colonist reflecting on the terrible experiences of his team on a planet where the only life-forms are humanoids who bring the rain by singing for it. Now there is only one colonist and one singer (the “Choirmaster”) left. Short and, again, a bit brutal.

For a classic fantasy short story, look no further than Shane Jiraiya Cummings’ “Yamabushi Kaidan and the Smoke Dragon”. Set in a fantastical Japan, it’s got everything – dragons, mercenaries, mad ninja-esque monks, and mystical scrolls. Kaidan is a funny, mystical monk with issues in the past (a bit Monkey once he’s grown up, maybe); Akio is the novice who makes good and seems in some ways to be Kaidan’s conscience – or at least his reminder about the real world. It’s a lot of fun, and apparently is only the first in a series about Kaidan (yay!).

Probably the most classically Australian story of this collection is “Brolga Dreaming”, by Deborah McDonell – since nowhere in the world has brolgas, after all. It’s written in the first person, and told by Mina, who feels fat and depressed and whose relationships don’t work out for some reasons that are personal, some circumstantial. Life changes for her when a brolga turns up in her flat, and so does a new girl at work, who makes her look at herself and life in a different way. I guess this counts as magical reality.

One of the weirder stories of this collection, in not mostly being explained by the end, is “The Wildflowers”, by Marty Young. Amy and Jody are sisters who haven’t spent much time together in more than ten years, because of something bad that happened a long time ago. Jody is driving Amy towards Elsewhere, somewhere out back, with the promise of … something … when they get there; exactly what is not explained. When they get to Elsewhere, it’s a bit like all the worst bits of outback towns everywhere put together – and there really is something sinister going on. I didn’t entirely understand the spooky thing: maybe there’s some story about the Wildflowers that I’ve missed; either that, or I didn’t get all the vague description and sinister-ness given by Young. The story was still enjoyable, but probably not as much as if I had gotten the reference.

On a completely different tack comes “Cast Off”, by Tracey Rolfe. A story about the outcast, the one who looks different and is therefore scorned by the rest of the village. Atavisti is that reject, because she has pale hair and eyes. She discovers a strange being – an angelic being – and nurses him back to health. The repercussions of this act are unexpected, for both Atavisti and the village as a whole. Exploring issues of alienation are a staple of scifi, and generally enjoyable. I felt that this story, however, didn’t go far enough: more could have been made of why Atavisti is outcast (there is no mention of other outcasts, either, but there must be some) and the time Atavisti and the angel spend together is brushed over such that some references come out of the blue and don’t make much sense.

Cat Sparks’ “Arctica” is clearly written to a modern Australia – it was begun in 2004 – with its central theme of the treatment of refugees. Arctica – presumably a pole of this world – is where refugees arrive from some unknown place through occasional holes that appear in the sky. The job of the Coast Guard is to shut those holes and kill the refugees who come through. This story problematises refugees, questioning who they really are and where they have come from. There’s a tough heroine who’s quite likable, an exotic weapon, a dramatic revelation and a nice fight scene. Sparks says she’d like to write a novel about this world – I think it will work well.

For poignancy, “Tell Him I Too Have Known”, by Penelope Love, has to win. A builder, one of a race who never leave their plateau, leaves the plateau. He ends up in a town at war with its twin across the river, and helps them build a siege weapon that will help them to win the war. Things just get worse from there, for the whole world. A story about relationships, facing up to your fate and the impact of personal decisions. I really liked this story.

Up there in the poignancy stakes is “Tam like Green Bananas”, by Kate Eltham. Sarah has a physically abusive father, and is figuring out what to do about her life. One day she sees a strange boy across the road, seemingly living in the bushes. She leaves some food out for him, in an effort to find out who he is and what he’s doing. One of the most interesting aspects of this story – except for the plot itself – is Sarah having synaesthesia – where senses get mixed up, so sound has colour and so on. Sarah’s is exaggerated, and it adds a really fascinating aspect to the descriptions (like the sun playing vanilla over her face).

This was, overall, a fantastic collection of stories. There are some easy to read, some harder; some lighter in tone, some dark and almost nasty; some in recognisable worlds, some completely alien. Something for everyone, then.