Angus and Robertson (1988)
Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in December 2005)
Matilda at the Speed of Light has a rather large reputation to live up to. When new writers appear, clutching their short stories and turning up to workshops with hope in their eyes, they are told, “These are the special writers: Greg Egan and Terry Dowling, Lucy Sussex and Damien Broderick.” These names and the name of this classic anthology are engraved on our minds because today, we are told, there are so many magazines and so many anthologies that the bar to being published is much lower. Because of all this baggage, I approached a re-reading of Matilda very cautiously. It doesn’t really matter that it is one of the great collections in the minds of a number of people more expert than me. What matters is that I have it in front of me now, and that I am reviewing it. Yes, it is far better than most speculative fiction anthologies Australia has produced, and Broderick’s selection of stories has amply demonstrated his ability to identify talent, but it is still worthwhile revisiting and rethinking and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Having done this, I would strongly recommend that anyone who enjoys speculative fiction short stories get hold of a copy of this anthology (which is, alas, out of print). It is as close to the gold standard as Australia has gone.
Broderick’s introduction was very odd to read. It has a host of handy insights about what science is as opposed to what science thinks it is. Broderick talks about the failing of the assumption that science is perfect and holds all answers. He describes the parallels between scientific processes and writing. When he points out the uncertain basis on which science may be founded Broderick is, in fact, the small boy commenting on the Emperor’s nudity. He does so with grace and erudition. His main point, however, is less to question the realities created by science than to lead into his discussion of scientists as narrators. I have my opinions on the first, but had not actually considered the procedures and articles and lectures that spatter science with language, as narrative. It was worth re-reading Matilda just for that insight.
The first story is one of Dowling’s tales of Tom Rynosseros. This is the third time I have read “A Dragon Between His Fingers”. The first time I was overwhelmed. The second time I enjoyed it thoroughly. This time I realized that Dowling’s use of mythology and dreaming is most certainly not mine. It is a Boy’s Own adventure, set in a future where race-memories can reach into the tangible world and where ships spin across the earth chased by cunning pirates. Everyone plays games with each other and they all yearn for memories of dragons. When I first read it, the alien terms and the strangeness of the landscape washed over me, and I basked in the unreality. This time I wanted to know more: there was too much that I had to think about, and not enough answers when I had thought. Dowling tells a fine tale and deserves his reputation. But I would very much like to know more about his world. I want to see how ordinary beings live, not just the creatures that live in myth and legend. This is foolish of me, because Dowling writes legend lyrically.
Greg Egan’s “Mind Vampires” is foully Gothic. Depressingly dark and ambiguous. The stuff of nightmares.
Freda McLennan’s “It’s Not What You Say” is about a telepathic species and its exciting encounters with a woman who acts before she thinks. There are some fun concepts. The mating of the Meiorians, for instance, makes one wonder how the species survives, but then, so does the reaction of other species to their brightness and good cheer: I can imagine a murderer targeting Meiorians. The story is clunky, though. There is perhaps too much of the background shown, and it makes it hard to focus on the storyline. Which is a pity, because rows of Liskans mauvely swaying is an ineffably funny image.
Ania Walwicz’s “fairytale” is summed up perfectly by the title, except that it includes some science and its princesses are indecisive to the point of immorality, while Cherry Wilder’s “Odd Man Search” is a very clever tale about the end of the world. We don’t know if the world actually ended. We are not sure if magic works or if we just think it might. She weaves between possibles and definitions so cleverly that the only thing that matters is how individual humans deal with disaster. It makes most other end-of-world tales look rabidly overwritten and clumsy.
“The Truth about Oscar” by Yvonne Rousseau is not as original as most stories in Matilda. It is a slightly over-written time-travel story, with a predictable plot and far too many adjectives. Rousseau’s language reflects how the 1980s saw the nineteenth century rather than reflecting the nineteenth century itself. It is too lavish.
Lake’s “Creator” delves into ideas that are not uncommon in speculative fiction: a single person playing with a sophisticated toy creates and destroys worlds. He does it with a slightly quizzical reference to predecessors (both the Bible and Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, for instance) and with great charm. The story manages to play on various notions of creation and freewill and personal responsibility without ever becoming bogged-down or difficult.
“Stiletto Inheritance” (Humphrey McQueen) feels a bit like writing by numbers. The plot is clear: an academic has written about the murder of an Australian Prime Minister and finds himself in slightly surreal hot water. We are given cold detail about characters (a hair growing out of the right nostril to show us something about a woman called Charley) apparently intended to build up to verification of the strange tale the professor’s captors tell. There is little personality to balance that detail. The strangely formal conversations beg the question of whether an academic still speaks as if he is writing in a scholarly journal when his life is under threat. The concept is good and suitable to a light and surreal tale, but this story tends to be slow. It is built up just a bit too carefully, and so the reader is kept looking on rather than joining in.
“Albert’s Bellyful” by Francis Payne makes me think of The Chrysalids crossed with a hokey hillbilly tale of moonshine and mayhem in a science-fictional Mallee. There isn’t any moonshine, but there is sufficient mayhem to make up.
George Turner’s “Not in Front of the Children” has some lovely characterisation. The intergenerational family conversations are wry and very real. Turner occasionally overexplains, but the playful and insightful way he looks at generational change and lifestyle choices under the impact of longer lives is excellent.
“Things Fall Apart” (Philippa C Maddern) is the most unexpected story in the volume. Even twenty-odd years on it is fresh and intriguing. On the surface it is about jockeying for power and patrons in a future where money can cure all. Like Lake’s story, however, it is layered: a tale about private disaster, entropy and art, but also about the paths of souls.
Damien Broderick’s “Thy Sting” is an old joke, cleverly told.
It is impossible for me to properly review “My Lady Tongue” by Lucy Sussex. I have read it too many times. I remember the first time I found it blindingly strange. It takes some of the ideas of second wave feminism and maybe even from Lysistrata and sober-seriously derives a society from it. That first time, I felt a taint of fear at the heart of it, as if the differences between men and women could never be reconciled. I don’t read it as bleak now, nor as threatening. I now read it as a gentle and loving exploration of some human possibilities and its main character – Raffy – as abundantly human and emotional. The lesser characters are not as well drawn, especially Raffy’s great love. It is a rare short story, however, that bears so many re-readings and comes out of them so strongly.
“On the Turn” by Leanne Frahm is a tiny gem. A woman goes fishing with her husband and finds much to disquiet her. Live bait hurts her as much as the sly looks in her husband’s eyes. All the while the world is changing…
While not every story in Matilda is a masterpiece, it has held up over time and maintains its reputation. If you are looking for one book that reflects the best of Australian speculative fiction from the 1980s, this is that book.