edited by Nicole R Murphy

Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (2006)

ISBN: 0-977519-20-1

Reviewed by Lee Battersby (this review was first published in May 2006)

This is the seventh anthology from the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild, and conforms to their traditional format: stories by a range of members based around a single theme. Previous anthologies have focussed on fantastical beasts, machines, places that can be considered ‘other’, and even the act of cooking. In this instance, the anthology concerns itself with the notion of otherness in the individual: the outsider, the pariah, the exile.

This instalment in the CSFG’s annual output contains 20 stories, and in keeping with the Guild’s policy of rotating the editorship, is edited by Nicole R Murphy. Its production values are relatively high for a small press volume. The cover is appealing, unlike the last CSFG collection to cross my desk (the otherwise excellent Kaaron Warren collection, The Grinding House), the paper is of a good weight, and the layout and font choice makes for easy reading. Small points to raise, perhaps, but the small press scene in Australia is crowded, and effort is necessary to stand out from a crowded shelf. The Outcast will look good in your hands. For me, that’s a pleasant part of the reading experience. The fiction inside, however, is a mixed bunch, ranging from well told stories by experienced professionals, to flawed and uninspiring choices.

“The Future Gun” by Shane M Brown opens the collection, and it does not make for a positive start, being riddled with point of view changes, clumsy sentence structure, and typographical mistakes. The sub-alien invasion plot is simplistic and unbelievable, and left me wondering what the rest of the collection had in store. The quality does improve, thankfully, but it was a strange choice to open the book with this, easily the weakest story of the twenty.

Susan Wardle’s “Things of Beauty” is a marked improvement: a fantasy tale of Fagin-like dimensions that attempts a moral underpinning to its cast of misbegotten street urchins. Like Fagin and The Artful Dodger, the lead characters are sympathetic and even likeable, especially when drawn against the shadowy and repressive society through which they slide and skulk. Like many stories in the collection I felt the ending trailed away slightly into simple wish fulfilment, but this was an engaging and sprightly story with a backdrop that deserves revisiting.

“Sacrifice for the Nation” by Monica Carroll had me in two minds. On the one hand, there is atmosphere and a sense of loneliness that pervades the piece, making for a story that captures the reader for as long as it takes to read. On the other, the simplistic nature of the plot left me unfulfilled, as if Carroll hasn’t taken quite enough time to explore her world of genetically enabled ‘sheep-people’ before writing the story of one such person’s day as a member of the underclass. There is an allegorical feel to the plot, and like many allegories, should the reader not be in the same frame of mind as the author, they are left wanting.

Much critical attention has fallen upon Kaaron Warren’s “Woman Train”, an atmospheric tale in which a coterie of women travel through a male- and war-dominated countryside before discovering the true nature of their journey. As evidenced in her recent collection The Grinding House, Warren has a talent for evocation, and her story contains a vivid and surreal atmosphere. I found the plot slight, and a lack of internal logic was a distraction, but Warren’s work often lives and dies by its imagery, and this entry in her oeuvre is certainly memorable.

“Bakemono” by veteran author Maxine McArthur is the first really rounded story in the collection. McArthur draws upon her experiences in Japan, as she does often in short stories, and creates a strongly plotted story with gritty, believable characters and a genuine sense of dislocation. A murder mystery on one level, the presumed supernatural threat of the bakemono adds an element of doubt to the all-too human protagonist’s struggles to act within his class whilst solving a crime which, if left to his superiors, would simply be left unsolved. The ending lacks motivation, which weakens the overall effect, but for me this was close to the outstanding tale in the collection.

“The Fallen” by Mik Bennett is a clumsy ‘Heaven and Hell’ story which attempts the old switcheroo as to divine motivation. Unfortunately, the characters are cardboard and do not so much speak as pronounce, which lends the whole thing an air of unbelieveability.

“The Returned Soldier” is Siobhan Bailey’s first publication in print, and she does enough with the plot and characters to suggest that it shan’t be her last. Whilst many elements of the story fall into place with an inevitability that leaves little room for surprise, Bailey’s tale of a holographically projected soldier hunting down a criminal in streets too dangerous for real humans to travel has a sense of emotion and loss that draws the reader in and makes them care about the effect the story’s revelation will have on Pearce, the story’s hero.

Kylie Seluka’s “Awakening The Spirit” is one of the more philosophically complex stories in the anthology, dealing with native spirituality in line with human devastation of natural resources. Cleverly, Seluka chooses to filter her high concepts through the perceptions of a young teenage girl, leaving the reader to create their own reaction to concepts at which the tale’s protagonist can only grasp. Simple on the surface, yet containing some strong insights into relevant situations, it is one of the more satisfying stories in the collection.

“Twisted Beliefs” by Cory Daniells is a disappointment. Daniells is a vastly experienced author, yet her tale of an arcane clergy in an exotic alternate fantasy setting is slapdash: characters act without consistency, the central mystery is too easily solved, and an ending which has all the hallmarks of a deus ex machina is saved from being so only by dint of a twist that is telegraphed early and with little room for doubt. Daniells’ craft is apparent in the readability of her lines, but this story lacks the complexity its narrative demanded.

Cat Sparks has often confronted issues of separation and isolation in her fiction. “Blue Stars for All Saviors’ Day” contains nothing new for someone who has read much of her work, but Sparks is craftsperson enough to imbue the story with all the necessary elements to create a workmanlike tale. It is perhaps the problem with the story, for while she ticks all the necessary boxes, I found the piece lacking a real spark of emotion. The result felt flat, and lacking the very real humanity which typifies her best work.

“$ave G@1axy F@st!” by Steven Cavanagh would not have been out of place in an issue of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. It is a light, fluffy, moderately amusing tale of linguistics (most specifically, spam) with the under-realised characters and comedy sidekick robot that mark a definite sub-genre of humorous science fiction. It is a slight effort, and whilst it amuses momentarily, it does not stand out against some of the better tales in the collection.

“Holding Out For a Hero” by Tansy Rayner Roberts is short, to the point, and manages to break the first rule that any teacher of writing will espouse in that it is almost entirely told rather than shown. But Rayner Roberts is a technically gifted writer, and this story is a highlight: the ennui and hopelessness of the hero and his situation is played to perfection, and where the story could have easily become a five finger exercise in the hands of a less gifted storyteller, Rayner Roberts turns out a depth well beyond the two pages of text.

“Watcher” by Ross Hamilton is another story that had me scratching my head. Hamilton’s story is a mess, from its B-movie juju bad guy to the Capitalised Titles For Names that inhabit all good phat phantasy novels. The plot is simplistic and obvious, and none of the characters elicit any sympathy, being either savages of the ignorant or cultured kind, or empty pawns of selfish higher powers. Neither of the Gods, (one good, one bad, naturally) have anything to recommend them, being outright evil on one hand and neglectful and uncaring on the other, which leaves the reader lacking an interest in the outcome of the battle waged upon the long suffering human characters.

“An Offer Too True To be Good” by Andrew Sullivan is a gentle twist on the traditional ‘last man on earth’ story, aiming for some metaphysical and spiritual insight amongst the clichéd characters and lightness of motivation. Another story that reminded me of the ASIM slushpool, it is a harmless read, although I was left to wonder where the story might have gone had Sullivan taken a more serious look at his subject matter.

A M Muffaz’ “The Mudfish Goddess” attempts something out of the ordinary by building a fantastical philosophical construct based around a menstruation-analog fertility procedure. Doubled in length, this may have been one of the outstanding stories published by an Australian this year. All the elements are there, and the fantastical setting and situation are fascinating. Even at its published length it remains one of the more interesting narratives in the collection, at least philosophically. The writing is occasionally muddled, and the motivations of Godi, the main character, often lack coherence, but this is at least a brave attempt, and for that it stands out against some of the middle of the road tales around it.

“The Rubbish Witch” by Lily Chrywenstrom stands out as one of the most original fantasy stories I have read in recent times. Chrywenstrom’s strong feminist and individualist streaks inform this tale with a positive direction lacking in some of the minor efforts around it, and the disturbing contrast between the filth ridden scarum of the witches world and the serene plasticism of the Forgetters invests her coming of age tale with an eerie subtext that lingers after the reading. Chrywenstrom has matured significantly as a writer in recent times, and this is another sign of the continuing development of her individual and unique voice.

Robert Hoge’s few published stories have a core of lyricism at their base, and “The Little Wooden Flute” is no exception. Hoge, who does not appear in print as often as his talent deserves, wrote this story for his daughter, and the simple language and fairy tale morals mark it out as a children’s tale in the mould of Hans Christian Andersen. It is bittersweet, with a core of muted violence, but with the right messages, subtly played: innocence is precious, belief will triumph over hopelessness, and there is a better life over every hill. The journey of Eling from mistreated child to free spirit, triggered by a legacy left her by a dead grandmother, is deftly played out. Hoge is blessed with a light touch, and this story never tips its balance into cliché or saccharine, making it one of the more professional outings.

Richard Harland is arguably, along with Cory Daniells, the most experienced writer in the anthology, and “On The Way to Habassan” displays the benefits of such experience. It is one of the few faultless stories in the collection, obviously written with a sure hand. Characters are sharply drawn, motivations are clearly defined, and the events of the story contain a sense of inevitability within them whilst still springing fresh upon the page: the twists surprise the reader upon first contact, yet are obvious upon reflection. Harland’s hard-bitten doctor, and her rediscovery of innocence within the twisted frame of a supposedly mistreated child, swings between tragic and uplifting with smooth professionalism. Harland has enjoyed perhaps his most fertile period as a writer over the last two or three years, and this story shows him writing with confidence and poise.

“Lead Us Out of The Wilderness” by David L Kok is somewhat of a curate’s egg. Superficially a simple tale of bargains struck around a table and deceits revealed, it is burdened by an attempt to build an intergalactic back story that revolves around an unfortunately-named ‘Confederacy’. Using such a familiar and historically significant title overshadows much of Kok’s empire building, to the story’s detriment. Kadir, Kok’s hero, has depth and reads like a fully rounded character, yet the supporting cast are pure cardboard, and I was left vaguely unsatisfied, as if I had witnessed an early draft of a far superior story.

Martin Livings is undoubtedly the most wildly talented of the authors collected in this volume. “Mine”, the tale that closes the collection is short, sharp, and obviously intended as a pointed slap of a story to leave the reader with a strong emotive response as they close the book. It’s not the best Livings story I’ve read, but it does the job, achieving a level of characterisation in its five pages that many of the other stories do not approach. Livings’ unnamed protagonist faces the choice between losing his identity or his family, and it is painfully apparent that it is a choice he cannot make without tragic consequences. Like many of the pieces in the volume I felt it was one draft away from being completely polished, but it still stands out as a signature piece, and one that will quietly affect readers once the reading experience has finished.

As a document to chart the current progress of a cross selection of the CSFG’s numerous roster, The Outcast is an interesting and varied document in which the cream definitely rises to the top: it is the efforts of the more experienced writers that provide the most satisfying reading experiences, and any anthology that collects the likes of Livings, Harland, McArthur and Chrywenstrom together will fit comfortable amongst the many magazines and collections being published each year. In the pantheon of CSFG productions, this latest anthology fits somewhere in the middle. A superior production to Machinations, it nevertheless fails to hit the heights of Elsewhere, the intensity of The Grinding House or the sheer loopy fun of The Gastronomicon. In the end, it is a reasonably good read, in a marketplace currently saturated with exceptional product.