edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt

MirrorDanse Books (2005)

ISBN: 0975773607

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in September 2006)

Year’s Best volumes always have significant introductions. I am an evil person who reads the stories then goes back and thinks “Should I read the introduction?” Yes. Read the introduction. Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquadt give an overview of how current Australian speculative fiction fits into an historical trail. There is a kangaroo story told in snatches throughout. Not my kind of story, but it solves the problem of a technical introduction to a book of short stories. The interlacing of story and explanation eases the transition between a formal introduction and short stories and puts the stories in perspective. As some of the stories date (as some stories always date in anthologies) the introduction will be there to remind readers of the particular environment in which they were created.

The first story is the best in the volume. ”’Singing my Sister Down” is as close to perfect as a short story can be. The narrator’s sister is punished for a crime by drowning in a tar pit. The story is about her death. Such a slim narrative for such a big story, and yet it works. Margo Lanagan’s gift of bringing the reader into the emotional moment is amazing and this story is the outstanding example of her gift.

Give yourself a break before reading “Dreaming Dragons” by Lynette Aspey. “Singing my Sister Down” is a hard act to follow and it’s not fair to wish that fate on a charming story. “Sleeping Dragons” suggests what might happen if a dragon’s egg hatches a child. What decisions does the family face and the child himself face? And how do you make a dragon-child believable? Aspey manages to convince, which is all that matters. The backdrop is a little bit pulp, but the people (and especially the children) are very plausible.

Deborah Biancotti’s “Number 3 Raw Place” is edgy and uncomfortable. It explores the links between houses and people and the needs of people. To say more is to spoil it. Half the joy of this story is its uncertainty: not quite knowing where it will lead you.

Terry Dowling’s “Flashmen” is quite different. It is another story set in his mythical future Australia. Flashmen troubleshoot in the Landings. Dangerous job. Dangerous people. Everything larger than life. Dowling leads us through the adventure in fine style, throwing enough cool terms to indicate that his future Earth is very different, but not enough so we feel comfortable in it. We know that the fate of the Flashmen is in the balance every time they do their job – the twist is in why and how each Flashman deals with his or her job. This story is a rollercoaster, going from soaring to poignant in a matter of seconds. And there are no easy solutions. Dowling paints a bleak future.

Kim Westwood is more mocking than full of despair in “Tripping Over the Light Fantastic”. Gabrielle dreams of becoming a trainee at the After Dark Dance Studio and is determined to beat the odds. The odds are stacked against her, too. She’s a very modern fairy princess, with car-oil under her fingernails and a cook-bum dress. Westwood marries teen nightmares together with a wry touch.

“Bones” by Rjurik Davidson was a disappointment to me but may well bring pleasure to others. It is well-written, but its historical sense is rather faulty. It plays with alternative history, describing a performance by a black musician in Melbourne in Australia’s post-war years. The alternate history failed for me. Jazz was, for instance, described as ragtime and ‘black music’. Ragtime would have been perfectly fine considerably earlier, but not in the 1940s (when swing was played). Davidson’s language is also sometimes an uncomfortable fit for the period. For instance when characters use bad language, they use f* words, which is improbable for Melbourne around then, even on the waterfront. (“What the heck” or more extremely “What the hell” were used where we say “What the f*” today.) Other things niggle, but the story is about music and his alternate world doesn’t come to life for me. I would have been happier if Davidson had brought in a lot more science fictional special effects and drowned the music entirely. As it was the story made me weary.

Brendan D. Carson gives us “Occam’s Razing”. This story is the stuff of arguments. I found it annoying – the friend I argued with found it very witty. It’s one of those tales where everything depends on personal taste. Carson comments in his note that it is where Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” met neurobiology in his mind, which is a better summary than any I could give. If forensic neurotheology fascinates you, you will love it.

Geoff Maloney tells a story of passing into different places and into different states in “Birds of the Brushes and Scrubs”. Doomaji advises the narrator to cross the bridge, and this is the story of the narrator’s thoughts about that decision and of what the narrator does. It’s about finding one’s way home.

Cat Sparks plays with apocalyptic futures and with celebrity in “Home by the Sea”. Jade is taken from poverty to service the needs of Hemingway’s, the luxury hideaway of the survivors of the apocalypse. Other survivors don’t live in luxury. Not even in comfort. Jade’s story is in many ways an old-fashioned tale recounted in a very straightforward fashion, but it has twists and is well told.

Damien Broderick’s “The Meek” is also a well told tale of apocalypse, but perhaps a less traditional one. In his tale we learn precisely why the meek inherit the earth. At least Broderick’s meek are well-educated; preferring Pelagius to Augustine. While the story in theory focused on Wish and Beth Jerome, in reality it is another of Broderick’s God-view tales. We mostly see the characters from a distance, as ants representing a wider view.

After all this apocalypse “The Tale of Enis Cash, Smallgoods Smokehand”, by Brendan Duffy was refreshing. This tale is unpretentious and delightful. It gently mocks traditional tall tales as much as it satirises fantasy tropes. It’s a great deal of fun.

Ben Peek’s “Dreaming City” is not unpretentious. I am ambivalent about it. I suspect this is another case of a story that will have great appeal to others, but doesn’t appeal to me at all. It’s carefully crafted and takes us through some of the thoughts of Mark Twain and some of the history of Sydney in Peek’s alternate universe.

This anthology is worth reading. I wish I could say that even the bad stories were good, but the good stories far outweighed them and I do recommend that you obtain the volume yourself.