Terry Dowling

mp Books (1999)

ISBN: 0-646-37533-4

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in March 2007)

Terry Dowling has often struck me as one of the most distinctively Australian speculative fiction writers around. In large part, this is because of his Captain Tom Rynosseros stories. It’s not just the setting that makes these so distinctive; Dowling has also extrapolated what’s happening between Indigenous and White Australians to create a very believable political future. The result is memorable, unique stories with a strong Australian flavour.

Although I associate Dowling strongly with those stories, he has written a great many other stories on a wide variety of themes. Antique Futures collects a selection of these. It’s a whopping great book, and as a result I dipped into it over the space of a couple of weeks, rather than attempting to read that many short stories in a sitting or two. I think this may be the best way to read this collection; it’s powerful and challenging, and some space between stories to digest them was good. Although Dowling is a writer I have long enjoyed, I had not fully realised either the length (years) or breadth (styles) of his writing. One of the very good things about this book is that both readers unfamiliar with Dowling and those who know his work are likely to find stories they haven’t read before.

As a collection, I’m not sure that Antique Futures has a theme, other than excellence. The stories are diverse, and range from quite hard science fiction to at least one story that wouldn’t look out of place in a crime anthology. The stories do share things in common, though. Although this anthology includes stories published over a twenty year span, none have dated noticeably. All include strong and interesting characters; and every one was worth reading. Although I enjoyed some stories more than others, that’s primarily a matter of taste. They’re all of remarkably consistent quality. It makes it a little challenging to write a review – I couldn’t possibly mention all the stories, and in my opinion none are weak.

Of all the stories, I probably enjoyed “Beckoning Nightframe” the most. It’s an eerie tale of a woman’s growing obsession with something very simple and everyday. Like much of Dowling’s work, the story doesn’t spell everything out for you. You have to think about it, and there’s room for some interpretation.

The collection includes several Captain Tom stories. As usual, these powerful stories are complete in themselves, but if you’ve read others set in that world, then these will add further layers to your knowledge. The world is strong and consistent, and if there are continuity errors or contradictions between stories, I’ve certainly never noticed them. As I said, these stories are some of the most distinctively and unselfconsciously Australian that I’ve read. They’re consistently among my favourites when they turn up in an anthology or magazine that I’m reading. “Shatterwrack at Breaklight” was the one I enjoyed most in this anthology. It seemed a little more focused on Tom’s heart, and weaknesses, than some of the other stories.

“The Man Who Lost Red” is another particularly powerful story. Aliens have come to earth, and brought much good, including a dropping crime rate. Crime has become much less attractive because you’re always caught; and then you’re deprived of both the memory of what you did, and something else. Something different is taken from each person; for the title character, he loses the ability to perceive the color red. It’s a powerful story about what small things mean, and what is important.

There truly isn’t a story here that isn’t worth reading. But interestingly, if I absolutely had to pick a least favourite from this collection, it would be “Jenny Come to Play”. This story won an Aurealis Award, but for me it was the least intriguing of the stories in the collection. I think that’s a compliment to Dowling; even his less interesting stories are award worthy. The reason I enjoyed it less is that it’s one of Dowling’s blunter stories; although it is atmospheric and disturbing, Dowling sets the resolution out fairly clearly and leaves little for the reader to work out.

Dowling is an atmospheric writer, creating strong and lingering imagery. His stories are not precisely ambiguous, but they do generally leave some room for personal interpretation. As well, there are often layers; many of these stories will give you new things to think about every time you re-read them.

Overall, this is quite simply an outstanding collection of excellent stories from a prolific and talented Australian writer. If you’ve read Terry Dowling before, you’ll want this collection. And if you haven’t, this collection would be a good way to introduce yourself to his work.