MirrorDanse Editions (2005)
Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in January 2006)
What I love about A Tour Guide in Utopia is the control that Lucy Sussex shows. Whether she is writing on a large scale or a small scale, she has a maturity to her style which few Australian speculative fiction authors can claim. If you like short stories; if you like thoughtful prose; if you like seeing a writer grow then this book is worth looking at. If you want fun reading on the train to work then this book is a must. If you want a book you can dip into from time to time and pull out a plum, then this book is for you.
It is unpretentiously intellectual. The more history and literature you know, the more you will enjoy the cross-references, but understanding them is not crucial to enjoying most of the stories. This in itself is somewhat of a tour-de-force.
This anthology is extraordinarily well-balanced. The individual stories each made their ripples or waves when they were initially published, but the selection and tone of the collection is satisfying. Each story stands on its own and helps the one before and after it stand out.
“Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies” is not the best title. It suggests a nineteenth century children’s book, when the story is a very Outback one. It is the tale behind Waltzing Matilda, from the bunyip’s point of view. I loved this story, except for one small section. I didn’t understand why there was a geological intrusion in such a folksy tale (science disrupted the tone, for a very short time). The bunyip was gloriously down to earth and scratching his or her metaphoric head over the ways of mankind. The story contains an interesting metaphor on where we get our stories from, but it isn’t pushed – just woven nicely into the tale.
“The Queen of Erewhon” harks back to “My Lady Tongue” as it uses a story mode to discuss sexuality and human behaviour. It is harder to read than most of the volume, as the narrative is not as straightforward. It is worth reading, though, as it talks about the effects on individuals of a society where women must take several husbands. It is such a negative tale, yet Sussex leaves us with a strand of hope at the end. I still look at the title and wonder why the reference to Samuel Butler. It must be something obvious and important, but I can’t see it. I might have to re-read Erewhon.
The next story, “The Gloaming” is a disturbing vignette rather than a tale. What happens when you go jogging and your mind has been turned to thoughts of death?
“La Sentinelle” is creepy. The death of a collector leads to a spree of seeking and cataloguing amongst his collection. The most terrifying object may well be a china doll. What is interesting about “La Sentinelle” is its use of Jewish tales. I have noticed that more and more Australian writers are dipping into Jewish folklore and magic traditions for their stories. Sussex is more careful than most, and her story shows this. Don’t read it just before bed.
“A Tour Guide in Utopia” led me to a whole range of thoughts. This is the story that Sussex used to launch the book at Continuum 2005. I found it slightly unsatisfying only because I knew there was a wealth of richness in the nineteenth century women’s societies. I would have liked to see more of them. The story is an interface moment, where times cross and thoughts gently intersect. It has echoes of Sussex’s book The Scarlet Rider. It feels as if there are more stories to be told at the nineteenth century end of the equation and at the modern.
I liked “Kay and Phil” least of any story in the volume. It was well-written and cleverly written. I had my own ideas of the two writers who met in some kind of dreamworld and explored each other’s speculative fiction visions, however, and Sussex’s thoughts on them didn’t match mine. I suspect that my own background doesn’t permit the exploring of diffferent Nazi futures with anything like the same level of comfort.
“The Lottery” is entirely depressing. More old-fashioned science fiction than most of the volume, it looks at the idea of changing the future through changing the past. Nothing terribly new in it, but it is a good read nonetheless.
“The Ghost of Mrs Rochester” is haunting and clever. It comes together very nicely in a number of ways and in a number of levels. The story premise appears simple: what happens when the place you are housesitting gives you evil visions? And there is a killer on the loose? This makes it sound like a thousand other stories and truly, it is not like those other stories. While a lot of the promises are indeed familiar, the telling of it is very powerful.
I liked “Merlusine” as a story. Strong and interesting and challenging as a scholar traces genetic inheritance through folklore and public record and private memory. I am not so certain I liked the research. My main problem with it was that it seemed to conflate different parts of the American South and I felt as if I was seeing the South through glasses made of mist. It didn’t help that I kept reading her fictional accounts of the history of the Old French Melusine legend and saying to myself “Ah, that view came from Giraldus Cambrensis and what he actually said was quite different.” This was a case where my own scholarly interests kept me from reading the story as it should be read. This is a pity, as she covered some interesting terrain in fine style.
The most haunting tale in the volume is “Frozen Charlottes”. A couple buy an old house to renovate, partly to escape their past. The dolls of this tale are haunting and sad. I would have liked to see more plot leading up and around and expanding our understanding of what they were and how they operated – the story was good and was over far too soon.
“Runaways” is quirky and funny and a trifle black. It looks at an alternate future where groups of people do whatever they must to survive.
“Absolute Uncertainty” is very thoughtful. It plays with the implications of collaboration with Nazis, science that kills, and how that science is taught in our own future.
Not all stories are perfect. Some could have done with a little editing. One could have done with a different approach to research. The important thing is, though, they work as stories. Each and every one of them. And that the volume is more than the sum of its parts. This is the third outstanding volume of short stories by an Australian speculative fiction writer in a very short time. It is a fortunate year for short story lovers.