Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 7: Science fiction

Unlike my last two posts in this “supporting genres”series, today’s is a true-blue genre. The problem is, as many of you will realise, that it takes me way, way out of my comfort zone. However, with this week being National Science Week in Australia, I decided that it was a good time to tackle this oh so popular genre. I will just add that, this not being my area of expertise, today’s post will be even more introductory than usual for this series.

I hope to hear from aficionados, who will hopefully fill in gaps and correct any misconceptions. Meanwhile, I’ll start with Wikipedia’s statement that

Nevil Shute, On the beach

Australia, unlike Europe, does not have a long history in the genre of science fiction. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, published in 1957, and filmed in 1959, was perhaps the first notable international success.

Does international success define a genre’s history? This seems to be the implication of the opening paragraph, but I see it more as “a” measure of success rather than necessarily indicative of activity. Anyhow, the opening paragraph also suggests that the situation may have been worse in Australia had not importing American pulp magazines been restricted during World War II, “forcing local writers into the field”. “Forcing”?

Wikipedia then shares that pre-Second Word War Australian science fiction tended to be racist and xenophobic by today’s standards. This was due, it continues, to contemporary worries about invasion and foreigners. By the 1950s, as in other countries, the genre became influenced by technological progress and globalisation. I guess what all this is saying is that science fiction – perhaps more than most genres – is closely affected by contemporary issues and concerns. Even I know that current science fiction is drawn to issues like climate change and environmental degradation!

Definition

Must I? Science fiction, I suspect, though you can prove me wrong, is one of the most difficult genres to define. When we Australian Women Writers Challenge volunteers were establishing our genres, this area took some thinking. In the end, we called it Speculative Fiction, and incorporated “genres” like fantasy, horror, paranormal, into it.

Wikipedia calls Science Fiction a “genre of speculative fiction which typically deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts …”. It continues that SF “can trace its roots back to ancient mythology, and is related to fantasy, horror, and superhero fiction, and contains many subgenres” and then says that “its exact definition has long been disputed among authors, critics, scholars, and readers”. So, I’m not going to argue with that. The Awards below tend to encompass a broad church under the banner.

Conventions

Interestingly, Science Fiction followers seem to have conventions rather than festivals. Here are a few:

  • Australian National Science Fiction Convention (ANSFC) has been an annual event since 1952! That’s impressive, surely. Even more impressive is that, as Wikipedia explains, “each convention is run by a different committee unaffiliated with any national fannish body”. This speaks to the passion of its followers, I’d say. It even ran through the pandemic, as the Wikipedia article shows.
  • Conflux is an annual science fiction convention held in Canberra, since 2004, building on the CSFcons (Canberra Science Fiction Conventions), held in the early noughties. Its website says it encompasses “sci fi, fantasy, alternative history and horror”. It was not held during the pandemic, but, if I read its website correctly, it will host NatCon (ie the ANSFC) in 2022.
  • SwanCon is an annual science fiction convention held in Perth, since 1976. It has often hosted the Australian National Science Fiction Convention.

Awards

Australia has two main science fiction awards:

  • Aurealis Award for Excellence in Speculative Fiction was established in 1995 by the publishers of Aurealis Magazine. It’s an annual award for Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction, and its categories are different to the Ditmar, below, being based on subgenre (like fantasy, horror) and age (young adult, children’s, for example). It now also has categories for form – anthologies, short stories, novellas, etc. If you want a sense of this award, check out its website.
  • Ditmar Award has gone through a few permutations since its establishment in 1969 (which makes it our longest standing science fiction awards). It is announced at the ANSFC, and, says Wikipedia, aims to recognise “achievement in Australian science fiction (including fantasy and horror) and science fiction fandom”. The fandom aspect is interesting. It encompasses a number of awards which are defined by form rather than content, like novel, novella, short story, fan artist, fan writer.

The notable thing about some genre awards, and we see it here, is that they often recognise various forms, like short stories and novellas.

Publishers

There seems to be a plethora of science fiction publishers in Australia. Many of them pride themselves on supporting inventive works and forms. Here are just a few, which I think are currently active:

  • Brain Jar Press: “Brisbane’s scrappiest, weirdest, and most genre-friendly small press, publishing outstanding and unexpected works of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and crime”. Their authors include Angela Slatter and Kaaron Warren.
  • Clan Destine Press: publishes “genre fiction in its myriad and wondrous forms: crime, mystery, historical fiction, thrillers, adventure, speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, horror, urban fantasy, paranormal, steampunk, and ah-ha! “
  • Sunburnt Fox Press: only publishes Australian science fiction and fantasy, mainly, it seems, through Etherea Magazine.
  • Twelfth Planet Press: aims “to elevate minority and underrepresented voices with books that interrogate, commentate, inspire. Challenging the status quo through provocative science fiction, fantasy, horror, and cosy crime”.

Of course, the general publishing houses also publish science fiction.

Science fiction and me

Bill recently responded to a comment of mine on his blog that “I think that if I ever got you started on reading women’s SF you would never stop”, because, he said, “the great majority are of the inner lives of women in unusual situations. The story is only rarely about the SF premise”. He’s right – to a degree. From my youth, I have read a smattering of science fiction – John Wyndham (and Nevil Shute) in my teens, and in my twenties and early thirties I read Huxley’s A brave new world, Orwell’s 1984 and Vonnegut’s Cat’s cradle. (All by men!)

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

I read no Australian science fiction through those years. However, in recent years I have read several Australian dystopian and cli-fi novels. Not all of these, though, are, technically, science fiction because not all are “futuristic”. However, some are, such as Jane Rawson’s A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Claire G Coleman’s Terra nullius (my review). I loved both of these, and remain open to the genre – but I’m unlikely to ever become an aficionado.

Do you like science fiction and, if so, care to share why?

Previous supporting genre posts: 1. Historical fiction; 2. Short stories; 3. Biography; 4. Literary nonfiction; 5. Crime; 6. Novellas; 7. Poetry

24 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Supporting genres, 7: Science fiction

  1. My own definition of SF wouldn’t include ‘futuristic’, but instead something like ‘variations on current reality.’

    Love the research you’ve done. All stuff I didn’t know. I read SF novels, and review some, mostly women’s SF because that fits in with the flow of my blog, but it’s year – 50 odd – since I routinely read magazines and kept up with the (US) fan scene.

    But thanks for giving me a mention. I’m happy to stand up for SF until someone knowledgeable comes along.

    • Oh that’s great Bill – you were looking over my shoulder as I wrote this, so I’m glad I was able to add to your knowledge.

      Re definition, I can live with “variations on current reality” I think. That would let in Woods’ The nature of things I think, and I don’t think that would be unreasonable.

  2. I love science fiction because it’s about ideas. I just listed my favorite books on my own blog, and you might notice that several of them are science fiction, although I didn’t separate them out from the other more “literary” novels.
    The definition SF aficionados often get caught up in is what’s the difference between science fiction and fantasy? I think the mainstream definition specifies that fantasy has magic with rules (whereas science fiction has technology that could work in the future).
    A fabulous (ha!) fantasy novel by an Australian writer is The Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox. https://necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com/2020/03/24/the-absolute-book/

    • Thanks Jeanne. I’ll have a look at your list. I do appreciate that science fiction is about ideas – the trouble is that in much of it there’s a lot of world building going on to wrap those ideas in, and that just doesn’t interest me at all. I’m quite happy with ideas being explored in my world or something very like it.

      That’s interesting re definition. I tend to see SF and Fantasy as related but easily distinguished – mainly by that magical element as you describe it.

      And, oh dear, I’ve never heard of The absolute book!

  3. Excellent work as ever. I don’t read much Sci Fi and Fantasy, I get tired of having to learn about the worlds that are built. Then again, I just read and loved the speculative fiction or whatever The Last White Man, didn’t I?!

    • I think “speculative” is the operative word that captures everything that everyone has touched upon regarding these kinds of books i.e. how we might be as opposed to how we are, and how technology and human awareness may play off each other in that imagined, emerging future. And all of these speculations are usually rooted in present-day concerns; at the time of writing, and perhaps for many years beyond.

      • Thanks Glen … that makes perfect sense to me. I do like the term “speculative”. Would you include – as some do – alternative history which is more about how we MIGHT have been rather than how we COULD be.

        • Yes, I think so. The term “speculative” was coined to take into account that not all literature set in the future was exclusively, or even predominantly, about technology or living somewhere other than on Earth. That is, “science fiction” still applies to some works, but is a bit too limiting for others. It makes sense to me include fiction set in alternative pasts under the same category, if for no other reason that conjecture about the past is allowed under the dictionary definition of the word.
          Actually, has anyone laid claim to the term “Retrospeculative” yet? And, if they haven’t, can I???

  4. LOL I thought, when I saw the title of this post, that I had nothing to contribute, but I do!
    In 2018 I attended Melbourne Rare Book (which hasn’t been held now for three years, *sigh* though they still have the sale). A session called ‘The Australia to Come’, explored 19th century visions of Australia’s future and it was presented by Zachary Kendal who’s a librarian at Monash and a PhD candidate in Literature and Cultural Studies. If he spoke about the popularity of these books I didn’t record it, but there certainly were Australian SF books in the C19th.
    You can read a lot more about it at my blog post, but in a presentation that was culturally respectful, basically, he said that these works would now wear the SF tag, and that they consisted either of an optimistic view of Australia’s future or a dystopian vision of a fearful future.

    2018 Rare Book Week

  5. Hi Sue, I did read a lot of science fiction when I was young. I liked Ray Bradbury and John Wyndham novels. I have read the novels you mentioned, and liked them. I don’t go searching for SF novels to read, I have too many other books to read. In the past, when there were “Yahoo” reading groups, I did read a lot of science fiction short stories, and enjoyed most of them.

  6. I lean toward a simple definition: must have something to do with science that we can’t actually do yet. Thus, I easily put zombie stuff in with sci-fi and horror, because zombies come back due to a medical condition (virus). Frankenstein, though largely about responsibility, has that whole science element. A lot of climate fiction includes how people are surviving once climate change has seriously worsened, and that will include science remedies, etc. I wouldn’t include paranormal unless the story is about how to scientifically capture a ghost, or how to weigh a soul, things of that nature.

    I know vampire fiction reached a peak during the AIDS crisis for having a message about viruses, but vampires themselves are so varied in how they spread vampirism — do they just bite you, do you have to drink their blood, etc. — that I wouldn’t call it sci-fi.

  7. Like Melanie, I think it’s the science part that defines the genre for me. Some of Margaret Atwood’s stories (Oryx and Crake trilogy for instance) fit into this I think as it’s science that created/caused the world the characters are living in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s