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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Women science fiction writers

This year’s National Science Week finished yesterday, 19 August, but I figured no-one would mind if I wrote a Science-Week-dedicated post a day late. In past years I’ve written Science Week posts on novels about scientists (2015), science-based non-fiction (2015), and science writing (2016). I didn’t write a post last year. So, what to do this one? I’ve decided, given my Australian Women Writers Challenge involvement that I’d share some of Australia’s popular women science fiction writers. This is not, I admit right now, my area of expertise. but I’ll give it a go.

My first challenge is, as you might expect, definition of the genre. Wikipedia lists, in chronological order, over 30 definitions, starting with someone called Hugo Gernsback in 1926. I don’t want to get embroiled in this, and I want, for my purposes here, to take a rather narrow definition. Here are two, in Wikipedia, from well-known science-fiction writers:

  • Isaac Asimov (1990) “‘[H]ard science fiction’ [is] stories that feature authentic scientific knowledge and depend upon it for plot development and plot resolution.”
  • Arthur C. Clarke (2000) “Science fiction is something that could happen—but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen—though you often only wish that it could.”

So, I’m going to focus on women writers who, I believe, write (more or less) within these definitions. I’ll be on thin ground I know, but will welcome debate!

I decided that a good source for me to separate out science fiction from other forms of speculative fiction would be Australia’s Aurealis Awards which offers prizes in specific categories, one being “Science Fiction” (but even there, some of the books overlap into other sub-genres, like dystopian fiction, which I want to leave aside here.) Indeed, the more I looked into “my” topic, the harder I found it to locate relevant authors. It seems, as AWW Challenge Speculative Fiction expert Tsana Dolchiva said in a post for the challenge, “Australia hasn’t been the most fertile ground for science fiction — for whatever reason, the planets didn’t quite align for it the way they did for fantasy.” I wonder why this is? Any ideas? Anyhow, I don’t feel so bad now about the paucity of my knowledge.

Marianne de Pierres, Dark spaceSo, here goes with a few names – all Australian women of course:

  • Cally Black: New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based Black is a new writer in the YA science fiction arena. Her debut novel, In the dark spaces, won the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel. It is a sci-fi thriller about a 14-year-old orphan who is taken in by her aunt who happens to be a cook on a space freighter.
  • Amanda Bridgeman: The Western Australian-based Bridgeman has, so far, written the Aurora space opera series, and an apocalyptic novel, The time of stripes. The Aurora series comprises 6 books set in and around a spaceship named “Aurora”. The third in the series, Aurora: Meridian, was nominated for an Aurealis Award.
  • Marianne de Pierres: Tsana writes that you “can’t talk about science fiction in Australia without mentioning Marianne de Pierres” which makes sense to me because even I have heard of her! De Pierres writes across a wide range of speculative fiction genres, including in this more “pure” science fiction area that I’m focusing on here. An example is her space opera series, the Sentients of Orion. Its four books – Dark space, Chaos space, Mirror space and Transformation space – were all shortlisted for Aurealis Awards, with the last one winning Best Science Fiction Novel in 2010. The novels are set on an “arid mining planet” called Araldis. She lives in Brisbane, and writes crime under a different name, Marianne Delacourt.
  • Anna Hackett: Hackett is, her website says, a USA Today bestselling author, but she grew up in Western Australia and describes her childhood as “running around in the sunny weather, chasing my brother and turning my mother’s outdoor furniture into spaceships.” She writes action romance, some of which take us into space, such as her Galactic Gladiators series.
  • Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff, IlluminaeAmie Kaufman: Tsana describes Kaufman as “one of the most notable Australian authors writing science fiction today”. She is, her website says, “a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy for young (and not so young) adults.” She seems to mostly write collaboratively. Her debut novel, These broken stars, was co-authored with US writer Meagan Spooner, as is her latest book published this year, Unearthed. It’s novel is about an alien culture that has advanced technology which may be able to undo environmental damage. She has also collaborated with Australian writer Jay Kristoff, such as on their YA series, the Illuminae Files. The first in the series, Illuminae, is set in 2575 and “two rival megacorporations are at war over a planet that’s little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe.”

So, that’s five, and, until today, I’d only heard of one of them. So many genres, so many authors. I tried to see if I could identify any consistent themes running through these books, but I don’t think there are – not, at least, the way there are in the dystopian sub-genre. It does, though, seem that more writing is happening in the YA area than specifically for adults, which is interesting.

But now, have you read these authors – or, if not, who are your favourite sci-fi authors?

(PS I might explore other speculative fiction genres in future National Science Week posts.)

Ted Chiang, Story of your life (or, Arrival) (Review)

Image for Story of your life

Illustration for “Story of your Life”, by Hidenori Watanave for Hayakawa’s S-F Magazine. [Permission from the artist: CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Whenever I see a film, I go to Arti’s Ripple Effects blog to see whether she’s reviewed it. Sometimes she has, sometimes she hasn’t. As with books, I don’t read reviews before I see films, so I can never remember whether I’ve seen a review post pass through my inbox. Consequently, when we saw the intriguing, mind-bending sci-fi film Arrival, recently, I had to see whether she’d reviewed it, and she had. She had also provided a link to the long short story from which the film was adapted. The story, Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life”, won the Nebula Award in 2000. Having enjoyed the film, but having questions about its meaning, of course I had to read it. What a fascinating story it is …

But here’s the thing … I usually prefer to read a book or story before I see its adaptation. I don’t hold fast to this rule, particularly if it’s something I probably wouldn’t have read anyhow, like, say, Girl on a train, but if I have an interest in it, reading-before-seeing is my preference. This didn’t happen – obviously – with Arrival, mainly because I hadn’t realised it was an adaptation. So, when I set off reading “Story of your life”, I had the movie freshly in my head. Not ideal and a little distracting at first, but in fact, as I kept reading, I realised that the movie was a “true” adaptation, and I relaxed into the story.

The set up is simple enough. A bunch of aliens – dubbed “heptapods” by the humans because of their octopus-like tentacles – have landed in various spots around the world, including nine locations in the US. They do not appear to be aggressive, but why are they here. The world’s governments naturally wish to discover their purpose, and so they send physicists and linguists to try to find out.

Now, here’s the challenge, as Arti also says in her post: how do we talk about this story without giving some critical things away, because this is one of those stories where much of the meaning is in the telling, even if you don’t know it at the beginning. Arti handles this challenge by talking more about the adaptation, which was indeed well done. I, however, will take a different tack and talk more generally about why I liked the story.

I said at the beginning that I’m not really into sci-fi. I’m not keen on quest films or invasion battle scenarios, but there are sci-fi stories I’ve enjoyed, and they tend to be ones which focus closely on human concerns and issues rather than on fantasy or adventure. I’m talking John Wyndham whom I enjoyed in my teens, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat cradle which I read in my twenties. “Story of your life” fits loosely into this sort of sci-fi (in my mind anyhow).

The story is narrated by linguist Dr. Louise Banks, but in two threads. One is the chronological (sequential) story of her work with the heptapods, told in a traditional first person voice, while the other, which jumps around in time, comprises her memories of her daughter who we learn early on dies in her 20s. It’s also told first person, but addresses “you” as if telling this daughter about her life. There are, as you’d expect, connections between the threads, so that the transitions reflect or expand on ideas developed in the other thread.

It’s an intelligent story that demands intelligence of its readers. Chiang uses words and concepts from physics and linguistics and expects us to keep up. The discussions of Fermat’s Principle, for example, and of causal and teleological ways of understanding the world, not to mention of various linguistic forms, demand concentration of the reader, concentration that I might not, in another situation, have been bothered with – but the writing is so clear, and the story so intriguing, that I stuck with it. Here, for example, is Louise’s description of heptapod writing (which was beautifully depicted in the film):

When a Heptapod B sentence grew fairly sizable, its visual impact was remarkable. If I wasn’t trying to decipher it, the writing looked like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice, each slightly different in its stance. And the biggest sentences had an effect similar to that of psychedelic posters: sometimes eye-watering, sometimes hypnotic.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed was the exploration of the idea that the language we use correlates closely with how we think. (Not a new idea I know but the implications are interesting here.) So, as Louise starts to learn the aliens’ language, dubbed Heptapod B, she finds herself starting to think differently. Instead of thinking in the traditional human “sequential” (cause-and-effect or linear) mode of awareness, she starts to appreciate the heptapods’ “simultaneous” mode of awareness in which they “experienced all events at once, and perceived a purpose underlying them”.

I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no “train of thought” moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence.

It’s the idea that you have to know the effects before you can know the causes, that all the components of an action or event, in other words, are simultaneously there. I did say mind-bending didn’t I?

Anyhow, I expect the non-linear/non-chronological second thread of her narrative is meant, in part anyhow, to reflect or illustrate this more holistic or teleological way of thinking.

Ultimately, “Story of your life” is a philosophical story that gets to the nub of how we understand time, of what we know, of what we can (or would change) if we could. And that’s about as close as I’m going to get to giving it away. I do recommend you read the story and see the film.