A drop bear is an Australian native related to the koala. Unlike their herbivorous cousins, drop bears are carnivorous. They live in eucalyptus trees and drop upon the heads of unsuspecting victims (hence their name) who are foolish enough to look up. Stories and warnings of drop bears serve two purposes: they confuse and frighten non-Australians and amuse the locals.
Another Australian creature closely related to the drop bear is Aussie Speculative Fiction. There are those who claim such a creature exists and have no problems with others believing as well. Then there are some who will vehemently swear (including a sneer for emphasis) that there is no such creature, and will rave rabidly against being further ghettoized by such a label. Stories and warnings of "Aussie spec fic" serve two purposes: they amuse non-Australians and confuse and frighten the locals.
Despite the naysayers (many of whom, oddly enough, write and publish speculative fiction), there is such a creature as Australian speculative fiction...it's just that no one can agree on what it looks like.
Australian mainstream literature is obviously Australian in its settings, characters and themes. Australian speculative fiction usually does not feature Australian characters or settings, but often works with common Australian themes such as exile and displacement, cultural identity and sense of self-determination. Antiestablishmental attitudes are also common.
To say that Australian speculative fiction must feature Australian characters and Australian settings is expecting a little much. Speculative fiction, by nature, is expected to go above and beyond the familiar to those places that live only in the imaginations of writers. Since speculative fiction allows a writer to take a societal theme and examine it in an environment unfettered by contemporary mores and expectations, it is not feasible to demand that there be clearly defined Australian watermarks in Australian speculative fiction.
In an interview with New Zealand writer Juliet Marillier, she explains how she doesn't believe that a novel must have an Australian setting to be considered Australian:
Maybe the intangible "Australian-ness" creeps in through style and characterisation. Most of us are descended from convict stock or had hard-core rural settlers as antecedents. That may well contribute to an Australian way of writing—confident, disrespectful of authority, humorous, ballsy...There's no need for a book to have an [Australian] setting for this to manifest itself.
Speculative fiction relies on a supertext of collected cultural myths and ideas. Say "elf" or "robot" and speculative fiction readers will have a good idea what you mean. Since Australia is a relatively "young" settlement of Europeans (compared to the Americas, which outdate it by a few hundred years, or Europe, by a few thousand), it hasn't had much time to develop a distinct supertext of its own. According to Marillier:
The tropes of fantasy...are based on a shared body of folklore and mythology. Because most of us in Australia and NZ are of European origins—"settler stock"—it's the European set of shared motifs and themes that ring most true for us. That deep recognition of something ancient and shared is very significant in readers' appreciation of fantasy. It's not impossible for writers to tap into that source and to be original at the same time. I don't think it matters where we are.
Unlike American speculative fiction, which enjoys the occasional dip into Native American (both North and South) mythology as a source of inspiration, Australians and New Zealanders have an almost phobic aversion to sourcing the Aboriginal Dreamtime or Maori mythology--the Australians out of shame and respect, the New Zealanders out of sheer terror. Instead, they (being mostly of European descent) tap into the supertext of their ethnic backgrounds. Writer Ian Nichols explains:
Many [novels] involve similar explorations of European, and particularly Celtic, mythologies. Part of that may be that most of us, in the English-speaking world, have European origins. The traditions of that mythology are embedded in the language and culture, but it takes, as you say, an investigation of the roots of that culture to come up with fiction concerning it. We, in Australia, do not live in anything that even approximates the rural-based mythologies of Europe.
Australia has always been an urban culture. Now it is one of the most highly urbanised countries on the planet. The wide brown land with its Clancys and Men from Snowy River is based on a tiny percentage of people who actually lived and worked in the country.
The myths we brought with us from the old country, wherever that may be, simply don't fit into our geography, our climate.
Australia has considered itself a forward-thinking nation fuelled by self-determination. Australians have always thumbed their noses at their European roots but have not had enough time to fully establish their own literary presence before cultural cringe, and then later internationalism, threatened its development. This leaves a dichotomy between those who look to the past for inspiration from Europe and those who look to the future for inspiration from the American Empire.
Now, with a growing culture of internationalism (fuelled mainly by the media and the Internet), Australia may not have enough chance to develop its own supertext. The bunyip may never be seen as romantic as the jackalope. Several authors are being influenced more by internationalism than by the Australian culture they live in. Stephen Dedman admits:
Sure, I still choose to live in Western Australia, but my main sources of ideas are still based in the northern hemisphere, and one major advantage of being an SF or fantasy writer is that I have an entire universe to play with.
This internationalism is reflected in much of the speculative fiction of Australian writers being published overseas. Greg Egan, Dedman and Sean Williams enjoy success in the foreign markets, but a reader would be hard-pressed to identify any but the faintest Australian influence. Both Dedman and Egan loathe the term "Aussie spec fic" as a label for their work. Dedman: "It's bad enough being in a genre ghetto without people shoving us into one small dark corner of it!"
A disagreement arose when Charles Brown interviewed Australian author Terry Dowling in the June 1994 issue of Locus. It seems Brown persuaded him to say there was something uniquely Australian about Australian speculative fiction. Egan then fired off a rather harsh article in Eidolon magazine vehemently denying the existence of what he termed "Miracle Ingredient A".
In the June 1994 interview, Terry Dowling supported the idea of "Australian speculative fiction". His own unique style reflects the influence of Australia on his work. Likewise, he believes that Australian writers should develop their own voice, separate from the international influence of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Miracle Ingredient A does exist. You just need to know where to find it.
One author whose work is undoubtedly Australian is Anthony Eaton. His young adult novel Nightpeople, published by University of Queensland Press, features overtly Australian settings, characters and themes in a speculative fiction setting. It features Dreamers (think Dreamtime), a harsh environment and a theme strongly reminiscent of the Stolen Generation.
Simon Haynes' Hal Spacejock—both book and character—are very Australian in attitudes and goals, with themes of self-determination and anti-authoritarianism, while also addressing one of the other Australian mores, tall poppy syndrome. Hal Spacejock is described as "humorous SF", a market generally thought of as belonging to the British (think Red Dwarf and Hitchhiker's Guide). But there is nothing British about the humor—it is pure Australian.
Marketing Ingredient A
It is easy to see why Australianism appeals to a foreign market. This geographically isolated island on the other side of the planet has unusual animals and strange plants. Look up into the night sky and even the stars are different, almost like being on another planet. The Australian culture is an easy, laid-back one with an attitude of "She'll be right, mate." Additionally, celebrity exports such as "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan and the Wiggles put a very appealing face on all things Australian (more than making up for Yahoo Serious), so much so that a common belief is that anything with a connection to Australia must be a great thing.
For a while, it seemed that Australian speculative fiction writers were "the next big thing." Because of this, the marketability of the "Australian" label may have helped many to success. However, it may not have been in everyone's best interests. Dedman again:
Yes, [the Australian label] is a marketing tool, and while it may have been well-meant originally, I think the danger of it backfiring is worse than the benefits—particularly in Australia. Until Voyager Books became successful, some local publishers/distributors were convinced that our cultural cringe was so bad that Australians wouldn't buy fantasy or SF if they knew it was by an Australian author.
The apparent "Australianness" of The Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy, Volume 1, edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt seems to have worked in its favour marketing-wise, for MirrorDanse lauded it:
Australian science fiction and fantasy have come of age. The independent press SF movement is one of the most dynamic literary scenes in Australia at the moment. This book captures the best of that movement, from Australia's best SF and Fantasy writers: both newcomers and those with established reputations.
Alas, the power of Marketing Ingredient A may have set expectations too high for any and all speculative fiction works coming out of Australia.
One anthology, Encounters: An Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction, edited by Maxine McArthur and Donna Maree Hanson, suffered a rather negative review by Paul Kincaid in Strange Horizons magazine. Kincaid opens with:
There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed certain that the next big thing in science fiction was going to come out of Australia. It didn't.
He twists the knife further:
Considering this recent anthology of Australian speculative fiction, it is not hard to see why the latest wave seems to have passed Australia by.
Ben Payne and David Cake disagreed with Kincaid's assessment and shared as much in their added comments to the article. Writer Ben Payne felt that Kincaid was being "a little harsh in using Encounters as a barometer of Australian talent. While I liked Encounters a lot more than you did (biased as I am) it is a small press publication primarily filled with new writers and authors belonging to a particular regional area. If you want to get a gauge on the best Australian writing, I suggest you check out Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt's Year's Best Australian Fantasy, or one of Cat Sparks' Agog! anthologies."
David Cake, an Australian fan, agrees:
At one stage there would have been few enough local collections that judging the Aussie scene by the story quality might have made sense, but there are currently so many things being published, and Encounters is obviously primarily the effort of one local writers group, that the real strength of the Aussie scene is that no one involved in it would consider Encounters particularly representative. Not to put down Encounters, the number of such collections and small press magazines is a wonderful sign of the health of the local writing community, and Encounters does what it set out to do well enough, but it's primarily a collection of beginning writers with only a few more established ones."
Secret of Success?
Are there more Australian writers being published, both Down Under and overseas? Undoubtedly, yes.
In the past fifteen years the speculative fiction scene in Australia has grown immensely. The biggest reason for this is because Australian writers and fans take their speculative fiction very seriously. It is often the subject of choice for masters and doctoral theses, academic papers and discussions, and fuels a strong con tradition.
Much of what gets written by local writers gets published locally in the semi-pro independent magazines. The writers never stop to think they are writing Australian literature. They are writing what they think is simply good speculative fiction. Magazines like Potato Monkey, Mitch!, Fables & Reflections, Consensual and many more offer publication platforms for many Australian writers.
As a result, names familiar to Australian fen, such as Dr. Cathy Cupitt (whose doctoral thesis theme was space opera), playwright Grant Watson or short story writer Sue Isle, are unknown overseas. Dedman says, "We're waving a candle, but it can't be seen over the horizon."
Recently there has been a trend towards getting Australian publications in the hands of overseas readers and reviewers. Some familiar names—Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, AGOG!, and Borderlands—are regularly sent abroad, thus giving Australian writers international exposure.
What was once a closed talent pool due to geographic isolation is opening. While it still costs AU$5-10 (US$3-8) per submission to post a short story overseas, the advent of markets accepting email submissions has helped Australian writers compete on even ground with other English-speaking writers. This helps writers like Lee Battersby enjoy international success.
Writer Carol Ryles has noticed an increase in Australian acclaim:
I've just got my Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois in front of me.... The following Aussie Authors (whose names I recognise) got Honourable mentions:
Lynette Aspley: "Sleeping Dragons" Asimovs
Lee Battersby: "Ecdysis" in ASIM and "Father Muerte & the Rain" in Aurealis
Russell Blackford: "Idol" in Oceans of the Mind and "The Name of the Best Is Number" in Microcosms
Damien Broderick: "Yggdrasil" in Synergy SF
Jack Dann: "Bugs" in Postscripts 2 & "Good Deeds" in Conqueror Fantastic
Stephen Dedman: "Changes" in ASIM, "Twilight of Idols" in Conqueror Fantastic & "The Whole of the Law" in ASIM
Trent Jamison: "Porcelain Salli" in Aurealis
Garth Nix: "Heart's Desire" in F&SF
Janeen Webb: "The Lion Hunt" in Conqueror Fantastic & "Red City" in Synergy SF
When you consider that the population of Australia is around 20 million, while USA is 295 million and UK 60.7 million, that's not a bad number [of writers] to be mentioned.
Beware the Drop Bears
While some may deny the existence of Miracle Ingredient A, there is something about the Australian speculative fiction scene, born of a vibrant writing community and sustained by a cultural heritage of "We'll be right", that gives this tiny young country a secure foothold in speculative fiction. With increased overseas exposure thanks to an emerging international culture, expect to see more and more Australians being published around the world.
So...shall I tell you about the drop bears? Perhaps it's best you do look up.