I grew up watching Doctor Who, Star Wars, and reading Spec Fic. Anything I could get my hands on, if it had a dragon on the cover or a spaceship, I was there. Which back in those days (the Eighties) meant books from the UK or the US. When I discovered that there were people writing Spec Fic in Australia, it blew my mind. It made me think that maybe I could have a crack at it as well.
Australian Spec Fic was extremely hard to find growing up in the Eighties, but these days it’s everywhere, and it’s weird and wild and wonderful. Here are five of my favourites, old and new.
This All Come Back Now by Mykaela Saunders
This world first collection of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers is incredible. Editor Mykaela Saunders is a Lebanese and Koori writer, of Dharug descent, and she has gathered together a truly impressive anthology of stories. This is a retrospective as well as a showcase of new writers including Alexis Wright, Evelyn Araleun, John Morrissey, Hannah Donnelly, and Samuel Wagan Watson. The depth and breadth of stories here is stunning. There are hauntings, pandemics, AIs, and hurt your-guts-with-laughter satire in these pages
This All Come Back Now sits at the heart of a wave of First Nations Spec Fic and is as important and vital as Dangerous Visions was for the New Wave in the late sixties.
We’re just at the beginning of the beginning of addressing the great problems and inequities of this country stolen from the oldest storytelling cultures on earth. These stories are an incredible, wild, and angry ride, and I loved every one of them.
Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman
I don’t think you can talk about contemporary Australian Spec Fic without talking about Claire G. Coleman. A Noongar woman who has charged onto the science fiction and literary scene. Her stories don’t hold back their punches, and why should they?
Perhaps the biggest fantasy to come out of Australia is Australia itself. Terra Nullius tackles the lie at the heart of colonial Australia: that the island continent belonged to no-one and was an uncontested land. Of course, it wasn’t (and remains so), but that we need to constantly be reminded of this shows how all-pervasive this mind-set is.
What begins as a classic tale of Settlers, and subjugated Natives, becomes something very different. The hot dry land that Clair Coleman depicts isn’t at all what we think it is. I’ve had people tell me this isn’t SF, but that’s only because they haven’t hit the moment when everything changes. The story twists and turns, and along the way it works the great magic of SF, bringing us the shock of the world we’re living in now. Like J.G Ballard once said: Earth is the alien planet.
If you want to understand contemporary Australia, or the notion of Australia as an insidious fiction, Claire Coleman’s work is a great place to start, and she has a new Spec Fic book out called Enclave. You can’t go wrong with any of her writing.
Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller
Ghost Bird is a YA horror thriller, and a powerful depiction of growing up in a small, dusty country town. While not strictly Spec Fic, using depictions of slightly-altered traditional creatures to avoid misappropriation, it will appeal very much to Spec Fic readers. It has truly scary monsters, and some of the worst of them are people. The book is masterful in its evocation of place. The landscape lives and breathes. We feel its menace, and anger at trespass, as a visceral thing. The dream sequences in this book are heart in your throat great, and I don’t think I have looked at a tawny frogmouth (the ghost bird of the title) quite the same ever since.
When Stacey’s twin sister Laney goes missing it’s up to Stacey to find her, navigating a world of terrifying dreams and mystery. It’s one of the best books I have read in the last few years. A story of community and secrets. The book pulls you in from the start and it doesn’t let up.
Lisa is a Wuilli woman from Eidsvold, Queensland, also descended from Wakka Wakka and Gooreng Gooreng nations. She also has a short story in This All Come Back Now.
I love her work, not least because it gets me looking under the couch just in case something is hiding in the shadows.
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Margo Lanagan writes the most beautiful prose and uses it to describe the darkest of places.
Tender Morsels is a magical, powerful book about pain and healing, and motherhood and sisters, and boys turning into bears. Margo reworks fairy tales and makes them her own, her characters sing and grumble in utterly striking and unique voices that are, still, strangely familiar. This story riffs off the tale of Snow White and Rose Red, and it’s the kind of no-nonsense but wildly beautiful telling of a classic tale remade that is endlessly appealing.
It is arguably one of the great works of Australian Fantasy, and Margo one of our greatest writers. Her short story “Singing My Sister Down” still makes me cry when I think about it.
An Uncertain Grace by Krissy Kneen
There’s been quite a bit of novel-length Urban Fantasy written about Brisbane (I’ve even dabbled), but not so much science fiction. This is pure and tricksy science fiction. We follow the life of Liv through a series of five novellas, each exploring the impact of technology on sexuality, while the world heats and changes in the background. There is a VR suit that flips the story of two lovers, a consciousness uploaded into jellyfish, a synthetic child, and even a journey into love in a posthuman world.
It’s dark in places, and confronting, but Krissy is too clever and their touch too light to make it grim. Krissy’s novels often skirt the line between realism and spec fic, but this remains my favourite.
It ends in a moment of warmth and transcendence that takes it to the upper level of books that explore not just what it is to be human, but what it is to live post-humanly (hmm, is that even a word?).
It’s a genuine Science Fiction classic.
Of course, we have many other fine writers in Australia including Greg Egan, Sean Williams, Ellen van Neerven, Shelley Parker-Chan (the first Australian to be shortlisted for a Hugo for best novel), Angela Slatter, Ben Peek, Freya Marske, James Bradley, Alan Baxter, Marianne de Pierres, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Rowena Cory Daniells, Kathleen Jennings, Shaun Tan, Kaaron Warren, Cat Sparks, Grace Dugan, and I could go on.
Unlike those early days of my reading, if you’ve a hankering to check out some Australian Spec Fic you’re spoiled for choice, I reckon.
Trent Jamieson is a multi-award winning Australian novelist and short story writer. He is the author of The Stone Road, the Death Works series, and the Nightbound Land duology. When he’s not writing, Trent works as a bookseller at Avid Reader in Brisbane.