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Dreaming Down-Under
edited by Jack Dann and Janeen Webb
(Tor, US$27.95/US$17.95, hardcover/paperback, December 2000/January 2002, 560 pages; HarperCollins Voyager (Australia), Book One/Book Two, AU$17.50, paperback, 1999/2000, 441/449 pages.)

For anyone seeking treasure in the field beyond the wide hegemonic swathes of North American and British work, Australia has for some time been the place to look. Dreaming Down-Under was cover scanconceived as one of the first serious attempts to showcase this talent at a local mass market level, and probably the first at an international level. So it is, as its editors claim it to be, a landmark collection. Like any self-respecting landmark, it provides some measure of how far one has travelled, and how far one has yet to go. And with thirty stories by twenty-nine authors and a slew of editorial commentary, Tor's single volume hardcover edition is a landmark because it is visible to the naked eye from space.

As landmarks are wont to do, DDU has garnered its fair share of acclaim. It won the 1999 World Fantasy and Ditmar Awards for Best Anthology. It sports blurbs by various SF luminaries using phrases like "best of its kind" and "most important". It even got reviewed a couple of times in the Australian national press, a rarity almost beyond imagining for an Australian-produced SF book. Most significantly, it has been compared, without irony and principally by its editors, to Dangerous Visions.

It is at this point that one begins to notice the excessive volume with which the trumpets are being blown. DV was a landmark of a very different kind. It broke up through barren ground to proclaim its revolutionary status (and then, admittedly, just sat there for a while until people stopped noticing it). DDU, however, has been plonked down on ground that is already fertile and has had its greatness proclaimed for it. I suspect the editors knew this in their hearts, so to secure the DV pedigree they got Harlan Ellison to weigh in with a laudatory and entirely superfluous preface. In fact, Ellison spends most of his entirely superfluous preface telling us how entirely superfluous his preface is. To be kind, this may just be the ever-playful Ellison doing an extended riff on Keats ("A preface seems a sort of impertinent bow to strangers who care nothing about it"). Or it may just be Ellison being entirely superfluous.

In their introduction - once they've done the whole Son-of-Dangerous-Visions thing and quoted rather heavily from Ellison's original DV intro - Dann and Webb provide a potted history of Australian speculative writing, complete with turn-of-the-last-century authors and titles to track down if you're that way inclined. And then finally, we're at the stories.

Except we're not, quite. Each story is sandwiched between an editorial bio of the author and an authorial bio of the story. The former tend toward the effusive, and while they can be useful for placing the writers in some kind of context, they might have been better collected at the back of the book. They also massively overuse the "this story is about pain, weird headmasters... and fried banana sandwiches" formula, to the extent that my expectation of seeing "..." in every single one of them went through funny to absurd to painful in very short order.

The writers' story bios are mostly either too enigmatic to be rewarding, or so baldly explanatory they endanger the reader's enjoyment of individual interpretation. There is the occasional gem of a mini-essay - Terry Dowling on the task of the futurist, or Damien Broderick on the true nature of UFOs - but this kind of overt framing in such a large collection quickly becomes annoying. The editors' aim, they say, was to 'raise the bar' for Australian writers of genre fiction by asking "the best authors working in the field to write the story they wanted to be remembered for" - in which case, couldn't the stories be reasonably expected to stand (or fall) on their own, and not be bolstered at either end by second-rate PR (now there's a tautology for you)?

And so (really this time) to the stories. There is a wide and wild range here, in terms of skill, style, content, theme, sub-genre, and just about everything else. Such variety tends to render any comprehensive review merely a catalogue of the reviewer's individual tastes (as has been pointed out elsewhere on this site). Still, laced with a healthy sensibility of literary values, the reviewer still has a duty to answer one basic question: are the stories any good, or anyway as good as the editors are claiming them to be? And the answer here is threefold: YES!, yes, and 'I'm sorry, there must be some mistake'.

Frankly, there are some stinkers. If stories like Steven Paulsen's 'Ma Rung' and Jane Routley's 'To Avalon' are the works those authors want to be remembered for, then... I'm sorry, what were those names again? Obviousness and pointlessness are the watchwords here, from Paulsen's Strine-sodden tale of an ANZAC's ghost protecting his buddy (sorry, mate) in a Vietnamese jungle firefight to Routley's sheep-obsessed tourists meandering around Glastonbury in a half-hearted search for Arthurian bliss.

Particularly stunning in its awfulness is Sara Douglass's 'The Evil Within', an attempt at weird blasphemous Gothic that fails on all counts. This is simple-minded, gratingly contrived, and poorly written melodrama dressed as dark fantasy. (Or, alternatively, it's a lousy sit-com, with the central 'gargoyles-with-vertigo' joke being reasonably funny but none of the other caricatures raising any kind of a laugh.)

Much better than this, but bad in a different way, are such entries as Cherry Wilder's 'The Dancing Floor' and Wynne Whiteford's 'Night of the Wandjina'. Two stalwarts of the Australian scene, Wilder sadly passed away recently and Whiteford is the Aussie Jack Williamson, ninety plus and still going strong, so it might seem in poor taste to diss their offerings. On the other hand, if you can't expect quality work from acknowledged masters, who can you expect it from?

It's not that the ideas aren't good, either; rather, it's the laziness of their execution that disappoints. A novel's worth of characters are introduced in the first few paragraphs of 'The Dancing Floor', a take on 2001-ish alien artefacts, and after this bewildering start the narrative rapidly loses its grip. Whiteford's spin on Aboriginal spirits and von Dänikenesque aliens imparts a distinct chill, but the hackneyed framing device and flat characterisation nearly robs it even of that.

Some very good stories are marred by rushed endings (Russell Blackford's cyberpunk melee 'The Soldier in the Machine') or a blurriness around the edges indicating a culling from a larger work (Sean McMullen's intriguingly off-kilter 'Queen of Soulmates'). Others are handicapped by editorial grandstanding before they are even out of the gate. Simon Brown's 'With Clouds At Our Feet', an edgy tale of angst-fuelled outback vampires, is very good, and Norman Talbot's 'The Latest Dream I Ever Dreamed' (Keats again), a twisty and funny look at state-sponsored dream control going pear-shaped, is even better. But the burden of the editors comparing them to, respectively, Lucius Shepard's The Golden and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange could have been enough to crush both of them. As it is, Brown's story comes out somewhat flatter than it should have been, and Talbot's only springs back into shape through sheer insubordination.

In case you hadn't guessed by now, DDU's major flaw lies in its editing. If editors claim they have chosen the best stories by the best writers, then that is what they should have done. And editors should edit, not proclaim, and certainly not proclaim in such a way as to seriously damage the impact of the stories they have so diligently chosen. Dann and Webb are excellent writers and, in many other instances, outstanding editors. But in DDU's case, they seem to have forgotten all that, as if barrel-chested national pride just barged their seasoned editorial nous out of the way.

Fortunately, the number of good and excellent stories here far outweighs the problems of overall structure. Four of them, for me, easily repaid the cover price. Damien Broderick's 'The Womb' is a swift kick in the butt for Americo-centric UFOlogists, and deservedly got expanded into the novel The Book of Revelation (co-authored with Rory Barnes). Broderick writes beautifully understated prose and tells a ferociously even-handed story about cults, abductions, hypnotherapy, and, well, story-telling that manages to condone, chide, and whither all of those things with equal weight and vigour. Stephen Dedman's 'A Walk-On Part in the War' is a savvy Homeric apocrypha that will make you want to lose yourself in the Odyssey all over again. Tess Williams's 'The Body Politic' is a terrifying and deliriously compact cyberpunk vampire tale that simultaneously subverts and reinvents both sub-genres. Williams's acutely spare sentences weave an immediate and prolonged spell of truth that is rare in any field of fiction these days, never mind in one that, on the face of it, deals so blatantly with untruths. And then there is Isobelle Carmody's 'The Man Who Lost His Shadow', a semi-absurd, squalidly magical tragi-comedy of one man's quest through Prague for that flat, dark part of him that, he belatedly realises, defines who he is, or even that he is. This is black and razor-edged writing, and intensely rewarding.

Many of DDU's better stories are ones that follow the strong speculative fiction tradition of dealing unashamedly and in original ways with controversial issues. Terry Dowling's 'He Tried to Catch the Light' explores the possibility that "God is just a by-product of our perception of light". It's about faith as individual choice versus the Realpolitik of religion, and is as reasoned an argument for atheism as any scholarly text. Paul Brandon's 'The Marsh Runners' is a claustrophobic and swampy tale of a daughter's chillingly displaced revenge for fatherly abuse, while Chris Lawson's 'Unborn Again' is an almost despairing look at the apparent impossibility of global action for human rights, taking the Holocaust-like horror of China's Dying Rooms as a leaping-off point. The story seems to say that even straightforward revenge has limited success as a response, but Lawson's postscript at least allows some hope, and provides useful research directions for the pricked conscience to explore.

'Unborn Again' is also about the search for an extension of life, in this case through curing the incurable and the dubious ethics that go along with that. Life extension, or outright immortality, is one of the underlying themes of many of the anthology's stories, and is most thoroughly examined in 'And Now Doth Time Waste Me', the late George Turner's last novella that lies at the heart of DDU.

For those who don't know, Turner was one of Australia's greatest and most underrated writers, who turned to speculative fiction fairly late in his career and brought an incisive and outspoken critical faculty to the field as well as a dangerous imagination and a gorgeous prose style. 'And Now Doth Time Waste Me' started off as a short story written during Turner's last few months of life. The short story turned into a novella and was heading towards a novel, but Turner died before he could complete it. It distils many of Turner's favourite themes and issues: the absurd desire for endless life and the pointless fear of death that engenders it; the social and economic barriers and inequalities that must shape the future and that, in Turner's opinion, were so wilfully ignored by most SF writers; and the eternally dual nature of Terra Australis - the land of the free built on the bones of the chained, the intimacy of island life in an immensely empty continent.

DDU's other main theme, of course, is dreams and dreaming. It is worth noting that the texture and ambitions of the dreams expressed by these writers are markedly different to those that are described by Aboriginal speculative fiction writers such as Mudrooroo (eg in his Master of the Ghost Dreaming series) - none of whom, to the detriment of DDU's overall impact as something uniquely Australian, are represented in the anthology (though it's an interesting possibility that this may be due to Aboriginal writers not considering their fiction to be in any way 'speculative' at all).

Another idiosyncratically Aussie creative urge is also abundantly on show here: that of the pastiche, or the skit, or take, or turn. There are delightfully skewed and provocative versions of the unofficial national anthem ('Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies' by Lucy Sussex), of Wells's The Time Machine ('The Truth About Weena' by David J Lake), and of Jack and the Beanstalk ('Two Recipes for Magic Beans' by Rosaleen Love) that are also effective sideswipes at favourite SF tropes (mythological beasts, alternate timelines, and genetic engineering respectively). These stories have a brash, iconoclastic relish that is often missing from US and British attempts at the same sort of thing.

And in the end, whatever individual stories take your fancy, the undeniable importance of Dreaming Down-Under is precisely that: it shows an alternative tradition, a third way if you like, a freewheeling harvest of all the best bits of North American and British work liberally mixed in with a combined levity, profundity, and brutal awareness of life's utter lack of forgiveness that is uniquely antipodean. The happy endings are more believably equivocal than American ones, the ironies darker and more seductively bitter than the British.

Dreaming Down-Under is massive, a true raggedy-bag, and from an editorial point of view it is certainly massively flawed. But for its gleeful melange of hard SF, dark fantasy, pastiche, magical realism, horror, and the occasionally unclassifiable, for its singular insistence that speculative fiction in English isn't restricted to either side of the Atlantic, and ultimately for the sheer quality of enough of its contents to swing the vote, Dreaming Down-Under is also pretty much essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in the field.


Review by Robert Guy Cook


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© Robert Guy Cook 29 June 2002