Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Australian Science Fiction: As Showcased by Anthologies of Australian SF Short Stories

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Australian Science Fiction: As Showcased by Anthologies of Australian SF Short Stories

Article excerpt

An apparently convenient way of looking at Australian science fiction is to study the contents of those anthologies which explicitly state in their titles, subtitles or editor's introductions that they are collections of 'Australian sf.' Indeed, in all good logic, these should offer ready-made corpuses gathering texts which are both 'Australian' and of 'science fiction.' Things however, are never quite so simple.

The first problem involves the sheer scope of what is available. Analysing Australian science fiction in this way implies analysing 38 anthologies and covering roughly 50 years of creative writing. This represents, on average, one anthology for every 18 months over a period of half a century. Anyone who thought that Australian science fiction was only a 'marginal' genre within Australian literature as a whole would quickly find how mistaken they were.

The second problem concerns the acronym 'sf' and the adjective 'Australian' in the titles, subtitles or editor's introductions of these anthologies, which are not so much the common denominator of all of these texts as what distinguishes them from one another. For some anthologies, the letters sf, for example, do stand for 'science fiction.' In others, they are used to signify the more coverall term of 'speculative fiction.' At other moments still, the acronym is used to suggest 'science fantasy.' This means that 'sf,' in Australia at least, can cover just about everything from poetry about science to tales of sword and sorcery.1 The term 'Australian,' as it is used in these same titles, subtitles and editor's introductions, is just as confusing. For some editors, 'Australian sf' means sf written by people born in Australia whether they live in Australia or not. Sometimes it signifies written by people having spent at least a few years in Australia regardless of where they are now living or where they were born. For some, stretching the term Australian to its limits, 'Australian sf' means sf written by people born abroad, living abroad but having chosen to publish their stories first in Australia rather than in the UK or US.

In short, the terms 'Australian' and 'sf', in Australia, encompass a large and somewhat confusing assortment of tales of non-mimetic fiction written by people from all over the world. This paper will nonetheless try to unravel the meandering course of the development of the concept of 'Australian sf' through an analysis of all of these sometimes very different collections. This should enable a better understanding of how Australian science fiction was created, how it was nurtured and how it has developed with time.

1. 'Australian sf': a genre first defined in the late 1960s

According to Van Ikin (1979), the birth of Australian science fiction can be pinpointed to two early anthologies published by the Sydney-based editors Angus and Robertson. These were The Pacific Book of Australian Science Fiction (1968) and The Second Pacific Book of Science Fiction (1971). 'Here were truly "Australian" sf writers' wrote Ikin. The late George Turner too, during his address at the 1981 HRC Conference, considered that not only was The Pacific Book of Australian Science Fiction the first anthology of its kind in Australia it was, above all, 'the first halfway decent anthology of Australian science fiction' (1983).

Indeed, both these early anthologies were edited and introduced by the Australian journalist and science fiction writer John Baxter. For Baxter, what defined his collections of 'Australian science fiction' was the fact that though some stories could be tagged as 'fantasy' and that 'some people would not even accept some of the stories to be 'sf of any sort at all'2, all the stories published were: 'written by Australians' (Baxter The Pacific Book..., Introduction). For Baxter, because Australian sf (loosely defined) was written by Australian nationals it was clearly different from British or American sf. Because of this particular point of view, in his introduction to The Second Pacific Book, Baxter wrote: 'The sf in this anthology stands on its own two feet, ingenious and energetic stuffthat can compete with any other country's. …

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