Much early Australian sf falls into subgenres which can be described as sf only controversially: lost-race romances, Utopian novels and Near-Future political thrillers about racial invasion.
Works of utopian speculation began appearing in Australia about the middle of the nineteenth century and were set, appropriately for a new society in a largely unexplored land, either in the Far Future or in Australia's deep interior (indeed, Australia's remoteness encouraged UK and US writers to make similar use of the land as a venue for utopian speculation). Among early utopias by Australians are Joseph Fraser's Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets (1889) and G McIver's Neuroomia: A New Continent (1894). The lost-race (see Lost Worlds) theme was more romantically handled in novels such as Fergus Hume's The Expedition of Captain Flick (1896) and G Firth Scott's The Last Lemurian (December 1896 The Golden Penny; exp 1898).
A Feminist perspective on social criticism is shown in A Woman of Mars, or Australia's Enfranchised Woman (1901) by Mary Ann Moore-Bentley. This depicts an ideal society on Mars in strongly Christian terms, and deals with an attempt to reform Earth in conformity with the Martian model. Of more merit is an earlier novel, C H Spence's feminist utopia Handfasted (written circa 1879; 1984), which depicts a community distinguished by its advocacy of "handfasting" – a system of year-long "trial marriage" by contract. The book is unusual in that it explores the ways in which its central utopian idea might actually be adopted within the real-world community.
From the time of the mid-nineteenth-century gold rushes, Australian society was marred by racial antagonism. By the end of the century, fears of Asian hordes – the Yellow Peril – had found their way into sf in such novels as The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895) by Kenneth MacKay, The Coloured Conquest (1904) by "Rata" (Thomas Roydhouse) and The Australian Crisis (1909) by C H Kirmess. Novels of this kind, though less vitriolic and racist, have persisted up to the present: see John Hooker's The Bush Soldiers (1984) and Eric Willmot's Up the Line (1991). Invasion by aliens of a more science-fictional kind is found in Robert Potter's The Germ Growers (1892), one of the earliest books with this theme. However, although it features space-dwelling Shapeshifters setting up beachheads in the Australian outback, and thereby looks forward to Genre SF, it is also religious allegory.
The various early traditions achieved their apotheosis in Erle Cox's Out of the Silence (19 April-25 October 1919 The Argus; 1925; rev 1947), in many ways a modern-seeming and sophisticated work of sf. A gentleman farmer in the outback discovers an ancient time-vault containing, in Suspended Animation, a beautiful and powerful woman, Earani. She is one of the last survivors of an early species of humanity which, although more highly developed than Homo sapiens, was ruthless: one of its cultural heroes purified the race by inventing a "Death Ray" to destroy its lower (i.e., coloured) racial strains. What is disturbing to the modern reader is the way the novel takes racialist thinking seriously. Though it finally rejects the Nazi-like utopia it depicts, this rejection has to be earned through layers of irony and complex narrative, in all of which Earani's attitudes are given what today seems more than their due. Indeed, she is depicted as morally cleaner than many of the twentieth-century people she meets.
Little Australian sf of importance was published during the 1930s and 1940s, though the interplanetary thrillers of J M Walsh, such as Vandals of the Void (1931), should be noted. The next real milestone is Tomorrow and Tomorrow (cut 1947; full text 1983 as Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow) by M Barnard Eldershaw. Framed by a story set in the twenty-fourth century, it sophisticatedly tells, through a novel supposedly written by one of the characters, of the tumultuous events occurring in Australian society during the late twentieth century. It was cut by the censor at the time of first publication because of its supposedly subversive tendencies.
Professional commercial sf is the most international of literary forms – although much of it has internalized distinctive US values, its strength is in imaginative extrapolation rather than in the depiction of any local experience – and so UK and US sf, requiring no translation and readily available, has tended to be sufficient to meet the needs of Australian readers. Thus the indigenous sf industry has never achieved critical mass in the way it has in some other countries. Nonetheless, since the 1950s there has always been interest in genre sf among Australian writers and publishers.
There was a flurry of local magazine publishing around the 1950s, with Thrills Incorporated (1950-1951), Future Science Fiction (1953-1955), Popular Science Fiction (1953-1954) and Science Fiction Monthly (1955-1957). Also during the 1950s, stories by Australian sf writers began to appear in the US and UK magazines. The work of Frank Bryning, Wynne Whiteford and A Bertram Chandler (whose magazine publishing began in the 1940s) represented a first consolidation of genre sf by writers in Australia. These authors expanded from their beachhead in the 1960s and thereafter, being joined during the 1960s by John Baxter, Damien Broderick, Lee Harding, David Rome and Jack Wodhams.
The Australian-UK magazine Vision of Tomorrow (1969-1970) contained many stories by Australians, perhaps most notably Harding and Broderick. Harding developed into a thoughtful writer of sf, mainly for adolescents, whose doubts and alienation he has captured in a series of powerful metaphors. His most successful work is Displaced Person (1979; vt Misplaced Persons), in which the characters find themselves lost in a bewildering limbo after they start becoming invisible to others (see Invisibility). Other important sf for younger readers has been produced by Gillian Rubinstein, notably Space Demons (1986) and Beyond the Labyrinth (1988), and by Victor Kelleher, such as Taronga (1986); his The Beast of Heaven (1984) is sf for adults.
At the end of the 1960s John Baxter began a trend by editing two anthologies of Australian sf, The Pacific Book of Australian Science Fiction (anth 1968; vt Australian Science Fiction 1) and The Second Pacific Book of Australian Science Fiction (anth 1971; vt Australian Science Fiction 2). Lee Harding's anthology Beyond Tomorrow (anth 1976) brought together stories by Australian and overseas writers, as did his further state-of-the-art anthology, Rooms of Paradise (anth 1978). Several other one-off anthologies of Australian sf were published in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably those edited by Damien Broderick: The Zeitgeist Machine (anth 1977), Strange Attractors (anth 1985) and Matilda at the Speed of Light (anth 1988).
In 1975 Paul Collins began the magazine Void (1975-1981), which published original stories by Australian writers. He expanded this operation in 1980 into the publishing house Cory and Collins (partnered by Rowena Cory). For some years this firm produced anthologies of sf and fantasy edited by Collins (as if they were numbers of Void) as well as novels and collections by David Lake (who has also published quite widely overseas), Wodhams, Whiteford and others. Collins himself is a prolific writer of short stories. A number of other Small Presses have attempted to produce either magazines or books containing sf by Australian writers, and some still do. However, this has not generally proved to be commercially viable.
Currently George Turner is probably the most prominent Australian sf writer, having earlier established a reputation as a mainstream novelist and as a critic. Turner has written several very serious near-future novels containing detailed social and scientific extrapolation. His most ambitious work, The Sea and Summer (1987; vt Drowning Towers), is a relentless extrapolation of social divisions, factoring in the consequences of the greenhouse effect. The novel borrows the frame-story technique of Tomorrow and Tomorrow, as if to state that Turner deliberately casts himself as M Barnard Eldershaw's successor.
Damien Broderick continues to publish fiction notable for its innovation and humour, such as The Dreaming Dragons (1980) and the comic Striped Holes (1988). Wynne Whiteford has gone from strength to strength in writing traditional sf. Australia has some claim upon the New Zealand-born Cherry Wilder, who spent her later years in Germany but who was in Australia for many years. Keith Taylor (1946- ) is a major fantasy writer. Philippa Maddern, Leanne Frahm and Lucy Sussex all wrote successful stories, and Sussex has published several collections. Rosaleen Love's neat sf fables have been collected in The Total Devotion Machine and Other Stories (coll 1989). Of the newer writers, the most exciting are Terry Dowling and Greg Egan. Most significant writers since the 1950s have aimed their work predominantly at international markets.
While there has been little success in establishing Australian sf publishing, Australia has been more notable for its efforts in two other areas, namely serious writing about sf and, perhaps unexpectedly, film. In the former category Donald H Tuck's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy Through 1968 (vol 1 1974; vol 2 1978; vol 3 1982) deserves special mention. Magazines such as John Bangsund's Australian SF Review (1966-1969) and its successor, Australian Science Fiction Review: Second Series (1986-1991), published by a small collective of sf fans, Bruce Gillespie's SF Commentary (1969-current), and Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature (1977-current) edited by Van Ikin (1951- ) have all achieved international respect.
In regard to film, sf had its share in the renaissance in the Australian movie industry which began in the mid-1970s and continued until about 1983, with some successes still being produced. The three Post-Holocaust Mad Max films – Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981; vt The Road Warrior US) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) – have been particularly well received. Unfortunately, some more recent ambitious (but uneven) movies such as The Time Guardian (1987) and As Time Goes By (1987) have flopped, and the future of sf cinema in Australia is doubtful, with the film industry as a whole having been in decline for several years. One recent sf film of note, a hit in Australia and quite successful abroad, is the comedy Young Einstein (1988).
Australian sf Conventions have been held regularly since 1952. The 1975 and 1985 World Science Fiction Conventions (Aussiecon and Aussiecon II) were held in Melbourne. [RuB]
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