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Editorial - February 2000
by Gordon Van Gelder

In September, I had the good fortune to travel to Australia for the year's World SF Convention and I did what I could to assess the state of fantastic fiction Down Under. I'm generally not one to issue convention reports, but I saw so much of interest during my trip that I thought I'd pass along some of my reflections on the best and worst of times in Oz.

The dynamic Jack Dann has begun calling this period a Golden Age in Australian SF and while I'll remain skeptical until I've read something I consider a masterpiece, I do believe the Aussie scene is very lively and growing rapidly. The major publishers all seem interested in fantasy and sf, and I picked up books by writers whose names you're likely to hear more of as time goes by, including Maxine McArthur, Kim Wilkins, Jim Shellens, and Juliet Marillier. One thing I noticed is that the Australian fans worry more about the distinctions between sf and fantasy than US fans do---I got nostalgic for the 1970s and early '80s, when Americans used to argue whether various books were science fiction or not. The Australian small press is very lively and healthy, producing story collections and odd books. Long may they run.

It looked to me like Australian publishing largely follows America's lead. I suppose that's inevitable, given the size and economic strength of the US market, but I still hoped to see more Australians marching to their own beat. The most disheartening panel was the one on "Is Horror Dead," which followed the same exact pattern of every such panel I've seen in the US: (1) Yes, horror's dead unless your name is Koontz, King, or Rice; (2) well okay, there's a pulse somewhere---here are one or two other books and a handful of small presses that are active; (3) now let's talk about really neat horror movies we've seen. Maybe I shouldn't have hoped for the Australian market to differ much . . . but I did.

Locus editor Charles Brown later said to me that sf and horror are two genres (unlike fantasy) that have seen their strongest tropes taken over by Hollywood and now it's inevitable that the genre books should follow in the movies' wakes. I don't entirely agree, but I think he has a point.

My minimal observations of Australian publishing lead me to believe that it's healthy, given the size of the market, but the books themselves seemed to be more conservative---I didn't see a lot of high-risk publishing. From speaking with various editors, I got none of the feeling of running scared that their American counterparts seem to exude right now. However, my perceptions may well be skewed by the fact that I know many US editors well enough to speak in confidence.

The panel on Australian fantasy made the biggest impact on me. The panelists mostly agreed that the Australian influences on their novels came largely via the landscape, and they generally concurred that they were working in a European tradition (particularly influenced by Tolkien and British traditions). One woman said she's an eighth-generation Australian, her ancestors came on the Second Fleet (which is like saying they arrived on the first boat after the Mayflower), and yet she feels her influences are more English than Australian. The writers seemed to be leery of attempting to address issues regarding the Aboriginals in their work. I got the sense that things may well change soon; as someone said from the audience, "I'd love to skip forward fifty years and see how things have changed."

I guess the panel on Australian fantasy resonated most with me because I'd been in Tasmania shortly before the convention, and to this traveler, the island resembled a fantastic kingdom: there were the bumbled battlements of Hobart's Battery Park, the cruel gaolers of Port Arthur, the strange-yet-familiar fauna, and landscapes unlike anything I've seen in either hemisphere. (And for those who like their fantasy kingdoms grittier, a la Viriconium, Tasmania's roads were rife with roadkill.) The Hobart Museum sported displays of beasts like the giant kangaroo and the probably-extinct Tasmanian wolf.

Surely all the makings for an imaginative novel or ten are there for the taking.

One final note: on our long flight home, my wife noticed that Sir Ian McKellen boarded our plane in New Zealand. It seems likely that he was there because he's playing Gandalf in Peter Jackson's forthcoming film adaptation of Lord of the Rings. Given Charles Brown's observation about horror and the movies, and considering how well Peter Jackson portrayed a fantasy kingdom in Heavenly Creatures, should we be excited by the prospects of the upcoming film---or alarmed?

---GVG ---with thanks to Justine Larbalestier

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