Sunday, October 09, 2005


Grace Dugan, guest blogging

(Aside: Of course I agree with everything Anna said in her post about ownership. I’m a little perplexed about my reading of her reading of my previous post, but hey. In this blog, as in fiction, I have been writing about what interests me and what excites my imagination. It was never my intention to impose this on anyone else, to suggest that others should be preoccupied with what preoccupies me, or that anyone should or shouldn’t write any particular thing. But I will continue to air my non-representative preoccupations for at least one more post).

To recap and rephrase a little: I tend to think that fantasy (of the high/quest/trad/mainstream variety) presupposes a relationship with land, or is in some way about a relationship with the land and with nature. The majority, if not the vast majority of Australian fantasy writers, are anglo-celtic Australians. Our relationship with the land we live on is quite different to the relationship that British fantasy writers might have with the land they live on, and they pretty much started this whole thing, didn’t they? This is interesting.

People often talk about fantasy as if the genre were as old as time. But I tend to think that fantasy in the form we know it is a more modern thing, a response to the disenchantment of modern life. Does this mean that, in Australia, fantasy is a longing for the motherland, a longing to not be here in this weird place that perhaps we don’t really understand? (I also hear that it’s boring. That, too, is interesting).

My last post was a kind of ramble not far removed from being story-notes, or proto-story-notes. (This is something which I’ve seen: how could it be expressed in fiction?) Maybe I will write it up into a story one day, probably by the time I get around to it I will have something else pressing on my brain. In any case, here I offer up a few more of my preoccupations about Australia, which I would really like other people to write stories about so that I can read them:

  • We have one of the lowest populations densities in the world, yet we are one of the most urbanised countries in the world. What does that say about our relationship to the land we live on? Science fiction stories of planetary colonisation have often dealt with this question of the relationship between people and place; maybe a story using those tropes could metaphorically discuss the Australian situation.
  • Australians suffer from cultural cringe. We even have cultural cringe about our cultural cringe. How could this be an sf story?
  • Going back to my image of Katoomba in autumn, in which the red trees mark the colonised landscape and the grey green is the bush. Could a fantasy world be imagined in which a colonising people has to change the landscape for their magic to work, but wherever it remains unchanged, a different magic prevails (I personally wouldn’t literally set this in Australia). Possibly related to this: how much of the food that we grow and eat here is native to Australia? Practically none of it.
  • We are a pretty insignificant country in the realm of international politics. How might that change? How might it affect our future?
  • For the last two centuries, us white folks have been farming Australia more or less as if it was Europe. This has had disastrous consequences for the environment, and also threatens the viability of agriculture in the long term (salinity, all that soil blowing away, etc). How might we live off the land more appropriately in the future? What will the consequences be if we continue our current farming practices?
I admit a few of these ideas seem more science fiction than fantasy, but probably they could go either way if you were clever about it. I also admit that they are only half-ideas, waiting for the other ingredient to react with them and make something new. Some of them are even less than half-ideas.

Now that I think about it, there are two other things that I really want to read in Australian sf and fantasy: an intelligent examination of the relationship between Australia and the US, and a thoughtful and sensitive engagement with indigenous Australia. So, go write that, you say. Yeah well, grumble grumble (excuses, excuses).

Grace Dugan’s first novel The Silver Road is coming out from Penguin Australia in 2006. It is not in any way uniquely or essentially Australian.


At 8:21 AM, Blogger shriftstellar said...

Those are good questions to ask for any region. I've never thought of regionalising SF like that, and of course it happens, just never thought of it before.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Tansy said...

Grace, this sounds like a theme anthology waiting to happen! (then again, doesn't everything?)

I've enjoyed your posts.


At 3:50 PM, Blogger Lily said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Lily said...

Thanks for this Grace: it's intriguing to read the dialogue between you and Anna.

I think it would be fabulous to see more Australian SF/Fantasy that engaged with the Australian landscape.

My feeling is that although we may or may not `own' the land (for example, there is much culturally significant land in non-urban non-farming Australia that I support returning to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people to whom it is culturally important), we still belong to it.

We may not have the strong cultural/spiritual ties to the landscape that Aboriginal people have, but being born and growing up in a place shapes you.

We don't own our parents, our siblings, our schools, or the stories we read (which belong to their authors) but their influence nonetheless leaves indelible traces on us.

Our connection to the land is the marks that it has left on our culture and personalities: the ways in which we are different to people who grew up in America, or England, or Europe.

We may dream of Europe, but still love the Australian wild spaces (at least the lusher, higher rainfall spaces, which are perhaps more mentally accessible to most of us): the birds, the colours, the impossibly bright blue sky, the rocks and cliffs and gullys, the trees.

I think Australians as writers have now mostly moved away from the fear of the harsh and unforgiving Australian landscape that is embodied in Patrick White's Voss and Ivan Southall's novels of children surviving adversity, such as Hills End (a storm. interestingly, what saves the characters is that they have taken a beloved teacher to see Aboriginal rock paintings they have found), To the wild sky, A city out of sight (an aircraft crashes in an uninhabited place, Molineaux Island, where the would-be settlers of a hundred years ago died because they could not adapt to the environment), Ash road (a bushfire). Having said that, I love Southall's books.

There is the potential to use and reimagine Australian history stories: the Batavia, for instance, the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860, Ned Kelly, and so on. Lucy Sussex's novel The Scarlet Rider was an interesting engagement with English-Australian history. Nan Chauncy's novel Tangara (about the genocide perpetrated against Tasmanian Aboriginal people) and Gary Crew's Strange Objects (Batavia) are others. Lucy Sussex's short story "Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies" (in A tour guide in utopia) combines Australian history with Australian place and Aboriginal mythos. H.G. Wells' War of the worlds Martians meet Ned Kelly in Chuck McKenzie's "Incident at five mile creek" (in Agog! Fantastic Fiction).

One of the (many) delightful things about Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness was the strong sense of place of the Australian bush and Sydney. (Which felt very definitely Sydneyish, not as if it were interchangeable with another Australian capital city). Reading it made me crave national parks (and Sydney).

Anna Tambour's "Valley of the sugars of salt" (in Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales) also had a strong appreciation of country space.

Leanne Frahm's short story collection Borderline was another work that had a strong sense of the Australian landscape.

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous Grace said...

Benjamin, I guess the questions could apply to any region. I love Kim Stanley Robinson's The Gold Coast for the way that it examines such a specific place so lovingly but also so unsentimentally. Those sections where he recounts the history of Orange County from the beginning of time to the present really moved me.

Tansy, I have absolutely no intention of editing such an anthology (I am lazy) but if someone else did it that would be cool. I'm glad you've enjoyed my posts. I've enjoyed writing them, although it has been somewhat terrifying, and I have no idea how regular bloggers do this all the time.

Hi Lily, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think I have quite a few of those books on my shelf, in the mounting unread books pile, so I will have to get to them.

I do agree that we belong to Australia. I never meant to say that white folks like me had no connection with the place, or no legitimate position from which to write about it. I really and truly was not trying to say that. Only that I think our connection with the land is perhaps different than a lot of other people's in other countries. But I think that difference is something we could address in our fiction, rather than thinking of it as an obstacle or something to be avoided. Science fiction provides lots of good opportunities to do this, and really to do it very easily, but fantasy? Maybe it's a bit more tricky, but to me tricky means insteresting.


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