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Science Fiction in Australia


What does all this add up to? In America, the major change that happened during the 1970s and 1980s had been the sudden popularity of science fiction outside the narrow world of aficionados. In a few years it rose out of the cheap end of the market and became part of the bestseller market.

Some SF writers are making a lot of money, and many are making much more than they could even have hoped for during the early part of the century. In America, science fiction has become a highly professionalised, highly competitive market that now occupies 15 percent of the fiction field. Science fiction tends to operate in a world of its own, having little to do with other literary activity. It's now a big and rich world, with SF conventions attracting thousands of people and centring on the professional writers rather than the fans.

Terry Dowling

In Britain, very few writers still make more than a bare living, but they seem to have much more fun doing it. Some British SF fans invited the Scottish writer Iain Banks along to a convention. Until then, Banks had never thought of his work as having anything to do with science fiction. However, he became an enthusiastic devotee when he discovered that the main activity of British fans and writers at conventions is gathering in the bar and drinking.

Brian Aldiss, one of my favourite writers, is famous for his ability to live it up and have fun at conventions. He's had quite some success during the last forty years, but John Brunner, another fine British writer, finds himself at the age of sixty virtually broke and with all his books out of print. In Britain, there is only one nationally distributed SF magazine, Interzone, and very few publishers with regular SF lists. Many British writers find it easier to gain publication in America than in Britain. Where does this all leave the science fiction writer in Australia? Way out on the edge of the furtherest edge.

There seems to be no prejudice against Australian writers, but it is just as difficult for Australians as American or British writers to make that initial break into the major markets.

Some of the older writers, such as George Turner and Wynne Whiteford, say that a small amount of science fiction published in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s. It appeared as serials in some of the newspapers, when they still published fiction. George Turner's recollections of growing up in the early part of the century as a science fiction reader are contained in In the Heart or In the Head. The story of the early attempts at publishing SF in this country is contained in Van Ikin's Portable Science Fiction collection.

The most famous of these serials of the 1930s was Out of the Silence by Erle Cox. Not only was it popular in its serial form, but in book form it became by far the most successful Australian SF novel. Today it seems outrageously racist, reminding us that Hitler's views on race were fairly common throughout the world during the 1930s, and not merely the opinions of a small number of Nazis.

Capt A. Bertram Chandler

In Australia, fan activity has always been more important than science fiction publishing activity. In the late 1930s Graham Stone, Vol Molesworth and a small number of teenage boys formed the Futurians in Sydney. This small group of males is chiefly remembered for their infinite capacity for feuding among themselves. When they were not disputing over standing orders, they sought out the small number of overseas books and magazines that reached Australia, and swapped them among themselves.

For the chief problem of Australian science fiction fans from the beginning of World War II until 1959 was gaining supplies - any supplies - of their favourite reading matter. There were no British SF magazines before the War, and virtually all American SF was contained in the pulp magazines. After August 1939, no supplies of these reached Australia, except occasionally as ballast in ships. In Melbourne, these windfall magazines were bought at the dockside or ended up in the famous Franklin's Secondhand Store in the old Eastern Market, which was located where the Southern Cross now stands. Because there were very few copies, each magazine was swapped from one person to another.

In the early 1950s a small group of teenage boys began to meet in each others' houses, forming the Melbourne Science Fiction Club in 1954.

They included Lee Harding, who later became a successful science fiction writer for young adults, and won the Australian Children's Book Award in 1982 for Displaced Person, Mervyn Binns, who was for many years manager of McGills Newsagency in Elizabeth St, Melbourne, and then from 1971 to 1985 was the owner/manager of Space Age Books, Dick Jenssen, who later became head of the Meterology Department at Melbourne University, and Race Matthews, who after three years in Federal Parliament during the Whitlam Period became the State Member for Oakleigh, and a Minister during the Cain Government. Two years ago he was forced to take abrupt early retirement from his seat, and has since then tried to regain his links with some members of the SF community. He has written a wonderful short history of the early days of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, which I'm publishing in the The Metaphysical Review.

The shortage of overseas science fiction continued until the restriction on spending US dollars ended in 1959. British reprint editions of the American magazines appeared in Australia, but often they were much shorter than the originals. Merv Binns, in his job at McGills imported many SF books that for copyright reasons he was not allowed to sell on the front counter. When the Melbourne SF Club moved into its permanent quarters in an old bulk store behind McGills, Merv used the opportunity to sell these much-prized objects to other members of the Club.

But, you will want to know, was there any Australian science fiction being published? As always, a very tiny amount. Some of the Sydney Futurians set up some very cheap-looking, ill-written magazines in the early 1950s, but they failed quickly. The editors wrote most of the contents, or paid little for the rest. The only discovery they made, Vera Hemmings, died in the late 1960s before she could become part of the first boom in Australian SF publishing. The only other SF was published in such magazines as Man and Man Junior. That's where Damien Broderick sold his first stories.

The few people who had ambitions to become successful writers knew that there was only one way to succeed: by selling to overseas magazines, or perhaps even selling a book in New York or London. As early as the 1930s, Wynne Whiteford had sold a story in America.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a group of writers began to sell stories to the British science fiction magazines New Worlds and Science Fantasy that were edited by Ted Carnell. These authors included Lee Harding. I've already mentioned his later success as a writer of young adults' fiction within Australia. John Baxter was an ambitious Sydney writer on from science fiction and other forms of fiction to writing successful books about film. Damien Broderick, who had actually begun his career by selling stories in Australia, also began selling the occasional story in Britain. Wynne Whiteford, by now a successful journalist, began selling science fiction stories again after a break of many years. David Boutland, who wrote under the name of David Rome, actually broke into the American market with a short story called `Parky' that was picked up, then and now, for anthologies.

The most successful of all was an honorary Australian, A. Bertram Chandler. A British sea captain, he had been selling stories regularly in America since 1940. After he joined the Australian National Line in the 1950s, he called himself an Australian writer.

These were the people whose names I knew from reading the British magazines when I became a fan in late 1967. My involvement with the SF field is told in an article I wrote for Tirra Lirra called `How I Became an Editor'. It's enough to say that I became involved soon after the first real revival of interest in science fiction that happened in 1966. As always in Australia, that interest was driven by publishing Australian Science Fiction Review. It was a fanzine. Since it's a word that I will use often, I'd better define it.

The best definition I know is `A fanzine is a magazine written and published by science fiction fans, usually distributed among science fiction fans, but not necessarily about science fiction'. ASTR, as Australian Science Fiction Review was known, was mainly about science fiction, but it also had a lot of humour and banter, which is the reason why people appreciated it. It put people in touch with each other, leading directly to the beginning of fan groups in Adelaide and Brisbane, and the revival of interest in Sydney. I became a reviewer for ASTR just before its first incarnation folded in 1969. I began my own magazine, SF Commentary, in January 1969, and that magazine is still going.

Now, all this is `amateur' activity; that is, activity carried out purely for the love of it. ASTR was very high-quality amateur activity, since its editor was, and still is, an editor of immaculate standards. For awhile it seemed as if professional activity would follow. Ron Graham, a very rich science fiction collector in Sydney, set up a magazine called Visions of Tomorrow. Financed in Australia, it was published in Britain, and the original idea was to feature half and half Australian and British science fiction writing.

Unfortunately, Graham picked a rather odd character named Phil Harbottle as his editor, and Phil Harbottle had no interest in keeping up the Australian quota. But on the strength of this magazine, Lee Harding became a full-time writer, a fast downward chute to poverty.

Want to write SF? "Read the major SF magazines and the current award-winners … (Norstrilia Press) saw novel after novel submitted by people who had obviously never read an SF book in their lives.

Lee Harding

But Lee did sell a few stories to American magazines, and even a book to a British publisher. A few other writers began to sell stories overseas. It looked as if an Australian SF boom was on at last. This boom, like its successors, proved to be an illusion.

I won't go into all the details of all the attempts to get an Australian SF industry off the ground. They all founder on the one important ground: that Australian SF readers don't want to read fiction written by Australian writers. Even A. Bertram Chandler, known as Bert Chandler, sold fiction regularly overseas until his death, but had little luck with his books that were published in Australia.

The only exception to this rule are books written for people under sixteen. Science fiction writers have never had any trouble selling large quantities of books to young readers. In the 1950s, Ian Southall wrote his `Simon black' adventure stories that often features SF plots.

In childhood I became interested in what I called `space stories' because of the SF radio serials that G. K. Saunders wrote for the ABC Children's Hour during the 1950s. During the 1970s Patricia Wrightson had great success with her fantasies based on Aboriginal materials. And in the 1980s Lee Harding, Gillian Rubinstein, Victor Kelleher and Garry Crew are just some of the authors who have won the Australian Children's Book Award with science fiction novels.

But we kept trying to relaunch that Australian SF publishing boom. Our great inspiration was Ursula Le Guin, the Guest of Honour at the 1975 World Science Fiction Convention, held in Melbourne. As a condition of coming to Australia, she insisted on conducting a science fiction workshop for beginner writers.

That week up in the Dandenong Ranges was one of the greatest weeks of my life. Ursula worked us hard, but gained astonishing results from people who until that week had written little more than their submission stories. Two more major workshops followed, in 1977 and 1979, producing some of today's most active Australian writers. We knew the talent was here. Could we find a way to publish these people in their own country?

Bert Chandler and George Turner

Capt. A. Bertram Chandler (R) and George Turner (L)

The attempts to initiate the Australian SF publishing industry were based on the activities of fans rather than people who expected to make their fortunes. In 1975 I and two friends, Carey Handfield and Rob Gerrand, began Norstrilia Books. This was originally set up to publish critical books about the field, based on the essays that were appearing in SF Commentary.

Our first book was Philip K. Dick: Electric Shepherd, a series of essays about Philip Dick, my favourite science fiction writer. However, we moved into fiction, beginning with two books, The Altered I and The View from the Edge, which told the story of two of the writers' workshops and published selections written at them.

We published Keith Antill's Moon in Ground, a novel that had won an award ten years earlier as an unpublished manuscript, and Damien Broderick's The Dreaming Dragons, which also was published overseas and went on to win second prize in the John Campbell Award.

We only published two novels from the hundreds of manuscripts sent to us: Greg Egan's An Unusual Angle and Jay Bland's Lavington Pugh. I'll tell you more about Greg Egan's career in a moment. Our greatest success, however, was a marginal novel, Gerald Murnane's The Plains. I still insist it is great speculative fiction, and Gerald insists that it has no connection with the field.

The important thing to remember is that never during all this activity did Rob, Carey or I make any more money from Norstrilia Press. I made a living from typesetting the books, but each book made back just enough money to publish the next. Average sales were about 500 copies per hardback volume. We haven't published a book since 1985, but we will always sell you back copies if you want to buy any.

Lucy Sussex

I could tell the same story about Cory and Collins, which was the other SF publisher that began in the 1970s. Paul Collins began by publishing a magazine called Void. Later he published quite a few books, including the Worlds collections. He persuaded Wynne Whiteford to return to science fiction and in fact, in his late fifties, to write his first novel. The main difference between Paul Collins and Norstrilia Press is that Paul really hoped to make a living from his venture. Fortunately he and Rowena Cory were paying the bills from running a secondhand bookshop in St Kilda, because I don't think they ever earned anything from publishing.
The only other ventures I will mention are Penguin Books and Aphelion Books, which is based in Adelaide. Peter McNamara, who runs Aphelion, is doing much as we did: about two books of fiction per year. He seems to have had more success than we ever had, but I wouldn't mind betting that he is making little money. Still, his big new anthology of Australian SF, Alien Shores, is quite an achievement, and seems to be on book shelves all around town.

Jackie Yowell was an ambitious young editor at Penguin during the mid-1970s, at about the time when the World Convention made everything seem exciting. She sold her boss, Brian Johns, on the idea of an Australian line of Penguin Science Fiction. She published three books, including The Dreaming Dragons, and they sold woefully. I'm told that ten years later one still didn't mention the words 'science fiction' in the corridors of Penguin. I thought the covers of the books were terrible, but the powers that be at Penguin came to believe that SF would never sell in Australia.

And that's pretty much the situation still. The only exception has been Pan Macmillan, which had an enormous, and totally unexpected success with Martin Middleton's first book of a fantasy trilogy. Other writers, such as Isobelle Carmody, have had success in the fantasy series, but as yet Pan Macmillan has not ventured into science fiction as such.

What is going in Australia? The fans are enthusiastic, as ever. There are two magazines that have survived more than five issues each, which is a miracle. Aurealis and Eidolon began almost at the same time, but they look very different.

If you feel you are writing in the dark, organise a writers' workshop in your area. Many writers find that without that inspiration … it is difficult to continue in the writing pursuit, which is after all a completely lonely one.

Aurealis looks almost amateurish, but does pay a little bit of money for stories. It is nationally distributed to newstands. Its policy seems to favour what we call "hard science fiction" stories: that is, stories with strong scientific backgrounds. Will Aurealis keep going? Only Dirk Strasser, its editor, can decide that. He's determined to be a successful full-time writer, and has already had several novels published. If that activity eats too deeply into his time, he might have to slow down production of Aurealis.

Eidolon is available only by subscription. It is run by a group of Western Australian fans. It looks much more like a literary magazine than Aurealis, and contains a higher proportion of critical articles and reviews. Also, the editors are seeking much more literary, poetic writing than Dirk Strasser does. Unfortunately, they have very little money, and pay only $10 per story which, as even they admit, just to pay the writer's postage costs.

Some of the fanzines, such as The Mentor, publish some fiction. I don't publish any fiction or poetry in my magazines SF Commentary and The Metaphysical Review, but I do publish some interesting reviews and critical articles.

Which takes us to the question that you are really interested in: where does the aspiring Australian SF writer send his or her fiction? Overseas of course.

Let me give you an example.

In the late 1970s, Greg Egan from Western Australia sent Norstrilia Press a manuscript called An Unusual Angle, Greg had written it during his last year of high school. Set at a typical Western Australian high school, it tells in first person the story of a boy who believes he has in his head a camera. He makes films of everything he sees. The books is not that film, but about the taking of the film. The story-teller has not yet found a way of processing the film. Fantasy or science fiction? We didn't know, but Greg's astonishingly assured style made us feel that it didn't matter.

We accepted his manuscript and published it. It didn't sell well, but then, we found it impossible to get anyone to review it properly. The only exception was Sister Veronica Brady from the University of Western Australia. Her review showed that it was possible to see exactly what Greg was up to, even if you had read no science fiction. Greg went off to the Film and Television School in Sydney, stayed one day, and decided it wasn't for him.

Unemployed for some time, he wrote five novels and three books of short stories, and sent them all to us. As chief reader for Norstrilia Press, I found myself with an acute case of literary indigestion. It was all brilliant, and all unpublishable. If I had photocopied those manuscripts, I could have given you a textbook example of the difference between being a brilliant writer and being a publishable writer. Ideas flowed out from each page, but there were so many of them, and so few interesting people in the books, that no audience could have absorbed them.

Needless to say, Greg was annoyed because we didn't publish his books. Also, we were about to fold our own publishing operations, so we couldn't do much for him. I did give Greg one bit of advice, which he took, and it's the advice I give today. I said that no publisher will do a book of short stories unless most of those short stories have already been published separately to the top markets. I suggested to Greg that he should start tackling the top overseas short story markets. Which is what he did. By the time he sold his first story, to Interzone in England, he had written several million words. I hate to say it, but I suspect that for most successful writers the ratio of words written to words published in the first few years is much the same. Most successful writers tell the same story: writing anything up to a few million words before achieving that first sale.

In Greg's case, all the hard work paid off. During the time he was selling his first stories, first to Interzone and then to some of the top American magazines, he was working at a highly paid job in Sydney. When he sold his first novel, Quarantine, to Millennium Books in Britain, he quit his job, and on the strength of his superannuation and savings bought himself a flat in Perth. Which is where he writes non-stop, constantly selling stories that are picked up for anthologies such as The Year's Best SF.
George Turner's is an even more extraordinary story. George Turner began reading science fiction in the 1920s. After World War II, he decided to be a novelist. His first novel, Young Man of Talent, appeared in 1958, when he was 42 years old. The Cupboard under the Stairs, a novel he published in 1962, won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious literary prize. George had still never written any science fiction, but he read lots of it. In 1967 he met John Bangsund, the editor of Australian Science Fiction Review, and began write reviews of SF books.

He reviews created such a strong reaction that George began to think more and more about how an SF books. He reviews created such a strong reaction that George began to think more and more about how SF books should be written. In 1978, when he was 62, he published his first SF novel, Beloved Son, in Britain. It was highly praised, and was followed by two more in that series. In 1984 he published his literary memoir In the Heart or In the Head, and in 1987 The Sea and Summer, which was the first Australian novel to be nominated for the American Nebula Award. At the age of 78 George has achieved the success that so far has eluded every other Australian SF writer! It takes awhile.

Where, you might wonder, do Australia's women SF writers fit into this pattern? When I became an SF fan in 1968, the only women who were sighted at SF conventions were wives or girlfriends of fans. During the early 1970s, a few unattached women became part of fandom, often beginning as fans of Star Trek. In 1975, many of the applicants for the Ursula Le Guin Writers' Workshop were women, and many others became involved because of the World Convention in that year.

In the early 1970s, Locus, the newspaper of the American SF field, surveyed its readers, finding that 80 percent of them were male. Since then the percentage has slipped to about 70 percent, but the predominance of men in the field is still fairly daunting for women who want a career in SF. Luckily, since the early 1970s there has been an influx of women writers in the overseas SF markets. many, such as Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ, are known for being among the most adventurous writers in the field. At Australian SF conventions in the 1980s and 1990s, the percentages of females to males have swung much more toward 50/50, rather than 80/20, although many female fans admit that they are media fans rather than, as they call us, 'lit' fans. Many of the fans, of course, are trying to break into professional writing fields.

How to break into the science fiction field

Type your manuscript. No publisher will read a handwritten one.
Submit your manuscript. If you are trying to sell novels, send a synopsis and a sample chapter.
Research your market. Find out what kind of style published SF authors are writing in. The field is now highly competitive, with quite a few writers now earning a substantial living from their work.
Organise a writers Workshop. The Altered I and View from the Edge give a good idea of how to organise one.

Bruce Gillespie has edited SF Commentary since 1969 and The Metaphysical Review since 1984. He is one of the founders of Norstrilia Press.

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