While this may not be a uniquely Australian perspective on the future – other places have deserts – there’s still definitely a strong Australian flavour running through this world. The Dead Red Heart, the dust and sand, the mad tankers (Sparks acknowledges a debt to Andrew Macrae’s Trucksong), the caravans, the grim survival in the face of crappy odds. Also the place names that occasionally gave me a giggle, to see them cropping up in this devastated future.
Cat Sparks is a friend… but she’d never expect anything but the truth from me, so don’t worry; this is definitely a fair review.
So it must be pointed out that you shouldn’t come to this book hoping for a happy post-apocalypse world, or a happy post-apocalyptic story. That is not how Sparks rolls. There is unpleasantness and violence and maiming and death and loss and lots and lots of hideous sand. This is a world where human survival relies on following rules that enable communities to survive even if you don’t understand them; where groups have to be wary of other groups because even though helping each other is a good idea, sometimes my group against yours might mean we survive at your cost. Did I mention the sand? There’s a lot of sand. Life is hard and for most people, requires hard work and sacrifice. Well, for most people… and that (naturally) is one of the tensions that Sparks works through here.
This is a world after global conflict, some indeterminate period in the world’s past, that involved soldiers created by humans – robots, cyborgs, and all manner of variations on the theme. Exactly what happened in the past is never spelled out; I got the feeling that a whole bunch of conflicts got conflated and thus, a thoroughly mangled world – which isn’t unimaginable. But the history itself doesn’t matter so much, except insofar as the remnants can be either helpful or harmful to the humans still making their way. Coming off Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn series, this is refreshing, and I liked it: for most of the population survival is more important than history, and that makes sense.
The novel is made up of a large and varied cast, whose stories eventually intertwine. There’s an adolescent on a caravan in the desert fed up with her life; a supersoldier reawakened; an old, old woman eking out the end of her life; a grifter; and representatives of those doing better than everyone else, come to see what the rest of the world is like. It was good to read the variety of perspectives and remember that human survival will mean a diverse range of experiences.
The story at its most basic is a straightforward one. But the thing that really made this stand out was the world building. It helped that I happened to be reading this in a blast of hot days, but even if it had been the middle of winter I would have felt hot, felt parched, felt distressed by the unrelenting nature of the world – this is a world that really can’t support humans very well anymore. But humans are determined and bloody-minded, and that comes through too.
One thing that annoyed me was in the proofreading. There were a number of instances where commas were in weird places. And of course I can’t now find an example because I forgot to mark them, so it looks like I’m complaining out of turn. But they were definitely there: commas as though there were three adjectives but there was only two, for instance. Not a problem with the story, but something that threw me a few times.
Overall this is (I can’t believe) a great debut novel from Sparks. I hope she has more vices stories in her after she finishes her PhD…
In which Galactic Suburbia becomes a five-time Hugo nominated podcast… you can get us from itunes or at Galactic Suburbia
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Also the Nommo shortlist (from the African Speculative Fiction Society)
Alisa: The 45th; S-Town; Sea Swept, Nora Roberts
Tansy: Lotus Blue, Cat Sparks; Buffy rewatch
Alex: New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson; the Ancillary series, Ann Leckie; season 2 and most of 3 of Person of Interest; Last Cab to Darwin
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One Small Step
Soooo this anthology came out in 2013 aaaand I’ve only just got around to reading it. Um. Oops. I have no excuse for this. It just didn’t happen.
In my defence I read the whole thing last Sunday. That counts, right?
The subtitle is “An Anthology of Discoveries” and what’s really interesting is that this is such a broad anthology but yes, the theme of discovery – of place, or self, or strangers – is the unifying factor. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s subtle; sometimes there are world-shattering consequences and sometimes not so much.
The other superbly interesting thing about this anthology is that it’s all women. From memory of Tehani discussing the process, pretty much accidentally so. And it’s not all just dresses and kissing! (Sorry; /sarcasm.) It’s basically a who’s who of established and emerging Australian writers, too, which is a total delight.
Some of these stories really, really worked for me. Michelle Marquardt’s “Always Greener” is a lovely SF story that ended up being simultaneously darker and more hopeful thanI expected (yes that’s a contradiction, too bad). And then to have it contrasted with the fantasy of Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter’s “By Blood and Incantation” – which is not my favourite HannSlatt but is still quite good – neatly skewered expectations that it was going to be an SF anthology, pointing out that ‘discovery’ is a mighty broad concept. And then “Indigo Gold” by Deborah Biancotti! Detective Palmer!!! and !!! The Cat Sparks story is awesome (it feels like ages since I read a Cat Sparks story), Penelope Love is quietly sinister in “Original,” Faith Mudge does fairy tale things beautifully in “Winter’s Heart.” And the final story, “Morning Star” by DK Mok, is a magnificent SF bookend to match Marquardt but on a much grander, more extravagant scale.
This is a really fun anthology and I’m sorry it took me more than a year to read it. You can get it right here.
Snapshot: Cat Sparks
Cat Sparks is fiction editor of Cosmos Magazine and former manager of Agog! Press. She’s won a total of nineteen Aurealis and Ditmar awards for writing, editing and art. Over sixty of her short stories have been published since 2000. She is currently engaged in a PhD examining young adult post-disaster literature. Her collection The Bride Price, was published by Ticonderoga Publications last year. Her first novel, Blue Lotus, is finally nearing completion. @catsparx
The Aussie spec fic snapshot project is starting to take on aspects of Michael Apted’s Up documentary series — you know, the ones profiling a group of British children, revisiting them again every seven years. Snapshot comes around more frequently, but I’m starting to see distinct parallels. The Snapshot is a worthy cultural endeavor but for me, it serves to highlight how little control I have over my own career, creative development and achievements.
1. Your collection The Bride Price took out the Ditmar for Best Collection, and its story “Scarp” took out the Ditmar for Best Short Story, this year – congratulations! What was it like to put this collection together? Did it achieve what you hoped it would?
Ticonderoga’s Russell B Farr approached me three times about doing this collection. Three other publishers had previously expressed interest – in the end Russ wore me down with sheer persistence and the offer of a Canberra Natcon launch. I was worried I wasn’t ready, a pointless concern harking back to a different era. Once, authors only got collected when they’d attained a certain level of achievement. Today’s market is saturated with short story collections. I was happy to win a Ditmar for mine.
2. As well as writing, you’ve been an editor and are a designer, including designing the remarkable cover for The Bride Price. Have these skills worked together for you, or are they sometimes in tension?
The tension resulting is always about time and focus. Serious fiction takes serious slabs of time, commitment and research. The longer you’re at it, the more disassociated activities you end up having to shed. Personally I have never had more time to focus on writing than I have now, yet even writing full time isn’t enough. My output is slow, I am always behind and I never seem to achieve as much as I’d like to.
3. You’re currently working on a PhD, which is very exciting. What are you investigating, and how will this impact on your fiction?
My PhD research question is: How does real world climate change data and anxiety shape and inform post-disaster science fiction for young adults? I’m only halfway through but already my fiction has been permanently affected. I no longer believe in a non-climate changed future and expect fiction to acknowledge the dramatically altering landscape, be it science fiction, cli fi or more common garden varieties.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
I’ve bought so many Australian books this year but have barely had time to read them. PhD material sucks up most of my reading time. The last thing I loved to pieces was Max Barry’s Lexicon. I also really dug Andy Macrae’s Trucksong and Lara Morgan’s The Rosie Black Chronicles. I’m currently picking my way through Ben Peek’s Dead Americans, Thoraiya Dyer’s Asymmetry and Kirstyn McDermott’s Caution, Contains Small Parts. Podcast-wise, I remain a steady fan of both The Coode St Podcast and Galactic Suburbia. Artwise, I adored Nick Stathopoulos’s portrait of Robert Hoge currently hanging in Sydney’s Salon Des Refuses, as well as the short film produced by Nick and Ryan Cauchi: It Grows. (disclaimer – I appear in that movie myself, a fact that serves to enhance hilarity as I can’t act to save my life!) Trailer link here.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be writing in five years from now?
I have zero interest in self-publishing or becoming a relentless self-promotion machine. I write what I’m interested in writing, study the form, work hard to lift my game. That’s what being an author means to me.
Right now, I’m two weeks off finishing a novel and delivering it to my agent. This novel in various forms and guises has been weighing heavily on my shoulders for a very long time. If I’m still working on the same book five years from now, do me a favour, please take me out and shoot me.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at:
Ishtar: a review
(Disclaimer: I know all three of these authors. Not that that would stop me from being dispassionate, of course…)
This is a set of three novellas, set in very distinct times, about the goddess Ishtar. Despite having the same theoretical focus, the three vary greatly in tone, style and actual focus. There are, nonetheless, a couple of clear threads that link them. The first is, of course, Ishtar herself. This is no Botticelli-esque Venus, no whimsical romanticised Aphrodite; all three authors present an Ishtar who is very clearly goddess of war and goddess of love/sexuality, and who embodies the struggles that each of those aspects brings – not to mention the way they work together. Coexistent with this is an attitude towards men that could perhaps be described as contempt, although that may be too harsh; disdain may be closer. Aside from Ishtar, the three stories are all categorised by a general sense of dread, of pessimism and darkness. These are not cheery tales.
I love a fiction book that comes with a bibliography, and Ishtar does just that. I suspect most of the research went into Kaaron Warren’s opening story, “The Five Loves of Ishtar” – although looking at the titles of the articles I can see resonances with the other two stories as well. Warren, though, in opening the set, has the task of placing Ishtar within her original context: ancient Mesopotamia. I know only a little of the history of that area; it certainly feels to me that Warren has captured the sense, if not of the historical area itself, then of how the area might have perceived itself in myth <i>and</i>history. Because Warren sets Ishtar within a place that feels real, where the gods and heroes do walk the earth and do interact with mortals. And she tells of Ishtar and her five loves through five generations of washerwomen, at once a domestic and lowly, yet also incredibly intimate, position. Ishtar’s loves come and go, from Tammuz the Green One in 3000BC to Ashurnasirpal in 883BC. There are some similarities between the five: jealousy, and a love of power, and a lack of understanding of Ishtar herself. To some extent, though, the men are just there to be foils to Ishtar – to provide evidence of time’s movement, since Ishtar changes little; to give Ishtar a canvas on which to act. Ishtar’s involvement with women is of great moment, and I think reveals more of Ishtar’s self. Her interactions with women giving birth, and with her washerwomen, shows a complex character that isn’t entirely comfortable in the world, but doesn’t really know how else to be. There are poignant moments of vulnerability (a goddess concerned about her appearance? unsure of whether she wants a child?), as well as startling moments of horror (the casual brutality of death and war, the creation of a horrific army). This is a complex story as befits a complex character and a complex history, too. Warren does it justice, and sets up the next two stories beautifully: after all, if this is Ishtar in the far ancient world, what might she be like today, let alone in the future?
Deb Biancotti has the task of placing Ishtar in the modern world, and actually for much of the novel Ishtar is not a physical presence; she is a rumour, a hidden force, a menacing shadow. “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living” takes place today, in Sydney, and is essentially a police procedural. Adrienne is a detective, and she has a rather nasty case to work on: several men found dead, with their bones smashes to smithereens, who all appear to have been sex-workers. Just the sort of trend that gives police headaches – especially when the cause of death is almost impossible to explain. In searching for clues, Adrienne reconnects with an old friend who used to be involved in the sex workers’ union; meets a priest and a gigolo-cum-witchdoctor type; and comes across a rather odd goddess cult, who are waiting for their goddess to reappear. All of these people give tantalising clues as to what might be going on, where ‘tantalising’ can also be synonymous with ‘frustrating’ and ‘hair-pullingly-ambiguous’. The reader, of course, might have some idea of what is going on – surely Ishtar has to turn up or be involved at some point – but that really doesn’t make a difference to the story itself. Adrienne is a powerful, compelling protagonist, into whose personal life the reader gets just enough insight to understand that while policing is of fundamental importance to her, it’s not quite all she is. She verges on manic sometimes; her determination and dedication is by turns admirable and somewhat frightening. The supporting cast is solid: Steve, her partner-in-policing, is different enough to riff off, with a family to be concerned about and a bit less narrowly focussed; Nina, the prostitute, is the old friend who can say pretty much anything to Adrienne and provides a wildly different perspective. This novella is the most straight-forward of the three, because of its police procedural nature; there is a mystery which must be worked out, and it seems bizarre and unlikely but then clues fall into place. It is the easiest and least demanding to read (which is by no means a slight on Warren or Sparks, or on Biancotti either), but don’t assume that makes it pleasant. Or that it has a nice ending.
One mythological, one mystery… and a post-apocalytpic tale on which to end. Cat Sparks rounds out the set with “The Sleeping and the Dead.” It starts in a blasted desert with a mechanical bull going mad, and really just continues in that trend. Exactly when and where this story takes place is unclear; I presumed it was Australia, but it doesn’t have to be, and it’s sometime in the future of Adrienne’s Sydney – probably within a generation, but that’s just my guess from a few hints here and there. The focus of this story is Doctor Anna, who lives in said desert with a bunch of very weird, fairly crazy nuns with a seriously disturbing ossuary. When one day some men come calling – well, crawling like dehydrated possibly-hallucinating men are wont to – things change; whether it will be for the better or the worse depends entirely on whose perspective you take. Where Warren’s story has an ancient world annals feel to it, and Biancotti’s is a straightforward novel, Sparks’ piece at times feels something like a dream. The narrative is basically straightforward but the links don’t always immediately make sense; and Anna’s obsession with Thomas doesn’t entirely make sense; and time doesn’t always seem to flow in the proper, ordered way it ought. The place of Ishtar in this story is the least obvious of the three; it does make sense towards the end and, credit where it’s definitely due, Sparks does a good job of tying her Ishtar back to Warren’s. I’m not sure how deliberate that was, since I have no idea how closely the three worked in developing their stories, but it certainly felt cohesive.
This is a really impressive set of stories, and they are most definitely worthy of the award nominations they’ve been receiving. I expect this to be a collection that I keep revisiting and, perhaps especially in the past and future Ishtars, I expect to keep finding new nuances and details cleverly hidden away. It would have been so easy to sanitise this goddess and make her palatable; I am so glad Warren, Biancotti, and Sparks had the vision to be true to what I think is the general vibe of the original mythology.