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The Split in SF

Dave Conyers has reviewed my story “Domine”, reprinted in Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt’s the Years Best Australian SF Volume 4. Dave, in the Irish SF magazine Albedo One, writes:

Domine’ by Rjurik Davidson is an improved effort from an up and coming Western Australian short story writer, with a science fiction piece concerning a middle aged man coming to terms with a father barely out of his twenties. Their strange age differences an outcome of the relativistic space travel undertaken by the father, who has recently returned to Earth for ‘shore building and a tighter less-indulgent narrative style this story could have been really good…

Probably the most intriguing aspects of the fourth volume of The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy are the choice of stories, as they all tend to lean towards a certain style. Most contributions are from authors who are stronger on character and language than on plot, pace and creating a sense of the fantastic.

In a recent interview Congreve stated that he sees himself and Michelle as collectors rather than editors of stories: if he could edit stories the line up would be very different. Perhaps the better Australian authors not represented need better editors, or to spend more time getting the words right. If so we might see very different tales in Volume 5.

The selection also tends to suggest that the local small press science fiction and fantasy magazines have become niche markets, even within their own genre. As an aside this certainly doesn’t seem to be the case with horror publications, as is evident in the diversity of stories collected in Brimstone Press’ competing series, Australian Dark Fantasy & Horror.

Despite the state of the Australian speculative short story industry, Congreve’s and Marquardt’s latest offering remains one of the better Australian anthologies released in 2008.

I’ve known Dave for a long time, though I haven’t seen him for years (hence he still thinks I live in WA). I suspect here we get an interesting example of a divide that runs right through the SF world: the differing aesthetics of readers who like traditional genre elements (plot, pace, sense of wonder) and those who are literary, concerned with deep character, theme, mood, language. Dave falls on the former side of the divide. And it seems to me that writing literary SF is probably not a great career move. It’s a form of marginalising yourself doubly. First, you marginalise yourself from the literary mainstream which often sneers as science fiction, then you marginalise yourself from the bulk of SF genre readers who are often attracted to its pulpish elements. You end up with a very small readership indeed, unless like Ballard, Le Guin and others, you can reconnect with the literary mainstream. Or if you’re really smart, you write science fiction which is able to hide the fact that it is science fiction (here I’m thinking of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Margaret Atwood’s work). Otherwise you are likely to end up like Thomas M. Disch – a great and ignored writer.

It seems to me that there are a number of writers I know who run this risk: in terms of Australians, someone like Ben Peek (who has written for Overland), might be sitting in this space. Peek’s Twenty Six Lies One Truth is a smart novella which owes much to experimental or ‘postmodern’ fiction, and yet I suspect its main readership came from the SF community, the place where Peek made his name.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Nice observation and one I agree with. Great last name, btw.
    This particular Davidson falls on the SF is and should be SF side of the divide.
    I suspect that the 'proper' strategy (for one inclined to write SF) (and presuming that one is capable of execution) is to write SF that is clearly SF as one establishes a following and then gradually take your following along for the ride as more literary affectations are introduced. The successful cross-over story may lie somewhere in the future of that path.
    But of course writers write what they are compelled to write and imposing such deliberate strategies on the work is usually a quick path to writer's block.

  2. Steve,

    That's the strategy that Ballard took. But it seems to me that the best (and possibly most dubious) strategy, if you could do it, would be the Atwood one: write both 'mainstream' and SF novels, but deny that your SF is SF. Then you can dismiss SF and align yourself with that particular prejudice and maintain your readership. The reason this strategy is dubious is because it maintains the prejudiced marginalisation of SF by the 'mainstream': and implicitly draws the distinction good/bad, what you write/SF. It's kind of an example of 'bad faith.'

  3. Interested in the comment about the dangers of writing 'literary SF'. I actually write fantasy, but the same principle applies. I like to think of my new book, Randolph's Challenge Book One-The Pendulum Swings as 'literary fantasy'. I don't subscribe to the idea that SF and fantasy readers are not keen 'literary' enthusiasts. I know all the old arguments that are rolled out about the second rate nature of SF and fantasy in the world of literature (many of which are justified by some of the low grade stuff that is published in these genres). But when you get a quality offering of SF or fantasy I don't thnk you will find a better read in any genre. If you can get quality writing plus adventure, romance, humour, crime, ….. and you can finish the list, all in one book, why go anywhere else? If you don't believe me, read my book!!

    Chris Warren
    Author and Freelance Writer
    Randolph's Challenge Book One-The Pendulum Swings
    http://www.randolphschallenge.com

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