Speculative Fiction (a catch-all word to describe the genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the various sub-genres) has an unusual place in the Australian literary scene. Quietly riding the wave of recent interest in (both literary and cinematic) fantasy, the local scene still remains, for the most part, stubbornly beneath the general reading public’s radar. Perhaps this is because while it does attract the casual reader, it also has a – perhaps unfair – reputation for attracting the rabid, pointy-ear wearing fans.
But the community of Australian speculative fiction writers and readers is a vibrant one. In the introduction to his 1999 anthology Dreaming Down-Under, Jack Dann recalled a panel at an Australian convention where Harlan Ellison pointed to the audience and said:
“Do you guys understand that this is the Golden Age of Australian science fiction? Do you realise that you’re living it right now? This is it. And I’ll be damned if I don’t envy you!”
Australian writers are frequent inclusions for the various Year’s Best anthologies and Reading Lists at an international level, producing award winning or nominated work. We have an internationally renowned editor of speculative fiction – Jonathan Strahan – kicking around the sleepy Perth suburbs. By any measure, Australia punches above its weight in the international Speculative Fiction scene.
I’d argue that the reason why Australia is so successful in Speculative Fiction is the work it does at the grass roots – the effort put into supporting and nurturing the work of upcoming writers. There are three pillars to this support: access to a vibrant community at the local, state and national level, the provision of opportunities for recognition, and the varied avenues for publication that have more impetus and capacity to publish new writers than their larger, corporate contemporaries.
Image source: Flickr / 31246066@N04
The Australian Speculative Fiction community meets frequently online, originally in chat rooms and across LiveJournal, then more recently via Twitter and Facebook. There are also frequent opportunities for the community to meet face to face via conventions. Each state holds a Speculative Fiction convention and each year a different state hosts the national convention. This year, Natcon 54 took place in Perth, alongside Perth’s own convention, Swancon 40. Running for five days over the Easter long weekend, attendees had the opportunity to attend panels, go to book launches, watch the award ceremony and mingle with writers and other fans. This tactile interaction with the engine room of an industry can be inspirational to a new writer, who can interact both formally and informally with writers at a more advanced stage in their career. It provides an opportunity to meet the publishers, and these interactions feed both parties: the budding writer comes away with insights into the publisher and the publisher gets feedback from its audience. For the emerging writer, all this brings the dream closer by tangible steps.
The opportunity for recognition within the Speculative Fiction community is significant. In addition to numerous ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies for every genre, the community has an awards season that seemingly runs year round. Some are awarded by a panel of judges (such as the Aurealis Awards) while others are decided by popular vote, such as the two sets of awards announced at this year’s Natcon 54 – the national Ditmars Awards and the West Australian Tin Duck Awards.
Current Ditmar awards are: Best Novel, Best Novella or Novelette, Best Short Story, Best Collected Work, Best Artwork, Best Fan Writer, Best Fan Artist, Best Fan Publication in any Medium, William Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review, and Best New Talent. It’s an interesting collection of awards in so far as the amount of recognition it offers to both new writers (Best New Talent) and fans (Best Fan Artist, Best Fan Publication in any Medium) make up thirty percent of the total. The community clearly values the input of the ‘non-professionals’ and encourages active participation. This encourages new writers to participate in submission calls, and a plethora of fans to maintain podcasts or book review websites. The level of professional production in these fan based review/critiques is hardly done justice by the connotation of ‘fan created’, and the wider community benefits through the provision of promotional avenues for writers and publishers.
Passion, business and the small press
The cornerstone of the opportunities provided to new writers in Australian Speculative Fiction is the structure of the publishing industry. Speculative Fiction is driven by small press, growing from those same fans whose passion for Speculative Fiction took them from meeting their favourite writers, to writing about them, to taking that final large step and gathering the work themselves – publishing writers who they believe the community needs to know about.
Small presses grow organically from within the community. Fans become organisers, working in small publications and conventions, gaining experience in talent wrangling, balancing budgets, and project management. From here some will branch out and use this passion and newfound skill set to set up a publishing house. This natural growth from within the community keeps the small press rooted in its origins, and incentivised to reinvest in it in a number of ways, including through the discovery of new writers.
Small presses are owned and run by people with a passion for what they do. They are businesses and subject to the same requirements for staying solvent as the large publishers of the world, however the drive for profit is not the same. Every business aims to turn a profit, but the small press houses typically don’t have shareholders to answer to; they don’t have profit growth targets to meet. A proprietor can decide to take a smaller margin if it means getting a bigger book, a better print finish, or a more diverse group of writers to the marketplace. Consequently – and without denying the ever-present importance of getting “name” writers – there is room for the unknown writer who sends through a cracking story. Many of the established small presses in Australia, such as Fablecroft Publishing, Ticonderoga Publications, and Twelfth Planet Press open their slush pile to anyone who can follow the submission guidelines, regularly releasing books that evidence this ongoing effort to bring together the works of emerging and established writers.
To the emerging writer looking to get their work in print, these invitations – to contribute to a vibrant, world-class literary scene – is too good an opportunity to miss.
Daniel Simpson is an emerging writer in Perth, Western Australia and Speculative Fiction fan. His latest short story “The Winter Stream” was released in the Fablecroft Publishing anthology Insert Title Here at the Natcon 54 convention in April 2015.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.