IT COULD BE YOU: THE CATS by JOAN PHIPSON

Bloody hell, how long has it been since I’ve done one of these? Some “regular” feature this is turning out to be…..

Anyway:

The Cats
by Joan Phipson

Long before Book Depository, and Fishpond; back when Google was a number and Amazon a river; when “e-books” was something a Geordie said in a library, a nine year old me made his one and only purchase from the colourful Scholastic school book club catalogue that my parents normally used to pad out any spaces in the garbage bin, and this was the book I ordered.

To be honest, I remember very little about the book: it had a creepy, blue-shaded cover in which a group of kids were threatened by some Scooby Doo shadows with glowing eyes while a giant cat in the foreground watched on dispassionately; the eponymous cats of the title may or may not have been telepathic (I have a vague memory but I refuse to commit to it); and at a time when I was overdosing on Doctor Who and Alfred Hitchcock’s Young Investigators books, it was very, very Australian.

Phipson aught to be a God amongst Australian authors. She published a veritable fuckload of books, won two Australian Children’s Book of the Year Awards and was awarded a member of the Order of Australia (for writing children’s books!). Sadly, I can’t find any of her work in any of my regional libraries, and she seems to have become something of a forgotten relic of the pre-Cosmopolitan Australia (Causmopolitan? COZmopolitan?) Age of Twee. It’s a pity, because I feel that I should remember more about the book, and certainly learn more about an author whose work was the first to attract me so that I wanted to spend my money on it, and wait for delivery, and undertake the purchasing process that has helped the owners of Book Depository name their latest yacht after me.

So, like Frank Roberts, I cast my mind back to my earliest understanding of the writing and reading industries, and find myself influenced by an Australian whose greatest moments have fallen into– at the very least, relative– obscurity.

If I believed in omens……

IT COULD BE YOU: THE ETCHED CITY BY KJ BISHOP

The great thing about an anthology of the mind is that you’re not limited to any one form of writing. It takes as much effort to reprint a novel as it does a haiku, because it’s allllllll in your miiiiiiiinnnndddd……

It took me forever to get a copy of KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, and for a very good reason: everywhere I went in the wake of its release, the bloody thing had sold out. And when I finally did get a copy, at a convention almost a year after its release, some bugger half-inched the thing. Which is why the copy I do have is one of my prized literary possessions, because Bishop found out about it and sent me a copy from her personal stash as a replacement, and what’s more, she went through and annotated it beforehand: I’ve got one of the few, if not only, post-published draft edits in existence!

What’s even better, of course, is that the novel is a stunning piece of work. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen published by an Australian author– lyrical, baroque, with a plot that ascends not in a straight line but in a series of unconnected sweeping circles that don’t seem to be going anywhere until, simultaneously, they all do…… perhaps only the equally wonderful Anna Tambour comes close to creating that same sense of the truly lush and exotic, and Bishop does it here in service to one of the great figures of Australian speculative fiction: the gunslinger philosopher Gwynn, of the peacock-eye coat and blanched white countenance, whose louche demeanour is at odds with his troubling inability to fully divest himself of his humanity. Taken alone, his story would be fascinating, but with an equally troubling co-protagonist in the dark medic Raule, and in the beautifully-realised city of Ashamoil, the novel is a feast for the third eye that never stops throwing up images that I find myself pondering long after the reading experience itself has finished.

 At a time when my reading– and a fair bit of the Australian work that made up that reading– sat firmly in the standardised American tradition of speculative fiction, it was a slap upside the head as to just how far an Australian author could go to create a non-standard setting and narrative as long as s/he attacked their work with verve and ambition. The Etched City is one of the very few books that I come back to again and again, especially at times when my own creativity is lagging and I need to touch something to spark the wet wood inside my head: at the time of writing I’m re-reading it once more, for somewhere in the region of the seventh or eighth time.

It really is a wondrous work, and if it’s not part of your collection, it should be. You can read an extract here and pick up a copy here. Do so.

IT COULD BE YOU: CONFESSIONS OF A POD PERSON by CHUCK MCKENZIE

Story number three in my anthology of the mind, and it comes from one of my long-time writer buds, the inimitable Mr Chuck McKenzie.

Confessions of a Pod Person
by Chuck McKenzie

2002 was an odd year. I was struggling and failing to come to terms with the death of my wife, I was struggling and failing to raise an infant daughter on my own, I was struggling and failing to return to work in a meaningful way after months of bereavement leave. And while all that was happening I experienced my first interstate convention and was flown to LA for a week to take part in the Writers of the Future workshops I’d won as part of my prize for the 2001 competition. ‘Highs and lows’ is not an adequate description.

The interstate convention was ConVergence, in Melbourne. I met, for the first time, a whole bushel of people who would remain important to me over the course of the next 11 years– drunken escapades with Claire McKenna; book signing chatter with Kate Eltham and Rob Hoge; post-panel coffee with Dave Luckett. And then there was Chuck: the Monkey God hisself; the King Louie of Australian SF. And, once I’d sorted through the 18 kilograms of books I sent back from the con, author of the story that had me lying on my bed, wrapped around the anthology of allegedly comic SF stories in which it appeared, crying my eyes out.

The book Confessions of a Pod Person first appeared in was called AustrAlien Absurdities, and make no mistake, it is a funny story. Chuck’s a superb joketeller, able to shift gears from absurdity to satire and back again without breaking stride or catching breath. And this ability is in full swing in this tale of classic 50s B-movie monsters suffering through a perfect “Next morning, Cinderella woke up…” scenario. But there’s a double level to this story: it’s unbearably sad underneath the surface glamour, a tale of loss and the slow, inevitable strangulation of identity that resonates as deeply with me today as it did back then. It’s a stunning achievement: richly layered, subtly nuanced, and ever, ever so good.

This was my introduction to the science fiction written by my peers. It has rarely been bettered.

Read Confessions of a Pod Person.

IT COULD BE YOU; THE LAGAN FISHERS by TERRY DOWLING

Time for the second entry in It Could By You, the anthology of my mind.

The Lagan Fishers
by Terry Dowling

How much of an influence has Terry Dowling been on me over the last 12 years of my career? Here’s a hint: he’s the reason I decided to limit this anthology of the mind to one entry per author– otherwise, we’d be reading the table of contents for It Could be You Too: The Best of Terry Dowling. When it comes to Australian short story writers, he’s the master, with a string of brilliant tales stretching back decades, through a series of collections that mark the absolute high point of Australian SF: Rynosseros; Wormwood; An Intimate Knowledge of the Night; Blackwater Days… the titles are an honour roll, and if you haven’t read them, you’ve let yourself down, and more importantly, you’ve let me down.

Dowling’s stock in trade is the ordinary man overcome, and in many cases outdone, by the imposition of the unknowably weird upon his daily life. His narratives are littered with recognisable communities adapting to a new world, with the glitteringly alien overlaying the familiar landscapes. For me, every Dowling story is a treat to be savoured. The Lagan Fishers is a favourite– one of the first Dowling stories I came across and one of the most quintessentially Dowlinesque.

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, you can read it here.

IT COULD BE YOU: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MY MIND

Thursday night, Luscious and I had dinner with the wonderful Glenda Larke, who has recently moved back to Western Australia after umpty million years overseas, and the equally lovely Donna Maree Hanson, who was over for this year’s Romance Writers of Australia symposium and who we haven’t seen in something like 7 years, which is verging on ridiculous.

Amidst a night of laughs, Glenda’s excellent cooking, delightful conversation and more laughs, we spent a short period discussing some of our favourite Australian authors, and some of our favourite Australian short stories, and how one did not necessarily match seamlessly with the other. 
So, for kicks, I’ve decided to create an anthology of the mind: It Could Be You: Battersby’s Favourite Australian SF Stories. A bunch of my favourite Australian SF stories, by some of my favourite authors, and some of my favourite Australian SF stories written by people I would cross the street to avoid but who are bloody magicians on paper.
I’ll leave you to decide which is which 🙂
First up, the titular entry.
It Could be You
by Frank Roberts. 
I’ve talked about this story before. First published in the early 60s in (from memory, I can’t find an accurate reference) F&SF, it’s a scathing and brutal rebuttal of the television culture that finds more reality and worth in game shows than in the interpersonal relationships that form the backdrop to relentless televisual intrusion into our privacy, both mental and physical. Everyman hero Earl Kramer is relentlessly hunted throughout his day by television cameras, as the eponymous and all-pervasive game show ‘It Could Be You’ slowly and inevitably closes in on him as he goes about his daily life. The ending is stunning: a moment of cynicism and heartbreaking realism that hits me between the eyes every single time I read it.
I found this story in an anthology given to me by my parents for my 9th birthday, and it was a life-changing moment. I didn’t know about being an author, didn’t understand the way the literary world worked and moreover, had no real idea of the role of narrative in everyday culture. But the person who finished the story was not the person who started reading it: I didn’t know how, or really make any conscious decision to set out to become an author, but I did know that I wanted to do to others whatever it was the author of that story had done to me. 
I know almost nothing about Frank Roberts, other than he wrote for ‘The Bulletin’. But he lies at the very heart of my karass. What’s more, the story is as brilliant and relevant today as it was in 1962, and 1979.