'Diversity and Australian Speculative Fiction' participates in an ongoing debate about the visibility of diversity in science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, as well as continuing AustLit's own interest in representing the richness of Australia's multicultural cultural heritage. In this post, we highlight speculative-fiction writers from backgrounds other than Anglo-Celtic or northern European.
In 1998, Melbourne University Press published The MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy, a monumental, significant bibliography of writing since 1950. And deep in its pages, in an entry titled 'Indigenous Mythology', is this paragraph:
In the modern arena of science fiction and fantasy there are many enterprising authors who involve Aboriginal elements. Examples of these are to be found constantly in the science fiction journals published each year. Also, many non-indigenous writers in the past have drawn on the huge pool of creativity these stories hold. Among them are Alan Marshall, Charles Hulley, Bill Scott, Judith Wright, Patricia Wrightson, F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, Mary and Elizabeth Durack and Roland Robinson. There are many wonderful books, most of them for young readers, with elements of Creation stories in them. But only one book so far by an Aboriginal author delves into the fantasy range; this is The Kadaitcha Sung by Sam Watson (Penguin, 1990). (p.97)
This list is, in part, an attempt to assess the extent to which that state of affairs still exists – and not solely in terms of Indigenous authors, but also other ethnic backgrounds. And a glance at the list below will show that the vast majority of the works listed were published after 1998, so we can only hope that this shows a broadening of the Australian speculative-fiction marketplace.
The core of this list comes from targeted searches of the AustLit database, but we also actively sought suggestions from readers and writers, via our social media networks. The response added many new names to our list, and we're very grateful to those who made suggestions, including Kate Eltham, D'metri Kakmi, Sean Wright, Kaaron Warren, Elizabeth Lhuede, Tehani Wessely, Kim Wilkins, Michelle Dicinoski, Fiona McKean, and Tsana Dolichva.
In the interests of accessibility, we have chosen to highlight substantial single works (novels and collections of stories), which are generally easier for a reader to obtain. But the works listed below are, in most cases, only the tip of the bibliography.
Below, listed below in alphabetical order by author's surname, you'll find a list of 35 works of speculative fiction by authors from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
We encourage you to explore AustLit further and, if you can, suggest other names that we have overlooked. If you're a member of a subscribing institution, you can use AustLit's advanced search function to generate similar lists. (If your local library doesn't subscribe, now is always a good time to suggest they do!)
Image note: Moving clockwise from the top left, the images in the header are taken from the covers of the following books: Queenie Chan's The Dreaming (volume one), Ambelin Kwaymullina's The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, Brenton's McKenna's Ubby's Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon, Sophie Masson's The Maharajah's Ghost, Suneeti Rekhari's The Lost Souls Dating Agency, Ellen van Neerven's Heat and Light, Gabrielle Wang's The Tiger of Pearl Bay, and Melina Marchetta's Quintana of Charyn.
Back in 2006, long after he published this novel, Moses Aaron gave an account of his family's departure from Sri Lanka for Australia back in 1952, available in full here at the NSW Heritage Centre's Belongings collection.
Doomchild is one of two fantasy novels Aaron penned (the other, Man Dragon was published in 1997) and follows Arthurian myth. Sort of. If Arthurian myth includes Guinevere collecting human heads.
Sylvester Abanteriba was working as Professor of Propulsion at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology when he published Poetic Retribution from Mars with Melbourne-based publishers Brolga.
The novel involves a bid by South Africa to deflect attention from apartheid by sending a group of scientists to the moon for an entirely fake research mission. Unfortunately for the scientists, they are catapulted past the moon and on to Mars, where they come into contact with an alien species that is not even slightly amused by the goings-on on Earth.
Passarola Rising is sometimes classified as historical fiction, but, in our opinion, 'wildly innovative airships' are most definitely the province of speculative fiction.
The airship in question, the Passarola, takes two brothers on a journey from Lisbon to the northern polar reaches and on into that specialised fantasy sub-genre, the fantastic voyage novel.
Azhar Abidi has written other novels, including Twilight (Text Publishing, 2008) and The House of Bilquis (Viking, 2009). But Passarola Rising remains his only speculative-fiction novel so far – although those hungering for more could try his (fictional) essay 'The Secret History of the Flying Carpet' (published in Meanjin), which presents the 'history of the flying carpet of the Eastern world as supposedly depicted in scholarly texts'.
An anthropomorphic fantasy novella about a dolphin who leaves his pod to explore the ocean, The Dolphin: Story of a Dreamer was originally self-published by its author, Sergio Bambaren. Subsequently picked up for republication by American publisher Hay House, it was most recently made into an animated film of the same name, a co-production between Italy, Germany, and Peru.
Sergio Bambaren (now living in Peru) has subsequently written a number of other books.
Queenie Chan's manga series The Dreaming is set in the remote Australian bush, where identical twin sisters find that not all is as it seems at their new boarding school – something frightening is haunting the school, and students have a tendency to disappear.
Queenie Chan has also illustrated speculative fiction by other writers, including Kylie Chan's Small Shen (the story of a stone spirit / all-round troublemaker) and three volumes of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series. She returns to her dual role as author and illustrator in the forthcoming Fabled Kingdom series.
You can read the first volume of The Dreaming in full online, via Queenie Chan's website.
Perhaps, in future generations, people will look back on the early years of the twenty-first century as the Time of the Paranormal Romance. Certainly, that particular sub-genre has gone from strength to strength since 2000.
Rise of the Fallen is the debut novel of Teagan Chilcott, published while she was still a teenager. Set largely in Queensland – when it takes place in the human realm, at least – the novel follows two elementals, one fire and one water, lying low as students at a Brisbane high school.
As the recent publication of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant reminds us, conversations about literary fiction, genre fiction, and the intersection of the two (whether they can intersect, whether they're distinct) are never far below the surface.
And Lou Murphy, writing in the Newtown Review of Books, calls Springtime 'a beautiful elegy on a ghost story': not simply a ghost story, but a reflection on stories of ghosts.
Barely one hundred pages long, Springtime is De Kretser's only ghost story, though elements of the unexplained also drift through 2007's The Lost Dog.
Since 2008, Thoraiya Dyer has been building up an impressive bibliography, and has won or been shortlisted for very nearly as many awards as she has published stories.
We've chosen to highlight Asymmetry as an accessible way into Dyer's short fiction: the four stories in this collection range from werewolves to Paris, from clones to Australia, from women warriors to outer space.
Bonus: read Thoraiya Dyer's Aurealis and Ditmar Award winning short story 'The Wisdom of Ants' here, courtesy of Clarksworld.
Chaise Eade was still a teenager when he self-published this speculative-fiction novel, which went on to be shortlisted for a Deadly Award (for Outstanding Achievement in Literature).
Eade called Second Life (and the planned sequels) 'alternate-present fiction', set on a world akin to Earth, but on which the concepts that we might recognise from our own world are warped and magnified. (See his interview via Deadly Vibe here.)
Sulari Gentill's trilogy, published between 2011 and 2013, weaves in and out of the world of The Odyssey and The Iliad, using those foundational works to buttress her tales of a whole new race of men, the Herdsmen of Ida, caught up in the battles of gods, monsters, and legends.
Gentill's other works include the Rowland Sinclair series of historical detective novels.
When she published A Tree Like Rain, Samar Habib had not long completed an Honours dissertation on science-fiction writing at the University of Sydney.
At the time, Habib said that her novel 'doesn’t have enough science in it to be SF' (see article here), but it is unmistakably speculative fiction, the narrative switching between bored novelist Lindsay in the present-day, middle-class US and brilliant teenage scientist c7s47 (sometimes called 'Alex') in the far future city of Megra.
It remains Habib's only novel so far.
Malaysian-born horror writer Tunku Halim has written a plethora of short stories, and a handful of longer works. We've selected Vermillion Eye to highlight because it is partly set in Australia, while still drawing strongly on Malaysian myth and legend, as a Sydney pimp is drawn into a world of shamans and witch-doctors.
Vermillion Eye was published in 2000, but Halim continues to publish spooky novels flavoured with Malaysian culture and history; his most recent, Last Breath (published in late 2014), engages explicitly with questions of ethnic difference.
The first novel in Adriana Koulias's loosely connected Rosicrucian Quartet was self-published before being picked up and republished by Pan Macmillan. Three more novels followed, all historical fiction, and all with a tinge of speculative fiction.
Koulias positions her novels where history already lies close to the weird. The The Sixth Key, for example, plays with the popular mythology of Nazi occultism, while The Seal touches on the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon – or the Knights Templar, to give them their nickname.
Almost everyone we spoke to about creating this list immediately said 'Ambelin Kwaymullina'. While the list of Indigenous authors of speculative fiction might not be a long one yet, we'd say that Ambelin Kwaymullina is definitely at its top.
For example, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was only published in 2012, and it's already on university teaching lists.
The third novel in the Tribe series, The Foretelling of Georgie Spider, is due out this year, and we're eager to see what Ambelin Kwaymullina does after that.
Like his sibling, Ezekiel Kwaymullina writes speculative fiction. We've chosen to highlight The Not-So-Goblin Boy (which also has a sequel, The Not-So-Goblin Boy and the Dragon King) because we love its take on cultural difference.
You see, Samuel isn't a goblin by birth. A human boy adopted by goblins, he wants to be a goblin himself. He longs for the inventions, the sense of humour, the love of farting (no, really) and fighting. He's desperate to enter the Goblin Academy and be the best goblin of all.
But Samuel's plans? They don't go to plan.
In 2014, Rebecca Lim published The Astrologer's Daughter, which picked up a recent nomination for an Aurealis Award (Best Young Adult Novel).
But before that, she published this quartet of angel novels, whose protagonist Mercy is a exile from heaven, doomed to a series of lives inside mortal women. This unusual take on the popular topic of angels allows Lim to follow both the overarching narrative of Mercy's exile and the individual stories of the women that Mercy (quite literally) inhabits in each volume.
For Australian readers of a certain age, Melina Marchetta is synonymous with Looking for Alibrandi, the coming-of-age story of a teenage Italian-Australian girl, which stormed Australian high-school reading lists from the mid-1990s and prompted a highly successful (and deeply charming) film.
But in 2008, she published Finnikin of the Rock, the first in a series of fantasy novels called The Lumatere Chronicles. A story of curses, exile, magic, and persecution, The Lumatere Chronicles ended in 2012, with Quintana of Charyn.
Where to begin with Sophie Masson? Which of her 45 novels, or her 34 children's books, do we select to highlight this extraordinary author's work?
But in the end, we picked this series, not least because it draws strongly on non-Anglo-Celtic myth, from the mythical Indonesia-like setting of the first novel to the parallel-world Northern India of the last novel.
Ubby leads a ragtag gang called the Underdogs on the streets of Broome. When she meets Sai Fong, who has just arrived from Beijing, both girls, and the Underdogs, are thrown into a world that McKenna creates from elements of Indigenous Australian and Chinese mythology.
The first volume of Ubby's Underdogs, 'The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon', was lauded as the first Aboriginal graphic novel in Australia, and Brenton McKenna has spoken frequently about the fact that Ubby is drawn from the character of his own grandmother.
Planned as a trilogy, Ubby's Underdogs currently runs to two volumes.
Vixen is Hoa Pham's second novel, and her first fantasy novel: the 'ghost' in Quicksilver, her first novel, was a creation of schoolgirls seeking an outlet in poltergeist-style secret behaviour.
The heroine in Vixen is a fox fairy, akin to the Japanese kitsune, who flees the unrest in Vietnam to find a new home in Australia. This novel is also one of the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development's recommended resources for Asia Literacy for secondary students.
We also recommend Hoa Pham's most recent novel, The Other Shore, in which the Vietnamese government hires a 16-year-old psychic to reunite ghosts with their descendants.
The earliest work on our list, Apocalypso is a fantasia of skeletons, doves and donkeys, Romani, gargoyles, and sour wine.
Later published in the collection Baby Tiger (1980), released by Glebe-based publisher Wild and Woolley, Apocalypso was originally published as a standalone novella in 1975.
We've chosen to highlight Angela Rega's standlone novelette, The Cobbler Mage, the story of the cobbler who made Cinderella's shoes. But Rega's primary output to date has been short stories: strange, twisty, sometimes sinister stories that Rega herself traces, in part, to the fact that she was 'raised on Sicilian folklore and stories and never ending a sentence in the same language' (see her blog here).
Bonus: read two of Angela's Rega's short stories online. Both are strongly Australian twists on traditionally European fare: 'The Bush Bride of Badgery Hollow' is a marsupial-rich Australian take on selkie stories, while 'Shedding Skin' takes a dingo approach to shape-shifting.
Suneeti Rekhari's first novel, The Lost Souls Dating Agency follows Shalini: university student, warehouse owner, and manager of a dating agency catering to vampires, shape-shifters, and other clients who might have trouble getting a second date after they've bitten the first one.
Although this is Rekhari's only novel to date, she is also the author of a swag of journal articles and conference papers on the representation (or lack thereof) of Indigenous Australians in Australian films. Check out her full bibliography on her AustLit page.
In 2013, Tristan Savage won a Kuril Dhagun Indigenous Writing Fellowship, which resulted in his first (and so far only) novel, Rift Breaker, which went on to win the Kris Hembury Encouragement Award at the 2014 Aurealis Awards.
Rift Breaker is the story of 'token human' Milton Lance, who returns to the ship's interior after undertaking welding repairs on the hull to find the crew dead. With the help of two stranger (one a mysterious woman and one a pointy-eared simian), can Milton save the day?
Bonus: publisher Magabala Books has comprehensive teachers' notes for Rift Breaker available on their website.
Omitting picture books from this list left us with a dilemma: would that mean excluding Shaun Tan? Because how could we justify that?
Fortunately, we got around it by listing Tales from Outer Suburbia: aimed at a slightly older audience than, for example, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia is weird and wonderful and surreal.
And then you should read all of Shaun Tan's picture books. All of them.
Aside from Robotomy, we list few works by Andres Vaccari on our database, and Robotomy is the only example of speculative fiction. Set in a world of artificial intelligence, uploaded human minds, and computer spectres, Robotomy works through a combination of text and computer images to tell the story of Drake Ullhman, who escapes the 'world of flesh' only to find his mind unravelling inside a distintegrating computer network.
In these three interlinked stories, it is the central story, 'Water', that is most frequently described as speculative fiction: 'Water', the story of a futuristic world and a threatened people.
But there are traces of speculative fiction in the first story, as well: in 'Heat', the mysterious Pearl shows an affinity for storms and for electricity that is nothing short of supernatural – and fatal, for those around her.
Heat and Light won the David Unaipon Award, and is sitting on the longlist for this year's Stella Prize. No wonder people are excited to see what Ellen van Neerven does next.
Angulimala is a Buddhist folktale: a killer who wears a garland of his victim's fingers. In Chi Vu's novella, published as part of Giramondo's series Giramondo Shorts, Anguli Ma is an abbatoir worker, a Vietnamese refugee who lives in a boarding house occupied by group of female Vietnamese refugees, all struggling to adjust to life in Melbourne in their own ways.
But, as the story unfolds, we realise that diaspora is not solely a human undertaking: ghosts travel, too.
Lisa Hill, at ANZ Lit Lovers, wrote a lovely, detailed review of this novella, which you can read here.
As with Sophie Masson, it is difficult to choose a single Gabrielle Wang work to highlight.
We were extremely tempted by The Pearl of Tiger Bay, with its 'ghost-busting grandma' and dilapidated hotel. But we chose, instead, The Garden of Empress Cassia, which explores that always-unsettling idea of being able to enter drawings.
If children's fantasy is your thing (and why wouldn't it be?), we recommend you check out what else Gabrielle Wang has to offer.
Nicole Watson's debut novel draws on those hidden-in-plain-sight memories of the separation of black and white Australia: all those streets labelled 'Boundary', whose early purpose we sometimes forget.
The Boundary is a crime novel: in the aftermath of a failed native title claim by Brisbane's Corowa, the judge responsible is found murdered. As the death toll mounts, the reader is left uncertain as to whether these events are natural or supernatural.
The Boundary remains Nicole Watson's only novel to date, but it collected the David Unaipon Award, and was shortlisted for a Davitt, the Victorian Premier's Literary Prize, and a Commonwealth Prize.
The Kadaitcha Sung is the novel that the MUP Encyclopaedia of Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy lists as the only fantasy novel by an Indigneous Australian writer.
Sam Watson's novel has been called 'Aboriginal science fiction', 'Australian Gothic' or 'Aboriginal Gothic', and 'magical realism': its rich mythology and structure both defy and invite categorisation. Following Tommy Gubba, whose mother is a white Australian woman and whose father is one of the ancient gods of the Dreamtime, The Kadaitcha Sung is a landmark text in Australian fantasy.
Look at the cover of Land of the Golden Clouds and you'll see a legend across the bottom: 'In the spirit of Watership Down and Lord of the Rings. With the heroic fantasy of Europe (and, most particularly, of the UK) still the benchmark for fantasy writing, this legend tells you something of how the publishers marketed Archie Weller's novel.
A post-apocalyptic narrative, Land of the Golden Clouds explores an Australia whose inhabitants are both bound and divided by xenophobia and superstition.
One of only two novels by Archie Weller, this is his only work of fantasy, although his science-fiction story '67 Yagan Way' was published in the collection The Window Seat.
Crossroads is not Rosalia Wong's earliest work: those are the Kimberley Shu stories, in which a third-generation Chinese girl living elsewhere in South East Asia learns about her sixth sense and the terrible secrets it can reveal. But Crossroads is her most recent work.
In Crossroads, a curious boy explores the tunnels under his home in China, tunnels said to contain troubled souls. But if Yang's ancestors are unwilling to speak to him, how will he find the answers that he seeks?
Winner of the ALS Gold Medal and shortlisted for six other awards (including the Miles Franklin Award, the Stella Award, the New South Wales Premier's Christina Stead Award, and the Voss Literary Prize), taught in four different university courses last year alone – how could we compile this list and not include Alexis Wright's The Swan Book?
Alexis Wright draws on myth, legend, fairytales, and more to build the story of Oblivia and her movement from the displaced community of her youth to the drowned city where she is First Lady to Australia's first Indigenous Prime Minister.
As Annette Hughes says in the Newtown Review of Books, 'Everyone in The Swan Book is a refugee, a displaced person, a hostage to circumstance.' (Read more here.)
Finally, but only alphabetically, we come to Beth Yahp's The Crocodile Fury. Still Yahp's only novel (though she has published short fantastic fiction in various periodicals), The Crocodile Fury follows three generations of women: grandmother, mother, and child. The uncanny weaves in and out of the novel, as ghosts (both of people and of the colonial past) influence the present.
Ultimately, the novel is ambiguous: both natural and supernatural are equally plausible within its pages. Perhaps this makes it the ideal end point for a list of works that all straddle more than one world.