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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Chained to the Alien


My good pal Damien Broderick has a new book out. He modestly describes himself as having selected the material, or some such thing, rather than as being the editor. That leaves the rest of us with material in it as his co-authors, sort of ... but actually, he's done a lot of new editorial work even though it's essentially a reprint anthology.

Entitled Chained to the Alien: The Best of Australian Science Fiction Review (Second Series), the book is exactly what its sub-title says, Damien's selection of the best material from the legendary 1986-1991 incarnation of ASFR. Yay!

Okay, this might be getting confusing, so let's go back a step. In the mid-1980s some Australian science fiction fans with literary interests came to the conclusion, semi-independently, that a really good, regular critical zine was needed here in Australia. Though Van Ikin and Bruce Gillespie were publishing excellent material, in Science Fiction: A Review of Speculative Literature and SF Commentary respectively, their contributions were not regular or frequent. In the upshot, a group of us got together to form a somewhat anarchistic editorial collective to run a new magazine that revived the name and some of the feel of the 1960s zine Australian Science Fiction Review (we used the name by permission and involved people from the 1960s magazine, notably John Bangsund who was given a regular column).

The editorial collective was originally, in alphabetical order, Jenny Blackford, Russell Blackford, John Foyster, Lucy Sussex, and Yvonne Rouseau. Lucy later dropped out, about the same time that Janeen Webb joined, though those events were not directly related. After about six years some of us eventually burned out, but during that period we set the pace as possibly the best zine of its kind in the world. The zine was widely distributed not only in Australia but internationally, and it attracted a subscriber list that was something of a science fiction Who's Who. Our editorial approach influenced other editors, notably those of the much-admired New York Review of Science Fiction, which was founded a bit later than ASFR(2) and is still going strong.

Local science fiction fandom in Australia seemed rather ambivalent about what we were doing - I'm sure that some fans thought we were "up ourselves" - and we only ever won one Ditmar Award for "Best Fanzine". All the same, there was a period when we were somewhat lionised at overseas science fiction conventions for the quality of our magazine.

It's wonderful to see a selection of the work published in ASFR(2) now being released in book form. Damien has written a new introduction and has worked with the authors to make a few modest but deft edits (usually where something was anachronistic or likely to puzzle an American audience [edit: to avoid confusion, the book is being published in the US by Borgo Press]). Some notes have been added, where authors reflect on their contributions twenty or so years later. Unfortunately, we have lost two of the main contributors since ASFR(2) ceased publication - George Turner and John Foyster - while Lucy Sussex apparently has a more jaded view than the rest of us and was not interested in Damien's project. Still, the outcome is a very nice package with something like 80,000 words of the most astute and lively critical writing of the era.

I'm gloating somewhat that the book contains nearly 30,000 words of my own work - which reflects the fact that an enormous amount of my energy went into ASFR(2) during its run, especially in its first three or four years. I twice won the William Atheling Award for Criticism and Review for this material (in 1987 and 1989), and I'm still proud of my work, even though it reads, to some extent, as if written by someone else. Well, in a sense it was - the young literary critic of twenty or more years ago has had a lot of experiences since then; I've doubtless changed in many ways that go beyond the grey hair and a few extra kilos. (Apart from anything else, I've picked up three degrees since then, including a second Ph.D, and have had several books published.)

All the same, these were important and intense years in my life ... but the intellectual contribution that I made during them has been largely lost from view. It's incredibly pleasing to see some of it now reappearing; to be honest, it's actually a bit like getting back some of those "lost" years.

I must, however, admit that this book has a much narrower appeal than 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, the volume I've recently edited with Udo Schuklenk. Unlike the situation with 50 Voices of Disbelief, I can't claim that Chained to the Alien is of general interest and that it should appeal to just about anybody. It does, however, contain a lot of entertaining critical writing, not just by me but also by Damien, by George Turner, Bruce Gillespie, most of the other members of the collective, and many others who made contributions from time to time. Anyone who is interested in science fiction as a field for reflection and study, not just a source of light entertainment, will probably enjoy Chained to the Alien and find much to think about.

This is the work that won us praise from some of the biggest names in the science fiction field (Samuel R. Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Gregory Benford, etc.), and it gives an insight into how science fiction was viewed and discussed during an exciting period.

I hope it finds a new audience.

3 comments:

NewEnglandBob said...

Sounds interesting, I will put it on my wish list.

Just curious though - do books published in Australia arrive upside down?

Russell Blackford said...

I'm sure they do. ;)

... but this is actually published by Borgo Press in the US.

Russell Blackford said...

I've added an edit to avoid confusion.