Review: Australia’s Latest Small Press Publications, by Lee Battersby

Review: Australia’s Latest Small Press Publications, by Lee Battersby

or…justifying spending so much money at a Natcon….

The dust settles after an Easter weekend filled with drinking, spending, schmoozing, drinking, panels, drinking, videos, drinking, catching up with friends, more spending, and a little drinking. In the dim light, a small fat hairy man (possibly recognizable as your faithful reviewer) appears clutching an armful of newly released magazines. Swancon, the 42nd Australian National SF Convention, is over. And the loot has been collected….

Okay, so what have we got? Some old favourites, a bunch of new mags, a damn good looking sequel to a damn good first novel (hint: if you haven’t read Stephen Dedman’s The Art of Arrow Cutting you may want to do so before July. We’ve got this one, then the latest William Gibson, and then if you haven’t caught up you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about when I review Shadows Bite….)

Australia is a land covered in magazines. Also dust, but that’s another story. Last count we had something like 11 or 12 genre magazines, from the semi-professional Aurealis to the non-paying e-zines like Antipodean SF. What we lack is a fully professional magazine along the likes of Analog or F&SF, paying umpteen cents a word and distributed to all corners of the globe. But hey, given a population of three drunk blokes and a small dog, we do all right. The question is: does quantity equal quality? 8 magazines had issues that came out or were launched at the recent National Convention, and I managed to get my greedy little hands on them all, so let’s have a look, shall we?

In no particular order:

ASIM 6: An old friend first up. My first column for this august journal was a review of the first issue of this magazine. A year’s gone by (quick pause to bemoan lost youth), so how’s it holding up? Not too badly, as it turns out. I’ve subscribed to all six issues, and while there’s been some fluctuation in story quality across the year, overall the team at ASIM has done a pretty solid job. Along the way they’ve published a host of first-timers, a rash of big names (the likes of Sean McMullen and Dave Luckett have been spied within these pages), and still manage to do all the things I liked so much about the first issue: issue 6 deals up 11 stories, plus the reviews, non-fiction articles, letters pages and so on. The magazine’s great weakness is also it’s greatest strength, in that a rotating cast of editors does run the risk of the occasional weak issue, but no-one in this country is publishing such a wide range of stories so regularly, and they should be applauded for it.

AGOG! Terrific Tales: The second volume of annual anthologies from Agog! Press, this is a high quality production with the full range of Australian talent on view. This volume is a little lighter than the first, perhaps a bit quirkier in content, but it delivers some of the biggest names Australia has to offer (Jack Dann, Sean Williams, Robert Hood, Lucy Sussex) as well as some of the real rising lights (Deborah Biancotti, Dirk Flinthart, Kyla Ward). Editor Cat Sparks has a strong editorial vision, and the anthology hangs together much better as a book than some of the bigger and more expensively produced anthologies I’ve seen in the last year.

Orb 5: Orb has been quietly building up a reputation of producing high quality literary SF, and there’s nothing in here that will do that reputation any harm. At the expensive end for a magazine (17 Aussie bucks), this annual magazine at least looks like the money has been spent on production. The paper quality is high, the evocative cover art is graceful and deeply coloured, and even the lettering combines both artistry and readability. The stories and artists within are selected from amongst the higher end of the critical scale. As a reader it’s a pity this magazine only comes out once a year, but the time spent on producing each issue shows in the quality of the product you receive.

Borderlands 1: From the ashes of the late Eidolon, a new committee, a new direction, same old magazine? Well no, not really. The editors are trying a tricky task here: to emulate the deeds of the parent magazine whilst creating a reputation and ethos of their own. The first issue is a step in the right direction. Bold black and white cover artwork stands it out from its competitors, and the contents are an eclectic yet strong mix of stories by some of the more solid contributors to the Oz SF scene. I’d like to see more fiction (this first issue contained only half a dozen stories), but the quality is there from the first, and the editorial committee have the experience and smarts to ensure that this will be one of the stronger magazines in Australia for some time to come.

Gynaezine 1: The last couple of Swancons have been witness to the ‘guerilla’ convention Gynaecon: a ‘Con-within-a-con’ focussing on female issues within the genre and held in empty hallways, hotel bedrooms and random corners. Now Emma Hawkes and Gina Goddard, fem-guerillas extraordinaire, have gone public and produced a magazine with the same intent. Articles abound on fem-fandom, fem-fans, and what it’s like to be a woman in the last great bastion of overwhelming male stupidity (well, apart from the rest of reality, anyway). A much needed boost to a side of SF, and a side of fandom, that is still all too often overlooked by the predominantly male genre that still hasn’t quite outgrown its adolescent roots.

conSensual, the second coming: Last year’s conSensual anthology was one of the hidden treasures of the Oz SF scene. A collection of speculative erotica put together by pro writer Stephen Dedman and friends, it presented such a challenge to writers that the response for a second was overwhelming. With such a genre, what lies between the pages is always a matter for personal taste, but the number of submissions proved that writers relished the chance to stretch their talents in a way that other magazines haven’t allowed them to do. This second collection, with better production standards and refined artwork, contains the best of them, and you should be glad I got through this entire mini-review without making one cheesy gag.

No Award #2: Ahhhh, a REAL fanzine. A true, original, like-they-used-to fanzine. Photocopied, hand-stapled, handed out for the price of a compliment (or failing that, a buck). While fanzines in recent years have reached towards semi-professional production values, former publisher Russell Farr has reached back to his roots and put out what he wanted to put out: by himself, on his own little computer, working late at night just for the what-the-hell fun of it. Quality? Not the point at all, my friend. There are big names inside: pals like Robin Pen and Jonathan Strahan have donated fripperies to the cause. Not the point. The point is that one bloke took it upon himself to reinvent the wheel, and reminded a lot of people at the con what the wheel was for in the first place. Aaaahhhh, nice.

Fables And Reflections 4: This is proving to be a rather remarkable magazine, and was a deserved winner of the Australian SF Foundation Ditmar award for Best fanzine this year. On a budget of love and kisses, Lily Chrywenstrom has, in the space of four issues and with no grand announcements or statements of intent, built up what is ostensibly a fanzine into a true-bound 84 page issue with full gloss cover, glorious Cat Sparks cover art, and fiction from the likes of Stephen Dedman and Cory Daniells within. It’s hard to read the first four issues of Fables and not think, “Eidolon started like this…Aurealis started like this….” Lily was unlucky to miss out on the Ditmar for Best New Talent this year. With another year of this quality magazine under her belt she should consider herself a raging favourite to snare it next year.

So, what do I think? Is it worth having so many magazines for such a small country? On the whole I’d say yes. With the exception of Aurealis, which comes out later in the year, the Natcon showcased the best of the Australian magazines. If there is a criticism it is that there are perhaps too few writers occupying those pages: the same names have a habit of cropping up in multiple issues, although the work those names are attached to does deserve to be there. And of course there’s really nowhere else for those people to go: American magazines in particular seem reluctant to publish outside their own borders, and if you’ve read Terry Dowling, or Geoff Maloney, or Robert Hood, or…well, you can’t tell me they aren’t good enough for F&SF and the like. What Australia needs is a truly major magazine. One that pays fully professional rates, with a worldwide (or at least international) distribution, that can compete successfully for shelf space with the big genre magazines. Until then, find these magazines above, devour them as fast as you can. Australia has a hoard of excellent writers, and if you don’t read them you’re missing out.

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