you're reading...
2001-06, 330, Graham Stone, Science Fiction

Australian Science Fiction (Part II)

Looking at what there was up to the 1940s, our best known early work is Out of the Silence by Erle Cox. If there was a Great Australian Science Fiction Novel outside the regular field, we would have thought of this one. It appeared first as a serial in the Melbourne Argus in 1919, was published by Vidler, Melbourne in 1925; then Hamilton, London 1927, Henkle, New York 1928, Robertson & Mullens. Melbourne 1932, and there were reprints. A revised edition (not a good idea) was published by Robertson & Mullens 1947, later by Hyperion in the USA and a trade paperback appeared from Angus & Robertson in 1981. There was a comic strip version in the Argus, 1934 and a radio dramatisation by 2CH in 1940. It was translated into French, rather condensed, as La sphère d’or, Librarie des Champs-Elysèes 1929; a full translation with the same title was published by Union Genèrale d’Editions in 1974 with later reprints. It was also translated into Russian.

The story is a follows. In rural Victoria about 1913 (when Cox started writing it) a farmer digging a well strikes metal. As we take half the book to learn, this is a time-vault sphere. A previous version of the human race had existed at a high level some millions of years back, but was destroyed in a great catastrophe – there is vague talk of the Earth’s axis shifting and that’s all the explanation we get. Faced with extinction the race left three representatives in suspended animation in indestructable buried spheres stocked with everything to restart civilisation. And now one has been found.

As told at great length farmer Dundas gets into the sphere and explores its marvels, which are protected by traps to keep out savages. It is tedious reading today, but contains acceptable suspense for readers used to more leisurely writing.

It seems one sphere has been destroyed, another is presumed intact in Tibet. In the Victorian one is the super-woman Earani, who, once revived prepares to take over the world and recreate her rational, heartless civilisation. Her mental power and enormous personal magnetism make it a pushover, certainly with the other survivor found and revived. She is a prodigy not of evil but of self -assured virtue without compassion. Part of the program will be genocide of black people and other unwanted elements. The grotesque racism was perfectly acceptable in Australia then and aroused no objections.

Despite her advantages Earani is stopped in the end by a lady impulsively sticking a knife in her. So they put her back in the sphere, close it and forget the episode.

The revised edition is cut by 15% and adds a prologue that ruins much of the suspense. The original is much better.

Out of the Silence (Illustration 1) does not have a message for today, but clearly it struck a chord in its time. If wide public interest supporting a number of printings and adaptations is important, then it was easily our most important prewar book.

A Russian translation was mentioned, but no facts about it could be found. It was fairly clear that it had not been published as a book. It might have been printed in some magazine or newspaper, or someone might have had a manuscript he hoped to place. This remained a mystery till I was able to trace it eventually.

The author’s grandson Brian Cox confirmed that it had been printed in a Russian language newspaper; he had it in cuttings, bottom portions of pages with no title or date shown. To cut a long story short I found it was in the Paris daily Posledniya Novosti, 4April to 15 May 1929, usually on the back page. The title is “Erminiya, the name given to Earani.

I estimate the length at 63,000 words which would be about half, and I suspect the translation might actually have been done not from the original but from the French.

Erle Harold Cox (1873-1950) was born in Emerald Hill and lived mostly in Melbourne. He worked in various fields, with a period growing grapes at Rutherglen that is no doubt reflected in Out of the Silence. After contributing to The Argus for some years he joined the staff as a reviewer and feature writer in 1921, later moving to The Age. He wrote two other books, one of which, Fools’ Harvest, marginally of interest, is about the invasion and defeat of Australia.

Illustration 1

He also wrote some short stories including five science fiction. Four of these, in The Australasian in the twenties, are examples of the marvellous or dangerous invention story. But “ The Social Code”, in The Lone Hand 1909, presents a striking concept. In a future time, instruments can bring the observer face to face with the Martians, who are human in form. With such effortless communication a man of Earth and a woman of Mars find an emotional bond undeterred by millions of miles of separation. But the Martians so utterly reject even such a profoundly chaste love for an alien that she is killed.

But there are some older works, of which I will mention a few. The earliest book of interest written by someone who was ever in Australia is The Triumph of Woman, a Christmas Story, by Charles Rowcroft. Parry, London 1848. Later reissued as Trials and Triumphs, or Tales for All Seasons. Holmes, London undated. Rowcroft was in Van Diemen’s Land 1821 to 1825. Failing in politics and litigation he left under a cloud, going to Brazil for some time before returning to England. He later wrote a dozen or more books, the best known being Tales of the Colonies and The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land.

Victorian Christmas books often had some supernatural or extraordinary theme. The Triumph of Woman has a visitor from the recently discovered planet Neptune. Indistinguishably human, he arrives at the speed of light by magnetic propulsion. Other marvels introduced are transmutation and instant language learning. These are not simply taken as miraculous. The visitor uses a “talisman” [sic], not seen as a magical object but rather a product of advanced technology, a control device using unseen energy sources, an early example of the Black Box. Think of a mobile phone. The action of the book is mainly the object’s theft and its recovery so that he may not be stranded.

As for triumph, the book is politely misogynous, and Zarah the Neptunian reports that his civilisation gets by without women (a good trick). However, he becomes fixated on an Earthly maiden, and after going home reappears the following year to continue negotiations.

It is lightweight and made little impression then, yet it was pointing in the right direction.

Next, and the earliest written by an Australian resident, we have The Burlesque of Frankenstein, or The Man-Gorilla, by George Isaacs. Written for the stage in Adelaide in 1863 but never produced, it was included in the book Rhyme and Prose; and A Burlesque and its history Clarson, Melbourne 1865. The first separate edition was published by Graham Stone, 1989.

Adelaide did not then pretend to a culture of its own but was content to be an outpost of London, where between 1823 and 1849 five serious melodramatic adaptations of Frankenstein and six comic versions had been performed (perhaps to a modern viewer there would seem but a fine line between these groups). Isaacs, who arrived in Australia in 1851, no doubt to look for gold, may have seen one or more of them. But in any case the novel was well known and fair game for the parodist.

Frankenstein is one of the enduring myths of modern times and one of the basic sources of science fiction. Isaacs’ Burlesque is awild travesty of its basic plot with no trace of its spirit, but it is a part of the tradition, its creation in a remote backwater showing how wide the novel’s appeal was. It also reflects the controversy of the time over the new concept of evolution.

The humour is largely verbal with anything for a rhyme, as in this opening passage between academic rivals:

Ah! Doctor Waldman comes: the sceptic donkey
Who would have man to be the heir of monkey;
who bones the feet of finger-footed apes,
And at the fetid members cuts and scrapes
To prove a foot’s a hand, as if when proved,
A man would be a monkey once removed.
The infidel! The devil!
— Ah, my friend,
A thousand welcomes
and a bitter end.
I come, dear brother, to attend your lecture
I’m quite delighted
May the fiend dissect you.

In explaining why his play was not staged, Issacs complains.

‘By some defect in the Copyright Act, or some evasion of it, I am not sufficiently versed in the law to say which, our theatrical managers are anabled to reproduce, at an average cost of ninepence each, such pieces as have been stamped with success in the mother country…’

He had declined an offer of twenty pounds for all rights, take it or leave it. But at least he printed the play so that it might be read and appreciated generations later.

As the first relevant book by an author born in Australia we have Erchomenon, or The Republic of Materialism, by ****.Sampson Low, London 1879. **** was the Rev. Henry Crocker Marriott-Watson of Tasmania, Victoria and, by the time he wrote this, New Zealand. Authors have always been one of our exports.

This has a hallucinatory visit to the future with a dream ending, but these were conventions of the time like the manuscript in a bottle (or a bottom drawer), so I accept it. It is a materially advanced future with the world unified in well running socialism with good and bad points.

Another notable book is Anno Domini, or Woman’s Destiny, (Illustrations 2 and 3) by Sir Julius Vogel, Hutchinson, London1889. Vogel was an amazing figure, Born in London, he arrived in Melbourne at seventeen in 1852 during the gold rush and stayed till 1861 as goldfield storekeeper, assayer and journalist, then went on to New Zealand, the country with which he is most associated. But I think we can claim a share of him for this book.

Illustration 2

 His political career in New Zealand taxes one’s credulity: it would make a great theme for a comic opera. Suffice to say that he represented four different districts, served in numerous ministries and was Prime Minister twice, resigned office and returned as the whim took him, oscillated between Wellington and London before staying in the latter and publishing this book there in 1889.

Illustration 3

Destiny? In 2000 women vote and the sexes are, … well, the modern reader might not say equal, but the gap has narrowed. The British Empire has become a federation without a capital with the British aristocracy grafted on, so the villain of the piece is the Duke of Parramatta. The woman politician who is the viewpoint is able to thwart a wicked conspiracy to have Australia secede and, as it turns out, marries the Emperor as the happy ending.

Society has been reorganised from the top down by financierswho stopped a war happening in 1915 and, realising their power, went on to sort out the other problems. Poverty has evaporated, the toiling masses are well off, no class struggle is visible. Whether pigs fly is not stated.

It is a strange, grotesque, preposterous book, this utopia of a Victorian imperialist, but it has interest. Imperial federation was a reasonable idea that could have been pursued. Books have been written about Vogel, and I find it odd that this important expression of some of his views has not been reprinted since 1890.

Interplanetary contact reappears in Melbourne and Mars: my Mysterious Life on two Planets… by Joseph Fraser. Pater & Knapton, Melbourne 1889. This depends on some mystical nonsense, but at that time any means of communicating with Mars must have looked about equally feasible. So in this book, the narrator finds himself mentally in rapport with another self on the Red Planet. It is populated by an identical human race, unified in (surprise!) a planetary utopia with various marvels of science. Fraser was a practitioner of the Victorian pseudosciences of Phrenology and Physiognomy, but they do not seem to figure in the book.

A surprisingly original and ambitious work is The Germ Growers,by Robert Potter. Hutchinson, London, and Melville, Melbourne 1892. Six years earlier than Wells’ The War of the Worlds, it seems to be the earliest suggestion of an attack by extraterrestrials. The invaders take humanform on Earth, but they can dematerialise at will into their natural state as etheric beings in space. This was another new idea which has sometimes recurred in modern science fiction, and is discussed in some detail. They have a long term plan to take over Earth (do not ask what for, please, it is not allowed) and have bases in remote places, the one seen in the book being in North-West Australia. They have efficient airships for moving around Earth, invisibility to avoid notice, synthetic food production and more. As the title suggests they intend reducing us natives with biological warfare and are culturing deadly plagues for the purpose.

As with many books of the time this one takes its time getting started on the action, and there is much more sentimental and moralising verbiage than we now think necessary. The situation is revealed little by little, the gradual buildup to the horrid truth giving form and direction to the slow and deliberate narrative. Only towards its end is everything that is going on made clear. But the 19th century reader was used to unhurried style, and besides he was unexposed to concepts like these.

In the end the issue is not really resolved at all. The invaders are beaten on the ground and forced to abandon their bases and leave. Yes. But this is due to the intervention of another race or organisation of space-dwellers of different character who object to the invasion and act to stop it. Earth’s authorities and peoples in general are unaware of the danger and unprepared for another attack.

As 19th Century books go this is good, it certainly has great historic interest and should be reprinted. Rounding out the 1890s, there is a series by Guy Boothby:

A Bid for Fortune, or Dr. Nikola’s Vendetta. Ward Lock, London 1895.

Doctor Nikola.Ward Lock 1896.

The Lust of Hate.Ward Lock 1899.

Dr. Nikola’s Experiment.Hodder, London 1899.

Farewell, Nikola.Ward Lock 1901.

Guy Boothby, born in Adelaide, was educated in England and returned to Australia for about ten years before moving again to England where he was a popular author of detective novels or thrillers, dying suddenly in 1905 aged 38. The Nikola books were his most successful, Doctor Nikola continuing in print into the 1930s.

Nikola is not easily categorised. A master criminal? This is the first impression and it often seems to fit. A magician? Better, an unorthodox scientific researcher? An amoral genius, indifferent to law or convention, devoted wholly to his own purposes? Yet his central aim, to achieve rejuvenation and extended lifespan, is for the benefit of humanity, and he does good readily if it suits him. He is shown in action as several narrators see him in different books, for they do not follow a straightforward sequence.

Despite vague hints at the occult Nikola’s quest is a scientific undertaking. As an early example of the mysterious schemer with strange powers and purposes he must have suggested something to later authors, and parallels have been suggested with such characters as Fu Manchu. I think rather that he owes something to the established image of Sherlock Holmes.

After 1900? The isolated books become more numerous, and many short stories can be found scattered through newspapers and periodicals of all kinds, particularly such magazines as The Bulletin, Lone Hand , Australasian, Australian Journal; later AM, Everybody’s, People and Overland. There are over three hundred in Man and its offshoots. Over time they amounted to quite a substantial body of work if it could have been brought together.

In due course science fiction proper became widely known and acquired a following here, but it took a long time for it to have any noticeable influence on local authors.

As for a locally produced science fiction magazine, which the informed reader used to hope for, it was really not a proposition. The weakness in the idea was that someone would have to write it.

Illustration 4

The first attempt at a local science fiction magazine came in 1950, Thrills Incorporated (Illustration 4) it was called, and it was pretty bad. Its writers had little talent and less idea of what it was all about. At the same time there was a paperback novel series, Scientific Thrillers, which was mostly truly awful. Then through the 50s there were several using American material not available here, which was a better idea but not quite good enough; all failed.

I should mention one outstanding figure: A. Bertram Chandler (Illustrations 5 and 6), a marine officer from England who became an established writer in SF proper overseas before he moved to Australia in 1956, which he did most of his writing here, amounting to 42 books and 188 stories.

Illustration 5

Illustration 6

But in the 60s an active group of authors developed capable of writing acceptable SF for overseas markets as well as getting into print here: Jack Wodhams, David Rome, Frank Bryning, Wynne Whiteford (Illustration 7), Damien Broderick and John Baxter.

Illustration 7

This continuing situation allowed for what amounts to a movement, and by the 80s a small but definite field of local SF publishing could be seen. Some notable authors from the latter period are Sean McMullen, George Turner, Sally Rogers-Davidson (Illustration 8),

Illustration 8

Damien Broderick, Terry Dowling, Greg Egan(Illustration 9, here in French translation), Simon Brown and Brian Caswell. Special mention is due to Catherine McMullen, who was aged eleven when first published.

Illustration 9

Australian science fiction now is mainly in books, the short story being close to an endangered species, and this is detrimental because the true strength and inspiration of science fiction has always been in the short story. The essential element is scientific possibility and a good SF story is very often based on an original point, a specific “what if?”, which is probably not enough for a book. To be sure, it takes a book to build up a detailed picture of a changed situation.

Still, we have seen moderately viable magazines and one is running at present.

Many Australian books have little scientific content and are in my estimation merely mediocre novels of adventure and romance with unfamiliar settings, but the same is true in America or England. A surprising number of books are aimed at the younger reader, not I think a particularly good idea.Australian science fiction today is not of uniform character or standard of course, any more than the world SF scene can be. But the best is excellent and none of it needs any allowances to be made for its origin.


Illustration 10



Comments are closed.


%d bloggers like this: