Australian Science Fiction! Yes, there is such a creature. Let us admit that in the world science fiction scene it is no more than a footnote. But it is ours. I am asked if there is a distinctively Australian character to these writings. I do not think so. Writers’ ap-proach and concerns are individual but one does not really find significant national characteristics. To be sure, we speak our own slightly variant English, and this or that work may reflect something of the Australian environment, our history, society and attitudes.
In compiling the bibliography of science fiction written by Australians that I have worked on for some years, I have identified 492 books and, as a round figure, about 2,000 short stories that qualify for inclusion. And there is some history. This is too much to cover here, so I will mention just a few things.
As for science fiction itself, it only really began when it was recognised as an entity, given a name and presented for what it is on its own merits. The starter’s gun punctured the air in 1926 with the first magazine, Amazing Stories. While there are many older works of interest, everything pointing the way from the 17th Century on is prehistory.
Various formal definitions have been suggested. But this is not a clear cut discipline, it is a diverse body of work by many hands. The simplest description is that it is about scientific possibilities, though obvious questions may be asked, and we have to interpret this generously.
As soon as it was made known that there was this category of literature which from now on would be referred to as science fic-tion, a host of readers emerged in response. Yes, of course! That was what you called it! And in hindsight it was possible to say that that all those stories by writers like Anstey, Cummings, Doyle, Donnelly, Farley, Griffith, Laurie etc., above all Verne and Wells (and even some Australians: Boothby, Armour, Cox), could be called science fiction, though nobody knew it at the time.
Well then, science fiction proliferated and took on form and substance in America in the 1930s. It took a while to get established elsewhere. But in Australia in particular, modern communications were breaking down our isolation. The grey blanket of complacent mediocrity that cut us off from the modern world as well as any iron curtain was wearing thin. Popular culture was being changed by American films, radio and popular fiction.
There was some resistance. I quote from a report of the 1936 annual meeting of the Australian Literature Society in Melbourne, from the magazine All About Books:
Mr Bernard Cronin, President of the Australian Authors’ Association, then gave his paper on the campaign … against the dumping in Australia at ruinously low prices of a huge mass of back-dated and over-printed, low-class American maga-zines … .” Protests had been made to successive Ministers of Customs … but nothing had been done. The flood had continued at the rate of 600,000 copies into Australia … per annum, so that there was no chance for local authors and publishers, many of the former having been forced to leave the country for the Homeland” pause “the Homeland in order to make a living …”. He concluded by making an earnest plea for support for one more energetic and concerted effort to repel the evil invasion.
So we see that science fiction was available in Australia as well as American romance, detective, adventure and whatever fiction. So there were some readers. By 1939 interest groups appeared. From 1939 to 1942 there was the false dawn of a small science fiction conscious community in Sydney, extinguished by war conditions.
Had any Australian writers figured in the science fiction magazines by then, it was natural to ask. Yes, there were a few.
James Morgan Walsh (1897-1952) was a successful writer of many popular novels, mostly crime and spy thrillers and occa-sional science fiction. He was one of the few to make it as a pro-fessional writer in Australia in the 1920’s. But it was better to move to England. From All About Books again, in May 1929:
… Mr. J.M.Walsh, the well-known mystery writer … arrived in England with the object of now making his headquarters in London. Mr Walsh had now published, either in serial or book form, 47 novels …
Over his writing life the count was probably more than a hundred. Most under his own name, but he also wrote as H. Haverstock Hill (from his London address), Stephen Maddock, George M. White and Jack Carew (“Jackaroo”).
Of course Walsh was and is ignored by the literary mafia. Writing to make a living by entertaining the ordinary reader? Horrors! And it must be said that generally his books were of their day and are too dated now. But some, like Once in Tiger Bay and Dial 999, were notable. And the author of a hundred or more books of popular appeal should be recognised.
But here our interest is in his small output of science fiction. Besides spy thrillers introducing proposed inventions as motiva-tion there are four novels and five short stories.
“Vandals of the Void” published in Wonder Stories Quarterly, Summer 1931, and as a book, (London: Hamilton, 1931), has a setting of established space traffic with Mars and Venus, both with human populations of common origin through some prehistoric contact. The action begins with a shipload of visitors to Mars, but soon livens up as the unsuspected Mercurians who have been spying on the three planets move in and start space piracy. Fortunately there is already an Interplanetary Guard, for obscure reasons, so it is easy to organise to fight the menace and we go on from there. The book is an early example of this kind of plot, good reading in its time and with some ideas fresh for 1931. Even such chestnuts as space piracy and disintegrator rays were new once. It is interesting to see Walsh taking the conventional ocean liner setting and elements of the standard spy story and transposing them to the future.
“Vanguard to Neptune” in (Wonder Stories Quarterly Spring 1932, and as a paperback, (London: Kemsley, 1952) (Illustration 1), has the same general background to a rather shapeless account of a first flight to Neptune, full of less than half-baked concepts which, no doubt, looked better in 1932. The planet does not resemble the astronomical picture of it even then, but never mind. Walsh’s Neptune offers a parade of marvels that do little to ad-vance a tenuous plot. There are humanoids headed by a single Great Brain; large flying predators; Plant Men … .
“Terror out of Space” by H.Haverstock Hill (Amazing Stories, February-May 1934), not connected with these two, seems to be an earlier work. It has visiting Martians and their conflict with some hostile inhabitants of a small satellite positioned behind the known Moon.
The Secret of the Crater, also by H.Haverstock Hill (Hurst & Blackett 1930) I have not been able to find. The bookseller George Locke reports: “The race encountered has the traditional elements of priests etc. with some technology such as a form of radio-telepathy and advanced weaponry.”
Secret Weapons (Collins, 1940) is a spy novel with guided mis-siles, then a likely future development. Another proposed inven-tion barely introduced is in Spies’ Vendetta (Collins, 1936), radio transmission of power for aircraft.
Alan Connell (1916-) had five stories in the magazines, the first two notable. In “The Reign of the Reptiles” (Wonder Stories, Au-gust 1935) (Illustration 2) time travel to the age of dinosaurs reveals an intelligent reptile species that rose and fell millions of years before Man. Other writers – Jack Williamson, Fredric Brown, Norman L. Knight, Harry Harrison – have used this idea, but Connell was the first. Next was “Dream‟s End” (Wonder Sto-ries, December 1935), giving artist Frank Paul an excuse for a cover showing a battleship levitating keel up over the Empire State Building (Illustration 3). He also had some stories, gener-ally not of interest here, printed in Australia in The Bulletin, World’s News and other places.
Before this Connell had written a novel leaning heavily on Ed-gar Rice Burroughs which was not to find a publisher till 1945, when it was made into a trilogy of booklets, Prisoners in Serpent Land, Warriors of Serpent Land, Lords of Serpent Land (Sydney: Currawong). Among other things there is a Tarzan-like character, a baby raised not by apes but by intelligent snakes. Not exactly science fiction but quite good, and closer to Burroughs than most attempts.
Two stories signed H.M. Crimp ran in Amazing Stories: “The Call to Migrate”, December 1932, and “The Mosquito Army”, April 1935. The editor‟s comment, “It is interesting to note that this story comes from an author in far distant Australia”, was all the information provided. Both are about controlling insect behavior – plague locusts and mosquitos – for biological warfare. Who was H.M. Crimp? The name was not found anywhere else, and he was a long standing mystery, till 1990 when Joseph Czynski of Nuriootpa revealed that he had sold stories to Amazing in its early years. They had appeared for unknown reasons under one or more pseudonyms not of his choice. He said had been told some cock-and-bull story. “After this long lapse of time, I have no records and faint memories of those days,” he wrote, understandably enough. He was able to identify the Crimp stories but thought there had been another, and I hoped to get him to examine stories by unknown names in the likely period, but time did not permit as he died suddenly on 9 January, 1991, a month short of his 84th birthday. So we can add to the roster Sigismond Joseph Czynski, 9 February 1907-9 January 1991.
We do know about Felix Edward (Phil) Collas (1907-1989), a conspicuous figure in Australian philately awarded the MBE in 1970. Besides some short fragments he wrote “The Inner Do-main” (Amazing Stories, October 1935). Like many early stories this has more content than its 14,000 words can deal with and could well have made a book. In the lost city tradition, it has an advanced subterranean people under the Great Sandy Desert. “The Inner Domain” had been written about three years earlier, he told me. “Later on I had difficulty with two allegedly lost manuscripts sent to the USA. I did not do any more SF writing as by that time I had moved into philatelic fields.”
There were four stories by Coutts Brisbane in Tales of Wonder, the first real English science fiction magazine, which appeared 1939 to 1941. It was mentioned there that the writer was a native of Australia, though not that the stories dated from between 1912 and 1922. I find that Robert Coutts Armour, born 14 September 1874 in Brisbane, wrote many stories of interest from 1910 on-wards, at least 82 in various English magazines. He was well ahead of his time. Another name he used was Reid Whitly.
There is another possibility. In 1970 in some recollections of the thirties Walter Gillings, who had been editor of Tales of Won-der, mentioned another name as “probably another Australian”, George B. Beattie, who had four stories in Wonder, 1931-32: “The Martian Nemesis”, “The Murders in the Moon Ship”, “The Man who Shrank” and “The Platinum Planets”. I questioned Gillings, who replied that he did not remember anything definite: “Perhaps J.M. Walsh may have suggested it. He seems to have roamed the sea as well as serving in the 1914-18 war, or am I reading too much into his stories?”
Internal evidence? We do not expect characters to speak Snake Gully dialect or drop remarks about Bondi trams, but sometimes one can see a sign of familiarity with the Australian experience. There seems to be none here. But the stories are quite good, and I wish we could definitely claim him.
Desmond Winter Hall (1911-1992) went to the USA in 1916 – you see, we count them as Australian if they come here, we count them if they leave. From 1931 to 1935 he worked as an assistant editor for several magazines, including Astounding Stories and wrote sixteen stories for it alone or in collaboration with the editor Harry Bates. These are good work of the time and place but not outstanding. A series of four stories was later made into a book, Space Hawk (New York: Gnome, 1952).
Due to war conditions, overseas SF magazines were not sold in Australia after mid-1940 issues, nor were the scores of all-fiction magazines from Argosy and Blue Book to the last and least ro-mance, detective, western, air and nondescript pulps – indeed, not to mention most books. So Australian publishing was handed a golden opportunity to get its act together and fill the gap.
The results were negligible! Popular fiction produced amounted to a trickle of trivial books and shoddy half-hearted pamphlets through the war, growing in volume but not much in interest in the few years after.
But yes, a few attempts at science fiction appeared. I quote from Colin Roden‟s Science & Fantasy Fan Reporter, a weekly bulletin circulating among local scientifictionists, 27 January 1942: “As far as we know it was Eric Russell who discovered what might be termed the first of Australia‟s SF publications.” The parochialism of the amateur press is staggering! The thing was on sale, you see, but it did not exist till one of the elect recognised it. The Reporter goes on: “This is a sixpenny booklet called The Liv-ing Dead by J.W. Heming … A mad [of course, G.S.] scientist dreams of producing the perfect race by replacing diseased organs with healthy ones. Hero Fred West dies on page 1 of consumption, is renovated by the doctor and returns to life … Although the story is crude and the science is neglected towards the end, it is science fiction, and thus raises hopes although not very great for other and better publications to follow.”
“Second book out by Heming” was the headline on 10 Febru-ary 1942 followed by: “It was an extremely bug-eyed monster that drew our attention to Australia‟s second SF book. Subterranean City [Illustration 4] by J.W. Heming. Story is of the type that does not need very much science. Explorers journey into the Earth in a vessel called the Mole, and crash in the midst of some ancient Romans twelve miles beneath the surface. After fighting some more ancient Romans who live in a neighbouring cave, the whole race is wiped out by floods. Hero and sidekick escape with respec-tive girlfriends whom they found down there. That summary is not meant to ridicule the book, but is shortened to save space. It seems that in Heming we have a good hope for the future. His style is still crude but his ideas are good.”
Heming used various names for his considerable output, and his next book was Time Marches Off (Sydney: Currawong, 1942) (Illustration 5) by Paul de Wreder. (He explained to me later that this meant “Paul the reader”. When he first used it he was working as a proofreader and for reasons that need not concern us here was nicknamed Passionate Paul.)
Time Marches Off succeeds as a funny satire. The inventor of a remotely controlled time machine sends two hired hands through a series of futures in Australia, high- and low-tech cultures. There is an extreme feminist episode, an episode with talking animals and one with robots. I quote:
“Three robots who wore hats like policeman‟s helmets were dragging a fourth one along. Billy stepped aside for them to pass. “What‟s wrong?” he asked, “Has his flywheel run amuck?” The big robot in the hands of the others struggled and ground his gears. “No,” he snarled, “I‟m a wharf laborer robot and I led this week‟s strike. We want more nuts! We‟re not getting fair treatment from the humans!”
At a robot clinic: “`Drunk again” she said with disgust, “You‟re always getting oiled. How many gallons of oil are you drinking a day?” The robot looked up from the floor. One eye was out and the other flickered like a dying neon sign. “Ten,” he said greasily. “I told you you must not exceed two!” the doctor thundered. The robot put up his hand and turned his nose upside down in a peculiarly insulting way. “So did four other doctors.” He said metallicaly. [sic, G.S.]
Other Worlds and its sequel From Earth to Mars (Illustration 6) were more typical of early science fiction with privately organ-ised flights to optimistic treatments of Venus and Mars. The latter is mainly about the Martian utopian society, a system lifted from Edward Bellamy‟s Looking Backward.
John Winton Heming (1900-1953) did not make a fortune writ-ing, but in that wartime period he was writing over a million words a year. He had a regular arrangement to write short novels of about 30,000 words, generally detective stories and westerns, one a week. With such an output his work was mostly not remark-able. His name is unknown to conventional literary history. As for science fiction, he had not read much and his ideas were often rather old-fashioned.
The other writer of any importance in the wartime booklets was Vol Molesworth (1924-1964). He was active in the early SF reading community and so had more background than appears in his work. Heming‟s books prompted him to take a manuscript he had already written and rewrite it to 30,000 words for Currawong Books, the same publisher as he had for the earlier books.
Though similar in theme to The Living Dead it was quite differ-ent in plot, a version of the Frankenstein theme set in Sydney and titled Ape of God. Asked for a sequel he quickly wrote Monster at Large. This was essentially a detective novel, and he discovered a talent for writing about the exploits of a character, obviously in-spired by Leslier Charteris‟ Saint, operating in Sydney. And now he was off and running, producing ten books through 1943. These included a rather juvenile trilogy, Stratosphere Patrol, Spaceward Ho! and The Three Rocketeers, about a future international police and peacekeeping force. They were popular, and often remem-bered by later scientifictionists. A radio adaptation was written and broadcast in 1947. But he lost interest in writing fiction and never got back to it.
The other science fiction wartime paperbacks were poor stuff, and notably so was Dr Hades (Melbourne: Wilkie & Co., 1942) by Arthur Russell (Arthur Russell Goode, 1899-?). This time the de-cidedly mad scientist acquires human brains and extracts the Men-tal Power from them to transfer to himself to make him superhu-man. So far so good, though the details are not plausible. The first brains he gets hold of are those of terminated murderers and this has a bad effect on his character, which after all cannot have been good to begin with. He continues hunting for brains to use, and I cannot but quote:
“Dr Hillendale” Tambleton began haltingly “I am not. Hillen-dale is dead. I am Dr Hades.” Brutally the doctor came to the point. “Tambleton, you have a brain that is working against me. I must have it.” Before the startled man could do any-thing to protect himself Hillendale had taken out a scalpel and carefully removed the brain, smiling callously as he did so, and paying no heed to Tambleton‟s death struggles.
He then turned to Mrs Tambleton, who was watching. “You, my dear Elise, I have freed of that man. Will you marry me?” The woman screamed with horror. She had been too overcome to make a sound before.”
Well, there is a fine line between bad science fiction and some-thing else. If the story depends on something inconsistent with basic science, simply absurd, or wrong in fact, it is hard to call it scientific possibility. But this is a good candidate to be the worst attempt at science fiction ever written.
The war ended but nothing much happened for some time. However, two books of interest were published in 1947: Out of the Silence, by Erle Cox, (Melbourne: Robertson & Mullens), a re-vised version of a well known book, of which more later, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by M. Barnard Eldershaw (Melbourne: Georgian House). The latter later had an “uncensored” version, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (London: Virago, 1983). This book is on a different plane altogether. Marjorie Faith Bar-nard (1897-1987) and Flora Sydney Patricia Eldershaw (1897-1957) had written other literary and historical works together under this nom-de-plume, but after preliminary discussions from 1937 on Eldershaw actually wrote this book in the early war years.
War conditions alone affected many people‟s thinking curiously. In 1944 Edgar Harris of Georgian House nervously submitted the manuscript to the censors, who had no jurisdiction but read it all the same and called for many cuts. And by the time the book was printed its title had been shortened by someone thinking to improve on Shakespeare. According to Barnard, writing in Mean-jin September 1970, pp. 329-330,
It should have been re-written by then in the light of different circumstances … I knew nothing of the censoring until the eve of publication. We were then faced with an alternative, to ac-cept the book in its altered form or forego publication alto-gether.
Well, this is what we were told; it is not quite what really hap-pened. Actually it seems that Harris wanted changes and used the censors to get them (See Ian Saunders in Southern Review July 1993, pp. 244-251)
Whatever, the book’s slow and wordy action alternates between Australia from the twenties to the war and after, the degeneration and collapse of the first Australian civilisation on the one hand and on the other four hundred years later, in a placid society without heart or inspiration, a smoothly running technocracy managed by faceless bean counters. Tomorrow and Tomorrow is the first Australian science fiction book to get any recognition by established and academic critics, an important work of some continued interest. It was obviously coming from outside contemporary science fiction writing. If it had any antecedents they would be in earlier times.
Before going into developments in the 1950s and later, I shall next look at some earlier Australian works.
— to be continued.