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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Aurealis, December 1999/January 2000

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"The Old God Begins to Reassert Himself" by John Ezzy
"Voyage to Abydos" by Gitte Christensen
"The Feast" by Kyla Ward
"The Love of Beauty" by Kirsten Bishop
"The Spider" by R. G. McCartney
"Roses" by Danielle Ellis
"The Grandmasterís Last Crusade" by Robert Cox
"Basilisk" by Andrew Chapman
"Please Check the Number You Have Dialed" by A. John Wallace
"Rockwood" by Rick Kennett and Bryce Stevens

Though I'm not supposed to comment on it, I feel the editorial by Stephen Higgins is worth mentioning, if only because, as an American reviewer reading a foreign magazine, I, too, wondered if there was something distinctly Australian about the stories found in Aurealis #24.

Higgins makes the case that "Kangaroos do not an Australian story make," and that good Australian fiction is, at its bones, good fiction. However, there are at least two stories in #24 that feel, to me, as an outsider, as though it would have been more meaningful to an Australian. I might be way off base about this. After all, I freely admit to only having a sense of what is Australian from those god-awful Crocodile Dundee movies and the most recent National Geographic. It's the later that makes me suspect that "Voyage to Abydos" by Gitte Christensen and Kyla Ward's "The Feast" would have a more powerful effect on an Australian.

The National Geographic article in question is called "Australia: A Harsh Awakening" and the author Michael Parfit makes the argument that Australia's ecology is in crisis, and, in fact, has been for a long time. Christensen and Kyla's stories, I feel, are, ultimately, about the same thing.

Christensen's story is about a post-Time of Scarcity archeologist and his crew of "Mules" who are mining cryogenic crypts for the nutrients the corpses possess. There seems to be a lot of politicking between the Mules and the Archaeologist's people, the Erudites, which might make more sense to an Australian. Unfortunately, at the end of this story, I felt like the author was saying, ta-da! and all I could do was scratch my head and think, huh?

I felt similarly about the ending of "The Feast" by Ward. This story is clearly A METAPHOR or AN ALLEGORY, which, again, I felt reflected the theme of the recent National Geographic article. The main characters are only identified as mother, father, and child. They attend a feast and, in the end, must pay for what they partook in. The foods and the metaphors were lovingly described, but in the end, unfortunately, I came away not "getting" the punch of the message.

I chalk it up to being an ugly American with a piss-poor liberal education, and a distinct lack of a sense about impending ecological disasters.

Just as I was beginning to think I was too stupid to review an Australian magazine, along came "The Love of Beauty" by Kirsten Bishop. This story is my absolute favorite of the magazine. It's an extremely clever sequel to the Beauty and the Beast, and also a deep discussion of art, with a capital A. This is one of two stories that have a Victorian feel. Though I'm not usually fond of that flourishing style of prose, I adored its use here, and in the other story which uses it, "Rookwood" by Rick Kennet and Bryce Stevens.

"Rookwood" is a classic horror tale of the ghostly and magical misadventures (in a cemetery, of course,) of our just-a-little-too-smart-for-his-own-good narrator. This story amazed me by holding my attention despite an almost complete lack of dialogue. There is some, but it is used sparsely and to great effect. I think it survives partly by its Victorian flavor, down to the very Victorian addition of a grimoire.

Continuing the theme of twos, there are two stories that begin with the exact same device of someone waking up not knowing where they are. Though I usually have nothing but contempt for stories that start, "...he had no idea where he was." I thought that both did a good job rising above the cliche.

The first is John Ezzy's "The Old God Begins to Reassert Himself" in which a man, David Slater, wakes up victim of a member of a secret club of rabbit hole users. Ezzy's piece was the lead story of #24 and added to my initial feeling of being out of my depth. My problems started when I realized that the character we begin the story with is not, in fact, the protagonist--who is introduced in a later scene. Also, Ezzy jumps from third person to first person to distinguish between the point of view of the first character, David Slater, and Klaus, the "I" narrator. Despite the fact that I ended up enjoying the humor and cleverness of this story, the literary convention threw me out of the story more than once.

The second story that begins with the "where am I" device is "Please Check the Number You Have Dialed," by A. John Wallace. This story, however, I enjoyed quite a bit more than Ezzy's, and probably ranks as my number two favorite for #24. "Please Check the Number You Have Dialed" is a strong cyberpunk story about what might happen if we were able to transfer our personalities from construct to construct, instead of say, taking the 24 hour flight from the U.S. to Australia. As I've said in an earlier review, cyberpunk is a weakness of mine, having come of age in SF during the Gibson years, but this story is strong not just because it happens to fall into a favorite sub-genre of mine. The mystery is compelling enough to hold my attention, while also ending with a twist before it begins feels too drawn out.

"The Spider" by R. G. McCartney was also a compelling look at what could be considered old SF themes. In "The Spider" we follow two adventurers who are in search of a new species of spider. They find one, and how. The bite of their newly discovered spider first gets them pleasantly high, and then, the worst horror of all, imparts telepathy. Fear of spiders and telepathy are hardly new ideas in the SF field, but McCartney manages to combine them in a powerful way. In fact, McCartney touches on a theme I've always wanted to tackle myself as a writer, which is: knowing how human beings tend to think -- telepathy is much more a curse than anything else.

In a similar vein, "Roses" by Danielle Ellis deals with another old SF standby in a new way. "Roses" is about artificial, genengineered humans, and, in some ways, also reflects on Bishop's discussion about beauty and art. In this story, an altered human, a graceful dancer with wings, Azuria, becomes obsessed with being human. Azuria, like Ward's allegorical characters of "The Feast," has to deal with the cost of her choices. Ellis' telling and theme resonated more powerfully with me, however.

Robert Cox's "The Grandmaster's Last Crusade" is an understated and clever vampire story. This piece had a lot of humor, including one of my favorite bits in which Cox offers an alternate explanation of the original purpose of the Venus of Walendorf and similar fertility statues.

The one strongly fantasy-feeling story in #24 is "Basilisk" by Andrew Chapman, which focuses on two lovers who are coming of age on an alien planet in a culture where you choose your magic by identifying with one of a number of moons embodying different skills, emotions, and powers. Though this piece had a strong plot and mystery, I found myself stumbling over something so minor as the hero's name. In a world also populated by otherworldly Diones and Chungs, "Travis" felt too modern for me.

Once I got over my sense of being a dumb American, I ended up immensely enjoying Aurealis #24, and recommend it highly both to cognoscenti and to other cultural Neanderthals like myself.

Though horribly failed by her American liberal arts education, Lyda Morehouse manages to read and write science fiction. Her stories have appeared in SF Age, Dreams of Decadence, and Tales of the Unanticipated. Archangel Protocol, her first full-length novel, will be released by Roc in Spring 2001. You can read more about her on her web site: http://www.mninter.net/~sprounds.