The Great Australian Fantasy Story

A long time ago the Frontline Gamer asked me if there were any famous Australian comics.  It stumped me a little.  I’m sure that there are, but I couldn’t think of any that are famous enough for it to be well-known that they’re Australian.  Or for their Aussie-ness to be palpable, in the same way that Marvel and DC are classic Americana, or 2000AD and writers like Grant Morrison and Alan Moore are quintessentially British.  Tank Girl was set in Australia but it was a British book.

I thought about this some more and I have trouble coming up with any Australian fantasy or sci-fi, comic book or not, that fits these criteria.  Well, I can think of one: the film Mad Max.  It’s influential, it’s a classic, it’s unique, and it’s as Aussie as a post-apocalyptic Holden with spikes on it.

I’m no voracious reader of fantasy.  Most of it bores me, especially if it’s “book one of the whatever cycle” but I do like it on the rare occasions it’s original.  A quick check on Goodreads reveals that yes, there are a lot of fantasy and sci-fi books written by Aussies, but I have never heard of any of them except for Sophie Masson because she came from my town, and Obernewtyn, which is for kids.  In fact, a lot of them seem to be for Young Adults but then again all successful books are these days.  Most, if not all of them, are drawing on European fantasy, as evidenced by the cover art featuring green rolling hills, sorceresses on white horses, stone castles, you know the drill.

I can’t just observe something like this without wondering why.  I suspect that the great Australian fantasy novel is yet to be written because our writers are afraid of being authentic: it’s a recurring issue in the history of Australian art and literature.  We are afraid to venture far from Britain in our imaginations.  And inauthentic art divorced from its true context lacks power.  Imagine Judge Dredd, V for Vendetta or even Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 game without Thatcher.  You can’t.

Or maybe it’s just because we are a young nation with only 26 million people and it just hasn’t happened yet?

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts,

James

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10 thoughts on “The Great Australian Fantasy Story

  1. Von says:

    I imagine that the yoofs who only know V and Dredd from the films, or 40K from the last ten years, could quite easily imagine them without Thatcher. ‘Dredd’ in particular really worried me because I had the horrible feeling it’d be played straight, as the po-faced actionmovieheroboy wank it’s been sending up all these years. Done without a trace of redemptive irony, wallowing in its own ‘darkness’ without an awareness of its context – sounds familiar, don’t it?

  2. beat ronin says:

    Hey Von, good to hear from you as always. You’re right of course – I should amend my statement to say that you can’t imagine them being created without Thatcher. The punk defiance of the irony is authentic, it’s what people were feeling in the UK at that time. I was there too actually, but I was only a young child. Still I have at least one clear political memory. It must have been a powerful time.

    It’s authentic like Mad Max. If you were going to write a fantasy that parodied and was analogous to Australia, that’s what you’d make; a barbaric wasteland where it feels like water is precious and the most valuable commodity is badassness. Of course that’s nothing like Australia as it is now, but then castles and crones and chivalry are nothing like Europe now. But at least Mad Max is more authentic to the experience of being Australian than a novel about knights in a forest is.

    I feared for the Dredd movie too but I really enjoyed it. I even bought the DVD, which I do only rarely.

  3. Porky says:

    How about Picnic At Hanging Rock? The novel and film both.

    The novel apparently had a final chapter making the fantasy explicit (published as The Secret of Hanging Rock), but the film works as fantasy well without. It’s got plenty going on, including more classical European sensibilities meeting the essential, maybe more quantum mysteries of the land, new dimensions. The choice of Valentine’s Day 1900 is suggestive, as are the symbols of innocence, virginity, given the political significance of the year.

    The film also came out in the middle of the crisis, the year of the Whitlam affair and the Dismissal, an unresolved friction between old world and new – an interesting synchronicity.

    Another odd synch is the burning school, re the role the nomination of Mal Colston played in the crisis – according to Wikipedia: “Joh Bjelke-Petersen had evidence that Colston, a schoolteacher by trade, had set a school on fire during a labour dispute”.

    It may be that Aussie art has to draw on the European, recognise the common roots. The value may be in the contrast, the subtlety of exploration out among the surfaces in contact.

  4. beat ronin says:

    Thank you for that insight Porky, I had completely forgotten about Picnic at Hanging Rock. Good one! I was actually just wondering last night about the difference between fantasy and magical realism. Surely it can’t just be that one of them has pulp roots and one of them literary roots? Not that definitions are really that helpful in this discussion. It just interests me.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock really scared me when I was a kid, and it scared every other Aussie kid I know who saw it. I think this is because it plays on white Australian’s unease and fear of being strangers in a dangerous land. Our skin is not meant to face the heat of our sun; if you wander into the bush you’ll be gone, just eaten up.

    That’s the sort of thing a fantasy informed by Aussie-ness needs to get across.

  5. Porky says:

    That distinction between pulp and literary roots does make sense, and is a useful guide to aspects like tone for sure, although exceptions probably abound, just because it’s essentially so difficult to draw lines, as you suggest.

    I think it’s possible to argue that all fiction is fantasy by nature, whatever ostensible genre it is, in the sense the thing being presented in each case isn’t real. It could even be argued that non-fiction classifies, just because of the limits to accuracy in language, and maybe in human capacity to comprehend.

    I think you’ve highlighted a major tension there, the uncertainty of a recent post-European expansion on an immense, initially inhospitable continent with a pre-existing population, and the issues surrounding the treatment of that population, and the land itself, in the context of the wealth of that land, not to mention the relationships with the mother country and other regional or global powers. Aussie art can feel liberated, but also dreamy, even alien, given the vast geographic and maybe cognitive spaces, the need to strike out and reevaluate, and the relative lack of fixed reference points, and maybe a little febrile because of it, but lucidly febrile.

    I can understand that fear too. Watching Picnic in, say, the UK might be too safe, too limiting. In Europe there’s little wilderness left of course, and it’s often far off, with the barriers and checks of centuries keeping it back. In Oz it can run up to the garden fence or back door, even into the home.

    • beat ronin says:

      Febrile is a good word for it Porky. The best Australian art in my opinion has that feverish, dream-like quality that threatens the practicality and stolidity that Aussies like to affect.

      I can see the argument for calling all fiction fantasy, but I think it lets too much in to be useful for most discussions outside the language-philosophical. Still,interesting thought.

  6. Von says:

    *snaps fingers* How about ‘The Proposition’? A Western by an Australian, set in Australia – kind of the Ozzie take on Southern Gothic as a narrative and musical form. Is Nick Cave sufficiently Australian, though, or are we going to argue that his being influenced by damn near everywhere else knocks him out of the running?

    • beat ronin says:

      No, Nick definitely counts! Being influenced by everything else is a great deal of what it means to be an Australian artist. You have to remember we don’t have a long tradition of our own, unless we co-opt European, American or indigenous ones.

      The Proposition is a great film. But I don’t think it’s at all fantastical, except for the gothic tone. Which, interestingly, Hanging Rock also has. There is definitely a branch of Aussie narrative that feeds on a unique “Australian Gothic.” But if we’re bringing up the Proposition I reckon we’re into the realm of great Aussie art, not great Aussie fantasy.

      So now we’re back where we started. Two excellent suggestions, one only liminally fantasy and one not really at all. I’m starting to think that our practical, anti-intellectual culture is limiting us too in the production of fantasy that isn’t aimed at children.

      Can I just say thank you both, this is a really interesting discussion to me, and you are making valiant contributions considering you aren’t Australians. Well, maybe Porky is an Aussie? He’s very mysterious. He certainly seems well-informed on Australian art and history 😉

  7. Porky says:

    It’s always a good discussion with the both of you too, enlightening and a workout for the mind.

    As for the international man of mystery thing, there’s more mystery than we might think – can you even be sure I’m a bloke..?

    That makes me think of The Adventure of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an Aussie film, but also a stage musical. It’s not fantasy, but it does suggest just how much fantasy we can fill our lives with, maybe to escape uncomfortable facts, to pretend the world isn’t the way we want it to be. Given the subject and maybe even the year it was released, it shows another aspect of the whole, that imagination and the presentation of the ideas can shape reality. Look at how some of the tech entrepreneurs seem to have been influenced by sci-fi in the way they spend their gains.

    • beat ronin says:

      Ha ha! Now I feel like a chauvinist. I did just presume that you were male, I think it’s the moniker.

      I watched Priscilla in English class in high school, but my memories are only dim. It’s certainly another example of the tension in good Australian art, between how we must act and how some of us wish to be. Gender is particularly an issue and I think it’s telling that we have the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney, a beacon of queer celebration in a country that while not particularly homophobic, is closely bound to traditional expressions of the masculine. It’s almost as if pretending to be tough guys all the time creates the need for an escape valve.

      The other day I was reading a book about the experiences of people on the home front in WWII and one woman said that Australia is a man’s country, and always has been, since women were outnumbered three or four to one in the early days. She said that when an American soldier told her she was beautiful she didn’t know how to take it because she had never heard an Australian man say that to a woman under any circumstances. They typically made it clear that they would rather be talking with a man whenever they spoke to her, and treated her like a boy.

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