By Cheryl Morgan
Last issue saw me enthusing about Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, but Lanagan is by no means the only Australian woman who is writing interesting fantasy short fiction. Lucy Sussex has been doing it for years — from way before Australian writers became fashionable. MirrorDanse, an Australian small press, has just issued a new collection of Sussex’s stories, and it is well worth a look.
While the stories in Black Juice tend to strike straight at the heart, those in A Tour Guide in Utopia are much more likely to aim for the brain. Sussex mentions in her afterword that during the period from which the stories are taken she discovered a taste for "literary research". This can be seen very clearly in many of the tales.
My favorite story from the book, "La Sentinelle", is something that I think Jeffrey Ford might easily have written. The heroine is an ambitious young art curator sent by her boss to try to obtain items from the house of a recently dead collector for an exhibition. Annis soon discovers that the old man had some very strange tastes in antique dolls. Meanwhile, back in the 1930s, we readers are hearing some of the background story as a Freudian psychiatrist treats the original owner of the doll. It is an excellent tale, shot through with enough detail about antique dolls and 1930s France to sound thoroughly real. I found myself checking names on the Internet, just in case parts of it were.
Rather more real is "Kay and Phil". This is a tale about a Californian writer who is working on a book about a world in which the Axis powers won WWII. He is visited by an apparition who turns out to be a British writer called Katharine Burdekin. She also wrote a "Nazis win" novel, except she did it in 1937. Phil, of course, thinks he’s taken too many drugs, but that doesn’t stop him having an interesting conversation. Kay and Phil are both very real people, and now I want to find a copy of Burdekin’s Swastika Night.
Many of Sussex’s stories have feminist themes, and a good number of her characters are lesbians and even separatists. When Phil admits to having trouble with women and having been married three times, Kay retorts:
"You amaze me. After I left my husband I made sure that I never again lived with a person of the opposite sex. It’s too hard, Phil, being with someone who is human, like you, but oh, so different!"
"The Queen of Erehwon" is a typical Sussex story in this mould. In some future Australia an anthropologist comes to study a country population that practices polygamy: one woman and many husbands. Naturally it turns out that the men still dominate the relationship, and the only way women can be truly free is to live without men.
Back with the literary research, "Merlusine" takes its academic heroine from a Cajun song and some scientific speculation about genetic diseases to a journey across the Southern USA and an explanation for an ancient medieval legend. The story is mainly a tale of unfolding research, but you can’t help liking a heroine who sings "Marching Through Georgia" when driving through the South because all she can find on the radio is bad country music.
Only one of the stories, "The Lottery", is out and out science fiction. "Absolute Uncertainty" is about science — more specifically about Werner Heisenberg — but is more history than SF. Almost all of them, however, have what you might call a scientific, or at least rationalist, sensibility to them, despite the fantasy themes. Two of them I’ve seen before. "A Tour Guide in Utopia" appeared in a very fine anthology called She’s Fantastical that came out in Australia while I was living there. "Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies" appears in Jack Dann and Janeen Webb’s Dreaming Down Under, published around the same time as the last Melbourne Worldcon. "The Queen of Erehwon" and "Absolute Uncertainty" appeared in F&SF, but many of the stories were only published in Australian magazines and won’t have been seen by many people in North America or Europe. This is a shame, because Sussex is good. If you like your short fiction with a lot of thought and a strong dose of feminism this book is worth seeking out.
There is ordering information on the publisher’s web site.