Interview by David McDonald.
Born 1947. First eleven years spent in Oakleigh, a south-eastern suburb of Melbourne, along with my Mum and Dad and two sisters, both younger than me. Various house moves took us to Melton (which then had 500 people) and Bacchus Marsh, to the west of Melbourne, even while I was gaining my BA and Diploma of Education at Melbourne University (1965–68). At the end of 1967 I met quite a few of the best-known SF fans in Melbourne, and joined fandom in 1968. I attempted to teach in Ararat (1969–70), before gaining a position in the Publications Branch of the Education Department (1971–3). After travelling overseas for five months (September 1973–January 1974), I decided to try a life of freelance editing, which I’ve been doing ever since. I met Elaine Cochrane in 1974, but we did not get together until 1978, and married in March 1979, about the time we moved into a house in Collingwood, along with five cats. We moved to Greensborough, a northwestern suburb, in 2005. Today we are down to two cats.
You’ve been an integral part of the Aussie SF scene for a long time now. How did you first get involved, and what are some of your most vivid early memories?
My most vivid early SF-related memory is listening to an ABC radio serial, The Moon Flower, by G. K. Saunders, in 1952 or 1953, when I was five or six. The first travellers from the Earth to the Moon find no life on there until they find a tiny flower at the bottom of the deepest cave on the Moon. I was entranced by the idea of escaping from Earth, and that one’s view of the world could be entirely transformed by new discoveries. I found little that was the equivalent of The Moon Flower during the 1950s, except for G. K. Saunders’ later serials on the ABC’s Children’s Hour, the Brick Bradford comic strip in The Sun every week, and some of the best Uncle Scrooge stories in the comic books. And I read the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books from the library I belonged to.
In 1959, at the age of 12, I crossed over to the regular part of the library and found the Science Fiction section. The first book I borrowed was World of Chance, the British title of Solar Lottery, Philip K. Dick’s first novel. This chance first borrowing set the pattern for the rest of my life, because my life and Philip Dick’s became intertwined from then on. Other SF books whose ideas were quite astonishing included Jack Williamson’s The Humanoids and H. G. Wells’ Food of the Gods. At the end of 1959, I discovered the SF magazines on the front counter of McGill’s Newsagency in Melbourne. I received just enough weekly pocket money to buy the English magazines, edited by John Carnell, such as New Worlds and Science Fiction Adventures. Later I began reading the American magazines, such as If and Galaxy. Here I discovered authors such as Cordwainer Smith and Robert Sheckley, but I also became aware that the standard of most of the writing in the magazines was very low.
You continue to produce high-quality fanzines—SF Commentary is a particular favourite of mine—year after year. What is it about fanzines that has inspired you to do so? Obviously the landscape has changed since you first started, what are some of the challenges you might be facing?
In 1961, when I was in Form 3 (Year 9) at Oakleigh High School, my friend Ron Sheldon and I published 21 issues of six-page spirit-duplicated magazine and sold it to fellow students. I did not know the term ‘fanzine’ then, but read about fanzines later in a column by Lin Carter in If. I said to myself: that’s what I want to do — publish a magazine in which I can write about anything I want and publish material that could not be published anywhere else, and send it to anybody in the world. In 1966, I bought my first fanzine from the front counter of McGill’s Newsagency (run by Merv Binns, the organiser of the Melbourne SF Club). It was Australian Science Fiction Review (ASFR), edited by John Bangsund. At last! Here was a magazine filled with in-depth articles about science fiction, plus literate humour from the editor and his correspondents. It didn’t matter that the magazine was typed on an ordinary typewriter and was duplicated on a Roneo machine. Here was the gleam of critical intelligence about SF that I could not find anywhere else.
However, I did not write to John until I had finished my Arts degree in 1967. I enclosed two articles I had written about the novels of Philip K. Dick. John asked me to visit him and the other members of the ASFR team in Ferntree Gully. On that weekend in December 1967 I met many of the people who have remained important in my life, such as John Bangsund, Lee Harding, John Foyster, George Turner, Damien Broderick, Tony Thomas, and Rob Gerrand.
I desperately wanted to begin amateur publishing, but had no disposable income until I started teaching at the beginning of 1969. I typed, and John Bangsund, Lee Harding, and Leigh Edmonds produced and posted the first issue of SF Commentary early that year. That means that SFC is coming up to its 50th anniversary in January 2010. Although that first issue was one of the worst-looking fanzines of all time, it elicited an enormous letter response, including a letter from Philip Dick, my favourite author. I managed to buy a duplicator, produced 18 issues of SFC in two years, and in 1972 I gained my first Ditmar Award and Hugo nomination. SF Commentary itself has stopped production from time to time, but I have also produced such magazines as The Metaphysical Review (dealing with all my interests other than SF, and now replaced by Treasure), Steam Engine Time (co-edited with overseas friends, featuring longer articles about SF and fantasy), and *brg* for ANZAPA (Australian and New Zealand Amateur Publishing Association) and its online version Scratch Pad.
To answer your original question: the main impetus toward publishing fanzines is the pleasure of making something oneself, and receiving a huge amount of warm response, including letters of comment, exchanged fanzines, and articles and artwork. I do not pay for contributions, but over the years I have spent many thousands of dollars to keep my magazines going. People began giving me prizes as well, including three Hugo Award nominations for Best Fanzine and twenty-one Ditmar Awards. I was asked to be Fan Guest of Honour at Aussiecon 3 (1999), and the fans of Australia and America raised the cash, through the Bring Bruce Bayside Fund, to enable me to travel to the west coast of USA in 2005.
I had very little self-confidence when I was a young man, and have not much more now. But my life was transformed when John Bangsund and the ASFR staff enjoyed the articles and reviews I sent them, and when many people responded by mail to the first issues of SF Commentary. At my first SF convention, Easter 1968, few people wanted to talk to me. At my second convention, Easter 1969, after SFC 1 had appeared, I was greeted at the door. Through the medium of print I became a different person, somebody people wanted to meet. In turn, I could introduce my readers to each other. The conversation, a sort of slow-motion, in-depth version of the Internet, keeps going.
The main challenge to fanzine publication has been the Internet, of course, but indirectly. It’s because of the changes to information exchange methods that Australia Post has greatly increased the cost of both overseas and local postage. This would have made it impossible to keep publishing my fanzines if it were not for the service offered by Bill Burns, an enterprising Englishman who has lived in USA for many years. He allows any fanzine publisher to send a PDF file to him at his site eFanzines.com. The file stays there permanently, and can be downloaded for printing and viewing by anybody at any time. In this way I’ve been able to extend my audience while at the same time cutting the circulation of the print version to the bare minimum.
You’re the executor of the George Turner estate. For those unfamiliar with his work, is there a particular work you would suggest people should start with? What do you see as his ongoing legacy or influence on Aussie (and international) SF now and in the past?
It was a great surprise when George Turner named me as his literary executor and heir when he died in 1997. George was a reticent chap. To many people he seemed severe. Many people found him intimidating, even frightening. If you saw through the disguise, you gained his respect. Even if you earned his respect, he was not going to give away much of himself or his past. When I began SF Commentary in 1969, I received a swag of good articles and reviews from John Bangsund, who was closing down ASFR at the time. George Turner was the first person who believed in me, sending me some excellent reviews for SFC 1. He kept sending me a steady stream of articles and reviews for the next ten years or more, and occasionally consulted me about whichever novel was writing at the time. He also got along well with Elaine, my wife, but he was hardly a man who offered easy affection. As I say, I was very surprised when he made me his literary executor.
I have always enjoyed George Turner’s novels and short stories, except perhaps for the two novels with which he began his later-in-life SF publishing career (Beloved Son and Vaneglory). George always began his novels in a well-considered way that for many people was a bit ponderous. Slowly he would build his story, finishing with exciting setpiece endings. The model for his fiction were the great nineteenth-century story-tellers and the best Golden Age SF writers. During the period when he wrote enormous amounts of criticism and reviews for various magazines (1967–early 1980s) his ‘mainstream’ career (six novels, including the Miles Franklin Award winner The Cupboard Under the Stairs) had finished. He was often challenged to match his criticism of SF writing with some creative writing of his own. He produced Beloved Son (1978), which drew remarkably favourite reviews, especially in Britain, where it was published by Faber.
In 1984 he produced for Norstrilia Press (a small Australian press, of which I was a partner), a literary memoir called In the Heart or in the Head. The long last chapter of this book comprised a manifesto: George’s description of what a serious SF writer should be writing about. George believed that few SF writers actually thought much about our possible futures, so somebody should do it. This led George to produce in 1987 his finest novel, The Sea and Summer (retitled Drowning Towers in US). In this novel, world currencies have failed, and many people have died, so those who remain in power, the Swells, have confined much of the remainder of the population, whom they called the Swill, to giant tower blocks, which look much like the public housing towers that George knew from the Melbourne of the 1950s and 1960s. This proves a temporary solution, because the seas are rising steadily. The books itself is told from the point of view of a few characters, and it is this close concentration on human behaviour under stress that gives the novel its narrative power. All in all, George Turner produced eight wonderful SF novels between the ages of 60 and 80, when he died. A posthumous novel, Down There in Darkness, appeared in 1999. He had written 20,000 words of yet another novel; this extract appears in Dreaming Down Under, edited by Jack Dann and Janeen Webb.
For a decade after his death, I thought that George Turner had had little influence on today’s Australian SF writers. However, those writers who are still working seriously in SF have shown an increasing interest in the results of climate change and consequent social breakdown. Few Australian novelists of any kind retain George Turner’s ability to live in a future society, sink himself into it, and write a real novel about what he finds there.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I still enjoy a good fanzine more than most works of fiction, but most of the ones I read are published in USA, Canada, or Britain. Few Australian fanzines are still being published. One of the best, Ethel the Aardvark, can only be read by members of the Melbourne SF Club. However, I can point to Chris Nelson’s Mumblings from Munchkinland (available both as a print and PDF version) as being the ideal small fanzine that covers a lot of ground, especially the history of fannish activity in Australia. Van Ikin told me two years ago that he has four issues of Science Fiction nearly finished, but none of them has appeared.
The Australian fiction scene has expanded in the last 20 years, from a time between 1975 and 1985 when Cory & Collins (Paul Collins and Rowena Cory) and Norstrilia Press (Carey Handfield, Rob Gerrand, and me) published most of the new Australian SF titles, two or three a year. A new crop of small press publishers (beginning with Aphelion Books, and Eidolon and Aurealis magazines) now produce a huge quantity of fine books every year. The trouble is that very few of them are science fiction books (i.e. realistic books about the future). The switch to fantasy and horror titles was initially puzzling and disappointing to me, but has been justified by the quality of the writers who have emerged in the last 20 years. My own favourites include Kaaron Warren, Angela Slatter, Cat Sparks, Deb Biancotti, Rosaleen Love, Jack Dann and Rick Kennett. (Only two males? Who would have believed that in 1968, when Australia’s small number of working SF writers, all male, would huddle in one corner at conventions?) I feel left behind by the sheer quantity and quality of current fiction, and admire people such as you podcasters who try to keep up with the field.
Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing or reading in five years from now?
As I say, I can keep publishing while the physical means (either print or efanzines.com) remain available. I have no interest in changing to blog production, and indeed rarely access websites, blogs, or podcasts. It’s hard enough finding time to read the incoming emails each day. I don’t want to read books on a tablet or computer screen, so do my best to obtain physical copies (preferably hardback) of major new books. If new books appear only as e-books, I won’t be reading them. Not that I have any problem with lack of reading matter — our house is filled with books, many of them unread. And I have many great books to re-read, especially those by Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, Stanislaw Lem, Cordwainer Smith, and George Turner