2020 Snapshot: Sean McMullen

Sean McMullen is an Australian science-fiction and fantasy author, with 25 books and 100 stories published, and has been translated into over a dozen languages. Sean worked for three decades in scientific computing, running his career as a science fiction and fantasy author in parallel with his writing. His fiction has been nominated for the Hugo and BSFA awards, and won the Analog, Interzone and Nova Fantastyka Readers’ polls, as well as Australia’s Aurealis and Ditmar awards. A collection of his recent stories, Dreams of the Technarion, was published by Reanimus Press in November 2017 and includes a history of Australian science fiction and fantasy, Outpost of Wonder.

Sean lives in Melbourne with his girlfriend Zoya and his scarily large Maine Coon cats Freya and Loki. His daughter is the award-winning SF and horror screenwriter, Catherine S. McMullen. Sean can be found online at http://www.seanmcmullen.net.au

  1. Tell us about your recent publications/projects.

I have been writing Fantastical Worlds and Futures at the World’s Edge: A History of New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy with Simon Litten, and publishing it chapter by chapter online on my website. It is now finished, and although it is over thirty thousand words long, Simon and I had to leave out a lot of works and people because New Zealanders are incredibly prolific. Detailed histories of science fiction and fantasy are very important, because they draw together and highlight achievements that are too easily forgotten, because genre sometimes isn’t taken as seriously in academia.

I have also done a paper on the effect of the digital revolution on Australian science fiction and fantasy, which will be presented at New Zealand’s Worldcon in July. It looks at how the output of works increased over twelve times from 1993 to 2013, how gender parity was achieved (in terms of works published), and analyses the quality of the works produced using Locus magazine’s Recommended Reading lists as a metric.

In terms of my own fiction writing, Analog published my story Wheel of Echoes in the January/February issue this year. It is about an Elizabethan sound recording machine being discovered in twenty first century London. The device really would have worked, and it could easily have been built using sixteenth century technology. Apart from all the foregoing, I have also been writing and submitting novels and film scripts, but I’m not in a position to talk about those yet for various reasons, some of which involve Hollywood lawyers.

  1. What has been the best publishing or SF community experience of your career so far?

Best is pretty hard to define, because quite a lot of experiences have been my best in different ways. One experience that really stands out, however, was back in 2012, when my story Hard Cases got produced as a short film. The director Terry Shepherd and I had been to a meeting about an unrelated project, and as we were leaving he asked if I had any short film scripts.

The following day I sent him an adaption of Hard Cases, a short story of mine about environmental vigilantes, which is an area of particular interest for me. He liked it, and shared it with some of the production crew he worked with on Neighbours. Quite a few of them were science fiction enthusiasts and they liked the script. Terry then got permission from Fremantle Media to use their Nunawading studios for a weekend shoot of Hard Cases.

Terry was both producer and director, and he quickly cast actors Mike Bishop, Liam Amor and Eve Morey in the main roles. However, the production date was getting uncomfortably close, and he still needed a fit, authoritative looking guy of a similar age to Mike Bishop to play Mr Guard. I had professional acting experience, and obviously knew the script already, so suddenly I had to become one of my own characters.

The shoot was a very intense experience. We had to get ten minutes of usable material shot in one day, which is about three times more than the industry norm. Getting up before dawn is not one of my strong points, and I nearly fell asleep while the makeup and costume people were turning me into Mr Guard. I was wearing a black coat and sunglasses, and the set was surrounded by black drapes, so for most of the film my head seemed to float disembodied in the background.

The curious thing about a film is that it really is heightened reality when compared to a story or novel. Write a story, and it looks and plays out a particular way in your head. If it is illustrated you get a look at the artist’s take on your words, but you never get to see the images it conjures for readers. Put that same story on screen, and suddenly the images are before your eyes rather than in your head, and the characters are alive and speaking with each other. Even though I was one of those characters, I can still watch Hard Cases and see a guy called Mr Guard doing security work, rather than myself acting in a role.

Because I was on set, if the director and actors thought something needed changes, or lines needed to be adjusted, it was easy to workshop on the spot. We got the shoot done with time to spare, because Terry had directed episodes of Neighbours, so he knew how to stay on schedule, and everyone else involved was an experienced professional. My daughter Catherine was on set as well, as a runner. That was her first time working on a film set, but she has gone on to work on huge film sets, and is an award-winning scriptwriter, so it clearly made an impact on her.

With books and stories the big moment is – for me – when the published item arrives in the mail or goes online. With Hard Cases, the day of the shoot was the highlight, because I was part of a team making it become real. I had expected the three months of post-production to be a serious let down after the excitement of the shoot, but I had to arrange some of the artwork and music, so that kept me involved.

By the time Hard Cases was on DVD and playing to audiences online, it had become for me like a film that someone else had written, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was the screenwriter, and Mr Guard. Whenever I think about I now, the day of the shoot is always what my memory always conjures up first because it was such a great experience.

  1. What recent Australian/NZ work would you recommend to international fans interested in expending their Antipodean spec fic knowledge?

With the Wellington (virtual) Worldcon less than two months away, I would encourage people to give themselves a crash course in New Zealand’s best short fiction. They could start with the recent anthology Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy: Volume 1, edited by Marie Hodgkinson and published by Paper Road Press.

As mentioned previously, if anyone wants a (free) overview of the past 150 years of New Zealand’s genre writing, films and illustrations, Fantastical Worlds and Futures at the World’s Edge: A History of New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy by Simon Litten and Sean McMullen, can be found at https://seanmcmullen.net.au/category/news/.

The following list of anthologies and collections provides a great way to get a wider view of authors whose works have done well in New Zealand science fiction, fantasy and horror over the past two decades. They are the winning collections and anthologies in the Collected Works and Production/Publication categories of the Sir Julius Vogel Awards:

  • The Invisible Road (Harper Collins, 2008) by Elizabeth Knox
  • Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand (Interactive Press, 2009) edited by Mark Pirie and Tim Jones
  • A Foreign Country – New Zealand Speculative Fiction (Random Static, 2010) edited by Anna Caro and Juliet Buchanan
  • Tales for Canterbury (Random Static, 2011) edited by Cassie Hart and Anna Caro
  • Mansfield with Monsters (Steam Press, 2012) by Katherine Mansfield, Matt and Debbie Cowens
  • Baby Teeth (Paper Road Press, 2013) edited by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts
  • Lost in the Museum (Phantom Feather Press, 2014), Phoenix Writers Group
  • Write Off Line 2015: The Earth We Knew (Jean Gilbert, 2015) edited by Jean Gilbert and Chad Dick
  • At the Edge (Paper Road Press, 2016) edited by Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray
  • Mariah’s Prologues (Splashdown Books, 2017) by Grace Bridges
  • Te Korero Ahi Kā (SpecFicNZ, 2018) edited by Grace Bridges, Lee Murray and Aaron Compton.
  • White Cloud Worlds Anthology (Harper Collins, 2010) edited by Paul Tobin
  • White Cloud Worlds Anthology 3 (Ignite Inc, 2015) edited by Paul Tobin




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