Review: Magic Dirt, by Sean Williams


(edited by Russell B. Farr)

(Ticonderoga Publications, 978-0-9803531-6-7L)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, April 2008)

I have a secret shame. (Now, I guess, not so secret.) The nub of it is this: while, for the past eighteen months, I have been seeking to represent myself as someone who’s developing a sound working knowledge of Australian speculative fiction, I had never read one word of Sean Williams’ work before the proof pdf of Magic Dirt arrived in my inbox last month. This, it seems to me, is rather like a mountaineer visiting the Himalayas yet deliberately avoiding Everest. True, there are certainly other mountains, but Williams has distinguished himself through force of productivity if nothing else (and the pile of books he has written, or co-written, must by now stack up almost mountain-high). I was, in consequence, curious to see how the work measured up against the reputation.

“Magic Dirt” collects Sean’s shorter fiction from, I gather, 1992 onwards.

“A Map of the Mines of Barnath” is not one of the collection’s stronger stories (in my opinion), but it is an excellent extended metaphor for the central theme of much of the fiction here, which is that things are very seldom as they first appear. And you have to marvel at the kind of imagination that can devise a fictional construct like Barnath’s mysterious, metaphysical mines. (I am, though, still waiting for the Map).

“Ghosts of the Fall”, the earliest of the stories included in this collection, is a strong but in some ways still tentative exploration of life, and a semblance of civilisation, clinging to a precarious existence in a post-apocalyptic, flooded Adelaide.

“The Soap Bubble” is, it seems to me, a half-serious space opera story (in which the word ‘space’ might well be exchanged with the ‘soap’ of the title), and I’m not completely sure that it succeeds in whatever its mission might be. It certainly engages the reader’s interest, and as a pastiche/homage/satire of TV SF such as ‘Star Trek’ it’s on fertile ground, but, for the most part, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the collection’s other space-opera examples.

“The Magic Dirt Experiment” is the collection’s only piece of flash fiction. It’s strange, and elusive, but quite effective.

“Night of the Dolls” (with Shane Dix) is an excerpt from the Geodesica sequence. It’s an excellent example of SF’s ability to render the commonplace alien, by allowing us the opportunity to view things through other eyes.

“Atrax” (with Simon Brown) is a tale of spaceborne arachnophobia, as a lunar shuttle pilot learns he’s sharing his craft with a funnel-web spider. This is one of the more straightforward stories here, with plenty of plausible drama but no spectacular turns of plot, but it’s well worthwhile nevertheless.

“The End of the World Begins at Home” is an appropriately-titled piece of suburban apocalypse. Yet, while Williams’ characterisation is (as ever) deftly handled, I found the overall tone too overtly symbolic for my tastes.

“The Seventh Letter” is a whimsical yet still effective riff on the notion of sudden disability, explored through the eyes of a patient who, as a result of an accident, becomes unable to mentally process words which contain the alphabet’s seventh letter. The story is written with the same constraint in place – fortunately, the letter in question is insufficiently-common for the prose to appear stilted.

“Evermore” is a deep-space piece that asks many questions on the nature of humanity. It feels slightly staged, in places, but the dilemma at its core is intriguing and well-handled.

“The Butterfly Merchant” is a deceptively straightforward tale of a retiring butterfly breeder’s desire to end his career on a high note. But genetics, and his obsession, work against him. This story, short and poignant, is one of my favourites from the volume.

“Reluctant Misty & the House on Burden Street” is a haunted-house type story which has enough of a twist, and sufficient flavour of real-world concerns, to encourage the reader’s persistence, though it didn’t move me as much as many of its neighbours in this volume.

“The Girl-Thing” is decidedly creepy, and hits many of the notes the preceding story didn’t quite manage. Williams flexes his crime-genre muscles (not greatly in evidence elsewhere in this volume) in a highly foreboding story that mixes mystery with the unseen. Skill as a spec-fic writer doesn’t necessarily translate into an ability to craft a mystery or crime story, but ‘The Girl-Thing’ suggests that Williams can manage both – and in the same story, if the case requires it.

“Entre les Beaux Morts en Vie (Among the Beautiful Living Dead)” provides an interesting take on immortality, far from wish-fulfilment. Martin Winterford has been sponsored to become a ‘reve’, and thereby assured of effective immortality. But, as he learns, the treatment comes at a cost. Williams’ glimpse of a future in which only a very priviledged few are allowed to become reves poses many interesting questions, and illuminates that, really, there are no easy answers.

I don’t normally enjoy zombie stories greatly, but “Passing the Bone” is an exception. It probably helps quite a bit that the newly-undead protagonist here already has brains of his own, so isn’t obsessed with finding more. And while I could wish that the pathology of necrosis was explored in a little less detail – this is not a story to read while eating – this, all up, is a surprisingly tender and touching tale.

“A View Before Dying” has a basic setting so similar to ‘Evermore’ that it’s difficult to keep the two stories straight, although the driving themes of the two stories are very different. ‘A View Before Dying’ is more of a traditional SF ‘puzzle’ tale; I’m predisposed to (usually) like such stories, and this is a good example of the genre.

“Team Sharon” is a very blokey kind of story, in which the ‘team’ are Sharon’s clandestine admirers. It’s a concept which could easily come across as sinister, but Williams keeps it all reasonably innocent, perhaps almost charming.

“White Christmas” is, both metaphorically and literally, an atmosphere-laden alien takeover tale. To my mind, it reads like an antipodean channelling of John Wyndham. I liked it.

“The Masque of Agamemnon” (with Simon Brown) is a space-opera treatment of the tensions leading up to the Trojan war; but, then again, perhaps it isn’t. There were places here where I felt the authors were over-reaching themselves, partly through the incongruity of the storyline and partly through its far-future setting. It is, ultimately, internally consistent, but I don’t consider it one of the collection’s more satisfying stories.

Magic Dirt contains eighteen stories. I didn’t like them all, you probably won’t like them all either, and you might well not like the ones I liked. But it’s a reasonable expectation that, if you’re interested in any of the disciplines that comprise speculative fiction, be that SF, fantasy, magical realism, horror or whatever, you’ll find several stories here to engage you, stories that latch on and just will not let go.


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