Review: The Workers’ Paradise, ed. Russell B Farr & Nick Evans

workers_paradise

(Ticonderoga Publications, 978-0-9586856-7-2)

(review first published here on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, October 2007)

First, a caveat: this review is of the pdf version of the book’s uncorrected proof, a document lacking both the final cover and the appended authors’ biographical notes.

The Workers’ Paradise. It’s an unashamedly politically charged title, openly left-leaning, and the brief editorial follows suit. The timeliness of the editorial (written in September 2007, mere weeks before I received the pdf) is a drawback in a sense. There’s scope for much of the editorial’s content, relating to Australia’s current labour laws, to become quickly outdated. At least, one might hope so. But the more important questions arising are, will the stories collected here date as quickly? And do they hang together, or would they be better left to hang separately?

Paradise contains eighteen stories by an assortment of established and emerging Australian spec-fic writers. (That is to say, I believe them all to be Australian, though in the absence of biographical notes I can’t be completely sure of some of them.)

Simon Brown’s ‘Adjudication’ explores the role of private contractors in the administration of the prison system, throwing in a bit of labour-movement politics and market-driven considerations for good measure. Tight and well-drawn, it’s a story that (probably) couldn’t occur in reality, but there’s enough of an edge of plausibility to give the reader pause.

‘The Working Dead of Heehaw’s Australia’, by Jenny Schwartz, takes a more polemic tone than Brown’s opening story. There’s a delicious twist at the end – at least, I found it delicious – but overall the story is, I think, too blatant a comment on the political scene of it’s time. The ‘Heehaw’ of the title is too readily identifiable with a prominent politician, which may well limit the story’s shelflife.

In Cat Sparks’ ‘Right to Work’, June is a seventy-year-old tea-lady at a hospital who finds a stray teenage girl, too Wired to even realise she’s lost. ‘Right’ is a story filled with powerful understatement, with less attention to backstory than the preceding two pieces, and I think it’s stronger for that: it’s a story which places you very much in the moment, and even the minor characters have a sense of life and depth to them. As with ‘Adjudication’, too, it’s fiction with enough of a dark sense of truth to be disturbing.

David Walker’s ‘Winning Ways’ introduces a lighter tone, still dystopian in its way, but less fraught with the sense of desperation. The change in tone is welcome, but this wasn’t a story that deeply engaged me: it felt half-finished and unsure of its target, though as with ‘Heehaw’ it’s at least partly redeemed by the sly humour of its conclusion.

‘Night with the Stars Askew’, by Rjurik Davidson, is futuristic – androids, war robots – while also backward-looking, through its preoccupation with the life and worldview of the Russian revolutionary Victor Serge. The concern with revolution impeded my appreciation of the story: there’s a relatively large transition involved between our present-day situation and Davidson’s posited armed struggle for control of Perth, and I felt suspension of disbelief faltering a few times. Still, it’s an intelligently told tale, honest enough to admit that there are never any easy answers, nor perfect solutions.

Bill Congreve’s ‘Farmers John Pass Go’ has a title that’s difficult to parse satisfactorily. The title, though, is fitting in the sense that the identified story, the book’s shortest, is also relatively opaque. A little too surreal for my taste, it’s rich in imagery, thematically appropriate for the volume, and unsettling without, I felt, completely connecting with its own underlying implications: a poem, perhaps, struggling to fit within a story’s restrictive frame.

‘Magda’s Career Choice’, by Rowena Cory Daniells, is set in a future Australia governed by the Council of Social Engineers. The worldbuilding here is detailed and consistent, given the overall premise of a carefully-designed Utopian state, and the characterisation convinces. Also, difficult when describing any utopia, there’s a reasonable degree of tension, which helps to propel the narrative. My chief quibble with this story is that it’s information-rich: there’s too much detail built into both the description and the various characters’ conversations.

George Ivanoff’s ‘MTP’ concerns a scenario in which a narcotic treatment confers increased business acumen and productivity on employees who consent to it, though of course there’s a cost. Arguably too wordy, and lacking in direct action – think Asimov crossed with Machiavelli, and you’ll have a fair idea of the story’s tone – it’s nevertheless pleasant enough, at least for those of us not yet on the aforementioned treatment.

Kaaron Warren’s ‘His Lipstick Minx’ is a strange little gender-bent story of masculine lip-decoration, cruelty and exploitation. It reminded me strongly of Connie Willis’ ‘All My Darling Daughters’, though perhaps slightly less black. Elusive, but worthwhile.

‘Seahoney’, by Anna Tambour, is the tale of a young girl’s struggle to come to terms with her illiterate father’s impossible vocation. Ultimately heartwarming while staying just the right side of saccharine, it revolves around a strongly-drawn central trio of Nancy and her parents, and doesn’t need the twist ending.

‘Black and Bitter, Thanks’, by Nathan Burrage, is one of the most direct, most chilling, most horribly plausible spec-fic stories I’ve read in a long time.

David J. Kane’s ‘Flystrike’ is a grim back-country tale of dowsing and desperation. I found it both too fantastic and too violent to be satisfying.

‘Rapturama’, by Matthew Chrulew and Roland Boer, is substantially the longest story in the book. It’s an exploration of technological transcendence, a literal deus ex machina. Satirical, yet serious in intent, I found it fascinating, though I suspect some readers will consider it deeply (perhaps offensively) irreverent. (Hint: it features a North Sydney evangelical movement called $ing$ong.) ‘Rapturama’ takes many other pot-shots at today’s culture, most hitting their targets, though I’m unconvinced that today’s political leaders would still be figures of contemporary relevance in 2019.

Robin Hillard’s ‘After the Choice’ explores the working and living conditions of a group of female labourers, contracted to pick mushrooms at a sweatshop mushroom farm. Events spark industrial action, and the women are forced to decide how far it’s worth taking the matter in the face of managerial thuggery. As with several of the earlier stories, the story is speculative only in the sense that we’d expect such a draconian labour system isn’t truly possible in today’s or tomorrow’s Australia …

In ‘Milk Across the Nation’, by Ashley Arnold, Daisy the cow proves herself quite the agricultural troublemaker, reminiscent of Monty Python’s Harold the clever sheep. Jim, the farmer whose misfortune it is to have Daisy on his dairy farm, struggles in the face of bovine industrial action. A nice comic-tinged story, although the ending seemed a little too pat.

Robert Hood’s ‘Pseudomelia of the Masses’ concerns the emergence of a disturbing trend in work-related body enhancements. This is a well-written piece steeped in paranoia.

‘Arianne’s Event’, by Susan Wardle, describes a future where wealthy parents have effectively complete control over the genetic design of their children. One such child, Arianne, sets out to prove that, as a woman, she is more than just a trophy human. Perhaps suffering from theme fatigue at this point, I didn’t connect deeply with this story.

‘Networking for Dummies’, by Dirk Flinthart, rounds out the volume. Gavin Frankel is a factory foreman, under pressure from both the workplace and domestic powers-that-be to accept implantation of a new Total Networking interface. Flinthart’s story echoes some of the themes already aired here in ‘Rapturama’ and ‘Pseudomelia’, but deftly stakes out its own territory partway between those two tales. A satisfying conclusion to the volume.

Themed anthologies have taken a bit of stick in recent months. The apparent consensus among the bloggerati is that the more specific the theme, the less well the quality is sustained throughout the volume. I’d have to say an anthology on labour conditions in an extrapolated Australia was pretty narrowly-themed, but I think overall it stacks up reasonably well on the quality front. This may be in part because it’s a serious topic, deeply relevant to the readership of our island continent; not exactly the sexual-infidelity-of-colourblind-zombies-in-spacesuits type of collection that, I believe, the bloggers have been more vehemently railing against. The stories in Paradise aren’t uniformly strong, but I don’t think I’d label any of them as undeniably substandard. For my money, the most successful stories here are those by Brown, Sparks, and Burrage, each of which deals unflinchingly with the social injustice evident in our present-day labour market, and ‘Rapturama’ which I’d say is the pick of the more light-hearted treatments of the issue.

Would the anthology have been stronger if any stories had been omitted? I’m not sure. They knit together reasonably well, with a good mix of light and shade (though, overall, convey a general pall of pessimism, in keeping with the overview provided by Evans and Farr’s editorial: without exception, the title appears to have been interpreted ironically by the contributing authors). However, I’ll confess to feeling a bit ‘industrialled out’ by the end of it all, perhaps due to my digesting all this in a few concentrated sessions. A more leisurely sampling of stories, interspersed with the other offerings in your current ‘to read’ pile, would likely mitigate these symptoms. In total, I’d say it’s worth it – there’s a lot of local talent contained within these pages, and it’s good to see them tackling the serious issues presented here.

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2007)

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