This All Come Back Now is a collection of speculative fiction by First Nations authors curated by Mykaela Saunders, who observes that First Nations writers in this genre are rarely able to get published. With this anthology she has come to redress the balance, and the result displays the richness and diversity of speculative fiction by First Nations authors in a series of 22 short stories.
Speculative fiction is a broad term that encompasses a range of genres including science fiction, fantasy, futurism, climate fiction, alternate history, horror, gothic and magical realism (the list goes on). In some ways it feels like a term created (at least in the Western canon) to give some respectability to some of those genres. But Saunders is not about respectability, or labels particularly, as she notes:
Spec fic, as a Western genre, employs devices that our cultural stories have dealt in for millennia – the difference is, to us these stories aren’t always parsed out into fiction or fantasy, as they are just ways we experience life.
More pertinently, she observes that there are ‘many common spec fic themes that are just stone-cold reality for us’. This is particularly so when considering the content of post-apocalyptic, climate fiction and dystopian fiction.
Saunders has arranged the contents of this anthology deliberately. Each story is in conversation with the stories on either side of it. They elide into each other either through their content or their central idea. So that a story narrated by a ghost will be followed by a story about a man and the ghost of his father, which will be followed by a story involving a father and son and a malevolent presence, which is then followed by another monster story, and so on. This gives this collection a cohesive feel beyond its inherent thematic resonance.
It is important to understand when engaging with the material that Saunders wanted a collection of ‘stories written for us and about us’. She did not want this to be a an ‘anthology full of a pan-Indigenous, written-to-teach-white-Australia-a-lesson-about-itself stories’. So non-Aboriginal readers need to approach these stories as a cultural journey and not expect everything to resonate with them.
What about the stories themselves? As with any collection of short stories, not every story will work for every reader. Failure to connect with or fully comprehend one tale will often be followed by an eye-opening experience from the next. And not all of these are complete short stories – there are extracts from longer works by Alexis Wright (‘Dust Cycle’ from The Swan Book), Samuel William Watson (The Kadaitcha Sung) and Archie Weller (‘The Purple Plains’ from Land of the Golden Clouds).
The collection opens with an award-winning story by Evelyn Araluen (‘Muyum, A Transgression’). This is followed by ‘Clatter Tongue’ by Karen Wylde, a story in which the ongoing trauma of colonisation is made physical for a young woman dealing with her own trauma:
Treanna opened her eyes and blinked. Then she opened her mouth and out poured – not words. With a loud clang a lance fell to the ground … She opened her mouth again, and a blunderbuss fell out. Then a dagger with a chipped handle. Followed by a small, short-handled pistol. Clatter. Clang. Clink. Clank.
Soon the collection has moved from the world of spirits to the world of monsters. ‘In His Father’s Footsteps’ by Kalem Murray features a young boy who is warned not to stray from the path through the mangroves, and in ‘Myth This!’by Lisa Fuller, a family faces off against something that comes out of the swamp:
It’s a size and shape no person could have. Broader, taller. But on two feet, so not a bull or steer. The smell of fetid water seeps into her nostrils and into the back of her throat … A soft humming noise splits the quiet, reverberating from inside its barrel chest, growing louder and louder.
There is satire – a tongue in cheek time travel story (‘When From’ by Merryana Salem); the story of a conflicted public servant (‘Five Minutes’ by John Morrissey); violence and vengeance (‘Snake of Light’ by Loki Liddle) and an Aboriginal perspective on the discovery of a new intelligent life form (‘Water’ by Ellen van Neerven). And then, of course, the post-apocalyptic, post-climate change future in stories like ‘Lake Mindi’ by Krystal Hurst and ‘Old Uncle Sir’ by Jack Latimore (which also contains a nod to Hamlet). These stories have an attitude perhaps epitomised in Saunders’ own story ‘Terranora’,which opens with a mob of ‘Ocean Bikies’ coming up the river, and contains Aunt Lorna’s observation that Mad Max was:
… some old, old movie my great-gran showed me … I don’t care for it though. It was just some white man’s wet dream.
The collection ends with a couple of very short stories that grapple with the concepts of artificial intelligence.
Despite this diversity of ideas and sub-genres there are clear and recurring themes throughout this collection, which Saunders encapsulates as:
… family and other kin, Old People and ancestors, government interference, corporate greed and the destruction of land and water, the archive, technology, language, law, ghosts, hauntings, warm and deep belonging and despairing alienation.
Saunders’ introduction notes that there has been, over time, plenty of Australian speculative fiction that has been about First Nations characters or that has mined traditional culture or spirituality to ‘trade in tired themes and tropes’. In This All Come Back Now she starts to redress yet another area of colonisation, to give a platform and a voice to First Nations authors writing about their own culture and sharing their view of the world through the vehicle of speculative fiction.
Speculative fiction stories engage with the fantastical and the strange to entertain and open readers’ minds to new possibilities and ways of thinking. And the best of these turn that new understanding onto the real world. These stories skilfully use the tools and tropes of speculative fiction to illuminate the world as it is for their readers, and also allow for a sharing of cultural knowledge. In that way this collection delivers a view of the world that many readers will only think they are familiar with.
This review was first published on Newtown Review of Books.