Fantastic Fictions - and Facts

© 2001, Ted Scribner

Late September 2002 - and Sydney literary SF&F fandom appeared to be in the doldrums. Friday September 20: meeting of Sydney Futurians. Total attendance: 4. Saturday September 21: social gathering of Sydney Southern SF&F Group. Total attendance: 7. Two people (me 'n GPD) went to both. I've had no reports from the last Infinitas group meeting.

Enter Kim Selling and Lilla Smee with "Fantastic Fictions", a one day symposium, held at Sydney University Women's College on Friday 27 September.

Right from the kick-off this was different. It was not  con or a "day with" some famous name person. It was a symposium, an event which one associates with the cloisters of academia. It was held within the distinguished and venerable walls of the University of Sydney Women's College. Moreover, it was on a Friday, when fans are at their jobs and writers are at their day jobs.

Would anyone come? The question obviously worried the two organisers, but they went ahead anyway.

It was beyond all reasonable doubt a resounding success. Attendance could not have been better. They just fitted the 70 or so starters comfortably within the college's main common room. More would have been too many, less too few. With the facilities of the college at their disposal, the day's creature comforts were positively luxurious compared with many a con or similar event. To top it off, for the $30 or less (for early payment or concession rates) that the day cost, the attendees were treated to a happy hour at the end of the formal proceedings.

There were five distinct sections to the symposium: a plenary paper, two sessions of papers by students, one session of presentations by authors and a round-table discussion by a selection of the contributors. These sessions were broken up by morning and afternoon teas and lunch.

Firstly the two charming convenors welcomed the attendees and then introduced Professor Margaret Clunies Ross of the University's Centre for Medieval Studies to formally open proceedings. Although she said relatively little, Prof. Clunies Ross appeared friendly and accessible, an encouraging start.

Then came the Guest of Honour, Professor Brian Attebery, of the Department of English, Idaho State University, with the plenary paper. This was titled "Exploding the Monomyth: Myth and Fantasy in a Postmodern World". Presumably he is in Australia for Sabbatical or a holiday, or else attending some other event(s), since the organisers budget could not possibly have covered his travel and accommodation costs. Whatever his reasons for being in Sydney, his presence was indeed fortuitous, since he got straight down to the business of myth and fantasy in a way that was both academic and pragmatic.

Hopefully a full text, and certainly a precis, of his talk will be available soon. The talk was for me a light in dark places. He avoided the questions of whether modern fantasy is boring, repetitive, way too long etc and concentrated on its relation to myth. I got the impression that myth is the appropriate starting place for all fantastic fiction and that it is as vital to the social side of humanity as science fiction is to the scientific and technical. He was not scornful of any genre or author but he highlighted good elements of fantasy writing in a way that would hopefully allow the discerning reader to judge accurately for themselves as to the quality of a given work.

The organisers of symposia often do not allow time for questions after a plenary paper, but in this case there was a short question session. While not long enough to really explore the subject, it was nevertheless a good starter and gave the interested listener some encouragement to approach the author after the formal session.

Morning tea was not just tea and coffee with biscuits - it included cakes, sandwiches and fruit, all in the delightful old world atmosphere of the college's dining room. Half an hour was allowed for this and afternoon tea, and an hour for lunch, giving plenty of time for informal nattering.

The second and third sessions were similar, each comprising three students who delivered papers on some aspect of their work. These (postgraduate - one or more may have been postdoctoral fellows) students came from universities around Australia and presumably they paid their own ways there, unless scholarships they were on allowed for their travel to be funded. After the three presentations, a time (20-30 minutes) was allowed for questions and discussion. I won't attempt reviews of each paper. They convered for the most part quite specific subjects and without a detailed knowledge of the subject, which usually meant having read one or more specific books, it was difficult to follow the paper. Moreover, they tended to read quite quickly. The accoustics were such that speaking directly into the microphone was absolutely necessary for the sound to carry throughout the room, and not all of them did this. Despite the shortcomings, the papers yielded some spirited discussions. One paper was by Justine Larbalestier, whose book launch the previous Wednesday was covered by Garry Dalrymple. She spoke better than most if not all the others and addressed a rather more general topic: that of researching F&SF.

The two sessions of paper presentations were separated by lunch, a sumptuous affair especially with the environment of the college dining room. After the second paper came afternoon tea, also with luxury trimmings of cake, scones and fruit.

The final sessions comprised firstly a presentation by three well known authors: Terry Dowling, Sophie Masson and Scott Westerfield. This session was chaired by the equally well known author Sean Williams, and the convenors are to be congratulated for bringing these authors together with little or no apparent cost to the attendees. Each was interesting in their own way but the highlight for me was Scott Westerfeld who got down to specifics and described the basis for a trilogy - a young people's fantasy - that could be taken further to become a TV series. It was based on the premise that an extra, heretofore unknown, hour of time existed within each day. It was imperceptible to all but people who had been born preisely on the stroke of midnight. These and these alone perceived the passage of an extra hour that was inserted into the normal 24 hours every midnight. During this hour, time was frozen for all other things, animate and inanimate. What this small select group did during this hour was the basis of the stories. My question: "how was it known to be an hour?" was easily answered by the author with the simple device that for any of these specially privileged people a watch on the wrist kept "their" time (meaning of course that it would gain an hour each day but I didn't get to press that point).

Following this session there was a general round table discussion on all the topics of the day. Talk was lively and no doubt would have gone on longer, but the room had to be vacated by 6 pm so the two convenors thanked all the participants and the (obviously enthusiastic) audence and invited us to join them for drinks in the nearby Fairfax common room. I left, tired but happy, around 7 pm.

It was generally agreed by the attendees that this symposium, by the name of symposium or any other name, was a wonderful happening and a power of good for local sf&f on both the writer and the fan side. It has been tentatively considered as a future annual event. Even should this not come off, the increased interest in and awareness of SF&F, particularly the literary side, will surely have beneficial effects in an area where beneficial effects are sorely needed. It was supported by the Department of Medieval Studies and the Research Institute for Humanities and the Social Sciences (RIHSS) at Sydney University, plus the Sydney University Postgraduate Representative Association and the Galaxy Bookshop, who presumably donated the calico bags that all attendees received. David Linton of Galaxy brought a selection of books for sale and throughout the symposium he held station for buyers at a makeshift stall in the college foyer. He appeared to do a reasonable trade. One book (by Raymond Feist - signed) was offered as a door prize - the lucky winner was Rod McLeod.

I would like to offer my sincere congratulations and thanks to Kim Selling and Lilla Smee for organising this wonderful event.

For information on this symposium, including summaries and perhaps full texts of papers, keep checking

My personal home page:
My Australian SF&F home page:

The Bullsheet: &


Back to Tilkal, Issue 2, eJournal of Tol Harndor