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Mysteries, spy stories, whodunits, romance, adventures, fantasy and science fiction – what do they all have in common?

The answer is, nothing, save that they all fall under the title of genre fiction. Genre is one of the categories by which artistic works are divided based on form, style or subject matter.

Some people feel that genre fiction is less important as a form of writing than realism, though according to the dictionary, realism is no more than ‘the lifelike representation of people and the world without any idealisation’. Is that like reality TV? I wonder. In my opinion, realism is as much a genre as any other kind of writing, and there is good, bad and dire realism, as with all forms of writing.

Unfortunately, all genre fiction categories, save realism, seem to be judged by the worst that is in them, rather than the best. A bit like kids.

The existence of genre categories is useful and even necessary but a writer should not be constrained by a category. To imagine a writer writing to ‘fit’ a genre is the same as imagining an artist painting a picture to match a lounge room. That is a decorator, not an artist.

Can anyone imagine that Margo Lanagan wrote the beautiful, gritty stories in Black Juice by trying to fit into the speculative fiction category? Or that Ursula Le Guin wrote the Earthsea books or Lian Hearn Across the Nightingale Floor by following somebody's rigid genre recipe?

The best speculative fiction has always elbowed the rule book aside, which is why the greatest genre writing stretches genre boundaries.

In fact, one of the notable features of modern genre writing is that much of it is a melding of two or more forms of genre. The genre of romance contains numerous books and stories which contain elements of fantasy or horror.

Science fiction has always bitten into historical fiction with time-slip stories such as Brian Caswell's Meryll of the Stones. Eureka Street by Nadia Wheatley is well-researched historical writing with a time-slip, and has the added interest of having been rewritten and updated by its author. There is less hard science fiction being published now than there was in its heyday, but more science fiction containing fantastical elements is finding its way into print. And conversely, much modern fantasy contains a good dollop of science fiction, or vice versa. Then there are new categories arising from the blending of genre. Space Opera is the western in SF dress, and Dark Fantasy is a new name for a certain kind of horror writing. And of course there are other sub-categories such as cyberpunk, too.

The merging of genre is less a marketing device, I believe, than the natural result of trying to constrain writers with rule books. Someone in a science fiction movie once famously said, ‘Life will find a way’. I would say, ‘Writers will find a way’. At its heart, all good writing is anarchic.

The writers in this collection were hand-picked and each given the task of writing a story in a genre they loved and admired. No specifics other than these were given, save that the contributions be short stories or poems. I can imagine the difficulty these authors might have had in deciding what to write, for many of them work in several genres. It might be rather like the exquisite pain of being asked, ‘What do you like to read?’ Because there is the last thing you read that was striking and thrilling, and there is also the book you read last month and a fantastic book someone gave you the month before. Not to mention classic favourites and classics that are favourites. To choose is agonising. I am not sure which of these writers agonised over which genre, but every one of these stories demonstrates the author's affection for and intimate knowledge of their chosen genre. The writers were paying homage to their chosen genre, rather than following a recipe, and in every case, it is the writers’ genuine respect for genre that allows them to write it so well.

The beauty of this collection as a starting point, a journey into the maelstrom of merging genre fiction, is that readers have the opportunity to sample the various genres produced by good writers who are not only published within these various categories, but who read and love them.

This fat and juicy collection is like one of those dessert plates where you get to try a little bit of everything, so you can decide what you'll order next time as a full-sized portion. Like all good collections, it can be dipped into and explored in any order, depending on a reader's mood. Some of the stories are straight forward laugh-out-loud giggle fests, whilst others are formed through a layered narrative, dense with meaning.

Herein, you will encounter everything from humour to stark seriousness, wild adventure to pure horror, the most fantastical fantasy as well as gritty murder mystery.

You will find poets such as Catherine Bateson with her stabbingly funny ‘The Whippet Blues’, as well as such luminaries as David Metzenthen – who I didn't even know wrote poetry.

You will encounter the seriously clever, visual humour of Leigh Hobbs in ‘The Joy of Being an Author’, and the pure poetry of Shaun Tan's lovely lyrical sketches. If brilliant intellect were a genre, these two guys would head the list. Michael Wagner would be there too, with his ‘The Problem with Self-help’.

Andy Griffiths offers his usual bad boy grungy humour in ‘The True History of Sir Donald BADMAN’ while Lili Wilkinson turns her hand to the horror genre, with ‘The Babysitter’, and Sally Rippin gives a grim fairytale a savage twist in ‘The Red Shoes’. Richard Harland's ‘The Thing in the Suitcase’ is classic horror, even down to the title. His story reveals not only the writer's love of and real feel for the genre, but it offers the delicious, electrifying rush that only true horror can provide: the insidious mercury shiver of fear, rather than the mere scream of half-revolted shock wrought by much visual horror produced by film-makers who seem to have forgotten that the essence of classic horror is, surprisingly, subtlety. Richard suggests readers who like the flavour of horror in his story might try the gothic horror story that turned him onto the genre as a teenager – ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, by Edgar Allan Poe. A definite chill thrill.

Allan Baillie's chosen genre for this collection was horror but from an unexpected angle. Indeed we are so intrigued by the narrator in ‘The Fog’, and his odd and mysterious situation, that it takes time for us to wake up to exactly who and what he is; the knowledge creeps up on a reader with all the inexorable stealth of … well, fog. The multi-talented Scot Gardner offers a wonderfully subtle and creepy SF tale in ‘Answers’. For anyone enjoying these stories, try the exquisite horror gem Coraline by Neil Gaiman, or the various horror stories offered in Jack Dann's collection Gathering the Bones.

Lucy Sussex's ‘The Fortress’ is classic crime fiction rendered with this author's characteristic meticulous attention to detail. The story openly pays homage to early detective crime writers and Lucy recommends those who enjoy her offering look at the story which is the model for ‘The Fortress’ – Andrew Forrester's ‘The Unknown Weapon’.

Gary Crew's haunting ‘The Returning Tree’ is historical fiction, and introduces another of the sets of brilliantly repellent parents that occur in many of his books. But centre stage is a wonderfully dreamy and sensitive boy with a powerful empathy for the natural world. The story and the time in history are established by beautifully selected idiosyncratic detail rather than heavy-handed screeds of historical information, and in this as much as anything, we see the deep understanding the author has of his chosen genre, as well as his knowledge of history. Gary's favourite Australian historical fiction is The Drums of Mer by chill-and-thrill historical writer Ion Idriess.

‘Countdown to Apollo II’ by Sue Bursztynski is also historical fiction as well as being a classic bully story set against a thrilling moment in time, with a pleasing down-beat end. For readers who think they might like to try more historical fiction, she recommends Allan Baillie's The China Coin, which was written only a few years after the events in Tiananmen Square. This book, she says, was a reminder to her that historical fiction does not have to be set hundreds of years ago. In part it was this revelation that made her decide to write a story for this collection, set in her own lifetime.

‘Under/Over’ by Carol Jones is romance and plays with the classic boy next door theme, while ‘Blowhole’ by Sally Odgers is romance with a good dollop of adventure. Sally likes They Found a Cave by Nan Chauncy, The Goodbye Island by John Gunn and Euloowirree Walkabout by John Kiddell. Carol Jones can't go past Romeo and Juliet for romance, claiming it contains the essence of the genre – lovers being kept apart. She also recommends the marvellous modern fairytale, Eucalyptus, which I, too, loved. Romance and humour abound in David Rish's ‘The Leather Jacket’.

Meredith Costain offers adventure with a capital T in ‘The Thrill-Seekers Club’ where three daring young protagonists undertake a search for thrills that leads them deeper into adventure than they ever meant to go, and hinges cleverly on a game. Her own tastes as a reader of thrillers runs to crime fiction and she recommends Ruth Rendell's novels which allow a reader to get inside criminals’ heads; also books by Janet Evanovich about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, though she points out that these could almost be classed as thrillers, despite often being regarded as crime or mystery novels.

Both Bill Condon's ‘The Cost of Air’ and Phillip Gwynne's ‘Humble Pie’ provide a hair-raising look at revenge.

In ‘Trust Me!’, Deborah Abela offers a crime story through the eyes of a quirky, personable innocent bystander and for those who decide they would like to try more crime fiction, she recommends Barry Gifford's Wild at Heart. It made such a big impression that it inspired her first novel.

A legal background gives Kerry Greenwood's crime fiction a fierce authority, but in the chilling ‘Heat’ she is paying homage to the sort of horror/science fiction that looks at the consequences of scientific advances. Citing her own favourite in this genre, she recommends The Sound of Thunder, which involves a man going back in time to the Jurassic period and straying off an imposed path just enough to crush a butterfly. When he comes back his world has totally changed because he killed the butterfly.

‘The Knock-Down Girl’ by Jim Schembri uses the classic situation of one life impacting on another by chance, to offer a thriller story with a tinge of whodunit. The first person narration gives the story a pacy, modern feel. Jim admits that his all-time favourite thriller is The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain, though he also likes Alistair Maclean and Hammond Innes.

Justin D'Ath's ‘Wild Africa’ is an adventure, but with an SF twist that gives the story a nice originality. The characters are well drawn, too, which is often not the case in adventure stories. Anyone with a hunger for adventure might also try John Marsden's Tomorrow, When the War Began series or some of Robin Klein's books.

Robert Hood's ‘Abandoned’ begins with a reluctant clean-out and a visit to the tip, and ends in the same place, with a murder mystery in between. Rob categorises his chosen genre as supernatural crime and recommends anyone wanting to try more of the genre to read the supernatural noir thriller Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. This was the inspiration for the chilling film Angel Heart. He also recommends horror greats Clive Barker, Peter Straub, and of course, Stephen King, for those who have had their appetite for darkness and fear whetted by this collection.

In ‘Striking Fear’ by Sean McMullen we have the story of boy meets bully, with a threading through of science that tips its hat to classic science fiction. A reader liking this story might like to try some Heinlein. My personal favourites are The Door into Summer or the story that became the classic SF movie BladerunnerDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Sean recommends William Tenn's short story ‘Time in Advance’ where people can serve a sentence for murder before committing the murder. I recommend The Midwich Cuckoos.

Keith Taylor's ‘The Firedrake’ is fantasy complete with the traditional magical creature. Anyone enjoying it will probably already have read Harry Potter and might like to try a brilliant new series out of the UK called Mortal Engines, in which cities move back and forwards on wheels across a ravished land. My own absolute favourite fantasy in recent times is Phillip Pullman's incredible His Dark Materials trilogy, which begins with Northern Lights. A reader who has developed a taste for fantasy might also like to try any in the Quentaris series of books, to which many Australian authors have contributed. Jenny Blackford also offers mythic fantasy, after giving an old legend a good shake.

Michael Pryor's ‘Backup’ offers a good example of the science fiction/fantasy hybrid, with a savage sting in the tail but a pun that prevents the story being too tragic. Aside from looking up more of the author's work, a reader enjoying the jab of humour in this story might try Terry Pratchett, though he is more satire than SF. Anyone with a yen for good science fiction can't go past Victor Kelleher's Taronga or Master of the Grove, not to mention the incredible Beyond the Labyrinth and Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein and Deucalion by Brian Caswell. Or if it is short stories you hanker for, try Brian Caswell's beautifully written collection A Cage of Butterflies or, as Michael suggests, treat yourself to the dark and uneasy pleasure of Margo Lanagan's shatteringly beautiful ‘Singing My Sister Down’.

Despite this seemingly exhaustive list, I have mentioned but a handful of the contributions that make up this collection. Surprise is an integral element of genre and I therefore don't wish to give everything away. Within these pages you will find more mystery, more romance, more fantasy and humour and adventure and science fiction than I could possibly cover in these few short pages.

Enjoy your introduction to genre, and to the various authors in this collection, and use it as the starting point either to pursue further works by the authors or to seek out more of the genre you enjoy.

Trust me, genre is an addictive pleasure …

Isobelle Carmody

Apollo Bay, January 2008

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