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Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies: The Essential Lucy Sussex
Lucy Sussex
Ticonderoga Publications, 514 pages

Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies: The Essential Lucy Sussex
Lucy Sussex
Lucy Sussex was born in New Zealand in 1957. She has degrees in English and Librarianship from Monash University, and is a freelance researcher, editor and writer. She has published widely, writing anything from literary criticism to horror and detective stories. In addition she is a literary archaeologist, rediscovering and republishing the nineteenth-century Australian crime writers Mary Fortune and Ellen Davitt. Her short story, "My Lady Tongue" won a Ditmar (Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award) in 1988. In 1994 she was a judge for the international Tiptree award, which honours speculative fiction exploring notions of gender. Her first adult novel, The Scarlet Rider, is about biography, Victorian detective fiction, voodoo and a ghost.

Lucy Sussex Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Lucy Sussex is one of the best writers of fantasy and science fiction to emerge from Australia over the last 25 years or so, and one of the least well known outside that country. She has a respectable shelf full of Australian Awards, but has been largely ignored by the genre's international awards. She does not, to the best of my knowledge, have a regular publisher outside Australia. This substantial volume, which collects some 25 of her best stories (along with an enthusiastic introduction from Delia Sherman which repeats the point I've just been making: I didn't know she'd written so much, and I've never previously come across most of the stories gathered here), is clearly intended to correct that situation. Whether it will do so is down to the usual extraneous factors: how widely distributed the book will be outside her native Australia; how many people will pick up a collection by an author they should have heard of, but very possibly haven't. But I am confident that those who do pick up the book and read it will be won over.

Which is not to say that this is a perfect introduction to the work of Lucy Sussex. She is a varied writer who moves freely across the fantastic (though I am inclined to think that, with one exception that I'll come back to later, she is less good at horror than at science fiction or fantasy). But the stories have been arranged thematically, so you might, for instance, find yourself reading three or four stories about dolls one after the other even though they originated at different points in her career. This has the unfortunate effect of making it seem as though she is ploughing a very narrow furrow; the true variety of her work is somehow disguised as a result.

Of course, there are ideas and approaches to which she returns constantly, as there are with any writer. She is, for instance, a literary historian and several of these stories call on some aspect, or more often some character, from science fiction's past. The best of these is perhaps "A Tour Guide in Utopia" in which a 19th century author visits modern Australia. The contemporary woman who meets the author happens to be a literary scholar (very similar to Sussex herself) who is aware of the one utopian story the author wrote. What follows is written with a sly wit that is typical of Sussex's best work: our modern scholar takes the author on a tour of the city, but while our contemporary sees it as dystopian, the visitor from the past sees the same things as utopian.

There's a similar awareness of different ways of seeing the world in "Kay & Phil," in which Phil Dick, on the verge of writing The Man in the High Castle is visited by Katherine Burdekin. The two step into a scene from Dick's novel, and then into a scene from Burdekin's Swastika Night, the contrasting views of the consequences of an axis victory in World War Two are telling, though I don't think the real-world consequence of this visitation is quite strong enough to make this as effective a story as it might have been. Though it is, in truth, stronger than "Duchess," in which Mad Madge, the extraordinary Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, author of one of the earliest and most idiosyncratic of all science fiction novels, The Blazing World (1666), is reborn in a modern day fashion journalist. Mad Madge is an attractive character, but this is more an engaging scenario than a satisfying story.

Sussex's engagement with the genre's past tends to be better when she is picking up on ideas rather than characters. "My Lady Tongue," one of the two or three best stories in this collection, for instance, is a direct response to those feminist science fictions, from Charlotte Perkin Gilman's Herland to the works of Sheri Tepper, which present an isolated world of women. Raffy comes from just such a city of women, but an accident while on an expedition outside the city leaves her in the care of a man. The encounter is troubled and troubling, at times dangerous and always rather messy, and it solves nothing, but the message is that an engagement with the real demands this messiness.

"My Lady Tongue" also introduces a theme that is even more pervasive than the past: feminism. Which is not to say that this is something she writes about directly, or at least not often; rather, it is the air that all these stories breathe. Yet there is nothing doctrinaire in her writing, the messiness of the encounter between the sexes in "My Lady Tongue" pervades the collection. There are no neat solutions here, but instead an embrace of the quotidian, a sense that muddling a way towards compromise is often the best way forward. In the collection's opening story, "Merlusine," a scholar tracing the roots of an extraordinary traditional song across the American south finds echoes of what may have been a real devil woman, but these echoes are found in the everyday of family life. There are no easy conclusions.

Our glimpses of the past in "Merlusine" are of a world as gritty and as hard as our present, which is a common feature in her fantasies, which form the bulk of this collection. She is too much of an historian to allow herself the whimsy or the glamour of the past, except in the steampunkish "Mist & Murder" which feels somewhat out of place in this collection. More representative is "The Queen of Erewhon," which seems to be presenting a familiar fantasy scenario, a pseudo-medieval world of great families and poor peasants, but which gradually builds into a far grittier and more challenging work, with the viewpoint character representing our modern perspective steadily forced to rethink what he sees of the world. In a similar vein, the fantastic that intrudes into her stories is never light and comforting, but rather springs from the hardship and grind of a reality as tough as, if not tougher than, our own. The best example of this is "Sagittaire" which tells of a naïve young UN Peacekeeper on a mission in Madagascar who slowly finds himself coming face to face with the local magic. It is a learning experience, Sussex's characters generally start out encumbered with expectations which they have to shed as the story progresses.

This is what makes the best of her horror stories, "La Sentinelle," work. Our protagonist is a rather cocky young art expert who finds herself assessing the contents of a large house on the death of the eccentric collector who had stuffed it full of his finds. But the course of the story forces a succession of reassessments upon her, as she changes her mind about the old woman who has inherited the house, her boss who has secrets of his own, the extraordinary doll that may come to life and that may be a threat or a savior, and the reality of the past from which the doll emerged. This past is only glancingly mentioned in this story, but it is ever present throughout the collection, from the science fiction of "Absolute Uncertainty" with time travelling students observing the life and work of Werner Heisenberg, to the fantasy of "Albert & Victoria/Slow Dreams" with a New Zealand glacier slowly giving up its secrets. Though, as often as not, it is the recent past that does most to shape these stories, as in "God and Her Black Sense of Humour" in which a celebrity journalist nearly reveals the secrets of a pair of 60s groupies.

From Heisenberg to Frank Zappa, by way of Philip K. Dick and Margaret Cavendish: that's actually a pretty good summation of the trajectory of these stories. The settings are equally varied, from the afterlife as an airport terminal to glimpses of a terrible future on an Australian beach. There is a richness in the imagination at work here that really deserves to be far better known and recognized, and we can only hope that this superb collection will do the job.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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