Australian 20th-century fantasy can be divided into two broad categories: stories of Lost Races and worlds, and Heroic Fantasy, with additional contributions from such fields as Children's Fantasy and Tall Tales.
While many Australian lost-race tales of the 19th and early 20th centuries were moderately successful, they generally contained little that was original. Even when original works did begin to appear in the 20th century, Australia lacked a sufficiently large and sympathetic publishing industry to do them justice. "The Social Code" (1909 The Lone Hand), a short romance by Erle Cox (1873-1950), described a long-distance affair between a Martian girl and an astronomer from Earth; appearing three years before Edgar Rice Burroughs's first Barsoom novel, and with a similar feel, this might have achieved the same worldwide success had it been launched in a publishing industry as vital as that of the USA. Cox later wrote an early classic of Australian sf, Out of the Silence (1919 The Argus; 1925; rev 1947), but he had to publish the first book edition himself.
Australian children's fantasy had no such problems at this time, although it integrated local settings and fauna so heavily that it cannot be described as classic fantasy. Two of the best-known examples, Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding (1918) and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) by May Gibbs (1877-1969) were published just before Out of the Silence, but they have more in common with Beatrix Potter than T H White. Throughout the interbellum years the more specifically adult lost-race fantasy adventure remained dominant in Australia, eventually fading from the scene by the 1960s.
Phil Collas (real name Felix Edward Collas; 1907-1989) bypassed the problem of the local market, publishing The Inner Domain (1935 Amazing; 1989 chap) in the USA. The setting is initially local, featuring contemporary explorers in central Australia who are teleported into an Aboriginal civilization many miles underground. "The Reign of the Reptiles" (1935 Wonder Stories) by the Sydney teenager Allan Connell (1916- ) was another early US publication by an Australian. Here explorers go back by time machine to when intelligent reptiles succoured an advanced level of civilization.
Five years after these stories Australia was at war, and subject to shipping restrictions. Government import bans included overseas magazines, so sales of locally written fiction boomed. Currawong Publishing accepted a three-part series of novellas written by Connell in the mid-1930s, the Serpent Land sequence – Lords of Serpent Land (1945 chap), Prisoners in Serpent Land (1945 chap), whose cover reads "Prisoners of Serpent Land", and Warriors of Serpent Land (1945 chap). These were adventure fantasies set in an unexplored part of South America. While there was nothing very original about them, this was quite reasonable escapism for older teenagers.
Following WWII the great genre artist Stanley Pitt and the writer Frank Ashley invented a Tarzan-style character named Yarmak, who featured in what was probably the country's first fantasy Comic series. Soon after, the sf author Eric North (real name Charles Bernard Cronin; 1884-1968) had The Ant Men (1955 US) published in the USA; as with Connell's first story, explorers are sent back in time to a civilization in Central Australia where, in this case, a frog-monarch presides over giant ants. Although this was republished several times, the Australian lost-race subgenre was in decline, and the success was not repeated.
The 1970s were the great watershed for all of Australian fantasy's other strands. Mainstream author Peter Carey brought the Tall Tale to a highpoint, with his part-fantasy collections winning mainstream Awards. Patricia Wrightson's Australian-based fantasies for young readers won awards and inspired other authors to follow her lead. Even more significantly, from the mid-1970s Australian Heroic Fantasy finally appeared in a clearly recognizable form. In 1974, cartoonist Roger Fletcher began the series Orn, about a warrior who rode an eagle, and in June 1976 this became Torkan (Sunday Telegraph); Torkan, very much in the Conan mould, proved popular and ran for years. In 1979 the local magazine Crux began publishing Jay Hoffman's satirical Conan-in-space comic strip Horg, which was nominated for Australia's sf/fantasy genre Award, the Ditmar, in 1981. Better described as a fictional historical textbook than as a novel, Australian Gnomes (1979) by Robert Ingpen (1936- ), won the Ditmar in 1980.
In 1975 Keith Taylor's first story, "Fugitives in Winter" as by Dennis More, appeared in Fantastic Stories (> Fantastic). This was the first of four tales set in Dark-Age Britain. Taylor dropped his pseudonym when his story "When Silence Rules" was published in Distant Worlds (anth 1981) ed Paul Collins. This story later won a Ditmar. His "Dennis More" stories were later published by Ace Books as Bard (fixup 1981 US); this novel was nominated for the Ditmar in 1982 and subsequently grew into a five-part series, the third in the series winning a Ditmar in 1987 and thereby becoming the first and so far only heroic fantasy to do so.
Paul Collins (1954- ) – author, publisher and editor – created the first Australian market for heroic fantasy through the various incarnations of his publishing company Void Press. He began his own writing career with heroic fantasy, and his first two stories appeared in the US magazine Weirdbook in 1977. Apart from publishing and editing the landmark Worlds series of anthologies, he was the first to publish heroic-fantasy novels locally – Taylor's second novel, Lances of Nengesdul (1982), and The Tempting of the Witch King (1983) by Russell Blackford (1954- ), both of which were Ditmar nominees. In the early 1980s Australian heroic fantasy was gaining popularity. Of the Ditmar nominations for fantasy and sf during 1981-1990, a quarter of the novels nominated were identifiably fantasy, and a fifth of these nominees subsequently won. Thus Australian genre fans apparently enjoyed local fantasy, even though local commercial publishers still ignored the field. Meanwhile other Australian heroic-fantasy authors were making progress. After winning the 1984 Ditmar for short fiction with "Above Atlas his Shoulders", Andrew Whitmore (1955- ) saw his The Fortress of Eternity (1990 US) published by Avon, and this work gained him another Ditmar nomination. The successful books of Terry Dowling (1947- ) often read as marginal fantasy but are substantially sf (> SFE link below). Dowling has populated his futuristic inland Australia with an exotic people and fauna, playing on the real Australian landscape's striking similarities with the old-time genre image of Mars.
In 1990 Pan Australia published Circle of Light (1990) by the then unknown Martin Middleton (1954- ). This boasted good genre cover art, and the cover blurb sold it unambiguously as heroic fantasy. As fantasy it was not groundbreaking, but its theme and style were of a type already proven successful in the Australian market by overseas authors. Within three years its sales had shattered existing local genre records. A sequel in his Chronicles of the Custodians sequence, Sphere of Influence (1992), soon appeared. Local critics were stunned by his success. The venture showed that Australians would buy local fantasy just as readily as that from overseas. Subsequent epics from Pan Macmillan have enjoyed similar levels of success: they include the Andrakis sequence (1992-1993) by Tony Shillitoe (1955- ) and Zenith (1993) by Dirk Strasser (1959- ).
The Ditmar nominations during 1991-1994, however, showed some reversals for fantasy. In short fiction there were no fantasy nominations, and just 15% of the nominated novels were fantasy (with no winners); this ratio is down on the 1980s, possibly because the fantasy publishing boom of the early 1990s coincided with a spectacular increase in both the quality and the quantity of Australian sf.
Australian fantasy is not confined to books. Strategic Studies Group, a Sydney-based company, has sold over 50,000 copies each of its computer strategy Games Warlords and Warlords 2, both of which have fantasy scenarios. In dollar terms this is the most successful and profitable fantasy venture ever to come out of Australia.
Children's Fantasy experienced a boom in Australia far earlier than its adult counterpart. Wrightson began writing in the mid-1960s, had developed a formidable reputation by the mid-1970s, and has since consolidated her position as one of the top Australian authors in this area. Her Wirrun sequence (1977-1981) has been among her most successful, the first title, The Ice is Coming (1977 US), winning the Children's Book of the Year Award. The Nargun and the Stars (1973) was dramatized for radio and filmed; it, too, won the Children's Book of the Year Award, and a special edition won two Hans Christian Andersen Medals in 1986. Victor Kelleher has written several successful fantasy novels for young readers and won several awards. Master of the Grove (1982 UK) won the Children's Book of the Year Award, and Brother Night (1990 UK) won a Children's Book of the Year Honour Award. Kelleher's fantasy generally has a less Australian flavour than Wrightson's, but it contains powerful moral and social messages.
Isobelle Carmody (1958- ) is one of the newer fantasy authors for the YA readership. Her Obernewtyn Chronicles sequence (1987-1990) is of interest, and her fantasy novel The Gathering (1993) tied as winner of the Children's Book Council Book of the Year Award.
In the 1990s, women finally made it into the ranks of the adult fantasy novelists on a significant scale. Carmody is now aiming her very popular novels at the adult market, even though it is still among the YA readership that most of her audience is concentrated. Bendigo author Sara Douglass (real name Sara Warneke; 1958- ) has published BattleAxe (1995) and Enchanter (1996). In Perth, Shannah Jay (real name Sherry-Anne Jacobs; 1941- ) has now had four fantasy novels published by Pan Macmillan.
Australian fantasy's greatest triumph has been to prove that local genre literature – aside from crime and romance – could make a comfortable profit; locally written sf and horror are in consequence also benefiting. The blockbuster mode of fantasy novel that first appeared in 1990 is now taken for granted, and readers expect that at least a dozen adult fantasy novels will be published in any given year.
The first high-fantasy anthology by Australian authors, «Dreamweavers» (anth 1996) ed Paul Collins, possibly heralds a resurgence in local short fantasy. Australia's first award specifically for fantasy – in the form of a "Best Fantasy" category, instigated 1995, of the Aurealis Awards – resulted in a Best Novel award to Sabriel (1995) by Garth Nix (1963- ); the Best Short Fiction award went to "Harvest Bay" (1995 Eidolon 19) by Karen Attard.
Australian fantasy's final, and so far unattained, frontier is recognition among the big international awards; so far it has failed to achieve the nominations and wins that local sf has brought home over the past decade. Given the strength and potential for growth of Australian fantasy, however, this situation may be rectified soon. [SM/SP]
- The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: Terry Dowling.