Sylvia Kelso lives in North Queensland. She writes fantasy and SF set in analogue or alternate Australian settings. She has published 8 fantasy novels, including Amberlight and The Moving Water, which were finalists for best fantasy novel in the Australian Aurealis genre fiction awards. Her short stories appear in Australia and the US, including anthologies from DAW and 12th Planet Press. Her novella “Spring in Geneva,” a riff on Frankenstein, came out in 2013 with Aqueduct Press, followed by two short stories in anthologies, “The Honour of the Ferrocarril” and “The Price of Kush.”
1. Your more recent publications include the novella Spring in Geneva, published as part of the fabulous Conversation Pieces from Aqueduct Press. You describe this as your ‘riff on Frankenstein”: what prompted you to want to re-engage with this key text in the SF canon?
A re-engagement with Frankenstein was actually built into the cfs for “Geneva”: BookView Cafe’s first Shadow Conspiracy anthology posited that the Frankenstein experiment really happened: it was master-minded by Byron and Shelley as Evil Overlords wanting to exploit the poor “automatons.”
Though most other stories then followed the “automatons” abroad, I had lectured on Frankenstein and knew both book and background quite well. So my story began as something about Shelley herself, then a collision between the Monster, Mary, and a stiff-and-starchy Swiss banker’s son, who would be delightfully appalled by the mayhem the cfs envisaged. My novum was an image of the Monster in a Geneva park, trying to eat the hyacinths.
This was meant to terrify the banker-narrator, Anton, but he turned out an SF geek, too curious to be scared. Then Mary herself appeared, telling how she destroyed the first Infernal Device and rescued the Monster, and we left the original, since said Monster was already composed and articulate, and had assumed the significant name of William. (Name of Mary’s real father and first son.) But the period and the antho then pulled Geneva towards The Prisoner of Zenda, with lots of swash-and-buckle, sword-fights – or at least sword-brawls – and much stifled adoration as Anton fell Rudolf Rassendyll style for Mary Shelley – though no red rose once a year at the end, thank Heavens. Then I managed a brief homage to Nikolai Tesla, as you do, in these days of steampunk. I also hurt my ribs slipping in straight-faced lines like “his nether limbs,” and, “By Heavens, I will crush you all!”
Overall, perhaps I wanted, she said, very straight-faced, to lighten Frankenstein up a bit.
I did make one conscious re-engagement. In the original, the Monster laments over Frankenstein’s corpse with mingled hate and grief. In “Geneva,” just before the anti-conspirators’ climactic action, Mary relates her own lifestory, and confesses to feeling toward Godwin much as William-the-Monster might toward Byron. Feminists have done much work on Frankenstein as a mother’s novel, but I’ve always thought that putting the bio by the novel makes an equally clear argument for calling it a father-book. Especially given the way Godwin actually treated his daughter.
2. One of your most original and well received works is the series beginning with Amberlight, which takes a number of feminist sf tropes and turns them on their head. What were you trying to do with this series?
About the only conscious aim I had for Amberlight was to see how long I could walk a tight-rope between fantasy and SF: genre distinctions were much on my mind at that point in my PhD, and I used to regard Amberlight as “fieldwork,” as Octavia Butler called the afflictions of one of her heroines.
When the novel did get published there was wonderful disagreement on its correct pigeonhole. One reviewer called it political fantasy, one said feminist SF, one claimed it wasn’t feminist enough, and it founded an entire sub-genre of “pouty slave-boy” on the Feminist SF Wiki. So that project I count a success.
The series’ ongoing creative project, however, was to understand/discover the nature of the qherrique, the novum the creative gang threw at me in the first paragraph. Animal, vegetable, mineral? Creature, object, animate, inanimate, sentient, insentient? It took three novels to get past its own answer to such questions: “Your words do not work, do not work, do not work…”
Post-draft, though, I realised Amberlight was also about gender politics: in fact, it rewrote Nelson S. Bond’s 1930s story, “The Priestess Who Rebelled,” where doing so at the behest of a handsome male stranger toppled a matriarchy. Given my position in feminism, the re-write, not surprisingly, didn’t build a “good” matriarchy, but illustrated power’s corruptive capacity for either gender.
So my unsurprisingly (to me) bad matriarchy collapsed at the end of Amberlight. Riversend and Source moved to the more Utopian project of constructing a community with gender equity. They began in what Raymond Williams called the hardest part of such imagining: not a complete Utopian There, but showing how to get There from Here. That involved both internal and external politics for such a small, fragile community, and dealing with the joker in the pack: the return of the qherrique, but in a very different relationship.
The fourth book, Dragonfly, took some 4 or 5 years to incubate. It’s a literal daughter-of book, dealing with the next generation of characters and of problems with the qherrique and the world that succeeded Amberlight. It’s also an almost orthodox heterosexual lovestory – except for two sidewinding critical facts: the age of the two lovers, and the presence of the qherrique. I hope to have it out somewhere by the end of this year.
3. What projects are you working on next? Are you continuing to focus on your creative work, or do you still spend equal time on SF/fantasy criticism?
Currently I have nothing creative under way, but the sequel to “Spring in Geneva” is making increasingly loud rumbles at the stove-back. So far I have the title: a significant phrase from “Geneva,” “The Waters of the Amazon,” and an opening note – “Geneva’s” form is epistolary overall – from Anton to his friend in Calais, demanding Pierre hold any ship headed for the West Indies – and find him a Portuguese grammar.
What comes after that, I have no idea, beyond the backstory: Mary and her Williams probably fled to South America, unspecified where. Anton promised that if she ever needed him, wherever she or he was – were? He would come. Obviously…
As for criticism/theory, in recent years I have published a non-fiction collection from Aqueduct, Three Observations and a Dialogue: Round and About SF, edited a special issue of the journal Paradoxa on Ursula K. Le Guin, and the fourth Wiscon Chronicles as well as continuing to present papers on a number of fantasy works, including Wind Follower, a rare example of African American women’s fantasy by Carole McDonnell, and some papers/articles on religion and sense of place in modern fantasy. I’ve always done fiction and criticism, sometimes literally, as with Amberlight, in tandem. At present I’m revising a paper on Lois Bujold’s Sharing Knife (fantasy) series for a one-day conference on her work in Cambridge, UK. It’s been a trial, since the series is new critical ground for me, and almost every paragraph offers the seed of an entire section, or even a paper in itself.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
With embarrassment I admit, about the only current Australian author I read is Kerry Greenwood. But I’ve followed her Phryne Fisher series with interest for the way it researches the Australian past, and also for its determination to retell that past with strong shadings of Difference.
Admittedly, among the Chinese, Russian, Lithuanian, and other variations on whitebread Anglo-Saxo stock, I have yet to find any indigenous Australians, and there’s an increasing tendency for Phoebe to appear a Lady Bountiful rather than a real activist like her sister. But otherwise I find the series is pretty good.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
Changes over the last decade have certainly made me spend a lot more time on the Web, or in writing for promotion – not that I ever got much in the way of promotion from traditional publishers. Now that much of my work is appearing, either in first or reprint form as ebooks, and there are the options of self-publishing without vanity via Smashwords and Kindle, I do feel a certain freedom from concern that things will find a place.
One recent example: after the short version of “Spring in Geneva” missed the original BVC anthos, and I had expanded to the novella length, which meant a good deal more work invested, I approached both an Australian publisher and Aqueduct with the mental proviso: OK, give these people a go, but let them know that it’s only a step on the road to Smashwords… There was considerably less angst about the process than any other submission I’ve made.
What am I likely to be publishing, writing OR reading in 5 years time? I have no idea. If the planet survives in its current state, I will be most interested to find out!
This interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’ll be blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at:
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