Lucy Sussex is one of Australia’s most accomplished writers of science fiction and fantasy, but her work can’t be ascribed to any particular category. Some of her best ghost stories are also investigative pieces of science writing; some of her best science fiction is romantic comedy.
Above all, Lucy Sussex writes with a delicious style, a recognisable voice, unlike anybody else’s. If the ‘SF’ label were dropped from her work, she would probably win many of the mainstream prizes.
It’s not easy to describe the range of A Tour Guide in Utopia, her second collection of short stories. Take the title story, is it science fiction? Perhaps not. A woman from the late 19th century wanders down a street in the late 20th and starts talking to the story-teller, who shows her around a city in modern Australia.
The woman from the past thinks the future is wonderful, then pops back to the past. End of story. But the story is hardly fluff. What if one of us were to pop 100 years into the future? We might be amazed by new technology, but probably wouldn’t begin to grasp the cultural changes.
“Kay and Phil” seems to be a fantasy, but isn’t. Kay, a writer from before World War II, finds herself floating through the wall of a hut in 1962. She finds famous writer Philip K. Dick sitting at his desk writing The Man in the High Castle, his famous novel about an America divided between conquering Nazi and Japanese forces. Kay reminds Phil that she had written something similar some years before, in a novel called Swastika Night. Kay takes both of them on an astral journey into the world of his novel, and then into hers. Sussex uses fantasy to tell us a lot about the creative process.
The collection has only one story about the future, a romp called “Runaways”, and one story that uses a conventional time machine, “The Lottery”. Sussex is more interested in scientific and historical investigation, as can be seen in her prizewinning story “Merlusine”, in which the main character discovers that “Merlusine”, one of her favourite songs, is based on an actual person, who may or may not have had similar genetic properties to a princess in an old French folk tale. It took me three readings to discover its subtle truths.
In “La Sentinelle”, the longest and most powerful story in the book, the main character is asked to make sense of the contents within the mansion of a dead collector.
Everything is in chaos, including the life of the collector’s niece, who guards the treasures. Left in the house overnight, the main characters are terrified by a doll that seems to move. Simultaneously, Sussex tells the story of a patient of Sigmund Freud. In the end, these two strands are brought together. This is not a ghost story, although one scene is as frightening as anything in any of the great ghost stories. It is not quite a fantasy. It is, as with all Sussex’s stories, about people discovering important truths about themselves.
A Tour Guide in Utopia is among the most stimulating and entertaining Australian books of 2005.