The Big Idea: Felicity Banks
Posted on October 12, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 10 Comments
Writing alternate history is fun and interesting, but here’s another interesting thing: Every day, we’re making a history too. What happens when the latter crashes into the former? Author Felicity Banks has some thoughts on that and how it affects her new novel The Antipodean Queen.
Every time there’s a crocodile attack in Australia’s Northern Territory, tourist rates go up.
That should probably make me fear for humanity, but it just makes me smile. We Australians often laugh at over-the-top depictions of our deadly animals and even deadlier landscapes. I’m a city girl myself, so I know how silly it all is.
Okay, so there was that one time my grandma killed a snake. And the kangaroos hopping around the major roads at night are a bit of a hazard. Sure, there’s that one playground I always check for brown snakes these days. The annual bushfires aren’t great, either. Yes, my backyard has a little bit of a red-back spider breeding program. And it’s a teensy bit creepy that huntsman spiders are so common that the ones living inside have a shared nickname (Fred).
In Australia, nature is constantly reminding us that humans aren’t as impressive as we like to think―and we love it.
I’m quite patriotic, for an Australian. Ever since Europeans invaded, Australian culture has been a curious mixture of British, American, and other cultures. Our manners are more straightforward, and our suspicion of authority runs deep. Most Australians are uneasy with national pride, and not just because it’s a favourite tool of racists. Sometimes we do awful things to try to keep ourselves safe from a perceived threat―and we know it.
A love for one’s country is a curious and complicated thing, and the more history I learn the more complicated it gets. How can I respect the unique prehistory of Australia when my university sprawls cheerfully over a sacred site? How can I be proud of my country when the white middle-class life I know was built on attempted genocide? How can I enjoy Australia’s excellent lamb when I know that flocks of imported sheep permanently devastated vast areas of once-productive land?
These are the questions that flutter around the edges of my writing, dipping into a half-sentence here or there as I write a story that looks like it’s all fun and fantasy.
Here’s the thing: I write with hope, and magic, and optimism. Sometimes it’s not easy, and sometimes it feels closer to outright lies than fiction. But if I can write something better than real life, I believe the power of my imagination can haul that version of Australia closer to reality. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t go on.
I had my Big Idea of writing Australian alternate history back in 2011, not knowing then that important parts of my history are only now coming to light. As I began to read more deeply about Australia’s colonial era―smiling sometimes, and crying often―I found a few things to be proud of. Part of Australia granted the right for women to vote in state elections in 1861. Back in 2011 I had a vague notion that the second book of the trilogy would be something to do with women’s suffrage. The question was how to make it relevant to modern readers. Surely any character who wanted to silence the political voice of half the population could only come across as cartoonishly evil.
Speaking of cartoonishly evil. . .
Right now, in Australia, our government is risking the safety of thousands of vulnerable LGBTIQ people by making the entire population take an expensive and non-binding postal plebiscite on gay marriage, even though it’s already well established that the majority of Australians support equal rights. I’m bisexual but married to a man, and cushioned by the appearance of heterosexuality. In recent weeks even I have felt the sting of half-heard conversations, advertisements that would usually be classified as hate speech, and an email telling me that as a Christian I should vote ‘No’.
So here I am writing a fantastical version of history while being haunted by the uncomfortable knowledge that real-world history is still being written. I’m heartbroken over the real mistakes of both the past and the present, but I choose to believe that my country can grow to better deserve the love I give it.
Oh, and there’s a crocodile in the book too.
The Antipodean Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.
“Oh, and there’s a crocodile in the book too.”
Only one? It had better be a nice big Saltie, at least!
OF COURSE. Also magical. And yes, there’s more than one.
If it is magical then they could all be the same crocodile, and seeing them all in the same swamp at the same time proves nothing.
They appear at different times, but it’s definitely not the same magic crocodile (I’d explain, but spoilers).
A poll here in Ireland changed our constitution to prevent any challenge to same-sex marriage. It was passed by a large majority, I’m happy to say, making us the world’s first country to introduce gay marriage by popular vote. And Ireland was one of the world’s most socially conservative countries only a few decades ago.
I remember when you guys rainbowified. Good on you for leading the way.
The ‘yes’ campaign’s slogan here is ‘Let’s get it done’ which appeals to both passionate yes voters and those who are just sick of all the political drama. It seems fairly clear that a postal plebiscite is designed to leave out as many young voters as possible, but it should still be a clear ‘yes’ overall. Of course, after Brexit and Trump the obvious right choice isn’t always as safe as it looks. Ugh.
Living in Australia, we are surrounded by and living with nature to a degree that is unknown in a lot of other countries.Where I live, in Brisbane, we have cockatoos, rosella’s, and lorikeets calling on our bird feeder, bearded dragons in our garden, kangaroos and wallabies in the street occasionally, opossums making strange noises outside our front door at night, bats crapping on our drive, and Redback spiders in our garden furniture.We also probably have snakes, although I have only ever seen one crossing the road at a distance.All these creatures live happily alongside humans and their infrastructure- it’s great to see.
I can see how dipping into history and refashioning it to suit your story could turn into a moral tightrope. I nodded, too, at your reflections on the Australian psyche. There are lots of uncomfortable truths staring us Aussies in the face right now.
Nice to see Aussies here. *waving from Canberra*
I’m off to Goulburn Waterworks tomorrow (Saturday) for their gorgeous annual Steampunk & Victoriana Fair. I can’t wear a corset at the moment so I’ll be a steampunk fairy with full-length purple tutu and a steampunk’d tiara. If you’re ever near Goulburn in October, you should definitely check it out.
*waves from Brisbane*
Oooh, I love steampunk! Have a ball!
I hear you on our current plebiscite. It is a vile, expensive permission for bigots to smear LGBTQI people and their families. I am reasonably sure that was the intention of part of our government, while another part just wanted an excuse to delay the inevitable or play to bigots in their base. They are all disgusting for firing up a homophobic debate for political gain. (Aussies – please send your yes votes. Not voting leads to Trumps and Brexits – another hope of this terrible government and it’s optional survey, I suspect.)
Hi Mike M! I see the same critters on the western side of the city. We had rainbow lorikeets in the backyard today. We also see wonderful wildlife like flying foxes, scrub turkeys, wild sulfur crested cockatoos and stone curlews. We get an impressive range of water birds and aquatic creatures in a local waterway. Also, thanks for the reminder about redbacks. I have a few suspicious webs outside my garage that I really must check. However, you forgot about the bull sharks in the river. I hear they have been sighted up past the Uni.
For Americans, I know it sounds like we are surrounded by scary things, but we just grow up knowiing the precautions. I wouldn’t swim in the Brisbane River (the bull sharks are a slight worry, but that water looks muddy and nasty!). We know not to touch spiders/little blue ringed octopi, any snake ever etc. We learn what a redback web looks like. (Redbacks, the Aussie black widow relative, stay in their webs, so they are really only a problem if your poke the web or if rarely one sets out to find a new home.) Growing up in Toowoomba, I knew to shake out shoes in funnelweb spider mating seasons (they wander around, are big, venomous and aggressive – my Mum shook one out of a pile of washing once, so we were taught to be careful). However, we actually rarely see most of the scary stuff regularly (except redbacks – those suckers are everywhere in my area). Most of the scary things are more afraid of you, than you are of them. (Not crocs, bull sharks or funnelwebs – stay away from them!)
The thing is, it’s like teaching the kids not to approach an angry looking dog. It’s something you will see rarely, but want to know how to handle. Come visit Down Under and don’t worry about the wildlife too much. You’re more likely to get a nasty sunburn than to see something venomous outside a zoo, at least in most urban areas. In the ocean, rip tides will be more concerning than sharks in most places. Just swim between the flags! If anything, I would be way more worried about mass shootings if I lived in the US. That freaks me out! However I am sure you would tell me not to worry much about it. It’s the dangers you live with every day that seem less worrisome.