Review: The Never-Never Land, edited by Mitchell Ackhurst, Phillip Berrie and Ian McHugh


Australia has it own mythologies. Some of them were here long before Europeans arrived; some of them are yet to come. Steam-powered bushrangers. Restless penal colonies. Robotic mining operations. Fairy colonies in the gum trees and old ghosts in the laneways. Drought and fire and flood and new life struggling to emerge from the dust. These are the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we want to hide from.

Thirty new stories from some of Australia’s best-known speculative fiction writers and some of its newest.

Published by CSFG Publishing.

A copy of this anthology was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Never-Never Land is a new anthology published by CFSG (The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild) Publishing, and it is edited by Mitchell Akhurst, Phillip Berrie and Ian McHugh.

The aims of the anthology are to present “stories with Australian settings or characters or themes or flavours, or that draw on Australian histories, experiences and traditions, immigrant or Indigenous” (quote taken from the introduction by the editors).

The anthology includes thirty stories, which include a wide variety of genres and subjects, and which range from being set in colonial Australia to potential future Australias. As a result of this wide variety, readers will no doubt find that some stories speak more to them more than others. All of them, however, succeed in the editors’ aims of being “Australian” stories, and all are well-written and engaging in their own right.

Several stories stood out for me in particular:

Kimberley Gaal’s The Nexus Tree is probably my favourite story in the anthology. Plot-wise, it’s a deceptively simply story of a man, wanting to protect his new trailer from leaves falling from a tree, who seeks to kill and remove the tree, and finds that the tree was more than he thought. The Australian voice is this is superb, and Gaal in particular nails a very larrikin-Aussie voice for Bert, while also writing a fascinating piece of imagined folklore. This is the first story I’ve read of Gaal’s, and I’ll be seeking out more from her.

Helen Stubbs’ Hard  is an almost fairytale-esque piece of fantasy, and is utterly enchanting. Something about this story reminds me of the kinds of fairytale-inspired work written by Catherynne M. Valente. I absolutely adored this story.

Shauna O’Meara’s To Look Upon a Dream Tiger centres around a photographer’s search for the extinct thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). This is a haunting, almost dreamlike story, and is utterly beautiful and heartbreaking, all at once.

Suzanne J. Willis’ Memory Lane explores the laneways of Melbourne, and the young girls who begin to vanish from them. This is another story which feels dreamlike, and is utterly haunting. Some of the imagery from this one is going to stick with me for a long time, I think. I believe this is the first story from Willis that I’ve read, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more.

Darren Goossens’s Ghost Versions is an another haunting story (and you can probably start seeing some of my own biases and tastes coming out in the stories which stood out to me by now!), of a man left alone when his wife and son choose to leave him. Skilfully written and heartbreaking.

Rivka Rafael’s Beyond the Factory Wall takes place in steampunk-influenced colonial Australia. This is a powerful story about women and the walls which hold them.

Several more stories deserve mentions for the spot-on Australian voice they capture, notably Charlotte Nash’s The Seven-forty from Paraburdoo, Donna Maree Hanson’s She’ll Be Right, Dave Coleman’s The Spectacularly Lucky Country (which earned a giggle from me at Tina Swineheart), Michael Kraaz’s The Inventor of Ironclad Creek and Edwina Harvey and Simon Petrie’s Trike Race (which is almost worth reading just for the racing names alone).

Many stories also drew well on both the Australian connection to the land, as well as the potential horrors of the wide-open spaces of Australia, and the things that could lurk below the ground, notably Laura E Goodin’s Jimmy’s Boys, and Jacob Edwards’s Rainbows of the Drought. 

The cover art by Shauna O’Meara also deserves a nod. It’s striking and holds just a hint of the creepy possibilities that could be hiding beneath the landscape, which sums up many of the stories in the anthology well.

My one real criticism is the lack of Indigenous voices in the collection. It’s difficult to tell if any of the authors I’m not familiar with are Indigenous, and it’s possible that some of them are, but it feels like something which could have been emphasised in the creation of such an anthology. It is pleasing that there aren’t noticeably any non-Indigenous authors appropriating Indigenous stories outright. It would be a nice thing to see a companion to this kind of anthology which focuses entirely on Indigenous writers (and if such a thing exists, and I simply haven’t seen it, please feel very free to point me in its direction).

Overall, this is a complex and varied anthology which, I feel, very much accomplishes what the editors set out to achieve. There are some excellent stories by well-known Australian authors, as well as some just as good offerings from emerging writers, and many writers new to me who I will now be looking for more work from.

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