A Golem Story: here’s mud in your eye

a golem story theatre poster

A Golem Story is playing at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne’s Southbank district, and what a grand theatre it is. The Malthouse is a reconditioned industrial building, dating to 1892, with a sensitive touch given to that history. So lots of exposed beams and raw brick and a mezzanine level giving access to one of the theatres. And a long bar (as you’d expect from a former brewery), and a separate coffee counter with scrumptious desserts. And a separate restaurant, which I haven’t sampled. There’s even a typically Melbourne laneway area for those who want to take the air, or pollute it with their noxious nicotine habit. There’s even a wee bookshop with titles theatrical and dramatic.

Golem was staged in one of the downstairs theatres — there are three in total — and the set was spectacular. With seats ranged around three sides of the central stage, the rear wall of slatted timber was fronted by a grid sporting candles. The central stage was a rough timber floor which could be lifted away to reveal a mud hole — just what you need for making a golem.

The play is set, for the most part, inside a synagogue in Prague where the authorities are responding to the disappearance of some children by threatening a purge of the scapegoat Jewish ghetto. The opening scene has a young woman prone under a low-hanging candelabrum that is to die for. It gets cranked up and down by a winch at the back of the stage: it clunks most atmospherically and is one of the few physical props used in the play. At times, light beams through the rear wall to make criss-cross patterns on the floor; a spotlight weaves to show the golem’s location but it is left to the audience to fill in the details of the creature, created by the Rabbi to defend his people.

The aforementioned young lady is the centre of the piece; a rather mysterious woman employed as the maid who has undergone a severe trauma at the hands of one of the Rabbi’s former students who has shuffled off his mortal coil. There is magic and intrigue, and lots of discussion about humankind’s right to create life in the shape of itself a la God, and humour from an almost farcical emperor who is more dangerous than his camp demeanour might suggest. And of course there’s the faithful of the synagogue, primarily the driven Rabbi and his diffident, doubting student.

One of the most striking elements of the play is the music: male choir, at times joined by the young woman (the only female actor), and one over-long solo as actors scramble up ladders to light that impressive wall of candles though the lag — at least for those of us who can’t appreciate the drama of the song due to it being sung in, presumably, Yiddish — perhaps isn’t quite justified by the eventual effect.

The story itself is engaging, thanks to the power of the actors and their splendid singing voices, though there’s a wee logic bounce that, well, despite the explanation, kind of sticks in my throat in much the same way as a stone tablet inscribed with the secret name of God sticks in the mouth of a golem: we both find it hard to swallow. I can’t say more about that because it would ruin the attempted twist in the tale, though really, the twist is not that unexpected. Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter to the overall impact of the story.

Golems rule, okay?

It’s the Murray, darling

murray princess docked at murray bridge

Murray Princess docked at Murray Bridge

The Murray-Darling river system is the closest thing Australia’s got to the Mississippi, an inland highway paved with muddy water and boasting more chicanes than an F1 circuit. But she ain’t what she used to be. Not only is the river no longer a conduit for transporting people and supplies, but its very future is on the line. At the moment there’s a bunfight going on as four states who have an interest in that watery flow try to work out how they can all continue to profit without either sinking its dependent communities or totally destroying the imperilled environment they rely on. Fortunately, flooding rains that devastated some regions of those states earlier this year have bought the beancounters an extension by refuelling the river, removing the urgency that years of drought and dwindling water supplies had caused.

Last weekend, I got to take a float on a South Australian stretch of the Murray, churning our way by diesel-driven paddlewheeler — the largest in the southern hemisphere, the company boasts — from Mannum downstream to Murray Bridge, where we had a wander through the historic Round House, then upstream to the vicinity of Walker Flat before heading back down to Mannum.

The PS Murray Princess is operated by the Captain Cook line. It was a very pretty boat, built in 1986, with lots of dark timber interiors in its common areas. Our cabin was just big enough: a wardrobe, small ensuite in which I had to stork-bend to get under the shower head, a single bed on either side of the door that opened directly onto the deck, a heating vent in the bathroom that meant barely any blankets were needed, a wee window to let in some cool winter air. Twenty-four hour coffee and biscuits (Arnotts, a once-Australian icon, a little like the river in its riverboat heyday) and refills of drinking water were available in the lounge.

sunset on the murray

The lounge was a lovely space, two floors linked by spiral staircases in timber and brass, and a floor to ceiling window that showed the paddle doing its thing. When the sunlight was right, little rainbows would appear in the paddle’s spray. The ground floor had an unused bar and lots of tables and chairs; the upstairs mezzanine had a library and games box and more tables.

The bar was a small space at the nose, with the actual bar servicing both it and the adjacent dining room, the largest room on the boat. Its chief features were a timber strip down the centre for dancing and a two-sided breakfast bar.

Meals were safely Australian: various meats and veges, pasta and quiche and cheese platter with one lunch, buffet breakfast. Sensational seafood, including grilled barramundi.

The boat was at perhaps two thirds of its 120 passenger capacity and we were the youngest. The complimentary bus to and from Adelaide could’ve been mistaken for a retirement home outing, a veritable bowling alley of grey hair and bald spots when seen from the rear seats. We were surprised by the demographic but the cruise company had better insight: the entertainer was in his seventies, adept at clarinet and electric organ, spicing up the old-time tunes with a touch of Michael Buble and saxophone as the party lights rotated on the mostly vacant wooden dance floor into the early evening.

tree on the murray river

The river itself was the star attraction, usually showing one steep set of cliffs on one bank, the other flat land most often given over to agriculture but consistently dotted with towns and small outposts of rather fancy holiday shacks. Holiday houseboats were common, moored like mile markers in the reeds along the banks. At night, our boat would simply nudge its way into a berth and tie up to some handy gum trees — what magnificent specimens those river gums were. We went ashore a couple of times for a closer look. One stroll revealed a midden, canoe trees and the ongoing dysfunction the white middle class suffers in dealing with race relations. We walked away before the compulsion to jab the guide in his jaundiced eye became overwhelming.

The cliffs — they become more dramatic the farther upstream you travel, apparently — were vertical in places, with tenacious saplings sprouting along their bases. They were often dotted with bird nest holes, and circling hawks were common company for the duration of the journey. The birdlife was abundant — ducks, egrets, cormorants, pelicans downstream and black swans, a cheeky willy wagtail who might’ve been a fellow passenger, swallows. The birds were coming back, we were told, after the drought had forced them to relocate elsewhere. Many were still over at Lake Eyre enjoying the big wet.

library on the murray princess

We spent much of the voyage with our laptops and souvenir coffee mugs in the lounge or with a glass in the bar, where the prices were very fair indeed ($12 cocktails, $8.50 Coronas, wine about $8 a glass), making occasional dashes outside to photograph something gorgeous sliding by.

We were fortunate to have timed our flights in a window between the air traffic disruption of volcanic ash clouds drifting in from South America; a number of fellow passengers had brought the train across from Perth or Melbourne, praising the comfort and the food but a bit wary of the swaying motion. No such trouble on the Murray: it has a placid surface, though muddy and dotted with leafy detritus from the recent fresh. You can shower in it, but you wouldn’t want to drink it.

Three nights was probably enough time to spend largely constrained to the Princess’s decks and lounges, but it was a leisurely exploration that empowered laptop time and casual conversation and offered a glimpse of Australia’s history and geography. I’m glad I went, but I’m not checking All the Rivers Run out of the video store any time soon. Though I am tempted to jump ship and read Fevre Dream yet again!

  • More pictures.
  • clouds over the murray river

    Patricia Piccinni’s fantastic body of work

    patricia piccinini vespa sculpturepatricia piccinini sculpture

    And I thought Ron Mueck’s sculptures were amazing…

    And fair enough, they are. But Patricia Piccinni’s work, on show at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, blew my socks off. Not only are her sculptures incredibly life-like, right down to the dimples, the hairs in the moles, the subtle blue veins under the skin, but they take us into the future. Strange critters imbued with incredible personality inhabit this vision, a vision largely made in a human laboratory. Cloning and gene splicing are among the issues that Piccinni’s sculptures examine, and most carry more than a hint of melancholy. A purposely spliced pig-like creature carries a litter destined to be spare parts; another creature is made as a breeding ground for hairy-nosed wombats. A young girl plays with over-sized stem cells as though they were blobs of plasticene. Two boys play with a hand-held game machine, but they wear the faces of old men.

    Also in the exhibit are some cool trucks and even cooler mopeds given animalistic life, photography and audio-visual displays.

    But it was the incredible emotion that Piccinni fostered in her fabulous future creatures that elevated this exhibition into the truly remarkable.

    Will we — can we — still love our creations tomorrow?

  • Lisa Hannett also saw the exhibit and describes it with far more eloquence here.
  • Bluegrass Symphony hits the right note, y’all

    bluegrass symphony by lisa hannett

    If you like your spec fic with a Southern flavour — lots of Tabasco, mebbe some grits on the side — then Bluegrass Symphony should hit your literary taste buds. The collection, published by Ticonderoga Publications, is the first from Adelaide’s Lisa Hannett (via Canada — their loss is our gain!) and offers 12 juicy tales set in a faux Southern Gothic setting.

    Hannett, who shared the Aurealis Award for best fantasy short story with Angela Slatter for their co-written ‘February Dragon‘, knows her recipes. There’s just the right amount of fantasy in the dozen shorts here to make a very tasty meal indeed: it all looks very normal but the flavour, it really hits you.

    Bluegrass Symphony an amazingly consistent and accomplished debut, and due out in August. A full review is at ASiF.

    Continuum’s dark fairytale magic

    vampire woman by victoria frances

    Continuum is over, my throat is sore, I’m a little tired: standard convention hangover, then. Kirstyn has a new Chronos award — for Madigan Mine. There was much talk of vampires, fairytales and steampunk. A debate about the pros and cons of immortality…

    In short, it was an excellent con, with long dinners and impromptu panels at the bar, great company, some slivers of inspiration amongst the panels. Catherynne M Valente was an amazingly giving and erudite and witty guest who cut a hell of a rug on the dancefloor. Her comments about reviewing, made during a Writer and the Critic podcast, are worth catching up with.

    Two of the most affecting panels I attended were both, not surprisingly, darkly themed, and I’ll single them out from what was a very strong line-up.

    The first was late on opening night, Friday, and involved the attraction between horror and beauty. Kyla Ward read a superb poem in her inimitable, theatrical fashion; Kirstyn read from her spooky-sexy short story ‘Monsters Among Us’; and Talie Helene lifted the roof with an acapella rendition of a ghost folk song. Discussion was informed and interested and on-topic and reluctant to stop.

    The next morning, Talie and Kyla backed up on a dark poetry panel with Earl Livings and Danny Lovecraft. Kyla blew the room away with an excerpt from ‘The Raven’ and Talie pretty much felled anyone left standing with some truly wrenching World War I poems. Great stuff. And do note that P’rea Press is releasing a collection of Kyla’s poetry later this year!

    In my absence, the last short story I had roaming in the wild found a home — very happy about that! — and Devil Dolls and Duplicates in Australian Horror received a fetching review. Add in a splendid night last night with friends from up north and the good time vibe has definitely lingered…

    We’ve already bought our memberships for next year’s Continuum, which is the natcon and boasts the awesome paring of Kelly Link and Alison Goodman as guests of honour. And then there’s the bid from Canberra for the 2013 natcon (at Anzac weekend) and London’s push for the 2014 Worldcon … Let the good times roll!

    Chronos winners

    (the awards are for Victorian residents)
    Best Long Fiction: Madigan Mine, Kirstyn McDermott (Pan MacMillan Australia)
    Best Short Fiction: ‘Her Gallant Needs’, Paul Haines (Sprawl, Twelfth Planet Press)
    Best Artwork: Australis Imaginarium cover, Shaun Tan (FableCroft Publishing)
    Best Fan Writer: Alexandra Pierce
    Best Fan Written Work: Review: The Secret Feminist Cabal by Helen Merrick, Alexandra Pierce
    Best Fan Artwork: Continuum 6 props, Rachel Holkner
    Best Fan Publication: Live Boxcutters Doctor Who at AussieCon IV, Josh Kinal and John Richards
    Best Achievement: Programming at AussieCon IV, Sue Ann Barber and Grant Watson (lovely to hear these guys pay tribute to the non-Victorians who also contributed to the programming, an awesome effort all-round)

    Note: the amazing Conquilt of signatures is up for grabs on eBay till 20 June.

    Continuum: sex, violence, vampires

    vampire circus movie poster

    It’s almost Continuum time, the great gathering of the clan in Melbourne to celebrate all things speculative and often fictional, and there will be vampires. On Saturday, I’ll be talking sex and the undead with Emily Derango, Narrelle Harris and Peter Marz. On Sunday, I’ll be discussing the role of the rest of the supernatural horde in the ‘vampire circus’ (but are they invited guests, or are they gate crashers?), with a bumper panel of Narrelle, Kirstyn McDermott, Heath Miller and Julia Svaganovic.

    Also on Sunday, I’ll be giving a wee reading, though whether it’s sex from More Scary Kisses or violence from Dead Red Heart I haven’t decided yet.

    The official guests for the convention are Catherynne M Valente, who had most interesting things to say about writing, publishing and moral sensibilities at last year’s Worldcon, and local Dave Freer, who certainly knows his way around the publishing landscape (a sense of direction being a valuable asset when one lives on an island).

    Also worth noting is that A. Friday night attendance is FREE and B. the Conquilt, bearing 100 signatures from Worldcon attendees including, well, all of the folks below, comes up for auction on ebay on Friday night, closing on June 20.

    Alan Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Alisa Krasnostein, Alison Croggon, Amanda Pillar, Andrew J. McKiernan, Angie Rega, Bill Congreve, Bob Eggleton, Carrie Vaughn, Cat Sparks, Catherynne M. Valente, Charles Stross, China Mieville, Chris Miles (an associate of H. I. Larry), Chuck McKenzie, Cory Doctorow, Deborah Biancotti, Delia Sherman, Dirk Flinthart, Duncan Lay, Fiona McIntosh, Foz Meadows, Gail Carriger, Garth Nix, George Ivanoff, George R. R. Martin, Gillian Polack, Glenda Larke, Grace Duggan, Howard Tayler, Ian Irvine, Ian Nichols, Jane Routley, Jason Nahrung, Jay Lake, Jean Johnson, Jenner, Jennifer Fallon, Jetse de Vries, John Scalzi, Jonathan Strahan, Juliet Marillier, K. A. Bedford, K. J. Taylor, Kaaron Warren, Kaja Foglio, Karen Haber, Karen Healey, Kate Elliot, Kate Paulk, Kathleen Jennings, Keith Stevenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Kirstyn McDermott, Kyla Ward, Lara Morgan, Leanne Hall, Lisa L. Hannett, Lucy Sussex, Marianne de Pierres, Mary Victoria, Matthew Hughes, Michael Pryor, Michelle Marquardt, Narrelle M. Harris, Nick Stathopoulos, Nicole R. Murphy, Paul Collins, Paul Cornell, Paul Haines, Peter M. Ball, Peter V. Brett, Phil Foglio, Richard Harland, Rjurik Davidson, Rob Shearman, Robert Hood, Robert Silverberg, Russell B. Farr, Russell Blackford, Russell Kirkpatrick, Seanan McGuire, Shane Jiraya Cummings, Shaun Tan, Sue Bursztynski, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tehani Wessely, Tracey O’Hara, Trent Jamieson, Trudi Canavan.

    Emerging Writers Festival: the fun ‘slide’ of writing

    Finally dragged my carcass down to the Emerging Writers Festival last night, thanks to Kirstyn being on a panel about speculative fiction and then the urging of EWF party animal Alex Adsett to see Not Your Nana’s Slide Night.

    The panel went well if quietly, moderated by Rjurik Davidson with Alison Croggon (her Gift still ranks as one of my favourite fantasy books), Kirstyn and Paul Haines (his Last Days of Kali Yuga collection is out now, get it while you can because the publisher has folded*). There was talk of breaking taboos and other-worldly examinations of our own, and process. Apparently, Twitter commentaries are the new meter of popularity (?) for events: certainly, they illustrate how different people will home in on different things, and hear them differently.

    The slide night at the Trades Hall, complete with bar, was a cracker. Nine writers talked to a series of 20 slides, each slide on screen for 20 seconds, and the diversity was wonderful and entertaining indeed. A dry-witted introduction to Scotland, a crayon-ish exploration of a small town devoted to museums (lost clothing, body discardations, bicycles in a bus masquerading as a museum of transport), a holiday in Barcelona bouncing off America’s Next Supermodel, Indian food, suggestions for what should’ve been Melbourne’s Fed Square, drawings from time spent in Asia… and so on. Some funny, some poignant, some informative: all entertaining. I mentioned there was a bar, didn’t I? A superb locus for the atmosphere of the event.

    Folks we met were rapt in how egalitarian and warm the festival has been (it’s not over yet) and I saw plenty of evidence of that (good luck with that SF novel, Trish; with that creative writing course, James); I really must make the effort to get to more events next year and enjoy the bonhomie.

    Last Days of Kali Yuga by Paul Haines* There a reported 300 copies of Kali in the wild. Look to a bookstore near you. The good news is, for those with an e-reader, the book is available in e-format (Amazon, Smashwords, et al)! This is Haines’ third collection, it includes the awesome novella Wives and a despairingly good new yarn about a man on a bridge with a child. I thought I’d be able to flit through the collection quickly, having read his previous two, but his writing just won’t let you do that. You read one par, then two, and then you’re stuck, dragged into a very human story with just the right amount of fractured reality to entrance and bedevil.