The biography of Peter Carey presented on the first page of his collection Exotic Pleasures is eighteen lines long. The first sentence tells us where he was born and where he lived at the time of the book’s publication, while all the others list the numerous literary awards Carey has won over the years. To say that this guy is a big deal in Australian literature would be an understatement, to the point that some say he is the country’s best shot at winning a Nobel prize. I’d previously been put off his work by the semiliterate narrator of his Booker-winning novel True History Of The Kelly Gang, and his temerity in daring to have a name phonetically similar to my own, but after reading this collection I’m pleased to say that one of Australia’s most successful authors is technically a science fiction writer.
The Fat Man In History, which seems to be Carey’s most famous short story, takes place in the near future after a communist revolution. (It may also be set in Melbourne, although the only evidence of this is that it involves a street called Royal Parade, and surely the world contains more than one of those.) For this new society, obesity is a symbol of decadence and corruption, and therefore the obese are subtly discriminated against. Our protagonist is a former newspaper cartoonist hiding in a sharehouse with several other fat men, all of them in love with their thin rent collector. Their leader plans to destroy a statue celebrating the revolution, perhaps by eating it. Although I was annoyed that Carey wrote dialogue without quotation marks, I think this story is fit to be expanded and adapted into a movie.
Exotic Pleasures is the most blatantly sci-fi story in the collection, set in a future where space travel results in an alien bird being adopted by a destitute couple. The bird gives amazing pleasure to whoever strokes it, so naturally they make money from it. But these things always come with a cost…
The Chance is another story that would not be out of place in your average sci-fi anthology. Alien space gypsies dominate the protagonist’s planet by selling cheap miraculous technology, the most noteworthy of which is a machine that allows the customer to gain an entirely new body. I’m not sure if The Chance is set on Earth or just a world colonised by humans. The whole premise seems familiar, like something out of Philip K. Dick or Transmetropolitan.
One of my favourite stories in the collection was How Much Do You Love Me, a Borges-flavoured meditation on the importance of cartography and acknowledgement. The Puzzling Nature of Blue, a tall tale dealing with colonialism and guilt that recalled Roald Dahl’s adult fiction, was also excellent.
The only story that I didn’t enjoy at all was Peeling. As I read it I was thinking ‘What the Hell, Peter Carey, what’s happening here? Why dolls? Why can’t you use quotation marks in your dialogue like everyone else? I bet Tim Winton uses quotation marks in his dialogue all the time!’
Exotic Pleasures is a good collection for anyone curious about why Peter Carey is so great, but I’d personally recommend it to science fiction fans, seeing how he isn’t specifically marketed towards them. Looking at the book’s cover you’d have no idea of the speculative fiction inside, aside from the phrase ‘people caught on the on edge of the near future’ in the blurb. How Much Do You Love Me or The Chance deserve a place in at least one anthology of Australian science fiction, and I’ll remember The Fat Man In History if I ever find myself in an argument concerning the merits of sci-fi as literature.
Oh, and I should also show you this.
My copy was signed by the author in 1992! God I hope he gets a Nobel prize.