Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

Author Spotlight: Sylvia Kelso — Blurring the Lines Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

Written By: Tracy - Jul• 19•11

Sylvia Kelso sets most of her works in either an analogous version of Australia, or using  Australia as an outright setting for her books. This is partially because she’s from a cattle station (ranch) in North Queensland. Her most recent book, Source, is the third book in the Riverworld/Amberlight series. In it Kelso explores feminism and river politics as the main character, Tellurith  searches for the source of the river around which her society is built. The entire Amberlight series blurs the lines between Science Fiction and Fantasy so much that the series has been classified as both.

After their shattering departure from Amberlight, Telluir House has begun to rebuild in the mountain village of Iskarda – but even there, River politics remain a threat. When Tellurith and her consort receive the precious yet harrowing gift of a possible new form of the qherrique, only one solution offers protection for Iskarda and the qherrique both: leave Iskarda. Find the River’s Source. The qherrique itself chooses Tellurith a company, of husbands, lovers, old friends and new, and their passage upRiver is accompanied by upheavals and catastrophe wherever they pass. Nor are things quieter downRiver, or n Iskarda itself. Before she can return, everything Tellurith has worked for threatens to crumble, as war flares along the River, among the fall and liberation of states, including Amberlight. It takes revelation, sacrifice, great loss, and an impossible hope’s fulfillment, to bring Tellurith and her company safely home from the Source, to a River that will never be the same again.

You set many of your novels in a setting that is very similar to that of Australia. Do you find the setting to be alien or familiar to many of your readers? Does the setting lend itself to science fiction or fantasy very well? Do readers identify with the setting, or find it exotic?

Well, non-Australian readers certainly don’t find it familiar, I would imagine. Australian readers tend to find it unsettlingly familiar-but-not – some even go so far as identifying Australian plants and animals by their invented-language names, though this should be more of a game than a necessity.

Any setting will lend itself to SF or fantasy, if you have the right sort of story, I think. I also think that using settings familiar to the writer add a particular spice when you’re writing a story with unreal elements, as in SF or F.

Not sure what non-Australian readers do with the setting, whether they exoticise or find themselves alienated. I’ve had “like the world-building” comments from several places, including reviewers, so I assume the settings are well enough realized to please SF and F readers. Who– if they’re like me — like and value a secondary world that’s strongly realized, and hence unfamiliar, even if it’s not based on your own primary “world.”

Tell me a little about your Amberlight series, especially Source.

The Amberlight series started with a “ground-zero” reverie about what a city would look like by moonlight. The actual site was a memory of the massive Indian medieval city of Dhaulatabad. But at the end of paragraph one the Creative Crew suddenly threw in a new element with a name I’d never heard before, the “qherrique.”

It took me four books to explore everything that really was. The next paragraph introduced the characters, and with them the sudden discovery that I was in a matriarchy. Hence came the second long-running narrative strand in the series, what you might call gender politics: first the set-up of a real matriarchy – i.e. somewhere gender roles as oppressive as in a patriarchy, only in reverse – then the fall of that matriarchy, and for the next two books, the story of people from that society working to make a more equitable life.

Source was the culminating book for both strands, with the biggest canvas – the whole length of the secondary world’s River – and a bunch of “domino politics”: a fictional version of Glasnost, in fact, where a sudden change, brought on partly by the new society, started an avalanche of falling regimes and warfare and all sorts of other mayhem. It is in many ways the most satisfying of the three, since it brings all the story strands to a point of rest, though I wouldn’t call the ending closed.

How did you get started writing?

I started telling stories before I could write. When I learned to write, I started writing things down. Poetry, first, I will say, but fiction followed in my teens.

Although I didn’t get round to trying to publish fiction till nearly thirty years after I began to write.

On your web page it says that you have two aunts that are poets. Was this helpful in your early days of writing?

Possibly, in the case of the one whose “bush poems” I knew very early on. The other I never knew wrote poetry till I had almost stopped doing it myself. Though I never deliberately took the first one as a model, I daresay her poems gave me a sort of permission to write: Look, there’s Auntie Doe (short for Doris) and she writes poetry. So it can be done, and done by somebody in our family, not just in published books.

As an international author, what are the challenges that you face in promoting a book in several countries? Is it different from promoting one in just one country?

Firstly, distribution (is an issue) here (In Australia), since bookstores in Australia don’t willingly carry overseas published small-selling authors like me, and it costs considerably to get books in myself.

Secondly, presence overseas, particularly in the US, where I just can’t get to cons and Broad Universe RFRs and other places where a writer’s presence can be so helpful, on the same basis as SF and Fantasy writers living in the US. The Web is a great boon, but it can’t really replace that visibility.

How has having a background in academia shaped your work?

I was writing fiction before I entered “academia,” if by this you mean University life. Academic concerns and interests certainly did shape what I wrote after that, though, particularly the Amberlight series, which was begun, see below, in the middle of my PhD, when I was working on feminism and popular fiction, including SF. And many of the ideas from feminism, as well as the example of writers like Samuel Delany and Joanna Russ, were direct sources, and/or inspirations, for that series.

On the other hand, my first fantasy fiction was probably shaped far more strongly by the influence of Tolkien, who I read well before I started my postgrad work and entered “academia” proper.

Your webpage states that you started a novel just to find the practical difference between science fiction and fantasy. What (if any) are the differences? For that matter, is Star Wars science fiction or fantasy?

Amberlight, had as its “surface” project the intent to write something that would straddle the fence between SF and F so well that people wouldn’t be able to decide where it belonged. When it did get published, it was classified as feminist SF, feminist fantasy, non-feminist fantasy, historical fantasy, not-enough-feminist fantasy, and a whole sub-genre of feminist SF, the “pouty slave boy” fantasy (courtesy of Liz Henry and then on the Feminist-SF Wiki.)

So this text’s reception suggests that for practical purposes, you can blur the line so far there may not BE a difference. And I’d say the same applies to Star Wars. It all depends how you “read” it.

For theoretical purposes, I myself have a simple litmus test that upsets the people who want to say SF is improbable possibilities and Fantasy is plausible impossibilities. So far as I’m concerned, both genres are “unrealist” fiction, like horror. Demons, UFOs, shape-changers, aren’t supposed to exist in the “real” world. So all these genres have a device to suspend incredibility. For horror it’s the supernatural. For SF it’s the future possibilities of science – no matter if, as in Jurassic Park, the “real” scientists toss out the basic premise as impossible. And for fantasy it’s magic. So if there’s a text where the unreal is explained by science – eg. a new physics allowing FTL flight, or a matter-transfer booth – it’s SF. If it’s explained by a spell or a set of 7-league boots – that’s fantasy.

Of course, there are also charming mavericks like Barbara Hambly’s The Silicon Mage, where science and magic do appear together. Then, I guess the pigeonholers have to make up a new name like “science fantasy.”

What are you working on now?

I’m currently finishing a short story I’ve been invited to write for an anthology of revised fairytales, to be published by Book View Café. It’s a variation on Bluebeard. I’ve finished the first draft, but I still have to prise apart the imploded finale, to make it really intelligible.

Where can readers find your work?

The best place for readers in general is probably an online bookstore like Powells, Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or Booktopia in Australia, or in the case of Source, direct from the publishers, Jupiter Gardens

Source is also available in ebook format, from Kindle or Nook or Kobo, etc.

My newest novel, my first contemporary fantasy, The Solitaire Ghost, part one of a duo called Blackston Gold, just came out in June, and is also available through the online bookstores, coming out from FiveStar books, but in Australia it’s probably easier to contact me directly for a copy.

My earlier novels, the Everran series, are available on Smashwords or Book View Café as ebooks also.

Where can readers find you?

My general e-mail is

My web pages are currently a bit behind, from about two years’ overload!

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