WORD Christchurch: Arrival, with Ted Chiang

Maybe it was because this event came directly after the divine Sonya Renee Taylor – a truly impossible act to follow – but this session did not live up to my expectations.
Karen Healey was interviewing Ted Chiang, a celebrated Chinese-American science fiction author whose short story “Story of Your Life” was turned into the excellent film Arrival. Healey is a lively and intelligent stage presence and she did her best, but Chiang was immovably ponderous.


Ted Chiang

Chiang spoke about how most people’s perceptions of science fiction are formed through Hollywood movies, which are stories of good vs evil that generally end with the status quo being maintained – thus making it very easy to create endless sequels. Real science fiction, though, specialises in a different type of story: the world starts out as familiar, then something changes and the world becomes unfamiliar, never to return to its previous state. His favourite film is The Matrix, because by the end, the world is radically different. (He doesn’t like the sequels though. Fair call.)

Chiang said he is primarily interested in philosophical questions and thought experiments – and he did indeed come across as very academic. His vocal delivery was slow and tending to the monotonous, with pauses after most words. We spent a lot of time in silence waiting for him to say his next phrase. Healey asked Chiang whether religion – a common theme in his work – has any personal relevance for him. The answer was ‘no’.

I must also give Healey credit for the excellent way she dealt with a particularly troublesome audience question. You know the type: an older man, first to the mic, with a rambling question-that’s-more-of-a-comment. He seemed to be ramping up to some sort of climate change denial rant, but Healey cut him off in a way that was direct and effective but still civil. Ka rawe koe!

To be honest I would have left if I hadn’t been reviewing – but never mind. I needed some quiet time in between the loud and glorious The Body Is Not An Apology and the high-energy Adventurous Women. Onwards!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Ted Chiang: Arrival

WORD: No Sex Please, We’re teenagers. Mandy Hager with Ted Dawe, Karen Healey and Frances Young

This session took a good look at what is okay to represent, sex-wise, in literature for teenagers. On stage were YA authors Mandy Hager, Ted Dawe and Karen Healey, and psychologist and sex therapist Frances Young. It was a discussion worth having, and it was interesting to have the point of view from Frances as somebody who deals with the results of dangerous cultural norms being created.

The first question was about whether it is in fact okay to have sex in YA fiction: and is there a personal line you wouldn’t cross? Each of the panel says yes absolutely, and Karen made the essential point early on that positive promiscuity is a good thing in YA fiction. As a teacher, she wouldn’t write explicit erotica under her own name. She’s not worried about other students, but about their parents. And while she wouldn’t write a rape scene, she would write about the aftermath.

Ted Dawe felt compelled by his publisher to hold back with his language in Thunder Road, to allow the book to go into school libraries. However, when he wrote Into the River, he answered to the call of his narrative. “Sex is realistic when talking about teenage males.” His depiction of Devon’s “unglamorous beginning sex” wasn’t to meet a theme he wanted to tackle – he was just writing what Devon would do. He didn’t see the outrage coming: it took the gloss off the book winning the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award.

Frances is very keen on any way to get more moral, ethical information out there about real sex, to support people to be more emotionally available to themselves – so they can actually have the tools to decide whether they are “on” or “off.” She is also keen to have more sex in comics to make it more accessible – not everybody is going to delve into a novel.

The next question Mandy asked her panellists to discuss was their pet hates about the way books talk about sex. Karen Healey is very passionate about removing the shame attached to sex in people’s lives, and removing the shame and disgust for the human body. She notes this is especially important when talking to teenagers. Frances added to this later on by noting that most teens have an awareness of their sexual self by their mid-teens: making it even more important that this positivity is there.

Ted talked a little about the “Harry Potter effect”: the pushing away of realism, in favour of fantasy. He sees his book was tricky because it was a “warts and all depiction of young men.” I don’t think he’s read Karen Healey’s books, so I was very happy an audience member highlighted this later in question time. For Karen, the advantage of fantasy is that it allows her to literalise sex through metaphor. To her, a fraught relationship is even more interesting if one can set fires with their mind. She always strives for emotional realism.

This is where we got into the theme of porn: Frances’ pet hate is porn. “88% of pornography scenes are verbally or physically violent towards women. This is distorting young people’s view of what a sexual relationship should look like.” Frances says parents need to be able to support kids navigate the highways they are seeking out. This part of the talk, her descriptions of porn and the way it is affecting sexual relationships, made me want to remove all the screens in the house as soon as my boys got to age 12.

It got very interesting when we began talking a bit more about consent – the ‘dubious consent’ Ted alluded to. When you put this type of thing in a novel, are you compelled to put a counter-argument? Ted thinks if you do this, you are no longer being an author. Karen disagrees, she will introduce counter-arguments. They agreed that if writers weren’t all different, there would be nothing to talk about!

The role of schools
Educating teens about sex is a full community project, says Frances. You need buy-in, from the principal right down to the teens themselves, and of course their parents. At the moment we are in a public health crisis: she makes the note if you want to know how to talk to your teens about sex, go to Into the Picture. This is being brought into schools in New Zealand through the Public Health service.

As an English teacher, Karen Healey sees the important thing to be teaching research skills, and how to discern bias. It’s important for them to be able to read to learn, if they don’t think they can talk to parents. Karen stresses when talking about film that it is manipulative, she teaches close viewing skills – though she notes that she can’t dissect a sex scene without being fired. Ted similarly tried to impose cultural change through the curriculum, with an attempt to teach Deliverance (the book). His HOD blocked it, and incinerated all 40 copies he’d bought of the book.

Karen and Ted have both been published in NZ and in the USA – Karen has had to dial back sex in YA for the US market (so she can get into book fairs), while allowing the violence in Guardian of the Dead to stay. Ted has had no reaction other than positive reviews with the publication of Into the River in the USA – to his surprise. Frances agreed that there are differences in the way NZ and Australia approach sex in books to how the USA does. She also noted that the correlation of sex and violence together is perpetuating a culture of sexual aggression – the Roastbusters case being a good example of this.

Roastbusters was described recently by the Chief Censor as an ‘example of societal moral decay.’ However, Ted doesn’t think this culture is new at all, but social media has put it on steroids. We explored the concept of ‘differing degrees of rape.’ Karen pointed out that we have so many people walking around not knowing that they’re rapists, thinking because they were drunk, or the girl was, it didn’t count.

David Hill asked a question about teen reviewers: do the writers on the panel find them as judgemental as parents? Karen and Ted saw this differently – Karen says yes, but Ted has never had any complaints. I wonder if this is a gender thing, young women may be more confident in complaining about this type of thing – guys don’t think it is ‘masculine’ enough to be worried about bad language.

As with all sessions in this festival, this has once again left me with food for thought. And that is what a literary festival is for.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

No sex please: We’re teenagers
WORD CHristchurch, 26 August

Karen Healey also appears in:
The Nerd Degree,Sun 28 Aug, 5pm


The Politics of Indignation, and Capes and Tights: Superhero Comics, Sun 31 August, WORD Christchurch

The Politics of Indignation
The Politics of Indignation featured Australian writer Richard King, author of On Offence, in conversation with journalist Finlay Macdonald (right) about our culture of offence-taking, particularly in the media and politics. It was a lively, fascinating discussion that I really enjoyed.

King’s thesis is that the act of publicly taking offence has become a toxic presence in our democracy, shutting down valuable arguments where it should be the start of the debate. He spoke about how offence-taking has become part of our political currency, with politicians being rewarded for being seen to be offended with extra media coverage and headlines.

The reason we have freedom of speech, says King, is to protect the search for truth. And it is meaningless unless it includes the freedom to offend. He spoke scathingly about how a sense of victimhood has become part of our cultural self-awareness, where ‘me being offended’ is automatically ‘your problem’. King also criticised the act of being offended on behalf of others, the way the middle classes can be patronisingly protective of “the marginalised”.

There was an interesting discussion of the place of satire: the act of being deliberately offensive in a humorous manner in order to make a serious point. It reminded me of the conversation yesterday between satirist Steve Braunias and The Civilian’s Ben Uffindell. Both Uffindell and Macdonald made the point that satire in New Zealand is difficult because too many people don’t get it. Macdonald said this means that journalists get tired of being misunderstood and simply stop using satire – and this has the effect of “making us all so bloody pious”.

Of course, these days, no discussion of offence is complete without mentioning Twitter. King bemoaned the fact that Twitter, which was originally touted as being the great, international conversation-enabler, has instead become a place where vital debate is shut down. “140 characters is enough to convey strength of feeling, but not reasoned argument.”

This was a fascinating session and really got me thinking about how feelings of offence affect my own behaviour. Good on King for bringing up a topic that we all need to consider.

Capes and Tights: Superhero Comics

Capes and Tights was my last session at the 2014 WORD Christchurch Writers Festival, and it was a wonderful note to end on: lively fun with an infectious passion for books and story.
Cartoonist Dylan Horrocks (right)  chaired a panel discussion on superhero comics with filmmaker Jonathan King, author Karen Healey and philosopher Damon Young. All four spoke with humour and real feeling about their love for superhero comics, and the different ways they had read them at different stages of their lives. For example, Young spoke movingly about being an angry teen wanting to see his own rage reflected in the characters, needing to see vengeance as noble.

No discussion of superhero comics is complete without an examination of violence. King pointed out that, since 9/11, US superhero films tend to show seriousness by having entire city blocks destroyed and people and rubble covered in dust. Young spoke about how articulate violence in comics can express character and play a valuable role in storytelling.

I was very struck by Healey’s thesis that all comics are fanfiction (she has written her PhD on this topic). All comics are built on characters, situations, stories and artwork that have come before them – there is no definitive first story or ‘right’ version. I was also interested to learn that, in this context, ‘canon’ means ‘having the official masthead’ (eg. of DC Comics or Marvel).

Horrocks asked all the participants what superpower they’d have if they could: Healey said invincibility, Young said telekinesis, and King chose the ability to fly. Horrocks said he’d had invisibility, and spoke very poignantly about his idea of his invisible self continuing after his death, observing the world.

The session ended with Horrocks inviting Rachael King, one of the WORD organisers, to come and receive a very well deserved round of applause. Horrocks praised WORD 2014 for being the year’s best literary festival – bring on 2016!

by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher

The Changeover: 30 Years On, and The Secret Diary of the Civilian, WORD Christchurch 31 August

The Changeover: 30 Years On

I was so excited when I saw this session advertised. As a child and teenager, I loved Margaret Mahy’s chilling YA novel The Changeover, and reread it many times. The engrossing story of Laura Chant having to ‘change over’ to become a witch in order to protect her little brother felt both magical and real at the same time. But I never met anyone else who had read it.

WORD Christchurch Writers Festival brought together authors Elizabeth Knox and Karen Healey and filmmaker Stuart McKenzie to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of The Changeover (chaired by Bill Nagelkerke).

It was the changeoverwonderful for me to hear the admiration and enjoyment I had experienced as a child for this book expressed with such articulate passion by these highly intelligent speakers. Both Knox and Healey acknowledged Mahy’s influence on them and their work: Healey said The Changeover “blew up my brain”, Knox said “Mahy’s naturalism made the supernatural natural”. I particularly liked Healey’s description of Mahy as “an enchantress who made books appear”.

And I am thrilled that The Changeover is to be made into a film! McKenzie has decided to set the movie in present-day Christchurch, rather than in 1984 when the book is set, and Nagelkerke drew the parallel of Christchurch having dramatically ‘changed over’ from a pre to a post-earthquake city. Hopefully the film will mean republication of the book: as with the Reading Favourites session yesterday, the panelists noted that, despite its prestigious Carnegie Medal win, The Changeover is now out of print.

Some copies are still available from the 2003 reprint, however, and I would urge you all to go out at once and buy this wonderful, profound, magical and terrifying NZ spec fic novel.

The Secret Diary of The CivilianWORD-Web-Event-CIVILIAN

My second session today was Steven Braunias in conversation with Ben Uffindell, creator of the satirical (and reliably hilarious) news website The Civilian.

There’s always a danger with these kinds of sessions that analysis will render the comedy unfunny. Happily, this was avoided, both because Braunias and Uffindell are both just very funny men, and also because they largely stuck to discussing the nature of satire rather than the nature of comedy.

The one-liners flew thick and fast, from the cynical to the surreal: Braunias introduced Uffindell as “New Zealand’s most credible politician since Judith Collins”; Uffindell said “I feel like the Pope [sharing God’s truth with the masses]”; and “crayons are inherently funny”.

There was a very amusing moment when Uffindell recalled the title of one particular article: “Joe Karam, several others found dead in Bain home”, which caused Braunias to spit out his beer in a burst of laughter.

Uffindell was very strongly of the opinion that satire needs to move out of “a dark corner of Twitter” and closer to the mainstream. He name-checked other satirists – Toby Manhire, Danyl McLaughlan – but said they’re insufficiently well known. He believes that New Zealanders are often too poorly educated to appreciate satire, and he gets a lot of feedback online which makes it evident that people haven’t understood that The Civilian’s “facts” aren’t real.

So where does The Civilian draw the line? Uffindell says that writing something that hurts someone personally and individually is a step too far. Other than that, pretty much anything is fair game. He says he has at one point or other in his 23 years occupied so many different points along the political spectrum that he no longer has any firmly held political beliefs; thus allowing him to satirise all parties fairly.

The Civilian is not a force for good” said Uffindell. “I am here to create chaos on the page”. Long may he continue to do so.

Written by Elizabeth Heritage, Freelance writer and publisher

Finalist Interviews: The origins of When We Wake, by Karen Healey

Picture 074If you have ever wondered where authors get their ideas, this is your chance to find out.
We have asked our fantastic finalists all about their work, and they have been very generous in their responses!

We have previously reviewed When We Wake on this blog

Thank you to Karen Healey for answering our questions:

1. As an author, you must have a lot of ideas floating around. How did you decide to write this book?
I’ve always been very interested in fairytales,WhenWeWake_CVR_128x198x21.5_FA.indd and in fairytale retellings. The Sleeping Beauty story is fascinating – a woman whom time has passed by suddenly wakes up to a new world. That’s a great start!

But most versions end there; she wakes up, she gets married, happy ever after. Really? After a century has passed? What about her culture shock? Would she approve or disapprove of accepted ethics, fashion, custom? How would she go about fitting in and making a new life for herself?

Those are the questions I wanted to explore with Tegan, who dies and is revived into a future she didn’t entirely expect.

2. Tell us a bit about the journey from manuscript to published work. What was the biggest challenge you faced in publishing this book?
There really wasn’t one – the challenge came with the book before this. I outlined it and wrote up three chapters and confidently presented it to my editors and they (very politely) turned it down. FINE, I said, FINE I will just write my sci-fi Sleeping Beauty idea then! So I did, and, Oh good, they said, we like this much better, please sign here.

3. Can you recommend any books that you love, that inspired or informed your book in any way?
Ken Catran’s Deepwater series was massively influential on me as a kid, and I still think about the way that book deals with the idea of past-to-future life. I also really like the way cryonics is presented in Lois McMaster Bujold’s (adult) sci-fi series following the adventures of Miles Vorkosigan.

Some readers have pointed to Beth Revis’ Across the Universe as a book that might have influenced When We Wake, but I’ve actually never read it. Just one of those pleasing coincidences! I think that the more books that deal with creepy body freezing science and governmental cover-ups the better.

The biggest influence on When We Wake isn’t a book, or science fiction at all – it’s the movie Easy A. I love the way the main character narrates directly to her audience as she presents her side of the story, and I ruthlessly stole the format for the book.

4. Tell us about a time you’ve enjoyed relaxing and reading a book – at the bach, on holiday, what was the book?
Holiday? What are those?

5. What is your favourite thing to do, when you aren’t reading or writing, and why?
Probably gaming. I used to play World of Warcraft a lot, and the Mass Effect trilogy is my favourite science fiction narrative of all time but the game that’s taking all my “free” time at the moment is Marvel Puzzle Quest. I do love matching those gems. It creates a sense of order in a chaos-ridden world.

Book Review: When We Wake, by Karen Healey

When We Wake is a finalist in the Young Adult category of the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It is available in bookstores nationwide. Karen Healey is touring Nelson during Festival week 17 − 25 May. 

When We Wake, by Karen Healey, WhenWeWake_CVR_128x198x21.5_FA.inddbegins in Australia in the year 2027. It’s all told from the point of view of 16-year-old Tegan, who is cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the year 2128. She is still in Australia, but climate change has taken hold: temperatures are rising and, while the world’s population increases, available land is shrinking. Apparently ignoring the plight of its distressed neighbours, Australia has completely closed its borders.

The well-drawn setting of When We Wake and the exploration of big ideas are undoubtedly the strengths of this interesting and well-written YA novel. The Australias of both the near future and more than a century from now feel very real; recognisable, yet with intriguing technological and cultural differences − houses are mostly underground (to escape the sun), human manure is used for compost, eating meat has gone almost completely out of fashion, phones are the size of an earring and personal computers can be scrunched up and shoved in your pocket.

The big idea behind the book, and the driving force of the plot, is geopolitical responses to climate change. When We Wake is mostly concerned with Australia’s closed doors policy, which has resulted in the creation of camps of would-be migrants who are stuck in limbo between the ocean and a barbed wire fence. (Sound familiar?) With a twist on the theme of racism, Australia’s citizens refer disparagingly to inhabitants of less environmentally fortunate countries as “thirdies”. And, while the scientific side of cryogenics is largely glossed over (it’s all based on tardigrades*− pictured below), there is an interesting exploration of the nature of personhood in the face of this new technological advance.

tardigradeWhile you’re frozen, are you alive or dead? What happens to your immortal soul? When you are revived, are you still fully a person? How do you know you’re you?

Another strength of Healey’s writing is her expression of the voice and mindset of a teenage girl, which she captures perfectly. Tegan’s very black-and-white judgments are redolent of that extreme moral certainty and outrage with the state of the world that teenagers possess: being ‘totally ok’ with lesbians is good, closing the borders of a country in the face of a global crisis is bad; radical freethinkers are good, The Establishment is bad; free healthcare for those in need is good, pharmaceutical companies determined to earn profit from their IP are bad. While spending time in Tegan’s head made for a largely enjoyable read, I couldn’t help sympathising a bit when one of the other characters bursts out with: “You’re an ignorant little girl, and your politics have always been a pose.”

Diversity in speculative fiction
One of the things that When We Wake really got me thinking about was the continuing hot topic that is diversity in speculative fiction (an umbrella term for science fiction, fantasy and horror) – or lack thereof.

An overwhelming majority of spec fic books feature straight white male protagonists, which, from a reader’s point of view, tends towards the tiresomely predictable. Healey’s approach to this issue is to populate her book with non-straight, non-white, non-male characters. While this undoubtedly does make the world she creates more interesting, it unfortunately does feel like a box-ticking exercise: here is the black character, here is the gay character, here is the Muslim character, here is the transgender character.

But maybe we need this sledgehammer, explicitly issues-based phase of speculative fiction, before we can move into a generally better and more interesting world of reading where we will no longer assume characters to be straight and white until proven otherwise. (It is also worth noting that, although Tegan is surrounded by queer, culturally diverse characters, she herself is a straight, white Christian girl who is slender, pretty and large-breasted. The cover of When We Wake, showing a close-up of her face, emphasises her whiteness. You can read an interesting analysis of the racism of YA book covers here).

Overall, I found When We Wake to be an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction. Happily, Healey has managed the trick of making her novel narratively satisfying enough to be a stand-alone read, while retaining enough unanswered questions to keep the series going − the sequel While We Run has just been published. Healey’s voice is a welcome addition to the New Zealand spec fic community and I shall follow her career with great interest. Long live the tardigrades.

*Tardigrades – which are real – are absolutely extraordinary animals and worth learning more about. 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

When We Wake
by Karen Healey
Published by Allen & Unwin (AU)
ISBN 9781742378084