Book Review: Our Future is in the Air, by Tim Corballis

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_our_future_is_in_the_airOur Future is in the Air is Wellington author Tim Corballis’ fourth novel. He’s a past winner of Creative New Zealand’s Berlin Writers’ Residency (2015) and a holder of a PhD in aesthetic theory. In 2015 he was Writer in Residence at Victoria University. Oh, and he’s a father of twin daughters – probably the best qualification for this particular project – a project of future and hope. Sort of, anyway.

It’s 1975. A time of protest and upheaval is ending. A few years earlier, the world was in disarray. There are protesters in the street and change is everywhere. Meanwhile science is making leaps and bounds into unknown territories, off the back of the Space Race and Nuclear Armament development.

The book opens with a dry and technical account of the experiments that led to the discovery and development of a new technology that would alter how we think, plan and govern going forward. There is whispered talk of the lead scientist, only known by his, or her initials. It seems that sometime in the 20th Century it was discovered that it was possible to receive information from the future. And then it was possible to send people into the future as well. And then, for a short time in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, visiting the future was possible. But this had some pretty monumental consequences.

Time Travel, like recreational drugs, was big in the counter-culture. Hippies found a way to trip out without acid. Personal time travel became popular. But there were also some dark discoveries. Some of the visions of the future had extreme impacts. The 9/11 attacks in New York were witnessed and so, because of that the building of the Twin Towers were put on hold. Building was cancelled to prevent future catastrophe. Investment into airlines and mass airline travel was literally stopped in its tracks: the Boeing 747 was shelved as an idea, the Dreamliners of today were never developed, and as a result everything in the travel space stagnated. There was no crash landing on the Hudson or bombing over Lockerbie.

Consequently, New Zealand was affected. Tourism as we know it today was affected. Our economy was still buoyed up by shipping and Lamb sales but our sense of isolation and the access to the great OE was greatly impacted. Our connection to the world never grew to the levels it is today. The internet never happened.

And now? When time travel was made illegal, it moved underground – servicing a demimonde of addicts, spies, bankers and activists. In amongst this, there’s a mystery. One character, Pen, is missing. His friends and family start to wonder where he’s got to. He’s known to go on benders in the past but somehow this is different. So much of the book is around the search for him. It transpires that he’s been sneaking around behind his wife’s back time travelling. In his case, it becomes addictive. He can’t stop. The book becomes a sort of mystery search and rescue, of a man who doesn’t realise he’s missing.

Written from the perspective of the 1970’s, Corballis intentionally sets out to write this book as realism. He wanted something of a documentary truth to it, like a book that accompanies a series or film. He lays out the evidence with a number of devices including an array of voices, pseudo-documents, blog entries, etc. If you look at the current documentary on Stuff called The Valley, about Afghanistan, you’ll see how investigative journalists have painstakingly tried to construct the full story from fragments of evidence, conscious that the main players, like the NZ Defence force, choose to remain silent. And in a similar way, Corballis puts his findings before us in an attempt to tell the story.

He’s on record as arguing that this is a Sci-Fi novel due to the geeky references to technology and the general concepts of time travel. In other ways, though, it’s not Sci-Fi because it’s not really about our future because it’s set in our past. A recognisable but alternative one at that.

One of the delights of this story is that, in the future, it is understood that it is possible for ghosts to exist. You get this communication and cohabitation between the parties. In a similar way to how we react with virtual people on our devices and real people in the room.

This is not entirely new. Many cultures walk alongside ghosts and spirits. When I was recently in the Cook Islands I was told how people bury the dead in their front gardens so that they can include then in their everyday affairs like eating with them during social occasions. This appreciation and assimilation is similar in Corballis’ book.

His ghosts are echoes of the past. He wraps his story around specific dates. 1975 wraps into 2008. 1968 turns into 2001. He does this to see if history can be collapsed in a little, if two different time periods can plausibly coexist. It may be his comment on the acceleration of time – or our perception of it.

To make it more real he references the politics, land rights, fashion, of a 1970’s Labour Government run New Zealand, a place which is just sufficiently far back in our memories to be a little fuzzy around the edges but still close enough to be instantly recognisable. There was hope for the future. Utopian dreams. Investment in environmental causes. Many of the protest movements of that time were to do with the future, such as human rights. Extrapolate that out and it’s possible to see that they may have impacted events, indirectly or even unintendedly in the future.

Interestingly, we don’t have that same relationship with the future that we once did. Mainly, it seems, because the rate of change is so face the future is almost in the past. Imagine the future, crowd fund the idea and it’s happened. That’s the dream. So, to make his point he looks at how he can play with the future – albeit in the past. So much of our sci-fi is apocalyptic and negative. Our future is doomed – movies, books etc all set us in a time when humans, the environment and other factors have almost destroyed us. Dreadful dystopian stuff. Is there really a future for us humans?

It seems Corballis wants to find the future in our past, that 1970’s was the last time we looked hopefully into the lens with positivity. And that is the lesson he gives us. The dystopian lens paints a black future, informed by religious beliefs and myths of woe. He doesn’t want to follow that direction. For him, as a writer, defaulting to an Armageddon theme is all to easy and perhaps a little passé. There are times in our past that we need to get back to learn and plot the next steps objectively, for a change. There’s got to be better ways of thinking about what comes next.

The Future is in the Air is an exploration of an alternative history. A what if? There’s no lesson here, except maybe to think in parallel about the decisions we made. We often think it would be great to jump in a time machine and leap forward to get the answers we want. This might just be the cautionary tale that accompanies that thinking.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Our Future is in the Air
by Tim Corballis
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561179

Book Review: The Gardeners 1 & 2: Master of Paxwax and Fall of the Families, by Phillip Mann

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_the_gardenerThis classic science-fiction tale in two volumes has now been reprinted and re-released in the New Zealand market − and thanks to Booksellers NZ, found its way into my reading pile. Now, I do not normally read science fiction, favouring fantasy, but as the synopsis sounded somewhat like a space opera, I figured it was worth reading.

And it was. Highly enjoyable, highly original, with plenty of complex political wrangling, alliances and enemies. At the centre of it all is young Pawl Paxwax, summoned back to his home planet following the death of his younger brother. Suddenly he finds himself heir to the estate, and a freak accident adds further complications to his plans for marriage and a simple life.

Phillip Mann has a truly inspired imagination. His alien races are just that − alien − completely and utterly, in almost every way. From the monstrous Hammer, to the terrifying Spiderlings (weta-inspired aliens), to creatures that seem as insubstantial as a whisper. They are all here, described in enough detail to allow the reader to paint a picture in their mind. Compounded with that are the various deformations suffered by the mostly-humans. Pawl, for example, is hunched and disfigured, another bears a ruff of feathers and most seem to suffer from some sort of physical malady. Truly, Mann has brought these (slightly demented) otherworlds to life.

Pawl is a young man, stubborn and caught in his ways, defiant against tradition and wanting to do things his own way. Through the first book he fights against what is expected of him, and wins. But at what price? Has he sacrificed his own happiness? Perhaps.

cv_the_Gardener_fallThe second book starts on a bittersweet note − Pawl may have succeeded in marrying, but is the simple life his to grasp? No. Political tides swell against him, and he also finds himself an ignorant pawn in a game more dire than any he has ever dreamed. Those he trusts will betray him, and disaster looms, a dark shadow on the horizon.

The prose is excellent and enticing, the language rich and evocative.

The lightly scattered humour, the unfortunate comedy-of-error-esque plotting and the diabolical schemings all make for an entertaining read. I looked forward to finding out where Pawl’s life led him next and could not help but feel that his somewhat selfish behaviour was leading him on a downward spiral into tragedy and darkness.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Gardener: Master of Paxwax
by Phillip Mann
Published by Sargasso Press
ISBN 9780473297954

The Gardener: The Fall of the Families
by Phillip Mann
Published by Sargasso Press
ISBN 9780473297961

Book Review: Engines of Empathy, by Paul Mannering

This book is available in a bookstore near you.

This would have to be one of the freshest and cv_engines_of_empathymost entertaining books that I have read this year. Quirky and fun – it had elements of Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” books and Douglas Adams’ “Dirk Gently”, with the added spice of originality.

I loved the world that Charlotte Pudding lives in, a world in which technology was run by emotion. A world in which if you were gloomy and negative your toaster would burn (or eat) the toast, a world in which cars required therapy. The concept of sentient, even slightly sentient, everyday objects appealed to me, and brings with it its own code of ethics.

It starts with a misbehaving toaster and an old writing desk. With the introduction of the well-dressed but seemingly insane Vole Drakeforth and an invasion from a pair of antique collectors who are more than they seem, Charlotte’s life is turned upside-down. The answers may lay in the hands of the anti-empath-tech Arthurian sect, or perhaps in the very heart of the Godden Energy Corporation. Either way, everyone suddenly seems very interested in Charlotte and her writing desk, and you’re in for a roller-coaster ride as she tries to unpick the pieces, solve the puzzle – and maybe just save the world.

Madcap entertainment at its best. Highly recommended for a quick read that will hook you from the get-go and keep you racing for the climax, with surprises at every turn.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Engines of Empathy
by Paul Mannering
Published by Paper Road Press
ISBN 9780473275280

For distribution enquiries, please contact Paul Greenberg from Greene Phoenix Publishing.