AWF18: Ode to Ursula, with Elizabeth Knox, David Larsen and Karen Joy Fowler

AWF18: Ode to Ursula, with Elizabeth Knox, David Larsen and Karen Joy Fowler

‘In memory of the extraordinary Ursula Le Guin, writers and fans Karen Joy Fowler and Elizabeth Knox join David Larsen to share stories of their first encounters with her work and explore the legacy of the writer David Mitchell describes as a “crafter of fierce, focused, fertile dreams”.’

Illustrated notes taken by Tara Black.

AWF18 13 Le Guin

Illustrated notes copyright Tara Black

Book Review: Landscapes with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_landscape_with_invisible_handWeird, bleak and oddly compelling. Landscape with Invisible Hands is more closely aligned to social satire than science-fiction. It asks what would happen if the aliens came offering the ability to cure all illnesses and replace the jobs so that you need never work again? Sounds ideal? Well, it’s not.

The gap between rich and poor increases. The rich — and those who’ve managed to work their way into vuvv society — succeed. The others, left below to scrap over the few jobs that remain, suffer. Adam is one of those left below, living in the shadow of the vuvvs floating city. He is an artist, a painter, and something of a dreamer. Not the most ambitious of youths. After falling in love with a neighbour, the two of them decide to earn an income by starring in vuvv reality TV shows. The vuvv don’t form pair bonds but they do enjoy watching human courtship, circa 1950. It doesn’t end well, and thus Adam’s downward spiral begins…

This is a very readable, and quite relatable look at society — at what makes humans human and the lengths that we will go to both to make money and to please our mostly benevolent (but selfish) overlords. It acts as a social commentary on the division between the wealthy and the poverty-ridden, and how the latter are sometimes dehumanised. The ending falls a little flat but given the characters and the circumstances, I wasn’t expecting it to be dramatic. Overall, quite compelling (with short chapters) and one to make you think.

Review by Angela Oliver

Landscape with Invisible Hand
by M.T. Anderson
Published by Candlewick Press
ISBN 9780763687892

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 View From the Cheap Seats: Selected non-fiction, by Neil Gaiman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_view_from_the_cheap_seatsYou just know that any author who begins a collection with a piece about the importance of libraries has his or her head firmly screwed on. So it is with Neil Gaiman, my new superhero.

Actually, the very first piece in this fabulous collection is his credo, and I just have to quote the last sentences, “ I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and sometimes they can even be true”.

This wide-ranging collection is divided into ten sections, ranging from personal beliefs and opinions through friends, the art of science fiction writing, how comics work, opinions on music – and all written so that they engage you right away. Even the non sci-fi readers (like me) may be inspired to return to some of the classics of sci-fi to see if our experience stacks up against Gaiman’s. I now have an enormous reading list of things I “really ought to have read” but somehow either did not get around to, or dismissed out of hand!

Neil Gaiman always makes you think – whether it’s his fiction or his non-fiction is immaterial really. A comment at the end of a piece about Charlie Hebdo and the PEN awards is a quote from the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo: “Growing up to be a citizen is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images, can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not”. It would appear that many people out there either don’t know this, or have forgotten. To be reminded is essential.

On a lighter note, a comment about the nature of writing fiction has stuck with me also. To paraphrase – the story itself is not complete until you, the reader, have read it. The writer provides the framework, and of course the narrative, but how each reader interprets that and makes it their own version is what gives life to the story. That makes story even more powerful, I think.

I am going to buy this book, as it is such a great collection. This is definitely the current top of my non-fiction reading list – it just pushed Etgar Keret’s memoir down a notch, and that was hard to do!

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction
by Neil Gaiman
Published by Headline
ISBN 9781472208019

Book Review: The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_firemanThe world is in the grip of a deadly pandemic. A highly contagious bacteria is spreading across the planet, infecting millions of people in its wake. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, or “Dragonscale” as people have taken to calling it, marks out its victims with beautiful decorative black and gold markings across their skin – and a propensity to burst into flame. And America is burning. Cities have been destroyed, millions have died. The sick are being hunted and executed by the healthy, led by The Marlboro Man and his Cremation Crew.

Harper is a nurse. Or at least, she was a nurse until her hospital burned down, killing hundreds of infected patients. Now she is herself infected with the disease – and pregnant. On the run for her life, and that of her unborn baby, Harper seeks refuge at a secret commune with fellow Dragonscale sufferers. They think they have found a way to live in harmony with their deadly disease – provided they are able to remain hidden from the quarantine squads. Among the group is the Fireman, an enigmatic madman who has taught himself how to wield his internal fire as a weapon.

I confess I am not a fan of horror or science fiction. This book was well out of my usual comfort zone. However, I was intrigued by the premise – and made all the more curious when I discovered that the author Joe Hill is actually Joe Hillstrom King, son of the legendary Stephen King. I suspected, rightly, that I was in for a good read. Joe has inherited his father’s gift for storytelling.

This is a tense and action-packed book. “How are we supposed to live our lives when every day is September eleventh?” Even when I wasn’t reading it, I felt an ominous sense of dread and anxiety. This is a book that follows you. Even in its bleak moments though, there is levity. I really enjoyed the many pop culture references and subtle jokes: the mentions of voting for Donald Trump, the frequent references to Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the mentions in passing about the fate of various celebrities infected with Dragonscale (RIP George Clooney). This is a book that spans many genres without fitting neatly into any. It is part science fiction, part horror, part dystopian drama, part romance. In short, something for everyone.

It was no surprise to read in the author’s acknowledgements at the conclusion of the book that he has sold the film rights to the book. This is a story crying out to be on the big screen. The beautiful horror of the Dragonscale etching its victims in a pulsing gold pattern of swirls and curls will be incredible on a movie screen. Read the book before you see the movie.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Fireman
by Joe Hill
Published by Gollancz
ISBN 9780575130722

Book review: Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

Available in bookstores nationwide.

cv_sevenevesI am still looking sideways at the moon, making sure it is all there, after finishing this epic space-borne read from Neal Stephenson. I have read pretty well everything Stephenson has written, and if there is anything I have learned from it, it is that he has an uncanny sense of what the future holds. Unsurprisingly, he is currently Head Futurist at Magic Leap, a 3D wearable visual technology start-up. I wonder if the staff on the International Space Station have a copy each of Seveneves, just in case?

This is not just another post-apocalyptic novel. This novel takes you from the moment that apocalypse comes onto the cards, thanks to the Moon breaking into seven pieces, through to the dawning of a new race of women and men, once all is said and done.

The characters are selected to carry the science, and there is a lot of it in there. Science is the holy grail. Dinah is the first person we encounter, and it is through her story we are introduced to the International Space Station, Izzy for short. She lives there with 12 others, as the resident robotic scientist. She has a large team of robots which she is programming, as the moon explodes, to work out how best to mine the asteroid tied to the front end of Izzy, which is called Almathea. The second voice we encounter is Doc Dubois, an astrophysicist and TV personality, who is watching as the moon explodes, and is the person who, a few days later, has to inform President Julia Bliss Flaherty, that the world is going to end imminently.

Quite a large proportion of the first two-thirds of this book is taken up with the narration of astrophysical logistics. If this is your thing, you have certainly come to the right place. I found myself intrigued, but occasionally in need of a nice clear diagram, as gravitational physics is not my field of expertise. It looks as though there are some diagrams in the e-book edition.

For all that, the story makes for compulsive reading, and the thought experiment is fascinating. It takes in the psychology of being responsible for the future of the human race, the impossibility of saying goodbye to just three or four among the 7 million people who are inevitably going to die, and the logistics of creating a floating world – a Cloud Ark – based around a space station originally only designed to hold, at its maximum capacity, tens of scientists.

World leaders coordinate a world-wide drawing of lots, to select two young people – a man and a woman – from each country to be sent to space, so the diversity of the world is maintained when the earth can be re-populated. One of the first people sent to Izzy upon the disaster is Moira, a geneticist, and a specialist in maintaining heterozygosity in black-footed ferrets through artificial gene splicing. Her role is to be the caretaker for the future generations of every life-form on earth, which are to come from her store of DNA sequences, and embryos, as well as from the ‘Arkers’ – those who are chosen to be part of the space community.

The meaning of the title of the book only becomes significant in the third section of the book, as we encounter New Earth – 5000 years after the Moon’s dissolution, which caused the ‘hard rain’ which destroyed the earth – through the actions and voice of Kath Two. Kath is ‘Survey’, a member of the space community sent to New Earth to check how re-seeding has gone, and see how habitable segments of the Earth are. The technology described in this part of the book is fantastical, and the breadth of Stephenson’s vision of the space-based future is awe-inspiring.

The story ends rather suddenly, and after burning through the final section in a matter of a day or two, I was left wanting more. This is no mean feat when you have been carried by the sheer power of the author’s storytelling through 850 pages. I even read the acknowledgements, and learned that Stephenson had the idea for this novel circa 2006, while working part-time at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ private aerospace programme.

Seveneves is long, and complex at times, but extremely compelling. I recommend it for fans of Stephenson’s work, and anybody who wants the hard science (fiction) on what might happen if we were faced with a future in space. If you want an introduction to Stephenson’s work, try Diamond Age: or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, and follow it up with Cryptonomicon.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Neal Stephenson
Published by The Borough Press
ISBN 980008132521

Book Review: The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_the_water_knife

I read the highly-acclaimed The Wind-up Girl several years ago, and loved it, so of course I was very keen to see what Bacigalupi had to say next. The books have government-sanctioned eco-terrorism in common, but this book was just a bit more alarmingly realistic, probably because of its setting – Phoenix, Arizona. As the title suggests, this story is set in a broken world, where aquifers have run dry, and the only water still available is via company-sponsored pipelines from the Colorado River.

The Water Knife of the title is an ex-con named Angel, hired for his unblinking toughness in the face of reason, and brought up through the levels of his organisation for his loyalty to his boss, Catherine Case. The novel begins in Carver City, where Angel and his team drop in on Black Hawk helicopters to sever the water supply via bombing. Angel’s job is to cut – hence the title, Water Knife. The novel ends in the same place it begins.

The story is told from three perspectives. As well as Angel, we hear from the voice of Lucy, a hardnosed reporter, ‘She’s won a Pulitzer, man,’ who came to Phoenix for the stories, and became addicted to the delicate balance between life and death. Her friend Jamie is murdered, and she is determined to figure out which shady syndicate is responsible, and what information they were trying to extract at the time.

Our third voice is Maria, a Texan who lives on the breadline and takes her fortunes wherever she can find them. Texans are reviled in Arizona, seen as freeloaders. She has been convinced by her roommate Sarah, a prostitute, to come with her to the club she visits with her regular john, Michael Ratan. After a night high on ‘bubble’ she wakes in his apartment, which is in an arcology – a self-sustaining environment where water is endlessly recycled. The apartment is ambushed and Ratan and her friend end up shot, as she cowers under the bed. She is found by Angel, who has arrived to investigate why one of Case’s men – Julio – is suddenly running scared, and traced some leads to Ratan a little too late.

The thread that runs through this story seems like a shaggy dog story, and indeed this is how it is viewed by many of the players. It seems as though Ratan has uncovered valuable Indian Water Rights, and his greed sees him end up dead. But at whose hands, and which side is in the right? And how was Jamie mixed up in this? Do these rights even exist, or are they a ploy invented by a desperate man? The denouement of the novel is something straight out of an action movie: hellfire and guns ahoy. As this is set (not terribly far) in the future, there are a few handy technological advances, which see internal organs being replenished through a drip after gunshot wounds.

I read most of this novel in a couple of days, thanks to delayed planes, and it certainly heightened the tension. If you have ever wondered how screwed up the world would be without water, with money- and power-hungry leaders dividing states in Midwest America, read this book. It’s a sobering thought, brought to vivid reality by the able hands of Paolo Bacigalupi. This is a full-tilt eco-terrorism thriller, with plenty of depth and some fascinating characters.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Water Knife
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Published by Orbit, distributed by Hachette NZ
ISBN 9780356502120