NZF Writers & Readers: Science and Magic, reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Yes you have seen a graphic review of this by Tara Black! Yes we have some words too! It sounded AWESOME, right? Here is Elizabeth Heritage‘s take on it.

This session took place in the pop-up tent building created by the NZ Festival, which was bang on theme. It seemed like a magical, almost imaginary building that wasn’t there yesterday and won’t be there tomorrow.

A good crowd gathered to hear Darusha Wehm chair a session on science and magic with speculative fiction writers Charlie Jane Anders, Intan Paramaditha, and Cory Doctorow. We started with a general discussion of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror).

science and magic

The ever-quotable Canadian writer and activist Doctorow said he rejects the idea of science fiction as predictive literature: thinking the future is predictable is to commit the ‘venal sin of complacency’. Anders, a transgender sci-fi author and organiser from the US, commented that most of the literary fiction she reads nowadays in set in the past. ‘It’s so hard to write about the time we’re living in now. By the time your book is published, we will have descended several more notches into hell.’

Paramaditha is a horror writer and academic from Indonesia who brought a very welcome new perspective to the discussion. She thinks of speculative fiction as an umbrella term for ‘all stories that depart from consensus reality’. Paramaditha said she didn’t really grow up with the same sci fi as the rest of the panellists. ‘Sci fi bloomed in wealthier countries – we were busy with our own issues. Thinking about invasions from outer space isn’t as important as thinking about the more local invasion of colonialism.’

Wehm asked about speculative fiction as a way of writing about fear. Anders said: ‘Inherent in the concept of escapism is that you’re escaping from something.’ Stories can help you face the scariest things in our reality with enough gauze to make it palatable. And as a trans woman living in Trump’s USA, there is plenty to be afraid of.

Paramaditha commented that speculative fiction can show what we as a society are afraid of. She used the film Alien as an example – it explores ‘the fear of women and feminine power; the fear of blood and of women’s bodies’. It’s important for us to confront this fear, and particularly for women to question the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women: ‘We are perhaps not so different from the bad, monstrous women.’ Anders commented that Alien is scary because we don’t understand it, and nowadays we’re conditioned to think that we can understand everything.

I was particularly struck by what Paramaditha said about magic and colonialism. She said there is a dichotomy between science, in the realm of knowledge, and magic, in the realm of ignorance – but that this is a colonialist discourse. For example, in the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia, the Dutch called what they did science, but called what the Indonesian people did magic.

‘I see magic as something subversive, beyond comprehension. I want to disrupt the binary between civilised and uncivilised. Magic subverts reality – but reality is never completely rational.’ Paramaditha pointed out that we preserve the desire for magic in our popular culture – she used the examples of A Trip to the Moon, an early film by Georges Méliès, and the film Hugo that references it. ‘There are some forms of magic that are acceptable and desirable.’

Wehm asked about the writing process itself as a form of magic. Doctorow said: ‘When you start writing it’s like doing a puppet show for yourself, but when you put enough detail in the simulator, things you didn’t explicitly put in the box start coming out of the box.’ Anders said that the great joy of writing, for her, is when the characters surpass your original concept of them and surprise you. ‘The best kind of magic is when characters change during the story because of what happened to them.’

This was a excellent session very ably chaired by Wehm, and you could tell when it ended that the audience could happily have listened to another hour. I managed to get my copy of All the Birds in the Sky signed by Anders before I had to dash off, leaving the tent of science and magic behind. Onwards!

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

You can still see Cory Doctorow on Sunday 11 March at 2.45pm, at his solo session Cory Doctorow: Surveilling Utopia.


Book Review: This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_this_census_takerChina Mieville is best known for his phantasmagoric world-building. Many of his books have given me nightmares, but I still go back there for more. This Census-Taker, which is a novella, isn’t quite in the same vein of most of his books, but it is a beautifully drawn book that carries a message about familial loyalty, and the intersection of law and decency.

The moment the book begins, you are running with the boy into the village. Mieville makes sure of it, using mixed third and first person point of view, taking the place of both runner and witness. His mother has killed his father. No, perhaps it was his father that killed his mother. Certainly, somebody killed another body, and he witnessed it. A team of men dispatch from the town, with guns and weapons, to ascertain the truth of the matter.

The setting feels like a reckless land. A far-flung village, sparsely occupied, with very little vegetation: brown soil, brown grass, brown seeds. People are living hand-to-mouth, with ragged orphans roaming around the streets, our protagonist becoming one of them for a period during the book. The thing this setting has in common with his other, urban settings, is an overall feel of despair. People are killed and disposed of without compunction, sacrificed to a spirit in a cave.

The boy’s father is a key-maker. Not of keys for doors, but of keys that solve problems. People come up the hill to see him and ask for a key, and the boy has noticed that none of them ever seem to return. They live high on the hill, among the ascetics and hermits, and magic-doers. It doesn’t occur to the boy that perhaps they are also magic-doers. The boy’s father is foreign, that much the boy knows, from finding scraps of paper with words in a foreign language lying around. The boy’s mother is from not far away. They may, or may not, be hiding from someone – possibly related to the Census.

There are fragments of the book that are written in the past tense, as the boy writes down his history in the census-taker’s book. We don’t completely understand this section, but neither does the boy. He isn’t sure what he is reading there, what it means yet, but perhaps that will come. I wonder whether it is his mother’s writing we are reading. We meet his line manager/ colleague in his first-person narration of his past, soon after the third time he runs away from his father thanks to witnessing some heinous depletion of humanity.

I don’t frequently read novellas, so I’m not sure if the sense of completion that I felt I was missing was a normal thing for a novella. While there is a narrative arc, the ending was the beginning of a new story, perhaps one for a novel set in the same world. I’m dying to know what the keys the father made did, and what it is that is so poisonous about the census-taker, besides the fact he works for the government. Definitely recommended, and worth a second read.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

This Census-Taker
by China Mieville
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509812141