Friday, September 23, 2011

NZSpecFic Blogging Week: Friend in a Familiar Land - SpecFic set in Noo Zullind

Guilty. I don't read nearly enough New Zealand literature.

Only in the last eighteen months since I started writing again and needing to know what the heck I'm talking about (no, I don't have a lavish liberal arts degree, I'm doing everything hard way) have I made the effort to actively seek out New Zealand authored science fiction and fantasy. And even then my New Zealand based reading selection is not as diverse as it should be.

Since my focus is SF&F, I was thinking recently not just of NZ authored stories but also stories set in New Zealand. While my reading selection is limited, in my reading experience stories set in Aotearoa are even more limited. Which took me to the inevitable question: why? New Zealand is a country rich with scenery, Maori mythology, and culture. It's not that these stories don't exist, they just don't get the exposure on a world stage they deserve.

What is so challenging about a story set in New Zealand? For our history of literature and unique approach, there is still much that is universal about our stories. One would think our uniqueness would be a fantastic selling point.

Of course, this is a complete turn around from when I was a child. I thought Maurice Gee was a unicorn because of one TV show. My education woefully lacked an introduction to NZ literature, and American and British popular culture was posited as the norm. I didn't learn to think for myself until much later.

So, in the last few days I've been giving myself a crash course in NZ SF&F, making a list of books set in New Zealand I should investigate along side the ones I know.

Common theme in NZ SF&F are dystopian, post-apocalyptic. I've recently read Bernard Beckett's Genesis, a short but dense story that evokes the wind-swept southeast coast of the North Island. I very much liked the movie adaption of Craig Harrison's "The Quiet Earth", and had forgotten until recently that I attempted to read it when I was 11 or 12. I think the Empty Earth scenario was a little too much for me to take post-cold war nuclear threats (with French nuclear testing taking place in the Pacific and the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior really hitting home around this time), but I'm keen now to give it another go.

Another post-apocalyptic story is Chris Baker's "Kokopu Dreams". Someone explained to me last year (at Au Contraire, I believe) that dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories work well in New Zealand, and written by New Zealanders, because by virtue of our geography we are cut off from the rest of the world. Australia may be close by, but the rest of the world is a very long flight or boat ride away. Take away these transport abilities and contact with the outside world and you're suddenly stuck in a very small country with no outside help. Resilience is a must-have. Heck, it's a challenge to even contemplate crossing between the islands, something I toss around a lot when I think of a SF&F story set here! The Cook and Foveaux Straits may seem small, but unless you have the experience, swimming or boating across them are not always an option on limited resources.

The two books that I've read that most successfully evoke familiar places are Maurice Gee's "Halfmen of O" (which I blogged about in last year's Blogging Week) and Elizabeth Knox's "Dreamhunter" (I have yet to read the sequel "Dreamquake", it's on my list). Both books capture the sun, heat, bush and farmlands of the Nelson Bays and surrounding areas, a region I'm intimate with having grown up in Marlborough and vacationed often around Nelson as a child, especially in the Abel Tasman National Park. While Knox's "Dreamhunter" posited an alternative New Zealand history rife with magic, her alternative dimension (a grey, lifeless dream area) still echoed the familiar grey stone and empty beaches of the nearby West Coast, combined with a Nelson Bays I felt very comfortable with - it was a beautiful cultural short hand.

Gee's "Under The Mountain" was one of my favourite childhood books, and I used it somewhat as a guide book when I visited Auckland the first time when I was ten. I thought being able to name all the volcanoes in the book (and visiting McDonalds for the first time) was pretty awesome.

On the theme of New Zealand's West Coast, North Island this time, Karen Healey's YA novel "The Shattering" is set there. Her other YA novel "Guardian of the Dead" is set in New Zealand with a liberal sprinkling of Maori mythology.

If we're talking about Maori mythology, New Zealand specfic seems to entwine this beautifully with magical realism. For example, there's Witi Ihimaera's "Sky Dancer" and of course "Whale Rider".

While adult specfic set in New Zealand is rarer, the children and YA genres are packed with excellent authors and stories. For example there's Lyn McConchie, Margaret Mahy, Gaelyn Gordon, Lisa Vasil ("Apprentice Devil"), Isabel Waiti-Mulholland ("Inna Furey"),  Tulia Thompson ("Josefa and the Vu"), and of course Maurice Gee.

I know there are probably many other SF&F books set in New Zealand, and as I'm still in the process of discovery I'd love it if you could recommend them in comments.

Thanks also to my Twitter friends Zeborah and Marie for chipping in with suggestions!

This post is part of New Zealand SpecFic Blogging Week, September 19th to 25th 2011. For more posts and a Readers and Posters prize draw, please visit the Speculative Fiction Writers of New Zealand website.

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