Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy: Volume 1 edited by Marie Hodgkinson (Paper Road Press, 2019), 194pp., $30
An unabashed Queer Pasifika Indiginerd geek, I am sitting in alert-level four lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic and reviewing a science fiction/fantasy anthology. The irony is that fate has placed me within a narrative found in dystopian fiction as I read dystopian fiction. I keep picturing the meme doing the social-media rounds, of a ginger cat sitting on an empty bookshelf in a bookstore, the caption: ‘Postapocalyptic books have been moved to current affairs.’ This riff on our real-world rupture speaks to the ever-shifting nature of speculative fiction categories, while the cat is the epitome of a smug opportunist sitting in the little warm footprints left behind by migrating books.
In my bubble of new-found isolation, I eagerly took to reading the inaugural edition of Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy. Adding to the growing number of speculative fiction anthologies to come out of Paper Road Press, this is a curated collection gleaned from stories written by Aotearoan writers and published in 2018. The thirteen stories range across hard science fiction, space stories, fantasy, dystopia, post-apocalyptic fiction and horror. I am excited to read editor Marie Hodgkinson’s promise that this is ‘the first volume of an annual anthology series that will bring new life and new light to the best science fiction and fantasy to come out of this country each year’. A worthy brief, and I support the editor’s aim all the way! We do need a regular anthology in Aotearoa of sci fi, fantasy, spec fic, horror, shifting reality – and what in my PhD I call ‘Pasifikafuturism’. (A Pasifikafuturist framework locates Māori and Pasifika authors within an environment where the Pacific Ocean is the central influence in science fiction. Pasifikafuturism is a term that marks the meeting point and intersection of multiple diasporas of Indigenous Pacific peoples who envision, dream, imagine, create, or are receptive to ideas that play with and liquify the boundaries of technology and time and space.)
It is inevitable, as I contemplate how the worldwide COVID-19 crisis has changed my life and the lives of everyone on the planet, that the stories set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia beckon to me, taking on the edge of the ginger cat meme. The first story in the collection, clearly well chosen, is Octavia Cade’s ‘We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice’. This pantoum-like series of paragraphs reads like beautiful, heart-wrenching prose poetry, taking the reader on a journey through the devastating consequences of climate change denial and subversion.
Lies have such a monstrous weight
We knew what we were doing. We didn’t know what would come of it.
Monsters are too busy lying to think ahead.
‘Trees’ by Toni Wi is an exquisite piece of flash fiction about a young boy’s relationship with a strange tree in his back yard after the apocalypse. A.J. Fitzwater’s ‘Logistics’ is set in a post-apocalyptic future where waves of the ‘phage’, a flesh-eating bacterium that kills in 48 hours, are sweeping the world. Enfys, a queer Kiwi, is ‘rambling across Europe griping about tampons’. Her journey is by turn comical and melancholy. There is certainly a prescient feel to the language of filters and facemasks, evac zones, latent carriers, quarantine rules and toilet wipes, which is now a little too close for comfort.
In one of my quieter moments in pandemic lockdown I contemplate what it must be like to live on the International Space Station, orbiting the Earth in the ultimate lockdown bubble. This brought me to one of my favourite settings for science fiction stories – space – and these space stories proved to be among my best picks in the collection. I love the premise of ‘The Garden’ by Isabelle McNeur, where the crew of a spaceship return to Earth to find it deserted and must confront their future as the last members of the human race. I wonder about the crew on the ISS and what they would face in similar circumstances. Another space story, ‘The Billows of Sarto’ by Sean Monaghan, is a standout. It’s a love story written in lyrical prose and set on the lush slopes of a volcano on planet Sarto, where ‘meeting new people is the reason many come to experience Sarto’s wonders’:
There were dozens of pools. He’d seen an aerial photograph in the pamphlet. It looked like someone had dropped a box of rings.
‘A Most Elegant Solution’ by M. Darusha Wehm follows the mysterious fate of a spaceship crew on Mars and reads like a melting clock in one of Dali’s paintings. Read it and you’ll see what I mean.
Science fiction is on offer in ‘Mirror Mirror’ by Mark English, a story of parallel universes and science and scientists. And ‘Common Denominator’ by Melanie Harding-Shaw takes us into the life of a narrator who hilariously tells us that ‘when they asked for volunteers to beta test a media chip implanted in your brain I was first in line, although the queue wasn’t exactly stretching around the block’.
Sliding across the liminal borders of stark categorisation are stories with mystical, fantastic or mythic qualities, such as ‘The People Between the Silences’ by Dave Moore, which takes us into the realm beyond the living; ‘Te Ika’ by J.C. Hart, a story of mythical beings; and ‘A Brighter Future’ by Grant Stone, which evokes the menacing suspense of horror. ‘The Glassblower’s Peace’ by James Rowland is a fantastical story in which we follow Tomaso, an army private sent on a search through the waterlogged streets of Venice where ‘the canals poured into his boots, seeking to colonise his feet’. The final story in the collection, ‘Girls Who Do Not Drown’ by Andi. C Buchanan, takes the reader into a fantasy world from the first line: ‘and just like in the stories, a glashtyn approaches her’.
Speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, post-apocalyptic dystopia – these categories are all fluctuating and arbitrary, as the cat meme illustrates. In my bubbled view, the editor has successfully showcased a selection of talented Aotearoan writers producing works of futurism and fantasy and speculative fiction. These stories took me out of the angst of my COVID-19 dystopia, although at times the slippage between fiction and reality was more gripping than I would have liked. But story can provide a reader with the ability to sit with discomfort, which is what I did as I read this book and pondered the situation sweeping the planet.
As a Queer Indigenous Pasifika woman, I live with the discomfort of not seeing myself represented in story, especially in science fiction story. As a child, my only point of reference in cultural production was a science fiction one, and she was magnificent. Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek: a black woman with a Swahili name, and she was a communications officer on a spaceship! The reality is that Indigenous people already live in a science fiction narrative, a post-apocalyptic dystopic present. Colonialism is our apocalypse. In relation to African American descendants of Indigenous peoples of the African continent forcibly transplanted to the Americas as enslaved labour, and the enslavers’ policies aimed at destruction of their culture, Isiah Lavender III argues that ‘all black cultural production in the New World is SF’.1 For Māori and Pasifika peoples, Suvin’s ‘strange newness’ is not new to us.2 We are well acquainted with the science fiction trope of the arrival of the aliens (with their ginger cats) who kill, abduct, take over, and try to erase us. For us, this is not fiction – it is part of our history and our ongoing experience in the present, and we write about it. I dream of anthologies that include us and have a Pasifikafuturist vision. I invite anthologies of Pasifikafuturist story. I invite anthologies of Queer Pasifikafuturism. I lay down that wero for science fiction/fantasy production and consumption in Aotearoa – and I look forward to what the future will bring.
- Isiah Lavender III, ‘Ethnoscapes: Environment and language in Ishmael Reed’s “Mumbo Jumbo”, Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist”, and Samuel R. Delany’s “Babel-17”’, Science Fiction Studies, 2007, 187–200.
- Darko Suvin, ‘On the poetics of the science fiction genre’, College English, vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, 372–82, doi:10.2307/375141.
GINA COLE is of Fijian and Pākehā descent. She is the author of Black Ice Matter, which won Best First Book of Fiction at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her work has been widely anthologised and she is a past participant in the Auckland Writers Festival, and the Same Same But Different LGBTQI+ Festival. She is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Massey University, School of English, researching Indigenous science fiction.