The Stone Wētā by Octavia Cade (Paper Road Press, 2020), 174pp., $25
The Stone Wētā by Octavia Cade tells the story of ten motivated, determined and brave women scientists, members of a global underground network of ‘operatives’ engaged in a cold war against government deniers of climate change. We follow the women who work in isolation in their various disciplines as the Earth moves towards environmental collapse. The women function as a network of resistance to governments who are suppressing, editing and massaging climate data and pandering to a quest for power and financial profit at the expense of the environment. When I think of what is happening to island nations and the natural environment in the Pacific today, there is a disturbingly familiar ring to this theme of the abuse of knowledge and the environment in exchange for capitalist goals. It is no surprise, then, that preservation is a central theme of the book. The scientists’ collective goal is to preserve climate data in an unadulterated form. It is a future scenario that Cade, a scientist herself, has clearly created from the current mess we’ve got ourselves into on planet Earth.
We only ever know the ten women by their code names, taken from small animals, invertebrates, plants, insects, lizards, sea sponges and organisms which are themselves at risk of annihilation, just as the women themselves are at risk—the stone wētā, the Antarctic lichen, the glass sponge, the resurrection plant, the sand cat, the Japanese sea star, the bristlecone pine, the fish-eating spider, the gympie gympie and the fish-scale gecko. These wonderful code names act as touchstones in the fight the women are jointly engaged in to resist climate deniers, to protect information, and ultimately to preserve life on earth and maybe Mars. The relationships between the women and their code names act as a metaphorical illustration of the interconnectedness of all life on earth.
The code names also serve as symbols of the qualities inherent in the women themselves. For instance, we are told that in nature the fish-eating spider waits on the edge of pools and streams and traps small fish with its front legs. The spider in turn falls prey to the hunting wasp, which drags it into its underground burrow for eating. The scientist with the code name ‘the Fish-eating spider’ comes from Tuvalu, an island nation threatened by rising sea levels. Like her namesake, the Fish-eating spider likes to spend time in the water ‘to forget the nightmares of burial that kept her hunched and frozen, waiting for predators’. The gympie gympie is a species of plant reliant on colonisation and disturbance. Covered in stinging hairs, the plant causes unbearable pain for anyone who touches it—pain that can sometimes last for years. It is fitting, then, that the Indigenous Australian scientist code-named ‘the Gympie Gympie’ plants a gympie on top of every site where she buries data, so that anyone who dares to disturb her caches will experience severe pain. In another pairing, the Japanese sea star is an invasive species carried across oceans in the bilgewater of ships. Second in command of the network, ‘it amused [the Japanese Sea Star] to take the name of an invasive to fight invasion’.
The stone wētā of the title also mimics her namesake. When the world freezes around the stone wētā in nature, it ‘freezes solid in its bolthole … when the weather warms, the wētā thaws and resumes its life’. As a transwoman travelling on a one-way trip to Mars, the Stone Wētā is therefore a creature of transformation in the same way as her namesake. She has transitioned personally and galactically, moving from Earth to Mars as part of a colony of scientists trying to terraform the red planet.
In a way, the efforts of all the women in the network culminate in that of the Stone Wētā, as it is up to her to carry accurate data to Mars to rebuild a new world in the face of life on Earth coming to an end. The irony is not lost on her when her colleague notes that they are ‘protesting the deliberate change of climate on one planet at the same time as we’re trying to change the climate on this one’.
Each chapter is written from the point of view of one of the ten women as they keep a step ahead of government forces. These episodic and contained stories mirror the isolation in which the women work. Each chapter also builds on the next, drawing out links between the women in the network. The changing points of view take the reader to environments all over the globe and into space, and the focus on the characters in their diverse settings serves to illustrate each one’s emotional state, whether it be anger, fear, loneliness, defiance. However, I wondered if we might have been shown more of the variation and beauty of their different locations in tandem with the fragility of those eco-systems, including the Chihuahua desert in Mexico, the tree canopy of the rainforest in Madagascar, the barren icescape of Antarctica, the International Space Station with its beguiling view of Earth, the North Australian outback, and the Rock and Pillar range in Otago. On the other hand, the sparseness of description may be read as reflecting the urgency of the women’s efforts.
The narrative is punctuated by scientific references to the organism of each character’s code name. These brief descriptions and vignettes sit alongside the journeys of the scientists in a metaphorical cache of information, a cataloguing of organisms and scientific data smuggled into the text for the reader to hold and preserve—in a duplication of the act of preservation in which the characters themselves are engaged.
One of the main threads running through the narrative is the tension between the pursuit of knowledge in academia versus governments in bed with industry. Cade draws out this tension to thrilling effect. To maintain the integrity of the network and to provide themselves with a measure of safety from discovery, the women hide in plain sight. Their lives unfold as they travel under cover of the academic community to make contact at conferences and sites of research, distributing copies of their data to each other for safe keeping. The Bristlecone Pine finds a flash drive in the office of her predecessor, who has gone missing. The flash drive holds data ‘that was not the same as the data that was published, and data that on the surface had very little to do with her own work’.
Another trope in the story is the incredible strength of women’s networks. The Sand Cat, a scientist based in Timbuktu, has understood from an early age the value of informal networks of women as friends and relatives. She realises that ‘women tended to be overlooked more than men. Part of the background, all grains of sand in a desert.’ She has learned this truth from the women around her who assert their own agency ‘behind closed doors’—the ‘under-network’ of ‘the market … and neighbours, her husband’s colleagues when they were women, their wives if they were not’. As a scientist, she decides to flip the invisibility of women on its head in order to exploit it as a strength. The Sand Cat constructs a network of women scientists who assert their own agency via their resistance. The women are ‘[c]rouching down and surviving, keeping data safe in deserts and in rainforests, in polar ice and outer space and inner planes, in coastal waters and mountain mesas’. She administers the organisation in ‘small cells given autonomy, mostly, and kept apart so that any breach would only be minimally damaging. An organisation, too, where collaboration was a driving force, and where respect for reasoned dissent was paramount.’ I found myself cheering on these women as the thriller pace built throughout the story.
I very much enjoyed this cli fi/eco fiction story with its cast of women protagonists, its play on the interconnectedness of all life on Earth, and the layering of meaning explored through a feminist perspective of science. It is so refreshing to read a female-centred story, and one that embodies a drive to save the forces of Mother Earth. The Stone Wētā is a celebration of the collaborative spirit of networked women of science working to a collective goal. I also read the book as a tribute to the power of women, and the responsibility that women take on when we choose resistance, preservation and survival.
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. She holds a Master of Creative Writing from Auckland University and a PhD in creative writing from Massey University on the topic of Pasifikafuturism and Indigenous science fiction.