Monsters in the Garden: An anthology of Aotearoa New Zealand science fiction and fantasy, edited by Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen (Victoria University Press, 2020), 607pp, $35
Editing anthologies is hard work. Editing speculative anthologies—those covering some combination of science fiction, fantasy, horror and related genres—is even harder work. Having co-edited two anthologies of speculative poetry, I’ve bumped up against the type of decisions that have to be taken both before the project starts and as it develops. What genres, what types of work, do and don’t qualify for inclusion? Do we take a narrow definition of the field or a wide one? Do we include only published work, only original work, or a mixture?
Then there’s the questions of selection and focus: do we issue an open call for submissions, or do we tap people on the shoulder and ask them to submit? Is this anthology going to be a historical survey incorporating well-known works and authors, or is it going to focus on new authors, new styles, new footprints on old soil?
There are no right or wrong answers to those questions, only choices that have to be made to keep the book from breaking its covers. In creating Monsters in the Garden, a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy from Aotearoa published by Victoria University Press, editors Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen have chosen to include a mix of previously published stories presented in roughly chronological order, plus new, unpublished stories from authors they invited to submit.
Although the subtitle says that this is an anthology of science fiction and fantasy, the definition used has been liberal: I’d call quite a few of these stories horror or magic realism. I think the decision to go with this broader approach was a good one, but this does mean that the fantasy side of the ledger is sparsely represented, perhaps because fantasy fiction is more commonly found at novel- than story-length. Margaret Mahy flies the highest flag for epic fantasy in this anthology, but it’s in the form of a novel extract.
David Larsen, in his introduction, while noting that a few stories could not be included due to rights issues, calls the anthology ‘our comprehensive selection of the most enjoyable and interesting speculative English-language fiction New Zealanders have written at short lengths’, though in her own introduction Elizabeth Knox is emphatic that the anthology is not ‘one of those state-of-the-nation literature anthologies. It’s an anthology among anthologies, and a good place to start, or to start talking again about that other tradition of New Zealand fiction.’ I think the selection of stories better fits Elizabeth Knox’s view than David Larsen’s, and I’ll return to this point later.
The cover of this anthology doesn’t appeal to me. That’s not because I think it’s poorly realised, but because it undercuts the editors’ message that non-realistic fiction has a deep past, present and future in New Zealand literature. The cover shows us a scatter of pulp-era clichés: a UFO pulling sheep up from the ground with a tractor beam, and a dragon, and a woman in impractical clothing carrying a close relative of the Creature from the Black Lagoon to safety. On the back cover, the VUP logo takes the place of the Eye of Sauron atop a tower Peter Jackson would recognise at once. The vegetation is recognisably Aotearoa, and so is the abandoned shopping trolley.
This cover is vivid and colourful and fun, but it’s also a nod-and-a-wink cover, a cover that says: ‘We like this stuff, but only ironically.’ That said, it’s VUP’s house style for non-realistic fiction, and it’s done well for them in books like Nigel Cox’s Tarzan Presley, so I can understand why they stuck with it.
After the editors’ contrasting and useful introductions—particular props to David Larsen for mentioning A.E. Van Vogt—the anthology kicks off its swift historical survey, which springs to life in Janet Frame’s brief Borgesian parable about two sheep trotting through the valley of death, and the hyper-vivid, precisely detailed horror of Maurice Gee’s The Halfmen of O: a source of shudders many years ago when I first read it; a source of shudders now.
Another novel extract follows, a longer one from Margaret Mahy’s unpublished adult fantasy novel; Elizabeth Knox’s introduction to this anthology contains some tantalising hints about the full work. This extract, ‘Misrule in Diamond’, has the tone and the air of a great epic fantasy in the mould of Ursula Le Guin or Gene Wolfe. I’d love the chance to read the whole novel, if it isn’t lost forever.
A contrasting pair of meditations on the joys of mortality and the perils of immortality by Patricia Grace and Owen Marshall, respectively, lead into Phillip Mann’s ‘The Gospel According to Mickey Mouse’, where Sherlock Holmes tackles a case from the world of entertainment that even Benedict Cumberbatch might fear to take on.
In this middle stretch of the anthology, acknowledged giants of New Zealand literature sit happily and productively alongside writers well known within their genres but less well known to a general audience. It’s good to see a fine, eerie story from Juliet Marillier nestled between work from Witi Ihimaera and Elizabeth Knox.
One of science fiction’s strengths is that it allows authors to pinpoint society’s weaknesses and fatal flaws and work them through without all the distracting clutter of realism. Pip Adam’s ‘A Problem’, horrifying, hopeless and grimly funny, is my pick as the best story in this collection. The problem is men—the men in the story think the problem is women.
But as soon as I venture to make a pick I’m tempted to change it, because the following story, Tina Makereti’s ‘The Children’, juggles happiness, loneliness and grief in beautiful ways, even making space for an accidental book-club meeting along the way.
Danyl McLauchlan brings a touch of early J.G. Ballard, the story-world as metaphor for the wider world, to ‘The Everything Store’:
And in all of my memories there is Hill: only a few months older than me but the undisputed leader of all the children in both Bedding and Décor.
Hill does not believe the stories told about his world by the powers-that-be. Hill asks impertinent questions.
The internet has helped to collapse the tyranny of distance for speculative fiction writers from Aotearoa, making it easier—though not easy!—for those with talent and determination to succeed overseas. Octavia Cade, Karen Healey and Tamsyn Muir are three New Zealand authors who have achieved major success in overseas markets and won or been nominated for major awards. Here, Octavia Cade is represented by the short-story version of her novella The Stone Wētā, a story of quiet bravery in the face of sexism and science denial. Karen Healey’s ‘Where We Walk, We Walk on Bones’ is a space-set ghost story cum police procedural that is still profoundly tethered to Aotearoa: one of the strengths of this collection, and of modern speculative fiction in general, is that boundaries between speculative genres as well as between speculative fiction and other forms of fiction are breaking down if not broken already. And Tamsyn Muir’s ‘Union’ is all about farming. It’s Kiwi as, and deeply strange—another very strong story.
As we approach the end of the anthology the question recurs: Is this a state-of-the-speculative-nation anthology? Yes and no. When it comes to well-established authors, the selection of works and authors seems broadly representative. But any anthology of this nature runs the risk that, when the editors seek stories from less-published or newer authors, a representative selection may be harder to achieve.
In a genre often focused on the future, there’s a pleasing symmetry in the two final contributors being the children of the respective editors. Nevertheless, I would have liked to see more authors from the contemporary speculative fiction scene in Aotearoa included to give a better sense of the current state of the field, such as those represented in the annual Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy, published by Paper Road Press. There’s been a real flowering of speculative genre writing in Aotearoa recently, and this anthology feels as though it ends in a turning-in rather than an opening out. I would rather have had the novel extracts trimmed to make room for additional recently published writers.
But the promise of this anthology is that there will be further anthologies, in conversation with this one, perhaps even in argument with it. I have my quibbles—the cover, the coverage of newer authors—but if you’re looking for a sense of what happens when the road from Coal Flat turns strange and shining, this anthology is a great place to start your investigations.
TIM JONES is a Wellington writer and climate activist. His latest book is a climate fiction novella Where We Land (The Cuba Press, 2019).