Na Viro by Gina Cole (Huia, 2022), 352pp, $35
Tia Grom-Eddy steers the carved kauri drua into the ocean current, the sail billowing and flapping above her. Wind in her face, the blue-black night sky alive with stars, she begins the long journey from Aotearoa along the Kermedec Trench and on, to the Lau archipelago, calling on the ancestral navigation skills that taught her ‘how to keep your body in tune with tides, flows, currents, animals, signs. The ways of her Fijian and Tongan and Mayuro ancestors, always guiding her.’ A few chapters on, Tia is using the same ancient methods of wayfinding to navigate another kind of drua, the Pawta, a huge, rock-like, voice-responsive, extra-terrestrial spaceship built by the inhabitants of far-away Thrae. Aboard the Pawta, she now rides the currents and swells of the mighty Tijen galactic whirlpool, in search of her sister, thought to be trapped in a tiny probe deep in the turbulent vortex.
Former barrister Gina Cole’s first novel is a headlong rush into a desperate, drowned dystopia 200 years in the future. Rising sea levels have swamped the low-lying Pacific archipelagos and the Water Wars of a century ago have turned the city of Tāmaki Makaurau into a broken, smoking landscape. To survive, the all-powerful, all-knowing Academy regime has embarked on an inter-stellar crusade to mine asteroids for exo-ore on which the planet now relies. It will do whatever it takes.
Tia—lonely, headstrong Tia—doesn’t want a bar of it. Her mother has long since abandoned her and her sister to the care of their grandmother, one of a small community of islanders choosing to live on floating villages (reminiscent of Kevin Reynolds’ 1995 post-apocalyptic action film Waterworld), far above their drowned islands rather than become land-locked refugees in Aotearoa. On graduating, Tia plans to take on a job with the Global Indigenous Alliance to map terrestrial ocean currents, rather than follow her mother Dani, a loyal soldier in the colonial enterprise that is the Academy, into deep space. ‘Mapping the ocean is what I do,’ she tells her. ‘I’m good at it and I enjoy it. Also, it’s transferable knowledge. I will be part of the research working to save the ocean after you lot messed it up, with your stupid wars.’
Her sister Leilani, however, is in an exploratory shuttle sent to investigate the massive whirlpool. Suddenly her tiny probe falls off the radar. Tia’s skills are needed for the rescue mission. ‘There is a galaxy in the ocean, and an ocean in the galaxy,’ assures her grandmother. ‘You can sail those currents. It is simply another sea.’ Tia has no choice but to leave on a voyage that will test her strength and skills and reveal the truth of the colonising mission of the Academy—and the extent her mother will go to advance this goal.
Cole’s previous book, a collection of short stories called Black Ice Matter, swung across Fiji, Tibet, New Zealand’s Fox Glacier, and the humid streets of Pasifika Auckland. It was an excellent collection, humane and poignant, scooping up the prize for best first book of fiction at the 2017 Ockham Book Awards. Na Viro is a different creature altogether, born out of the author’s PhD in Creative Writing at Massey University. Her thesis is relevant here. Entitled ‘Wayfinding Pasifikafuturism: An Indigenous Science Fiction Vision of the Ocean in Space’, it presents the case for science fiction as a valid lens through which to examine the history and traditions of indigenous peoples impacted by colonialism. She conceives the term Pasifikafuturism to describe an indigenous Pasifika science fiction, which sits alongside Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurism, Queer Indigenous Futurism, Chicanafuturism, Latinofuturism and Africanfuturism.
In Na Viro, Māori and Pasifika traditions of waka-building and oceanic navigation are integral to Tia’s Earth-bound goals to map the ocean. But they also come to represent indigenous culture and knowledge and a non-exploitative relationship with the planet. These traditions, and the impact of colonisation and environmental exploitation on indigenous peoples and the planet, find their correlation in the futuristic world of space travel. Kaumātua recite a karakia as a spacecraft leaves Earth; the pastel lights of the Tijen whirlpool remind Tia of the coral reefs around inundated Namu Island; the advanced, non-meat-eating Thraeans are at dramatic odds with the resource-hungry colonisers; the Academy disregards the Thraean belief in the sacred nature of the whirlpool they call Na Viro. Even the sentient ‘embod’ Turukawa—a robotic emanation of a Google-like fount of knowledge—was made, we are told, in the image of her ancestor scientist, a 30-year-old Fijian, Tongan, Kai Valagi woman (‘kaivalagi’ is a Fijian word meaning someone ‘from the land of the foreigners’). ‘She developed us for good,’ explains Turukawa, ‘to help people and stop the Water Wars. When the government institutions collapsed and the armed forces fell, the Academy sucked up all those resources into their system. They forced all the scientists to work for them … But she tried to ensure we would evolve and someday become autonomous, beyond the Academy’s control.’ By the time Tia reaches out to Turukawa—physically and emotionally—the mission to rescue Leilani has morphed into a wider goal on behalf of the ‘indigenous’ Thraeans to stop the Academy’s lawless crusade to mine the all-important exo-ore.
There is a swashbuckling, do-or-die momentum to this story. We enter Cole’s world in a rush of lights and circuitry. Residents are logged into the interactive Hive, run by the Academy, through their clothes. Enhanced eye circuitry and nanobotic infusions are used for navigation, information and, inevitably, surveillance—Tia, we are told, was the first human to have ‘instinctively plugged into the system in utero since the Water Wars ended’. Floating amphibious vehicles and semi-autonomous transporters zoom over the ‘burned-out skyline’ of Tāmaki Makaurau, ‘puffer fish’ spacecraft power through the cosmos, asteroids are mined.
Despite the flickering hues of the whirlpool, this is a world cast in black and white. The good guys (a specious term here as Cole counters what used to be a predominantly white, male and heteronormative science fiction tradition) are brave and beautiful; the bad are unredeemable. Emotions are intense and unwavering. Dani’s allegiance to the Academy and the role of Tia’s father Gromtarg, a priest-like figure in the ‘home’ planets (Grom’s ‘tribe’ has lived on Mars ‘for centuries’) are fixed in their unassailability.
But this extra-terrestrial gallop pulls us along. Na Viro is exciting, racketing along at a great pace, skating over gaps in the story (Gromtarg’s absence from Tia’s childhood remains a mystery) to build a fast action, cinematic tension that has long defined the genre. The pressure never lifts. The many patent references to climate change, indigeneity and gender identity never overwhelm the story; nuanced self-doubt never interrupts the sheer brio of a rescue mission careering across the cosmos.
Cole’s first novel is a twentieth-century, comic-style version of the sci-fi genre: there is little time for introspection; there are no deep shifts in outlook; the characters are locked into their various missions early on in the book. But it is an important and enjoyable pioneering story that not only brings a uniquely Pasifika voice to the genre but also uses its inter-galactic plot to celebrate the traditions and challenges of the Pacific.
SALLY BLUNDELL is a freelance journalist and writer in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She holds a PhD from the University of Canterbury. She was books and culture editor for the NZ Listener and a judge (fiction) in the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Her book Ravenscar House: A Biography was published in 2022 by Canterbury University Press.