It’s been a good year for science fiction, with some great series wrapping up. Don’t worry about cliffhangers or long waits between sequels with these recommendations, you can read the whole lot back-to-back if you feel like it!
You might think a book series about a being who call themselves “Murderbot” would make for grim reading, but you’d be wrong. An AI SecUnit (security consultant) for a research party on a newly discovered planet, Murderbot just wants to watch their favourite media show rather than having to interact with humans. But when they’re attacked by unregistered indigenous fauna it starts to look like their research mission has been sabotaged, and Murderbot finds themselves caring more about the humans than they’d like to admit.
The sequels all feature Murderbot trying and failing to stop protecting humans from themselves, as well as a sarcastic AI ship and some of Murderbot’s back story. The final novella in the series came out at the start of this month, so if you feel like some comforting, slightly snarky science fiction then I’d highly recommend giving the series a go, starting with All Systems Red.
If Murderbot is the literary equivalent of chocolate pudding then Ninefox Gambit and its sequels are like kimchi — delicious but not to everyone’s taste. It took me a while to get into but once I did they were compulsive reading. Ninefox Gambit begins with disgraced captain Kel Cheris being given a second chance in order to recapture the Fortress of Scattered Needles. The catch? To do so she must ally with undead tactician Shuos Jedao, a man who went mad before murdering his own troops as well as the enemy. Cheris must decide whether she can trust his tactical ability, or whether he’s leading her to her own grave.
The Planetfall series is technically not closed to future sequels, but there are now three books out and they all stand alone (although there are some common threads). I find each of them very odd — Newman doesn’t go in for satisfying conclusions, but at the same time there’s something compelling about them that keeps me reading. They all grapple with mental illness in different ways, from hoarding in Planetfall to postnatal depression in Before Mars. For that reason the experience of reading each book is very unsettling, Before Mars especially so as it begins with that classic trope of arriving in a new place (Mars) only to discover a note in your own handwriting warning you not to trust the others. My favourite of the three is probably After Atlas — detective (and indentured slave) Carlos Moreno is tasked with finding the murderer of the leader of the same religious cult Carlos escaped as a teenager.
Bonus:Semiosis by Sue Burke, an entertaining but odd book about coexisting with intelligent plantlife on an alien planet.
A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White: A treasure hunter and a racing driver framed for murder and trying to clear her name both meet on a smuggler’s ship in search of riches and justice. From the reviews it sounds fun and pacy!
American science fiction writer Ted Chiang has a very particular way of speaking. He pauses a lot to gather his thoughts, and the intonation, or melody, of his voice doesn’t vary much. This can have the effect of making it feel that he is taking a very long time to get to the point. Fortunately, Arrival is the third WORD Christchurch session of his that I’m attending so I’ve become somewhat accustomed to it. Because once you get past the quality of his voice, he actually does have some interesting things to say.
It also helps that Arrival (the only sci-fi movie I’ve every watched with a middle-aged female linguist as its hero – feel free to recommend others if you know of any) is a recent favourite of mine, and that I’m part way through reading The story of your life, the novella on which the movie is based.
Local sci-fi and fantasy author, Karen Healey happily lets Chiang talk about the things that interest him about the genre he writes in. You get the impression from Ted Chiang that he spends a lot of time thinking generally, and about science fiction especially, so his thoughts, when he does finally express them are fully-formed. His lines are not throwaway ones. He’s considered these things from a variety of angles.
For instance, he rejects the notion that his writing “transcends genre”, as, in his opinion, this is the kind of thing that people who don’t usually like science fiction say – the implication being that the rest of the genre isn’t very good, and that this thing that they somehow like is some kind of aberration.
Hollywood sci-fi vs literary sci-fi
I especially enjoy hearing about his views on the nature of science fiction storytelling in movies versus in fiction because, as a fan of sci-fi cinema, I recognise that his observations have the unerring ring of truth to them and I may never watch an MCU movie in the same way again.
In Hollywood sci-fi, he says, there’s very often a good vs. evil scenario in which the world is in a good/peaceful/stable state then something evil/monstrous/destructive comes along and there is a struggle to overcome this force of evil and return the world to a state of goodness, peace, and harmony. It’s a very conservative formula in that it’s looking to restore the status quo. This immediately makes me think of Make America Great Again (MAGA) and just how powerful narratives that resonate with people can be. Human beings love stories and we like to use the same patterns of story over and over again.
The kind of science fiction that Chiang is interested in is entirely different. In these kinds of stories the world is changed by some kind of disruption or discovery and the change is irrevocable. There is no going back to the way things were before. At the end of the story the world is a very different place from what it was at the beginning, and more than that it’s not necessarily a better place, just a different one. This is a much more progressive storyline and one that you don’t get much in Hollywood movies, if for no other reason than that they are not easy to make a sequel to.
For instance, all the Jurassic Park franchise (currently on its 5th film – a 6th is planned) needs for there to be another dinosaurs-cause-chaos story is for some scientists to make the same errors of judgement the first lot did and the “oh no, who could have foreseen this dinosaur-related catastrophe happening again?” scenario can and will happen again.
Compare this with Chiang’s favourite science fiction film, The Matrix. In many ways it looks like a battle between good vs. evil story but it’s not. The world is a radically different place at the end of the movie. “Neo’s monologue at the very end of the film,” says Chiang “has really stuck with me”. And just in case we didn’t believe him, he quotes it, word for word:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.
To Chiang this quote perfectly captures what it is to be a radical or a revolutionary. It is not the status quo and it is not comforting, which good vs. evil stories often are. Ted Chiang is not interested in writing “comforting” fiction.
Humanity, curiosity and evidence
What he is interested in is what it means to be human and for him a sense of curiosity, which Healey points out is often present in his characters, is essential.
To be fully human is to be actively engaged with the world around us…
Trying to learn more about the universe is a really noble pursuit and “profoundly meaningful”. And though a lot of his stories have a theoretical question or “though experiment” at their core he feels that science fiction, by tying these ideas to a character with an emotional storyline, can make them more accessible to people.
Philosophy doesn’t have to be so radically removed from our lived experience. I think it’s interesting because it does apply to our lived experience.
Chiang is an Atheist but has an interest in religion. In one of his stories he imagines a world in which there is irrefutable evidence of the existence of God and explores whether that would make it easier or harder to have faith. In some ways, he thinks it would be harder.
In response to a question from Healey about how you approach people from the past as a topic for science fiction, Chiang is magnanimous – people in the past had a different way of viewing the world. Given the observations they had at the time, their interpretations often make sense. Subsequent observations can change this view, of course. They were engaged in the same general practise as modern scientists are engaged in.
It was perhaps this train of conversation that prompted the first of the audience questions, as a very forthright arm shot up a couple of rows in front of me, and an older gentleman asked what Chiang’s thoughts were on the question of “settled science”, a phrase that he felt was being used to shut down debate in such areas as Climate Change (a topic, it should be noted, on which the vast majority of the scientific community is in agreement).
Chiang, as is his habit, takes a while to get to the point of his answer but to summarise it is basically this: Science is practised by human beings who have biases, but scientists are far more aware of their biases than other people (in particular, politicians, who are the worst at recognising their own vested interests). Science fiction in general aligns with scientists. And science by its nature doesn’t really get to an end point.
This is so successfully diplomatic a response that the questioner, judging by the nodding of his head, felt he was being agreed with. Sir, you were not being agreed with. You were being disagreed with in a slow, patient manner.
The only other audience question was, shockingly, about science fiction and picked up on Chiang’s earlier discussion of The Matrix, which the audience member wondering what he made of the sequels. Like most of us, he found them disappointing calling them “the prime example of the harmful effects” of Hollywood’s demand for sequels, when “commerce runs counter to artistic goals”.
Which led nicely into a discussion of how the film Arrival got made.
The movie’s genesis was rather different route than what’s usual, as the screenwriter Eric Heisserer had read Chiang’s story and wanted to adapt it, but then had to find someone to produce it. Chiang is at pains to point out that Heisserer deserves all the credit for making The Story of your life work as a movie, as Chiang himself considered it “unfilmable” due to its very “internal” nature. And Chiang himself offered a few comments on the screenplay but mostly stayed out of it.
The movie-making business is so, so weird and it’s not something I want to be closely involved in.
Diversity in science fiction
Chiang is happy about the shift in science fiction that has seen increasing diversity in its authors and writing, though this hasn’t been without its conflicts, Chiang describing sci-fi’s “own version of the Alt-Right” laying seige to the Hugo Awards for a number of years. These efforts, in his opinion, have ultimately proved unsuccessful. N. K. Jemisin, a queer, African-American woman winning the Hugo for best novel for an unprecedented three years running.
Chiang also points out that the popularity of The three body problem by Cixin Liu, a work translated into English from Chinese, is another example of a growning openness in science fiction.
I think it’s great because for a long time science fiction, despite it being very forward looking – in practice it’s been very conservative.
Not to mention the tropes. So. Many. Tropes. And conventions and little in-jokes. Science fiction, Chiang seems to be saying, in some quarters has become unchallenging and… comfortable.
I very much want [science fiction] to be filled with surprising reading experiences. I think science fiction should be about questioning your assumptions… It should make you wonder about things you took for granted, things you assumed to be true but actually are just a societal convention.
The more different science fiction writers there are, he says, the more likely it is that you get that experience.
And there he goes again, advocating against the status quo. Ted Chiang: the slow-spoken, thoughtful revolutionary.
I’m still recovering, weeks later, from the season 2, final episode, final scene of The Handmaid’s Tale. It had both my husband and I screaming “NO!” at the television.
Not usually a great fan of movies or television made from great books, this depiction of The Handmaid’s Tale was produced with the author of the book being consulted and directing the story arcs and character development and it is one of the best adaptations of a book I’ve watched.
I read this stunning book by one of my all time favourite authors, Margaret Atwood, years ago. It set me on a path to dystopian books with women as the protagonists. Women throughout history have borne the brunt of societal ignorance, discrimination and violence, either directly or indirectly. In dystopian fiction, there are several great books where women fight against the system, lead the change that is needed to free themselves and those around them or uncover the truths behind a regime that is hell bent on holding onto power.
I wrote about Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed in an earlier blog. It’s a great example of putting women’s stories front and centre. It’s interesting when I put this list together, how much of the control and evil perpetrated on the heroes in these books is around contraception and rights over their own bodies. Here’s a quick list of others well worth checking out:
When she woke by Hillary Jordan: A fundamentalist right wing agenda is spreading through America, forcing those who commit crimes to be ‘Chromed’ their skin changing colour to fit a particular crime. Hannah finds her skin turned red to punish her for an abortion she had after an affair with a high ranking official. How she finds her way in the world and seeks refuge is at the core of this story.
The Power by Naomi Alderman: What if women suddenly became the stronger more deadly sex, able to inflict pain and even death by just a touch and there was a sudden shift in power? How does this change both society and the women and men in it?
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch: In the near future, the earth has become a radioactive battleground and Humans live above the earth on a platform called the CIEL. The character Joan, is reminiscent of Joan of Arc and when she is turned into a martyr by the forces waging war – there are astonishing consequences.
Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall: This is a great story about a woman trying to escape a totalitarian state that enforces contraception and other restrictions on women. Sister has heard of a mythical commune of women who have fled and sets out to join them.
Wool by Hugh Howey: Another devastated world, and this time the few remaining people alive are in many leveled underground silos. Jules is one of the young women living in a silo, it’s all she’s ever known. But her curiosity leads her to discover the truth may be a lot different than what she has been told.
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas: In a small Oregon town, several women are coping with the fallout of strict government rules around contraception, abortion and believing ‘every life is sacred’. They find themselves thrust together in a modern day witch hunt and a struggle to survive.
I found it interesting how many of these books are American and how many of the new ones seem to be commenting on the present government policies and alluding to the rise of the right wing agenda around women’s rights and the states’ intervention into their lives.
I seem to come back to this topic in my fiction reading time and again. It may seem a little depressing, but the women are strong, determined and more than often triumph and this is why I like the genre.
This WORD Christchurch Festival session brought together American author, Ted Chiang (whose novella, The Story of Your Life, became the acclaimed film, Arrival) and kiwis Whiti Hereaka (author of YA novel Legacy), and Michael Bennett (author, with Ant Sang of graphic novel, Helen and the Go-go ninjas). What, I wondered, would the writers of such temporally transformative works have to say on the topic?
As it was, I was feeling a little like I’d slipped forward in time myself – I woke up that morning to discover that it was September already. How had that happened?
In fact, the first question made reference to James Gleick’s aforementioned book – Ted Chiang disagreeing with Gleick’s assertion that The Time Machine by H. G. Wells represents the first example of a story featuring time travel, and that Wells is the originator of time travel in that sense. Rather, he feels that time travel tales are more a modern take on a prophecy story, a common tale since ancient times. The fact that story prophecies always came true was a reflection of the ancient world’s belief in fate. Your destiny lay ahead of you, and no matter what you might do to try and change it it would always find you. If there was a shift, Chiang believes, it was one away from believing in fate towards believing in free will.
This is something you can see in a story like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, having travelled to a possible future, escapes his fate by changing his ways. He exerts free will and the course of his life is altered. By comparison, The Time Machine’s protagonist doesn’t engage with the possibilities of time travel at all, moving through time but not making any attempts to alter its course (which, now that I think about it, is kind of the point of time travel stories, by and large).
Michael Bennett and Whiti Hereaka both made comments as to the importance of prophecy in Māori culture. And Bennett pointed out that Māui himself fought time, slowing the sun to extend the length of our days.
When asked about the pervasiveness of the genre, Bennett reflected that we all understand “the unfairness of time” and deployed a rather splendid extended metaphor of the time as a river – we have not choice but to flow with the current, which at certain times in our lives seems too slow, though as we continue along we try to slow it down, looking for the eddies that might delay our arrival at our ultimate destination.
Chiang’s motivation for writing The story of your life was, through the character of Louise, exploring an aspect of human nature “the knowledge that in the future comes great joy and great sadness and coming to accept that both things lay ahead of her”.
Hereaka’s reason for writing a time travel story grew out of her desire to tell the stories of soldiers in the First World War’s Māori Contingent – she hadn’t previously been aware of this part of our history and wanted a way to share it, moreover she wanted to have those characters speak in their own voices, not via a modern one. Later on, in response to an audience question about creating voices from the past, she says that her theatre background helped but it also took some research, reading novels of the time, oral histories and where available listening to recordings.
She also had a really interesting perspective on the relationship between the writer and the reader saying:
I believe writing books is an act of manaakitanga – welcoming people into your world.
When asked about their favourite time travel stories Hereaka admitted that television was her go to – series like Life on Mars and Ashes to ashes as well as Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee was her Doctor but the imminent arrival of a female Doctor is something she’s really excited about). Bennett, somewhat unsettlingly, admitted to reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five at the tender age of ten, and it has remained a favourite. Chiang favoured the movie Back to the future which he says is “a Swiss clock of plotting” for which he has “immense affection”.
The craft of storytelling was highlighted by an audience question about the constraints that time travel places on the story. Bennett confirmed that not making it too hard for the reader to follow can be a concern. And Chiang pointed out that Time Travel as a device is “the universal acid that will dissolve any container you put it in” in terms of story. Suddenly your protagonist’s problems can be fixed by going back in time and doing it again. For that reason Time Travel stories usually have some “rules” or constraints applied to them to stop the easy fix from occurring. And no, these constraints may not hold up to close inspection – but you’re only looking to suspend disbelief for a time, to tell a story.
Hereaka was in agreement with Chiang on this saying:
That’s what stories are… It’s about solving problems and humans finding out what it is to be human.
When asked if they could time travel what they think they would do, Hereaka said that period dramas sometimes make her wish she could live in another era but she’d come to a realisation – “no, you wish you were rich”. So wherever she goes in time she wants to be well funded.
Chiang doesn’t think that “there’s any period in history that I would be better off in than right now” and that trying to change history at all is not a good idea as you can’t have any confidence that the changes you make would work out.
For fans of sci-fi and time travel fiction this session gave some interesting insights into what these kinds of stories can tell us about ourselves, and the challenges they pose to the storyteller. A session that I’m happy enough to have spent some forward travelling time in.
In some ways it’s like trying to pick something off a menu – how do you know what you’ll like the best? What if you choose and don’t enjoy your choice? And just to extend the dining out metaphor, the pop-up festival offers three “sets” of readings in much the same manner as restaurant courses, allowing you to mix and match.
For my pop-up dinner I chose the following:
Entrée: Gory Bits at Crate Escape
Main: Science Fiction Triple Feature at Rollickin’ Gelato
Dessert: FIKA and Friends at Fiksate Gallery
So how did I do choosing a great meal?
Meaty, blood-soaked and best served cold, this was a very enjoyable way to start. True, it’s rather a full-bodied choice for an entree, but if you’re going to have tales of death and fear read to you in the confines of a strange, wooden Antarctic hut fashioned from a shipping container you may as well do it early so it’s still daylight when you leave.
WORD Christchurch Festival director, Rachael King read a suitably gothic, Wuthering Heights inspired passage from her book Magpie Hall, and Brindi Joy’s flash fiction story of the dead that don’t necessarily stay buried had a pleasing rhythm and exotic (for Christchurch) US locale.
But certainly the standout of this “course” was Robin Robertson‘s readings of gruesome death and murder, his voice dragging on certain words, and fairly growling others – at one point his hands held out in the pose of a man strangling his beloved and… well, lovely man though I’m sure he is, should I bump into him in a dark alley while he’s here in Christchurch I’ll probably squeal and run the other way, so affecting was his performance. And I fancied as I left, to the screams of children playing at the Margaret Mahy Playground across the road, that they might not all be squeals of delight…
After that kind of darkness what you need is something different, distracting and refreshing. Science Fiction Triple Feature offered a trio of writers of different flavours reading stories and excerpts.
A. J. Fitzwater, a local writer of Spec-Fic (Speculative Fiction) opened with a really interesting take on post-apocalyptic tales, telling the story of a trans vlogger and traveller making their way across Europe in the wake of some catastrophic outbreak. They are on the hunt for… tampons. Which is an amusing twist on the usual dystopian scavenging one usually expects from tales like this, and one that I have always wondered about myself. Sure, the characters in The Walking Dead always look sufficiently unwashed and grimey… but they still seem to be able to find their colour of hair dye and everyone’s top lip is still getting waxed so how post-apocalyptic is it really? Yes, I do have tampons in my emergency kit, and yes, so should you.
Another local sci-fi/fantasy writer, Karen Healey then took the mic (in a Thor-themed dress that I am most covetous of) and read from her version of Beauty and the Beast in which Beauty’s quest involves dark, spooky creatures who have possessed her beloved father, a malady that only a strapping magical beast might be able to cure. And American author Ted Chiang read a strange and perplexing story of science used to support fiction – a comment on the nature of faith and truth, perhaps.
A small sorbet of something completely different was on offer at Fiksate Gallery (a place that I would very much like to go back to) in the form of touching, poignant poetry. Personal tales of a loved one’s dementia, or legendary tales of some guy called “Maui”. Short and bittersweet. The perfect ending course to this pop-up adventure.
Graphic novels are very popular here across all age groups, as are animated series and films. New Zealand artists compete well in this genre. Can you say why you think the comic strip and cartoon has remained a popular genre?
I think cartoons are naturally appealing to people, from a young age.
And with the breadth of work being produced in the comic form there really is something for everyone; from easy-to-read comics for younger readers, experimental ‘alternative’ comics, Japanese horror and romance manga, superheroes and so much more.
As a kid I read Monster Fun, The Beano and Judge Dredd. What early cartoonists and artists appealed to you as a young person?
I read so many comics when I was young. Asterix, Tintin, Footrot Flats, Beano, Tarzan, Uncle Scrooge, Richie Rich; anything i could get my hands on really!
I enjoyed the clear black and white plates of Shaolin Burning, not to mention the great plot and strong characters. It appeals to those (like me) who don’t like too much text, or are reading graphic novels for the first time.
Was Shaolin Burning your interpretation of a folktale, or a myth of your own creation?
Thanks. Shaolin Burning was a retelling of kung fu myths and Chinese history, interwoven with my own original characters. I really liked the idea of creating characters who were written out of history, but who might have interacted with famous kung fu personalities such as Wing Chun.
Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas is a standout as your first foray in colour comics. How did you make this transition and how did you find it as a medium?
I loved working in colour for Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas. I’ve worked with colour previously in my illustration and comic projects, but never on the scale of this book. To make it visually interesting I wanted to use different colour palettes for different locations and times of day so that there was a sense of a varied landscape and a long passage of time throughout the book.
The Dharma Punks, Shaolin Burning and Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas feature strong female characters. How did you develop Helen’s character?
Helen was created by my co-author Michael Bennett, who originally wrote the story as film script. As we developed the graphic novel, Helen did evolve; for instance in the original script she was married, and a few years older. But at the heart of it, it’s always been a story about a young woman finding herself and her place (or time) in the world.
Not just action-adventure, your comics address strong themes. In Helen we touch on disability, environmental destruction, state control and domestic violence, to name a few. Were these issues part of Michael Bennett’s original script idea, or did they develop as you responded to it?
A lot of these were very much a part of Michael’s script, though we did emphasise the environmental issue as we developed the script into comic form. Originally the collapse of civilisation was more mysterious and wasn’t fully explained, and Helen wasn’t an environmental activist.
These things became clearer as we collaborated on the comic and dug deeper as to Helen’s motivations and character. That’s something I really love about collaborating with other creatives; the process of pushing our work into new and undiscovered directions.
How do you think zine culture and comic strip writing could be better nurtured and preserved in New Zealand?
I think there’s already so much great work being produced here in New Zealand. Back when I started, it was all about using photocopiers to make and self-publish mini-comics, but now there’s a huge amount of great work being produced as webcomics.
Do you have any advice tor people planning to run a comic or ‘zine workshop?
I’ve been teaching comics at MIT here in Auckland for the last two years, and I think it’s a good idea to give participants an environment where they can create in a hands-on way. For short workshops, I like to focus on one topic and let participants get into it.
Lastly, we all loved Bro’ Town. Can we hope to see more of your series animated? (Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas would make a great film!)
The Naked Samoans have been busy writing a bro’Town feature script, and I really hope it goes into development. It’d be great to get together with the bro’Town crew again. As for my other projects, I’d love to see them all adapted into films. I’m currently making an animated kung fu short film about the young woman Wing Chun, so that’s a start.
This year’s Hugo Award for best novel goes to Book three of The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Books one and two, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate respectively, are both previous winners of the award. This also makes N.K. Jemisin the first author to win three Hugo Awards for best novel in a row as well as making The Broken Earth the only trilogy in which all three novels are best novel winners (the closest to doing so previously was Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy with two wins and a finalist position).
Essentially, this is the reward for best piece of non-fiction related to the world of science fiction and fantasy and understandably, recently deceased Ursula Le Guin, now six time winner of the Hugo Award and Science Fiction royalty, is the winner of this category. ‘No Time to Spare’ is a collection of Le Guin’s musings on various subjects from the mundane to the philosophical.
The best graphic novel of the year is the sequel to 2017’s winner: ‘Monstress Vol. 2’. Monstress is an apocalyptic steampunk fable notable for its exceptional artwork (with artist Sana Takeda also winning this year’s award for Best Professional Artist) and interesting world building.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Wonder Woman, screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs, directed by Patty Jenkins (DC Films / Warner Brothers).
What essentially amounts to the award for best film, Wonder Woman takes the cake for its adaptation of the DC Comic hero in a film that captures the essence of this year’s Hugo Awards winners.
The WORD Festival is arriving in Christchurch (29 August to 2 September) in a celebration of all things literary. There will be something for everyone with events ranging from the silly to the profound with over 120 authors, and close to 100 events across 30 venues. Below is just a tantalising taste of what this wonderful event has to offer, so feel free to explore the WORD Christchurch Festival programme in full.
So pull up a chair, get yourself a drink, and get ready to explore the wonderful world of the WORD.
There will be certain pieces of fiction that hold special places in the hearts of literature fans, and one of the reasons could be for political reasons. Join Ockham award winning author Pip Adam, with fellow authors Rajorshi Chakraborti, and Brannavan Gnanalingam in conversation with Julie Hill as they discuss the very topic of the politics of fiction looking at the way fiction can be more than mere entertainment, but can serve a role in helping create empathy and change perspectives.
Magical Realism is a beautiful genre of literature with narratives that can displace time and space or use magic as a metaphorical device through which to tell fantastic story rich in cultural relevance. A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars author Yaba Badoe is a great international author of the genre of magical realism in addition to being an accomplished filmmaker and will be in discussion with University of Canterbury PhD candidate Sionainn Byrnes. This talk promises to explore issues surrounding women in Africa in addition to magical realist fiction itself.
A topic that should be at the heart of all Christchurch locals. Following the tragedy that was the Christchurch Earthquakes, everyone – bar none – has had an opinion on how the rebuild has progressed and what should have been done. Laurie Winkless, author of Science and the City, will provide specialised knowledge on the subject that is well informed through studies of cities from all over the world and explore the scientific considerations of cities.
A glorious event for young and old. The New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival is my favourite event from Word Festival’s prior, and it’s free! This event will bring world class talent to New Regent Street in multiple pop-up events as the street is turned into a festival celebrating the literary form. The New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival will make you wish New Regent street was like this everyday.
American journalist David Neiwert will be talking about his book Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Time of Trump, in an attempt to explain what is actually happening in the American political landscape at present. What promises to be a great and informative event, David Neiwert will historicise the rise of this seemingly overnight political phenomena to the 1990s as he discusses his work in tracking and following the far-right in American politics for multiple decades.
Ted Chiang: Arrival (Sunday 2 September 2.45-3.45pm. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū)
The Science Fiction Author of Story of Your Life, which was adapted into the film Arrival, Ted Chiang will be in conversation with science fiction and fantasy author Karen Healey. Expect and interesting and philosophical conversation from this thought provoking and awarding winning author.
Mary Shelley was just 18 years old when she began writing the English language’s most successful gothic horror tale, Frankenstein, which was first published 200 years ago. So after all these years what do we know about her, the story, and the circumstances that led to the creation of Frank Jnr.?
She did indeed write the story when she was 18, although it was not published until she was 21.
It was written as the result of a challenge laid down by Lord Byron (romantic poet extraodinaire), who along with young Mary, her husband Percy, and Byron’s “personal physician” John Polidori was staying in a spooky country house. On a stormy night telling ghost stories to each other, Byron thought it would be a good challenge for the group to see who could write the best ghost/horror story!
In 1910 Thomas Edison created a 15min film based on the story – I love the music accompaniment on it!
The monster has no name but is referred to in the book by the names in my first sentence. For many years I believed the monster’s name was Adam, but I must’ve dreamed that!
The story was initially published anonymously with many readers assuming the author to be Mary’s husband Percy. Even after its reprinting in 1831 with Mary’s name on it many still thought Percy’s hand was involved. In truth it is now believed that Percy contributed a measly 6% of the text (4,000 of 72,000 words) with many readers considering that his contributions only detracted from the story, were over complicated and over described, making the whole thing harder to digest.
During her life Mary also wrote, seven novels, three books for kids, over a dozen short stories, and numerous biographies, articles, and poems.
The story of Frankenstein is now so embedded into our popular culture that there have been countless depictions and references all through the history of film and television; think Hermann Munster, the film Young Frankenstein, British tele series The Frankenstein Chronicles, and even with the fantastic kids film Tim Burton, Frankenweenie ,we see that this story of horror has even entered into the realms of children’s literature and culture.
But have we stayed true to Mary’s idea?? Does the monster still serve the same purpose as she intended; a lesson in mortality, human desire for control and intolerance for the different, perhaps even describing the perils of parental abandonment…? This series of charts from the Guardian suggests there have been some major deviations.
So how will you celebrate the outstanding achievement of Mary Shelley? Perhaps by reading some classic gothic/horror/monster literature, there’s plenty out there and I’ve created a short list of titles for you, all available through the Christchurch City Libraries catalogue and across many formats; books, audiobooks, ebooks, and graphic novels…
The winners of the Hugo Awards will be announced next month and with the Nebula Award winners having been announced in May (two of the biggest awards in science fiction), let’s take this moment in between to think about the future in literature and what it actually means to write and think about the future.
When we think about fiction and the future, there are two sub-genres that immediately spring to mind: dystopian and utopian. Most people will be familiar with dystopia; arguably the most popular form of science-fiction that there is. From Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Walking Dead, or the classics of Nineteen Eighty-Four,Brave New World, and Logan’s Run, the idea of dystopia appear to be firmly entrenched in Western cultures’ collective imaginary. We all have different ideas of what a dystopia might look like, but put simply, it is an imagining of an unpleasant future that could occur through an apocalyptic event, the rise of widespread tyranny, or simply the break down of civil society.
The counterpoint to this bleak storytelling of a world gone to the dogs is utopian fiction. Many people will, as with dystopia, have different ideas of what utopia looks like. So, in this instance I am going to use the pragmatic definition of utopia put forward by Hugo and Nebula award winning author Kim Stanley Robinson: utopia is imagining the best possible outcome given where we are now. What I like about this understanding of utopia is that it doesn’t mystify utopia into religious sentimentality but places it firmly into the realm of possibility.
Take Robinison’s novel New York 2140 (that has been nominated for the 2018 Hugo Award for best novel) for example. Here we experience a New York that as endeavoured to survive and re-create itself in the wake of catastrophic climate change as the innovation of adaptability of humanity leads to a future despite of the crisis it found itself in. Robinson’s Nebula award winning novel 2312 also highlights the redeemable aspects of humankind as they work together to try alleviate humanity’s suffering and begin to recreate Earth into something resembling its former self.
Utopian fiction is not about the absence of conflict – no one would want to read or watch a story with no conflict – but the conflict is about the actions taken to prevent the fall into dystopia. Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation series is a fantastic example of such utopian thinking as the protagonists work to prevent a galaxy wide collapse into unprecedented galactic barbarism. Here, the utopian thinking is about creating a future for humankind that is free of insecurity and suffering.
So take a moment, and read about the future. Not the future in which everything is awful and the only thing humanity can hope for is survival, but a future in which humanity has a chance to thrive and flourish as it overcomes all the obstacles that could limit it from having a meaningful future existence.