This wooden house was built in the 1850s for the Hon. J. C. Watts Russell, a prominent early settler. It changed hands several times and in 1910 was owned by the Countess Reina Ruys Fortega de Fresnedo. The Free Lance newspaper of 5 October 1907 tells us that she is a lady of ‘Spanish birth and estates’ and that she is a ‘countess by her own inheritance’. In 1907 she was making her first trip to the colonies, having done much travelling in the Old World.
The Countess is something of a mysterious figure and I haven’t (so far) been able to find out much about her, such as where she came from and what happened to her after the fire. However, the New Zealand Truth, a good old fashioned scandal rag, reveals that she was sued by her gardener in early 1910 for non payment of wages. (What ever did we do before Papers Past?)
Reports on the Press and the Lyttelton Times, both on 23 August provide quite a lot of detail abut the fire. The Countess was away in Australia, leaving the caretaker, Mr H. J. Croker as the only occupant. He escaped, but rather stupidly went back in the retrieve his gold watch (do not do this!) Thankfully the house was insured (for £2000) but the contents – which included some splendid furniture, silverware, and a new piano and pianola – weren’t.
Fortunately the cats and dogs managed to save themselves, but sadly a number of guinea pigs and canaries were not so fortunate. There were also two caged parrots (or possibly cockatoos). The fire seems to have destroyed or melted the cage and one of the parrots didn’t make it, but the other one did, albeit in a singed condition.
The Press reports that the ‘origin of the conflagration is a mystery’ but the Lyttelton Times suggests that there could have been sinister motives afoot:
Mr Crocker states that his opinion that the fire was willfully started is strengthened by the fact that some months ago the Countess received an anonymous letter stating that she would see Ilam burnt down.
Might this possibly be a case of a disgruntled gardener? I’m presuming that there must have been some kind of inquest, but I’m yet to track that down…
Do you know anything more about this fire or the mysterious Countess Fresnedo?
Kaveh has won awards, and his poems have appeared in heaps of prestigious publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Poetry 2018, and The Guardian.
Check out Kaveh reading Max Ritvo’s “Touching the Floor” and his own poem “Portrait of an Alcoholic Frozen in Block of Ice”:
He founded DiveDapper, a poetry interview site. It is pretty much the poetry equivalent of Jerry Seinfeld’s show ‘Comedians in cars getting coffee’, but in DiveDapper you get two poets on top of their games in conversation. It features a stellar lineup of poets including:
Claudia Rankine, “I’m not investigating race as much as I’m investigating intimacy.”
and slam poet Anis Mojgani (who many of you will remember from his previous visits to Christchurch, slaying us with his potent words).
It makes total sense that Jeevika Verma in NPR refers to him as “poetry’s biggest cheerleader”:
He believes that everyone should be reciting poems as they walk into a coffee shop, as they do the dishes, as they go on with their lives.
“The fact that poems exist is the load-bearing gratitude upon which I have built my life,” he explains. “And what do you do with gratitude when it piles up? You have to push it outwards.”
He says it’s sort of like eating a Snickers bar. “Not sharing your gratitude is like holding a Snickers bar in your mouth for a week. You’d just get cavities,” he laughs. “This is what I want to do with DiveDapper. As far as I’m concerned, poetry is the best thing that exists in the universe.”
The event will be followed by a book signing, with Scorpio Books will be selling copies of Kaveh’s book. There will be food and drink available for sale too.
The nation’s best poets will compete in a literary showdown on Saturday, November 3rd in Christchurch. Poets representing Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Hawkes Bay, Dunedin, Nelson and Southern Lakes will perform in a three-round poetry slam as selected members from the audience will judge to determine the winner. Can Christchurch defend their title or will a new city take the crown?
Featuring 2017 National Slam Champion, Christchurch’s own Daisy Lavea-Timo (DaisySpeaks), this is not a night to miss.
What: NZ National Poetry Slam Finals
When: Saturday November 3rd 2018
Time: Doors 7pm, Show 7:30pm
Where: Haeata Community Campus, 240 Breezes Rd.
Cost: $20 general, $15 students
Funnyman Rhys Darby has teamed up with Scholastic in a fun new fiction series for kids. He talked to Christchurch City Libraries about his debut children’s book and reading interests, his passion for cryptozoology and his connections to Christchurch.
Darby joins other comedians like David Walliams and Australian Peter Helliar who have written children’s books. By Darby’s own admission, he has childlike sensibilities and this lends itself well to his writing.
“Loaded with unmistakably quirky and random Rhys humour, 12-year-old Buttons McGinty pens top secret scribbles in a collection of extraordinary notebooks, as he and his friends enter a universe unlike any they’ve seen before. Buttons has been shipped off to Ranktwerp Island Education Fortress for Gifted Lame Unruly Minors, a.k.a. R.I.E.F.G.L.U.M., a boarding school on a remote island, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica. His parents are missing under strange circumstances and there are bogus baddies and a burly bigfoot on the prowl.” (Scholastic press release)
Darby says the main character, a flame-haired 12-year-old, is a young spirited version of himself and that he used to dream about going on adventures as a kid but back then he could only go on such adventures in his head – lucky he had a big imagination. Darby’s three years spent in the army from the age of 17 also comes through in his children’s book with his use of Morse code and the military-like operations going on in the story. Darby describes the setting as like “an Alcatraz for kids.”
Who is the book for?
Darby kept his two young sons in mind (ages 8 and 12) when writing his book. He says he wrote it for anyone with a sense of humour. “It’s for reluctant readers or for fans of my work” and what’s more, he adds, “I wrote it to amuse myself – it had to be fun for me to do it.” It’s hard not to read the book without hearing his distinctive comedic voice in your head, making it feel as if he were reading it to you.
Aside from a bit of Morse code, the book is full of funny asides, drawings, lists, maps and speech bubbles. Darby says that breaking up writing like this makes reading easier and more appealing. The story is written with a sense of immediacy. Button’s journal writing addresses the reader and makes you feel as if you are there figuring out the mystery alongside him.
Rhys Darby’s interest in cryptozoology is evident in the book when a mysterious caged creature is snuck onto the island. He describes cryptozoology as “things unclassified by science that people don’t think exists – a pseudoscience.” “I’m a fan of the unknown,” he says and he co-hosts a long-running podcast on cryptozoology called The Cryptid Factor with the likes of wry Kiwi documentarian David Farrier.
Rhys, why cryptozoology? What sparked your interest and do you have any favourite creatures?
“You’re opening a can of worms asking about my interest in this but yes, ‘hairy humanoids’ like the Yeti, the Sasquatch and other upright walking things that seem to be human which aren’t human, like the Australian Yowie and also including human reptilian creatures and sea serpents like the Loch Ness monster.”
“I remember reading when I was a kid an Usborne book called Monsters, seeing that in the library – Pakuranga Library – and one of my favourites featured all the creatures that may exist and sparked my interest in the unknown. We haven’t solved all the things on the planet that need to be solved.”
What role did libraries play in your life?
“I was a big library goer, mum would let me choose 5 books – it was a ritual. It was a safe quiet place. I remember going to my school library at Elm Park Primary and getting obsessed with car magazines.”
When we spoke Rhys was planning to visit his old primary school to read to the kids there.
The Buttons character in your book is named after your mate Leon ‘Buttons’ Kirckbeck (from your projects the Cryptid Factor and Short Poppies)? Tell us more about the name ‘Buttons’ you chose?
“‘Buttons’ sort of alludes to someone who is very good at knowing how to push the buttons, being a bit of a tech whiz or having a knack for machinery – like in the movie Gravity when Sandra Bullock is trapped but just knows how to go in and tinker with things to save herself.”
Rhys, your children’s book is mainly available through Australasian distribution and there are a number of ‘down under’ references and slang in the book. You’ve got a great line in your book about Buttons trusting someone “as much as you trust a cheap pair of jandals.” What made you choose to ‘keep it local’ in your book?
“Since I have international pull I am in a position to keep and draw attention to our unique Kiwi ‘voice’ – like Taika Waititi does. Wouldn’t it be great if like, in the same way we accept the English world of Harry Potter, that we just accept things and it became like that on the other side of the world?”
Rhys has even managed to retain his kiwiness in the recent Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as the voice of a villain called Hypno-Potamus).
“I trust him about as much as I trust a cheap pair of jandals” – quote from Buttons McGinty.
(Rhys obviously loves jandals – so much so he wrote a song about them!)
What did you learn from writing your first children’s book?
“To keep the humour coming in and not so much fantasy or action and also to keep it light so it’s not too dark, like the territory that Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll get into.”
Obviously Book 2 is underway since Book 1 ends on a cliff-hanger and loose ends – and you hope to write up to 4-5 in the series once you see how this goes. What about a film adaptation?
“My dream would be that maybe the book series would get made into a movie and when I’m writing it I imagine it and am visualising it all.”
You’re so multi-talented… What drives you and motivates you?
“I have a creative brain and get bored easily if I’m not doing something creative and I enjoy entertaining.”
Is there nothing you won’t take up or try out? Conversely, what’s something you want to try your hand at – if you could wave a magic wand and just do it, what might it be?
“Nothing too dangerous like jumping out of a plane since I’ve got kids now and I don’t know when my luck will run out. I’ve had the opportunity to climb Mt Kilimanjaro – for charity – and ‘nearly died’. I was so sick so although I’ve since been asked to Everest, I’ve turned it down. But if I could wave a wand, I’d like to go back in time and be an explorer – like being in Cairo exploring tombs in the 1920s, just doing archaeological digs. And also I’d like to visit the Victorian days in England – like the gloomy time period of Jack the Ripper and perhaps solve the riddle of what happened.”
You’re already really interesting and diverse, but can you tell us something about yourself that we might not know?
Rhys (age 44): “Well, I like to skateboard. I have eight skateboards and got Tony Hawk to sign my son’s skateboard when I was working with him.”
What are you currently reading?
“I’m the sort of person with a stack of books on the bedside and read bits here and there but currently The Explorer’s Guildby Kevin Costner the actor (and Jon Baird) – it’s part novel/part graphic novel. It’s set around WWI and it’s a bit of a tome – it’s not an easy read but I like the idea of it. (A worthy but challenging read).
We know you like Spike Milligan and, as well as the non-fiction you’ve mentioned, what else did you read as a kid?
“I wasn’t a great reader when I was a kid but I did enjoy graphic novels like TinTin(because he was an adventurer) and Asterix – funny and involved time and I learnt about Romans ruling.”
You must be a fun dad! What are your children’s current favourite reads or things you like to read to them?
Rhys Darby spent some formative years living and studying in Christchurch. He attended the University of Canterbury, trained at Burnham Military Camp and did his early performances as a comedy duo in Lyttelton.
In your earlier autobiographical book This Way to Spaceship, you tell a funny story about being in the 1996 Christchurch Christmas Parade dressed as Mr. Blubby, a mascot to help advertise some sickly jelly concoction, but kids threw the jelly drinks at you and tipped you over. What other memories do you have from your time here?
“Christchurch was a time of awakening for me. I had my first girlfriend there, I had my first comedy gig there and went to Burnham Military Camp. I like going back to the places I remember and finding new places, visiting the park and visiting Canterbury University and also Lyttelton where I started with my friend Grant (Lobban) and my performing began (Rhysently Granted).”
Talking to Rhys Darby is a delight and a volley of conversation that can go in any direction. One thing that struck me was his way of thinking. “Just imagine” he says often or “I could imagine…” As you can imagine, he’s effusive and full of spark and creativity and his enthusiasm is refreshing and contagious. Rhys Darby certainly has cross-generational appeal. I have been looking forward to this book being published for a while, as both a children’s librarian and a parent of children in the target age group. I was already a fan of his comedy since his Flight of the Conchords days, but now I have children who enjoy his work too, in projects like Jumanji and Thunderbirds Are Go! With a children’s book in the mix, he’s growing a new fan base.
Darby’s first book is a winner! Borrow it, buy it, gift it! We look forward to finding out what happens next in Darby’s daring adventures in Book 2!
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!
A large audience heard how Bishop spent several years researching for the book, which he says he really enjoyed, but was overwhelmed by the information he found.
One thing that struck him was the number of books that contradicted each other.
His challenge was how to find his own unique angle on the Endeavour story. As he looked through the names of the crew on the boat and their occupations, he began to wonder about the lesser-known members on board and was particularly struck by their curiously one-handed cook, John Thompson.
The story of the crew’s journey is told through food “as a point of context,” explains Bishop, with the cook as narrator. And, as his publisher Julia Marshall from Gecko Press notes “you can tell so many different stories through food—everything is here: culture, class, adventure, humour and much more.”
The Endeavour was originally the collier Earl of Pembroke and was designed for a crew of just 16 but when it sailed as the Endeavour it had 94 crew on board, packed in like sardines. And the meals were prepared on the mess deck where 74 men slept!
The cooking process on the Endeavour seemed to involve throwing everything together in a pot or bag and boiling it. Bishop says the meat became so rank that it was towed in a net behind the boat to soften it up and every second day was a vegetarian day consisting of Pease Porridge. To avoid scurvy, the cook served up stinky German cabbage. But all was not awful for the men, as it was noted how much booze was aboard the ship.
The book contains a little story about each of the countries the Endeavour visited and explains some of the names of the recipes featured such as Poor Knights Pudding, Stingray Soup, Kangaroo Stew, Dog and Breadfruit Stew and Albatross Stew “which you wouldn’t get away with today.” There were goats, dogs, pigs, sheep, cats and chickens on board. And when the ship crossed the equator everyone aboard, including the cats, were apparently tied to a chair and dipped into the water 3 times in an equator crossing ritual.
Bishop told his audience that there are two stories about the Endeavour that you won’t find anywhere else except in his book. One was told by Pete Beech, whose family was there in Picton when the Endeavour came with Cook, and tells the story of how a Māori woman was tricked into giving her taonga away for a bag of sugar. And the second story comes from an obscure poem that mentions a slave named Dalton on board who was a servant of botanist Joseph Banks. Like the Endeavour, not a centimetre of space in Bishop’s book was wasted, he says, and even the endpapers are full of illustrated facts.
At the book launch, Gecko Press were also celebrating 10 years of working with Bishop, starting with his collaboration for Joy Cowley in illustrating their successful Snake & Lizard. Marshall said what a treat it is working with Bishop: “Gavin is a true artist and very knowledgeable.” Gavin’s other book published in the past year is the illustratively stunning Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story.
Join international award-winning writer and illustrator Gavin Bishop and invited guests as we explore the Our Painted Stories exhibition and have a conversation about how seeing ourselves and our city in children’s literature helps grow a sense of identity. Wednesday 24th October 5:30-6:30pm Tūranga
Free, no bookings required Created in partnership with the Painted Stories Trust.
While visiting Tūranga, Gavin was delighted to discover a picture of his family on our Discovery Wall that even he didn’t have a copy of.
It is auspicious that just as Gavin Bishop was the first author to have a book launched at the old central library, he is also the first author to launch a book in the new library, Tūranga, 36 years later.
Once you make mention of your possible retirement, people start hounding you mercilessly. All boundaries crash and burn and you will find yourself having to answer questions like: “Why now?”, “Surely you’ll get bored?”, “Exactly when?”, “Will you have enough money?”, “What about your sex life?” … OK so I made up that last one, but all the others stay put. What I really needed was a book entitled: “What will I do when you are gone”, sadly that one is yet to be written.
But Libraries have always come to my rescue in the past and they did not fail me this time either. Lo and Behold, I found the perfect book to recommend for situations of loss, because make no bones about it, I’m going to miss you guys heaps.It’s a new book – What To Do When I’m Gone. It’s written by a mother to help her daughter cope after her death. It’s funny, full of good advice, beautifully illustrated and applies to all sorts of life situations where people just aren’t there for you any more. Here’s how it starts:
DAY 1 After I’m Gone: Make fajitas. And after you’ve done that serve with fresh tortillas, chopped cilantro, and thin slices of avocado. Great job. Now don’t you feel better? Of course you don’t. Pour yourself a stiff glass of whisky.
My next bookish recommendation to tide you over is The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons. This recent edition of short stories has a slight Magic Realism edge to it. Here is a book to remind you why we read in the first place: to be taken by the hand to visit some strange place, only to get there and find yourself quite unexpectedly at home. I chose this book for its stunning cover, I started reading it because of its great title. I finished it because it is just brilliant. And you’d think it would be a “ladies” book, but its best reviews are all by men. Read it!
And I hope you have already met up with Elizabeth Strout in your reading travels, but if not you can just as well start here with Anything is Possible her most recent book of loosely linked characters in a small mid-western town. I love Strout’s writing – she is one of the best observers of everyday
folk that we have right now. She feels like one of those people who can divine an entire personality from a single scrap of fabric. Forget about politics and climate change and the price of petrol. The really important stuff is happening to the people in your home, your neighbourhood, your town.
Of course you can instead choose to read one of the many books on retirement, or on growing older. But I can summarise their contents for you right here: Make a will; Pay off your mortgage; Keep active and socialise, and whatever else you do, join a Tai Chi class. Instead I’m hoping growing older will be more like this quote from a review of The Wrong Heaven:
Anything is possible: bodies can transform, inanimate objects can come to life, angels can appear and disappear.
Now that’s more like what I am aiming at in retirement!
We love FESTA! This Labour weekend “vibrant biennial celebration of urban creativity and community” is one of Ōtautahi’s most cool and unique events. It’s food for the mind, eyes, and soul. That is particularly apt in 2018 as FESTA gets foody – FESTA 2018 is all about architecture, design – and food. Contribute to the Pledgeme FESTA2018 by midday today (Thursday 27 September) and you’ll help the traditional Saturday evening mega-event street party FEASTA! be the best yet.
There are more than 55 events planned for FESTA 2018, here are some of my picks:
The big FREE street party is on Saturday 20 October from 5 to 11pm. It’s a FESTA tradition to activate different parts of the city, and this time Mollett Street (which runs between Colombo Street and Durham Street South) is the place to be.
There will be the stunning installations we’ve come to love at the FESTA party. The 2018 works have been created by more than 130 design and architecture students from across Australia and New Zealand, as well as NZIA and NZILA Canterbury branch members, in collaboration with Creative Director Barnaby Bennett. There will be loads of whānau fun, music, performances, art, markets, and plenty of yummy delights. One of the excellent initiatives on the night is Kono for Kai: 100 hand woven harakeke kono (small food baskets) filled with native plant seedlings and seeds will be available to the public in exchange for a koha of kai (non-perishable goods only please). All koha received will be gifted to a community group for distribution to those in need in the community. Read all about it.
FESTA at Tūranga
Ka rawe! Your new central library Tūranga will be open when FESTA is on, and it is the venue for:
Saturday 20 October and Sunday 21 October 1 to 4pm; Monday 22 October (Labour Day), 10am to 1pm at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū
Pop in to this drop-in session and make a cityscape out of food! Use the colourful clay provided to sculpt a house or a building in the shape of fruit and vegetables and add it to the map. Suitable for children aged 7+. FREE
Sunday 21 October 6pm to 7.30pm. Meet at Victoria Square. FREE.
Take a trip back in time and explore our culinary past. Join Nik Mavromatis as he hosts a guided walking tour around central Christchurch, starting with Ōtautahi’s oldest market square. Nik then takes you to former hospitality sites and reminisces over the cafes, bars and restaurants that were previously part of the fabric of our city.
This is a mere taster, visit the FESTA 2018 to explore all the events on offer.
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.