So firstly, if you find yourself in the mood for a well crafted locked-room mystery in the style of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, get yourself a copy of An Unwanted Guest by mystery master Shari Lapena. It’s a group of strangers held captive by the elements in a secluded boutique hotel. When the guests begin to fall victim to murder the story weaves and wraps around in a classic whodunit style with a good twisty-turny plot. A perfect choice for a bit of summer escapism.
How about hearing some tales of the Norse Gods, written and read by Neil Gaiman – a self-confessed devotee of the classic sagas.
These stories are fantastical, full of deceit and murder, trickery and beauty, and expertly read by the author in the audiobook edition available on our eResource BorrowBox. You’ll discover the strange relationship between Thor and his brother Loki, learn how the Gods came to be in possession of their most treasured artifacts like Thor’s hammer, named Mjolnir, or how Loki came to bear his children – a brilliant story of Loki’s trickery coming back to bite him. Amazing stories and a privilege to be able to listen to the author present them just as intended – casual and conversational storytelling.
What about music…? If you’re looking for some tunes this season then I would suggest you check out the award-winning new album from Kiwi contemporary music legend Eve De Castro Robinson, The Gristle Of Knuckles. New Zealand’s contemporary music is in a fine state if this album is anything to go by. It’s from the hand/mind of one of the countries most respected music educators and composers and features many of our most celebrated musicians. It’s outstanding – dynamic, inventive, masterfully performed, and well worth a listen if you like jazz and contemporary music as an artform.
And there’s always a Graphic Novel to help you while away an evening.
A darkly comedic tale of a man who wants to die but instead, whenever he tries to die, he just shifts over into whoever is around him. A brilliantly funny and darkly curious take of modern life by an expert artist. It’s simplistic artwork counterpoints the bleak nature of the subject matter – a comedy about suicide!? And what results is book of gravity and heart.
A grown up fairytale from the legendary Giambattista Basile that is dark, twisted, and engrossing. Three kingdoms exist within the lands, each ruled by very different monarchs. Through the lives and demands of the people and the supernatural worlds, their stories intertwine to create a masterpiece of imaginative film making. A brilliant cast and a story that will stay with you long after.
Another year is coming to a close and it gives me pause to think about what an amazing year it has been for fiction! We’ve been bestowed with such a wealth of quality new releases, from longstanding authors continuing to deliver, debuts of such genius it boggles the mind, sequels that have been waiting more than a century, and a bold author new takes on an old classic.
My highlights for this year start with not only the best book I’ve read this year but possibly the best I will ever read, ever!
I’m talking it up, I know but here’s some of the reasons why… Flames is a tribute to nature, the environment, our place in it, the unseen elements, the powers that rule, and the lives of all things. It weaves myths and small gods into the fabric of the environment, masters of unseen systems which shape lives unbeknownst to the humans inhabiting their land. This is an astonishingly good book. It’s elemental, blurs the lines between reality and mythology, sweeps you up in atmosphere and the sense of place, and the use of language is sublime. The story is set in Tasmania and centres around a family with deep connections to the land and environment. A young woman sets out south, alone to the wilderness of ancient Tasmania, while her brother sets out to build her a coffin and sends a private detective to track down his sister and bring her home.Through the course we discover an ageless world, gods of nature, young people coming of age, and what it is to engage with your world. Superb effort and the best thing I’ve read this year – quite an effort given the next titles I’ll share with you!
When Hogarth Shakespeare set out to create modern retellings of the great works of Shakespeare, they were inspired by their choice of Jo Nesbo to retell Macbeth. Macbeth The master of noir violence and mystery has done an absolutely brilliant job of turning Macbeth (the man) into a Scottish police officer, wracked with guilt of the past, plagued with addiction, and hungry for power. It’s so obvious to me now that Macbeth was MADE for the Scandi-Noir genre treatment. It’s gritty, dark, violent. Full of power, betrayal, and characters walking the fine line between sanity and madness. For this story Macbeth is head of SWAT in a dangerous and corrupt town and together with his mistress, Lady, the rags-to-riches casino entrepreneur, they embark on a powerplay to seize control of the city. But Macbeth has a sketchy past full of drug abuse and violence and as he relapses things get out of control, people get killed, lines get blurred… A great read and a must if you like Scandi Crime!
The next two I’d like to share are by two of the most important authors of our contemporary world right now – in my humble opinion. The first is the Australian writer Tim Winton and his newest book The Shepherd’s Hut. It’s the very colourful and memorable account of a young man forced by circumstance to take to the outback roads of rural Western Australia. Such brilliant descriptive writing will have you smelling the eucalyptus in the air, and hearing the crispy arid saltlands crunching underfoot. Jaxie is running and he’s got a vague destination in mind – north. And he’s got to survive the perils of rural Australia, criminals, and the very land that seems to want to kill him from heat, thirst or animal attack. An outstanding book from a great Australian author and written in vernacular language too, strengthening characters and adding some lightness!
Willy Vlautin is one of my favourite authors writing today and his works just keep getting better and better. He writes of contemporary everyday life and he tells the stories of working class Americans and the very real struggles faced by ordinary people in the America of today. This one is concerning a young American Indian man who passionately desires to be a champion boxer. He begins his journey on a ranch in Nevada where an ageing couple has adopted him, and follows him to Arizona as he sets his mind to a life of pugilism. Beautifully written and full of the heart and pathos that Willy Vlautin is famous for. A stellar effort and worthy of much praise.
Another great debut from Australia that really captures the Australian Gothic story. It’s the story of two young men, not boys but barely men, after a traumatic family event that sees them on a journey not of their choosing. The book describes the brutality of life in 1800’s Australia, the treatment of the indigenous population, and the rigourous adherence to the ‘old ways’ in this vastly alien and seemingly lawless world. If you like your reading to be vivid, violent, confronting, and troublesome then you’ll sure like this one!
I was originally going to keep this list of highlights to five titles but there’s another one that came to my attention recently. It’s the sequel (a prequel to be more precise) that’s taken over a century to come into existence. Dracul
The official prequel to the great work, this one penned by none other than Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew and authorised by his estate. It’s told in the familiar form of diary entries and personal notes, and tells the story of Bram himself who along with his siblings encounter some serious evil and a creature so powerful and unknowable that it threatens their very souls. So well written and very readable, good pace (bit of a page turner), and language that would please the original author. A great read for fans of horror, mystery/suspense, or the classics. Definitely one of my best picks for 2018 and a worthy inclusion to this highlights package (and my colleague Fee loved it too)!
Now I look at the titles that missed out on inclusion to this list with some sadness – like I say, it was a remarkable year for quality fiction! Here at least you have a selection for your holiday reading this summer. Grab one at your local library, settle in with a cup o’tea (or something else), and get some amazing stories in for the hols.
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.
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.
When I was fourteen at my co-ed high school I was forced by limited subject choices to do Domestic Science (that’s what the girls got, only boys did Geography). I was miserable in Domestic Science, and lippy with it too. Finally I got thrown out of class. By the next day I became notorious as the only girl in the school permitted to study Geography. And that was one of my very early life-defining moments. Because maps have shaped my life.
And map books themselves have changed in ways I could not have foreseen all those years ago. Cartography has come a long way from colouring-in maps of the Natural Regions of the world.
For example: Plotted – A Literary Atlas by Andrew deGraff (his official title is Pop Cartographer, how cool is that?) provides us with beautiful maps, plans and landscapes for nineteen great books. (At last you can see what the literary insides of Jonah’s whale might have looked like!). I could kick myself that I never had this idea.
Other recently published map/site books include Unfathomable City (an Arty New Orleans Atlas) and the perfectly charming Spiritual Places by travel writer Sarah Baxter.
Move on to The Art of Map Illustration – in which four contemporary artists (called Visual Storytellers – another great job description that I regret I have missed) explain how they include maps in their art.
There’s also the beautiful children’s book City Atlas with a search-and-find game on every page and the weirdly compelling Atlas of Lost Cities which will make you want to travel to places that no longer exist.
And right here in a local Christchurch mall I spotted a novel I’d not heard of before: The Consolation of Maps. What a wonderful title. The library hadn’t purchased it, but I used the online form to Request an Item for our Collection and we now have five copies. It’s a wonderful story about the love of antique maps and the contrasts between life in Japan and the States. Okay, so the cover does make you feel that the only consolation one might gain from maps would be if a ton of them dropped on your head and put you out of your misery, but aside from that, it is a worthwhile read.
Back to my fourteen year old self: Geography is the reason I can talk at some boring length about Magnetic Declination. Why I have a good grasp of Adiabatic Lapse Rates and Great Circles. Why every home I have ever lived in has a globe of the world, several atlases and a box full of topographic maps. It is also responsible for my having only ever dated bearded men and why I always make good friends with ladies who bake delicious cupcakes!
The map of my life seemed to start from that point where I was thrown out of class. What a blessing that turned out to be!
Like most kids my son enjoys stories before bedtime (which is just as well because his mum is a librarian and he was going to be getting them regardless).
Like a lot of Kiwi parents I do my best to add some te reo Māori into the mix where I can, but my own Māori language knowledge is a bit patchy in places – I’m a work in progress. So how to expose my 4 year old to some te reo, but also read a story so we’ll both understand it and enjoy the experience?
I’ve found that reading te reo Māori versions of books we already know really well in English has been a fun way to do it. It helps if it’s a book that you’ve read so many times, you’ve practically got it memorised. That way you can “read” the English language version (out loud from memory), and then read the te reo version from the page.
Our latest success with this method has been with Stephanie Blake’s Poo Bum aka Paraweta, which has just come out in te reo.
I let my tamaiti hold the original version and turn the pages of that one, while I hold the Māori language version, and he yells out “Paraweta!” at the appropriate points in the story.
Here are some other te reo Māori versions of children’s classics we’ve enjoyed that you might like to try:
If you’re a te reo beginner then start with simple stories like The very hungry caterpillar, Where’s Spot or even Kei te pehea koe? / How do you feel? (which is in both English and Māori and is really easy to follow).
Or try stories in English that incorporate some te reo Māori words like The kuia and the spider (because it’s never to early to learn words like “hōha“), or Row, kiwi, row your boat, which you can sing together and includes simple Māori greetings (and a full te reo version for more confident speakers/singers).
Even if I trip up on a word here and there I’ve found that as long as I’m doing the silly voices and engaging with the story, my son is pretty happy to have a te reo Māori story at bedtime, in fact… Paraweta is his new favourite.
Find out more
Throughout Te Wiki o te Reo Māori we’ll be blogging about ways you can help strengthen the reo.
During the chaos of dashing between WORD sessions, writer and co-editor Laurence Fearnley kindly agreed to sit down with me and answer a few questions about her new anthology To the Mountains and other works.
What brought you to writing about mountaineering?
My parents used to do a lot of climbing in Scotland and Wales after the war [before moving to Christchurch]. We spent a lot of weekends tramping — dad went on a couple of expeditions to the Himalayas, my brother was a keen climber… When I was doing research for my novel The Hut Builder I read a lot of Alpine Club articles and ended up with boxes and boxes of material, so I thought it would be quite nice to do something with that. There hadn’t been an anthology of mountain writing since Ray Knox’s A Thousand Mountains Shining in the 80s, so it seemed a good time. I hadn’t really kept up to date with modern mountaineering writing but [co-editor] Paul Hersey edited the Alpine Journal and is a climber, so he had that sort of knowledge.
You researched a lot in the Hocken Collection. What was that like?
They have full archives from the Alpine Club, which was established in 1891. It’s interesting because they allowed women to join as members right from the start, compared to others like the Canterbury Mountaineering Club which didn’t allow women in until the 1980s. I got material from those archives and also from notebooks, journals, and letters that individuals have donated to the collection. It’s an amazing archival record, it’s incredible. It does taper off from the 1970s/80s onwards so it would be great if people continued to donate to the collection, if this could be our central repository of mountain writing.
A lot of voices chosen for this anthology aren’t those most people would associate with alpine writing — usually we only hear from those at the cutting edge of mountaineering.
That’s the sad thing because that’s how you get the same old voices coming through, if they’re not disrupted by allowing different voices. Mountains are a big part of our sporting identity, it would be nice if it was seen as something families do, not just rugged individuals. There are so many reasons why people go into the mountains — photography, art, for somewhere quiet and restful, to admire the beauty… The public perception of conquest [of the Alps] doesn’t really hold true, it’s not necessarily a motivation for most people.
At the same time a lot of the 1930s Canterbury Mountaineering Club articles are of trips in the Port Hills because it was difficult to get good transport to the Alps — they might only be able to get into the mountains once or twice a year but they were very fit. It was a class orientated sport, particularly in the early days. It’s interesting when the boundaries start breaking down between the upper middle class mountaineers and the working class mountain guides. Guides weren’t allowed in the Alpine Club because they were professionals.
Which doesn’t give credit to the fact that the guides were doing a lot of the work putting up tents, cutting steps, carrying the equipment…
Yes, you get someone like Dora De Beer on an expedition overseas in China, they walked 400 miles before they even got to the mountain, it was a real Victorian expedition. They would expect shelter from whatever was available, from monasteries to embassies, just take over their house. She was an amazing woman — during the 30s just before the war she would drive from London through Holland, Germany and Switzerland to get to Italy, on her own a lot of the time. Her diaries are from 1936-37, a lot of her entries are things like “Very inconvenienced getting across the border,” such a sense of imperious entitlement with no mention of the political climate. People like her were so curious and enthusiastic, in New Zealand they’d set off on horseback across Otira to the West Coast, just loving the absolute freedom of being out of that rigid society. They thought it was a great hoot.
Some of my favourite parts of the book are letters from the 1800s, there were some really funny excerpts. You must have had a lot of fun finding these in the Hocken collection. Do you have any favourites?
The ones I liked were the quieter, reflective pieces, people going back later in life and just enjoying being in the outdoors with their friends. I guess Jill Tremain had a big impact on me as a kid when she did the [1971 traverse of the Southern Alps] with Graeme Dingle — I can remember it being on the radio, there was a lot of controversy about them sharing a tent as she wasn’t married. From her letters she seemed to have such a generous outlook on life.
Voices I like least would be the 1970s slightly macho hard men stuff, that’s not a voice that appeals to me but quite a big part of the literature of the time. When you compare those writers with Aat Vervoorn, so reflective and spiritual, learning from the landscape… The ones who enjoy being in the space rather than needing to prove themselves or get a reputation, those would be the voices I like.
What are you currently working on?
I’m two-thirds of the way through a novel looking at landscape through scent and identity, under the umbrella narrative of a woman who loses her job when the university Humanities department is done away with. That one will be coming out next year. I’m also looking at doing an anthology of New Zealand women mountaineers. This will be more historical, it will be worthwhile to have a chronology of women mountaineers as there are so many of them.
What are you reading at the moment?
Just read a couple of books that I reviewed for Landfall, one called Oxygen by [New Zealand freediver) William Trubridge — not a book I’d necessarily be drawn to but interesting to see just how determined and focussed he has to be. The other is a beautiful book about hunting called Dark Forest Deep Water by Richard Fall, which would normally be something that turns me off but hearing him reflecting on why he hunts and the emotional journeys of hunting… It’s a great book, I’d really recommend it.
Thanks Laurence for a lovely interview, and I look forward to reading your next books!
The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty is first in the Daevabad trilogy, set partly in 18th century Egypt. It comprises of two storylines, one featuring Nahri (orphaned Cairo con woman and thief) who accidentally calls down a warrior djinn named Dara and a whole lot of danger; the other featuring devout Ali, prince of the djinn city of Daevabad, who has been inadvertently been funding a potential rebellion against his own ruling family.
Part of this story is magic and flying carpets and fiery swords, and part is a more nuanced look at what happens when the people of one religion and culture take over the city of another, and how they deal with that over the generations. It’s not an uncommon scenario to be in — the aggrieved Daeva are still seeking reparations for the loss of their sovereignty, and the other djinn are all resentful of what they perceive to be the special treatment given to the Daeva (sound familiar?). At the bottom of the heap are the half-blood djinn, the shafit, resented and mistreated by everybody.
Then there’s Nahri, dealing with the discovery that she has some djinn blood as well as the appearance of a temperamental Daeva who’s determined to carry her off to Daevabad. Oh, and if they stay too long in one place the undead rise up and come after them, so there’s that. Much of the book (possibly a bit too much) is spent on their journey and a slow reveal of Daevabad’s history and Nahri’s lost family connections, plus a hint of a developing romance between Nahri and Dara. I preferred the conflict of their eventual arrival in Daevabad, where religious and racial tensions rise to a peak and Ali has to finally choose between his morals and his family loyalty.
My only spoiler-free criticisms are that the book is a little slow to get going, and that the many names and relationships between the different types of djinn could be confusing to some readers. Neither of these put me off anticipating the next book in the series (The Kingdom of Copper, hopefully published next year). If you enjoy complex but fun epic fantasy then I would encourage you to give this series a try.
The City of Brass
by S. A. Chakraborty
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand