The thing I really enjoy about comedy podcast, The Nerd Degree, is that though there’s generally a theme running through the episodes, you really never know what you’re going to get. And neither do the panelists, for the most part. But a safe bet is that there’ll be amazing facts, nerdy knowledge and plenty of laughs.
If you’ve never experienced The Nerd Degree either in person, or in podcast, then the best way to describe it is as a local comedy quiz show for nerds of all stripes (there are many varieties). It’s QI meets the MCU (or MMORPG or… LARP) . There are two teams, the host asks the questions, and points are distributed in a rather haphazard fashion.
The nerds at last month’s very special episode at WORD Christchurch were local YA author Karen Healey and Jolisa “Tell you what” Gracewood competing as team Comparatively Literate with scary movie specialist Dr. Erin Harrington and Ngāi Tahu writer and artist Nic Low as Essentially Illiterate. With Brendon Bennetts in charge of time-keeping and correct answers.
The theme of the episode was “adventure” and we sure were taken on a journey. It’s hard to talk about the content of the episode without spoiling it though I can say that Nic Low is a man who has an amazing story about seemingly everything (if he ever writes a memoir it will be a must-read), that Karen Healey has missed her calling as a writer for Macgyver and that apparently armadillo tastes a bit like duck.
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.
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.
Should there be sex in young adult fiction? A resounding yes, according to panellists Karen Healey, Ted Dawe and Frances Young. Sex is a major part of many people’s lives and therefore it will turn up in fiction whether or not you’ve identified it as an important theme in your writing. How it is portrayed, positively or negatively, is another matter — Healey emphasised her wish for sex-positive teen fiction, getting rid of the shame that settles on us in adolescence. Dawe meanwhile was concerned that Harry Potter is leading a movement away from realistic, warts-and-all depictions of young men. (He obviously hasn’t read the testosterone-fueled mess that is Order of the Phoenix.)
The role of pornography in teen sexuality
Young cited various statistics linking increasingly violent pornography with sexual violence against women. If teens are discovering sex via violent porn, does this then influence their relationships and sexual experiences in the future? With pornography being increasingly accessible online, and society and media supporting the objectification of women, are we grooming our children into becoming sex offenders? Young considers this a public health crisis which needs to be addressed.
Differences between publishing in NZ/Australia vs. publishing in the US?
Healey mentions a saucy scene in While We Run which received a very positive response from her Australian editors, and some careful notes on her manuscript from her American publishers. (‘Do you have to use the word “unzip”?’) Her debut novel Guardian of the Dead was also initially written for an adult audience, and had to be altered to suit a teenage audience. The sex was cut but the violence was allowed to stay.
The Into the River controversy
Several panellists brought up the “dubious consent” of a particular sex scene (borderline rape) in Into the River, and the lack of any reprisals or sense of wrongdoing in the novel. Dawe said he dislikes being compelled to write a counter-argument into the text as that’s “proselytising” rather than fiction writing. He suggested his books are primers for teens just beginning to have sexual relationships, an accurate reflection of first-time messy unglamorous sex. What a scary thought.
Sex is a controversial topic but makes for fascinating discussion. Were you at the session? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
I kicked off a very full weekend at the WORD festival with some good old oral storytelling. Listening to stories read aloud is one of my earliest memories and my memories sitting in early intermediate school captivated by The Giver and terrified by Goosebumps are much easier to recall than what we learned in class afterwards…
Creating Young Adult Worlds was a great session, with five authors writing for young adults reading aloud from their work. Karen Healey, Laini Taylor, Meg Wolitzer, Elizabeth Knox and Tania Roxborogh gave us all a taste.
Laini Taylor read “the most embarrassing” chapter from the first book in her incredible fantasy trilogy Daughter of Smoke and Bone, in which art student Karou gets a satisfying revenge on her ex-boyfriend. The passage went from hilarious to heartbreaking in the space of a sentence, and included some pretty excellent life advice from a monster:
But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and…no inessential penises either.
Karen Healey read from a short story ‘Careful Magic’ which will appear in an up-and-coming anthology Kaleidoscope. Within minutes she crafted an intriguing magical world and a few really fascinating characters that I can’t wait to read more about. Kaleidoscope is a collection of sci-fi and fantasy short stories featuring diverse characters, from disabled superheros, time-traveling Chinese-American figure skaters, to transgendered animal shifters. It’s is not in our library yet, so while you’re waiting why not catch up with Karen Healey’s other novels and short stories?
Elizabeth Knox read a passage from her historical-fantasy novel Mortal Fire, based in Southland, an imaginary country similar to New Zealand, which will be known to readers of her Dreamhunter series. Mortal Fire won the New Zealand Post Book Awards this year for best Young Adult Fiction. The story features some really interesting characters, though my favourite is Canny, daughter of a war heroine, Pacifica maths whiz and stubborn as anything.
“People get over things, cultures don’t.”
Tania Roxborogh read from the 2005 novel The Third Degree. The story is based on the author’s real experience of being badly burned when she was young and strongly features her relationship with her mother. Though the story begins when main character Ruth is starting university, many of the themes will be familiar to anyone who had to spend time in hospital as a child. There were some excellently gruesome medical scenes!
If I had to choose out of the five, I’d say that I am most excited to read Meg Wolitzer‘s new book Belzhar. I couldn’t describe it better than Karen Healey did in her tweet:
Me of Belzhar (@MegWolitzer): I can’t believe it’s taken this long for someone to write the boarding school Sylvia Plath fantasy story.
Karen Healey‘s first experience with Margaret Mahy came early, as a toddler.
There’s a photo of me — I must have been about 4 — reading A Lion in the Meadow, sitting on the toilet, wearing a raincoat and wellies. I’d obviously rushed in without bothering to take them off, but had made enough time to grab a book to read.
In contrast Elizabeth Knox first picked up The Changeover while working in a museum shop in her twenties. She had only recently started reading books for young adults again after a self-imposed diet of 19th century poets. (“I think Mahy would have got on very well with William Blake,” Knox adds.) The strong sense of family present in Mahy’s works, similar to those by Diana Wynne Jones, have made both writers firm favourites of hers.
I first read The Changeover when I was about 13 and it just blew my BRAINS out. I was so excited by this book, because Laura literally writes herself into being a heroine.
Laura’s strong, flawed character will be the core of the forthcoming Changeover movie, filmmaker Stuart McKenzie confirms. While some aspects of the book have necessarily been trimmed (including Sorry’s backstory and, much to my regret, librarian Chris Holly), McKenzie assures us that they have been pruned to allow better visibility of Laura and her story.
The film is set in post-earthquake Christchurch, updated from 1984. The transformation of the city echoes the various changeovers present in the book, from Laura’s physical change from child to adolescent to the changeover of the title.
Another strong character in the movie will be Carmody Braque, whose malevolent presence seeps through the book like the smell of peppermints — yet in the end the reader almost feels sorry for him. We get a glimpse of the person he might have been once, possibly someone quite similar to Laura. Healey admits to stealing the amoral nature of Carmody Braque, a character who decides his need to live overrides your freedom, for her first novel.
Braque is terrifying because you get the sense that he sees himself as quite reasonable. He turns up everywhere in various guises, whether as the patupaiarehe in Guardian of the Dead, or Laurel in Fire and Hemlock. In some ways they are utterly alien, yet there is the possibility in all of us to become another Braque. This role-reversal and exploration of the slipperiness of our sense of self is a theme throughout The Changeover, asking: When do we stop being ourselves?
I always love panel events because it can be much more of an organic conversation between panellists, bringing up themes and topics that might not otherwise be heard. I was especially excited about Capes and Tights because, well, firstly it’s about comics, and secondly, the speakers are all excellent people. The session did not disappoint.
Discussion began with an exploration of each speaker’s initiation into comics (Tintin and Asterix being the main offenders), and then their first experience within the realm of the superhero.
Damon Young confessed being drawn as a teenager to the rage and violence of characters such as Ghost Rider, the Punisher and Batman, whereas Dylan Horrocks and Jonathan King were both fans of the fun and absurd superhero comics of the 60s. Karen Healey was a relative latecomer to superhero comics, becoming fascinated with comics such as Kingdom Come at university despite an initial difficulty breaking into the genre as a reader.
Dylan Horrocks asked the panel for their opinion of the “dark and gritty” reboot of many characters, and the fetishization of violence in the superhero canon (comics often being produced with sponsorship by or advertising for the US Army and Air Force). Comments ranged from an appreciation of the way in which physical violence can be paralleled by verbal argument, to the disappointing flattening of a character consumed only by darkness.
Karen Healey brought up the problematic trend of fridging female characters and bemoaned the lack of a Black Widow movie (seriously, when will it happen? We’re ready), which segued into a discussion on copyright and our collective ownership of these characters.
Superhero comics are basically fanfiction. The writers, the artists are all fans of these characters and are creating stories in response to that history, but they have no legal ownership of that material.
All agreed that it is time for DC and Marvel to let “their” creations fall into the public domain, to be used as modern myths (à la Robin Hood or King Arthur) without threat of legal action.
In less than a day I had been harassed, enchanted, shouted at, cried on, and clawed. I’d been cold, scared, dirty, exhausted, hungry, and miserable. And up until now, I’d been mildly impressed with my ability to cope.
A gripping fantasy set on the shifting boundary between what is real and what is legend. Can Ellie discover a power she never knew she possessed?
At her boarding school in New Zealand, Ellie Spencer is like any ordinary teen: she hangs out with her best friend, Kevin; obsesses over her crush on a mysterious boy; and her biggest worry is her essay deadline. Until everything changes…
In the foggy woods near the school, something ancient and deadly is waiting.