26 July 2015

In Praise of Dwarf Planets: Pluto, Charon and Ceres

I don't often spend time in the High Court, but when I do, it's good to have some uplifting thoughts to entertain me. This week, many of those thoughts have provided by three dwarf planets: Pluto and Charon (the two of whom can be argued to form a binary dwarf planet system), and Ceres, the largest dwarf planet in the Asteroid Belt.

The New Horizons mission to the Kuiper Belt, which has just visited Pluto and Charon, and the Dawn mission to the Asteroid Belt, which visited Vesta before heading to Ceres, are sending back fascinating images and science results. There are squillions of these about, but here are a few of my favourites:

Kind of Ceres to leave the porch light on to welcome the Dawn orbiter.

Earth has a water cycle. Titan has a methane cycle. Does Pluto have a nitrogen cycle?

Is that dark patch on Charon caused by deposition from Pluto?

Clearly the next step in Pluto's campaign to be reinstated to the ranks of full planets is for Australia to be declared a planet.

15 July 2015

Don't Go There, Labour. Even Though You Already Went There.

Is foreign ownership of land and property in New Zealand a legitimate subject for political disagreement and policy debate? Personally, I believe it is - for many years, I've been concerned by how easily foreign owners can take up large tracts of New Zealand land, whether it's been Shania Twain near Queenstown or James Cameron in the Wairarapa.

But when the Labour Party chose to frame that issue by attacking house purchasers on the basis that they had Chinese-sounding names, rather than framing the issue in terms of foreign investment, regardless of country of origin or how Chinese an investor's name sounds, they crossed a line they may come to regret.

New Zealand politicians of both the Right and Left have a long and inglorious history of scapegoating people of Chinese descent living in New Zealand for political gain. If you doubt that, I encourage you to read White Ghosts, Yellow Peril - China and New Zealand 1790-1950 by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Zeng Dazheng, which lays out many such examples and their consequences for the Chinese community of the time. The recent blog post Year of the (Scape)goat by "Kiwiese" reinforces the point.

Given the endorsement of Phil Twyford's initial anti-Chinese framing of the issue by Labour leader Andrew Little, it's clear that this is a strategy Labour has deliberately decided to employ, not one it has stumbled into by mistake. Ever since Andrew Little took over as Labour Party leader, there have been signs that Labour has concluded it needs to move to the right to recapture lost votes and lost voting blocks - and this anti-Chinese rhetoric may well be an attempt to capture back voters lost to New Zealand First.

Labour may have been goaded into this approach by its analysis of the recent UK election. There, Labour lost votes in a broad swathe of seats from the south to the North-East of England to UKIP, who sell hard-right policies dressed up in the mantle of white working-class cultural chauvinism and resentment of immigrants. While UKIP only took one seat itself, it did take enough votes off Labour to cost Labour many seats in this region. Perhaps New Zealand Labour has taken a look at this and decided to out-UKIP any other party which might try to claim this political territory.

But Labour could have drawn a very different lesson from the UK general election. In Scotland, the SNP, a party which although not especially socialist campaigned on a strong anti-austerity platform, swept a time-serving Scottish Labour Party from power and claimed 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster. Maybe, instead of trying on the clothes of Winston Peters or UKIP leader Nigel Farage, NZ Labour should take its inspiration from Westminster's youngest MP, the SNP's Mhairi Black:

Will Labour gain popular support by scapegoating people with Chinese surnames? Very possibly. It's a tactic that has led to short-term political success in New Zealand before. Should they continue doing so? Absolutely not, in my view. And that's not just because it is morally wrong: it is also driving committed activists away from Labour.

I know of a number of Labour activists, the people who knock on doors and answer phones and run meetings and deliver leaflets, who have quit Labour over this and related issues, and I suspect many of the activists who remain are far from happy about Labour's new direction. National isn't so dependent on activists to win elections, because they can call on lots of corporate donations. Labour doesn't have access to that kind of money, so it relies a lot more on activists' hard work to win elections. Lose too many of them, and Labour's joy at its march to the political centre may turn to ashes in its mouth come the next election.

In conclusion, I suggest the New Zealand Labour Party sticks to developing a narrative about how a Labour-led Government will benefit New Zealand as a whole, and leaves the overt racism to others.

13 July 2015

NZ Pacific Studio - Ema Saiko Poetry Fellowship - 31 July deadline

My friend and fellow poet Madeleine Slavick got in touch to let writers know about this excellent short-term poetry residency. Speaking as someone for whom long-term residencies haven't been feasible to apply for due to family and work commitments, I think short-term residencies are an excellent idea - and this one is located in a lovely part of the country!

The residency discussed below has a 31 July deadline, but even if that doesn't suit you, check out the www.artistresidency.org.nz website for other opportunities.

Madeleine, who is the Community Program Manager for New Zealand Pacific Studio, says:

We offer a three-week poetry fellowship, and perhaps you or people you know might like to apply? Here is the link: http://www.artistresidency.org.nz/blog/623222

We offer other funded fellowships throughout the year as well as self-funded residencies (at $300/week). Browse our website sometime and see if it may be of interest.

We are located two houses north of Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, which resident writers/artists have free access to during their stay.

Please share with colleagues -- the Studio is open to writers, visual artists and all creative practitioners.

07 July 2015

Tuesday Poem: Shostakovich in America

1959, November. The plumed De Soto
hammers on, freshman driver
burning up the plains.

Freedom! The Kappa Gamma Beta boys
can never catch him now. They're back east
in the studio, where Ormandy

shrugs and starts recording.
Dmitri has better things to do. This is
his jazz age, his lost weekend.

An upstate college, denuded branches
scrawled across the moon. He nestles
in a co-ed's bed. Dreams

drag him back to the Kremlin:
always the bottle of Georgian wine,
always the black telephone.

Dawn is coffee, hesitant smiles,
the wordless bond of night
knotting itself into language.

She is summer, America, forgetting.
"You were flailing your arms,"
she says. "Conducting."

He kisses, disentangles, turns the key.
His car roars over the siloed plains,
eastwards into the morning.

Credit note: "Shostakovich in America" was originally published in Issue 11 of Bravado magazine, and was subsequently included in my 2011 poetry collection Men Briefly Explained.

Dmitri Shostakovich did visit the USA in 1959, and did record with Eugene Ormandy. The rest is imagined.

Tim says: I posted this poem once before, in 2010 - around the time the Tuesday Poem began. I'm posting it here again because I have recently finished reading Sarah Quigley's novel The Conductor, which is set during World War 2, and covers the composition and Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich's Seventh ("Leningrad") symphony. While I'm not as sure that the novel "manages to light up something of the Russian soul" as the Observer reviewer, I do think it's a fine portrayal of what it takes to create under adverse - in this case, among the most adverse - of circumstances - and if you are at all interested in music, or creative work of any kind, I encourage you to read it.

01 July 2015

Travelling The Paper Road

Paper Road Press's first Shortcuts series of novellas, "Strange Fiction of Aotearoa New Zealand", features six novellas, one being released per month. Here's the sequence:

Mika Lee Murray and Piper Mejia
The Last Grant Stone
Bree’s Dinosaur AC Buchanan
Pocket Wife IK Paterson-Harkness
Landfall Tim Jones
The Ghost of Matter Octavia Cade

My novella "Landfall" is fifth in the series, and is due to be released in August. You can find links to buy each published ebook on Kindle or Kobo in the descriptions, and they are also available on Nook, iBooks and a few other places. Don't miss out!

16 June 2015

Tuesday Poem: Kraken, plus entry details of the Interstellar Award for Speculative Flash Fiction

TL;DR version for flash fiction writers: head on over to https://interstellaraward.wordpress.com/interstellar-award-for-speculative-flash-fiction/ for details of the competition.

I'm very pleased to say that my poem "Kraken", reproduced below, won second prize in the Interstellar Award for Speculative Poetry, the results of which were announced on Friday. You can read the excellent winning poem, by Kevin Gillam, and the judge's comments on the Interstellar Award results page. Congratulations to Kevin and to all the Highly Commended and Commended poets!

(Incidentally, Kevin is one of the poets whose work is represented in The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry, which Highly Commended poet P. S. Cottier and I edited.),


Millennia of sunlight passed the Kraken by.
He slept where he had fallen, each molecule
bound up in water ice, kept safe by permafrost
or the pressure of the deep. Kraken lay
unmoved beneath the waves, deep in his dreams
of fire and air, while the ice sat heavy on the poles
and the clever, clever apes, fizzing with language,
trudged northwards out of Africa.

Unperturbed slept Kraken as the glaciers withdrew.
Lapping at their tongues came the clever apes,
furred, speared, striding on. Wintering in caves,
they met and mated with their slow-tongued cousins,
gaining their immunities, their thicker skins.
Tinder sparked to flame in the wolf-howled night,
each tribe protected in its ring of fire,
but Kraken took no notice of such things.

Light disturbed Kraken’s millennial dreams,
sunlight no longer reflected by protective ice
but slanting down into the depths, unchecked,
warming the shallow seas, permafrost
proving to be less than permanent. In his sleep,
Kraken rolled over, farted, belched. Siberia trembled,
craters forming where none had been, methane
bursting skyward across the Arctic night.

The clever apes looked, and shrugged, and looked away.
They had bigger fish to fry: death, war,
their endless clawing at the Earth for fuel. Kraken
had been banished from their world. He was a relic of myth,
terror of the Greenland Sea, muse to Tennyson,
John Wyndham antagonist, large-boned
inhabitant of green-screened Greek epics,
set free to give Perseus something to kill.

The old Norse knew his nature well. Hafgufa
they named him, sea steam: and so he rose,
bubbling up beneath the circumpolar seas,
so much methane rising to warm the skies
that it roused him more, the loop reinforcing,
unstoppable, his coils releasing, sea floor gaping open,
undersea landslides lashing crowded coasts with waves,
the clever apes at last obliged to pay attention —

but too late. The Kraken is awake.
Flares light the Arctic night to write his name.
His is the fire that heats the deep, that scours the land
clean of everything that flies and walks and crawls —
the few survivors, vainly fleeing south,
hearing his voice forever louder at their backs.
The Kraken roars, and as he roars
soon every trace of clever ape is burned away.

This poem refers to “The Kraken Wakes” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1830).

Credit note: This poem was published for the first time on the Interstellar Awards website on 12 June 2015.

Tim says: Competition judge Joanne Mills makes some very kind & perceptive point about "Kraken" in her Judge's Report, so I suggest you check those out. I'll just add that, while I still have hope that the apocalyptic scenario of this poem can be avoided if the right steps are taken - and in particular, if fossil fuel use is swiftly reduced - it is nevertheless the case that the destabilising effect of climate change on Arctic methane deposits is cause for major concern - whether one takes a mainstream climate scientist or very worried indeed perspective.

The Tuesday Poem: The Tuesday Poem this week is "Grave secrets" by Helen Bascand, selected by Andrew Bell: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.co.nz/…/grave-secrets-by-helen-… - a fine tribute to this stalwart of the Canterbury poetry community, who died in April

The Interstellar Award for Speculative Flash Fiction

This competition has a generous word limit, for flash fiction, of 1200 words. Entries open on 1 July and close on 1 October, and the prizes are also generous: $500, $150 and $50. Head over to the Interstellar Award site for all the entry details.

09 June 2015

Book Review: Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around The World, compiled by Elaine Chiew

When Rachel Fenton asked me if I'd be willing to review Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around The World, I had my doubts - not about reviewing a book featuring Rachel's work, because I already knew what a fine writer she is, but because I don't boast strong credentials when it comes to the culinary arts. I can cook, if it's simple and straightforward and repeatable, but I am neither gourmet nor gourmand.

But it turned out that my failings on this score didn't matter. The food in most of these stories is an enabler of story, serving to bring characters together or push them further apart, and it was the one piece in which food was front and centre that seemed a little out of place among the rest of the stories.

As befits a New Internationalist anthology, the range of authors and countries represented is wide. The anthology starts with a short-short (a "stoku" - story + haiku) by Ben Okri, which didn't grab me at first but which I like more on re-reading, and then traverses continents and cuisines before ending with a story by the compiler of the book, Elaine Chiew.

My favourite stories in the anthology include:

Krys Lee, "Fat" - a young man's efforts to get out of military service through overeating reach an ironic conclusion
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, "Mrs Dutta Writes A Letter" - probably my favourite story in the book, a moving story of an elderly woman's emigration from India to the US to be with her children, and the difficult adjustment that confronts her
Rachel Fenton, "Food Bank" - a sharp-edged relationship tale which showcases the author's ability to pack a lot of story into a limited space through drawing out the implications of her characters' behaviour
Elaine Chiew, "Run of the Molars" - not a million miles away from "Mrs Dutta Writes A Letter", but seen from the perspective of the children who must deal with the visit of the elderly relative from home.

There's a lot of other very good stories in here, and the anthology as a whole is definitely worth reading. (I was slightly puzzled by Diana Ferraro's piece, which appears to be a non-fiction discussion of changing times and changing foods in her Buenos Aires - but maybe there is a metafictional element here too subtle for me to notice!)

This anthology is well worth your time.