31 January 2010

Rooms, Streets, Years

Another of my occasional essays on landcsape and memory (I feel a book of them coming on...). The first version of this formed part of my portfolio for the International Institute of Modern Letters' excellent Writing The Landscape undergraduate course in 2003.

The pleasure and stability of dining rooms had always occurred against the catastrophic background of universal chaos. Groups of friends, rooms, streets, years, none of them would last. The illusion of stability was created by a concentrated effort to ignore the chaos they were embedded in. And so they ate, and talked, and enjoyed each other's company … (Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars, p. 651)

The sign at the road end says 45 minutes, so we bank on an hour and a half. The day as we set out is still and fine but not warm, and a low line of cloud to the south tells us that the forecast change in the weather will eventually come.

Though my earliest memories of walking are of trips to Oreti Beach or Te Wae Wae Bay, of playing on the beach while my father skimmed stones across the water and my mother sat in the car with her book and the picnic basket, in later life I have developed a preference for walking in the bush. That's like the London Underground: long minutes moving through a tunnel beneath a dimly seen roof, sudden ascents into the light to see how far you've come. Here, at the beach, there is only the slow procession of foot after foot, the thought that, perhaps, the destination, marked by a trio of pyramidal rocks on the horizon, has come a little closer.

Our seven year old son sets off at a rush, foraging ahead of us until I have to remind him that this is a farm track as well as a people track, that a truck or a farm bike might happen along, and to please look where he's going. Five minutes later, he's standing with his arms up, wanting to be carried. Not yet, I tell him, I'll only carry you on the way back. We talk about where to have lunch. Kay thinks we should stop by that square rock in the distance. "It's an awfully long way away," he says.

Progress cannot be measured by the sea, but it can by the land. We've crossed the bridge over the Orongorongo River — there's tramping country somewhere up that valley, they say — and we are walking at the foot of drought-brown coastal hills. Five thousand years ago, the weather here was mild, moist and drought-free, and the hills were clad in a mixed podocarp-beech forest, more like South Westland than the South Wairarapa. But the climate changed, becoming colder and drier, and then sheep were loosed on the land. It was all downhill once the brittle greywacke of the hills had been exposed to the elements.

I like to know things, or at least, to believe that I know them. Ever since moving to Wellington, I would (if pressed) have ventured the opinion that nothing around these parts could match the beauty, grandeur, or sheer natural abundance of Otago and Southland. A few ruddy rocks and a wind turbine just couldn't compare.

Then Kay went to one of BAM Bookshop's periodic sales and bought Reading the Rocks: A Guide to Geological Features of the Wairarapa Coast. I read it and got all enthusiastic. Here, no more than two hours' drive away, were all manner of wonderful things: rocks like giant sails, pinnacles bizarre enough to play a leading role in a Peter Jackson film, and one of the finest collections of raised beach ridges in the world at Turakirae Head, which is where we're going today.

We've packed the appropriate Field Guide (six of which were nestled in a handy pocket at the back of Reading the Rocks), so the next time our son says he's tired, I get a snack bar and Field Guide Six out of my backpack and show him where we've got to. "Look, there's an alluvial fan!", I say, and he looks with gratifying attention at the deep gully and the fan of scree that has washed out of it.

We're quite near the lunch rock now. A man returning from Turakirae Head tells us that we're only ten minutes' walk away from the Head itself, where the coast curls round into Palliser Bay, but after an hour slogging over that gravel we're ready for a rest. Gratefully, we walk to the seaward side of the rock, where a hollow provides protection against the breeze, and sit down to eat.

How did this rock get here? It came from the hillside above us, maybe down the alluvial fan. One dark night, or one bright day, it broke free of the hillside and rumbled down to where we now sit in its shelter. Though it looks solid enough, and warms our backs as we rest against it, it is a mayfly in the lens of time.

What are we and our rock sitting on? It takes some squinting at Reading the Rocks to make that clear. Our rock shows up distinctly on the aerial photo, just before the point where the farm track branches off from the coast track, and we see that we are on the fourth of five beach ridges. The youngest ridge, just behind the shoreline, was raised 2.5 metres by the 1855 earthquake. The ridge we're sitting on was raised during the Haowhenua earthquake, around 1500 AD.

Five hundred years ago, then, the solid ground where we now sit would have been a beach, washed by the tide, pounded by the southerly swell. If our lunch rock had been in its present position then, the sea would have broken on its flanks.

Thank you, Kay, for making the filled rolls and packing the cake. They were delicious. Thanks for buying the book, as well. We sit by the rock and chew slices of apple, as the memory of the waves washes this phantom shore.

Nothing lasts, not the places we sit to dine, not rooms, not streets, not years. The next earthquake could come today, tomorrow, next year. Our rock might be raised further above sea level then, or it might be shaken to pieces. From far away, it looked as solid as, well, a rock. Close up, it's showing the cracks. It's no more safe than houses. We tidy up the lunch things, hoist our packs onto our shoulders, and walk on.

24 January 2010

Chat Show

Every month or so, this blog turns into a chat show: I interview an author, usually but not always a New Zealand author, about their inspirations for writing, their current work, the genre(s) they work in, or whatever else seems relevant and appropriate.

I will be posting my first interview for 2010 before too much longer, but in the meantime, here are the interviews I did in 2009. I think they make quite a worthwhile collection.


An Interview With Sue Emms


An Interview With Trevor Reeves


An Interview With Iain Britton

An Interview With Julie Czerneda


An Interview With Lyn McConchie


An Interview With Mary Cresswell

An Interview With Joanna Preston


An Interview With Tim Upperton


An Interview With Frankie McMillan


Under Government And Restraint: An Interview With David Howard


An Interview With Sally McLennan

An Interview With Nalini Singh

If you'd like to read yet more author interviews, this post contains a linked list of my 2008 interviews.

18 January 2010

Book Review: Galileo's Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is well known for his fictions about the near future in the face of climate change (the "Science in the Capital" series that begins with Forty Signs of Rain; Antarctica), and even better known for his Mars trilogy - Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars - which looks in dazzling detail at the near-future colonisation, terraforming, and coming to independence of the fourth planet from the sun.

But Kim Stanley Robinson has also had a long-standing interest in history and alternate history. That has shown out in several fine short stories, and in his novel The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternate history in which medieval Christian Europe is wiped out by the plague, and Islam and Buddhism compete for dominance of the emptied land.

Kim Stanley Robinson's latest novel, Galileo's Dream, is a curious hybrid of historical novel and near-future exploration of the solar system.

In the main, it is a biographical novel about Galileo Galilei, covering the period from his middle years to his death, and focusing on his crucial discoveries and on the causes and consequences of his famous trial for heresy. But, through what might best be described as "the magic of quantum", the Galileo of this novel also jumps over 1000 years into our future, becoming embroiled in the politics of the inhabited Galilean moons.

That's an interesting story. Galileo's life is also an interesting story. But I'm not sure the two cohere. The machinations and rivalries of the Europans and the Ganymedeans, and the major discovery on which their part of the novel turns, are very interesting - and reminiscent as much of Arthur C. Clarke as of what we've come to expect from Kim Stanley Robinson - but are left frustratingly unresolved. And, although events in the future story parallel events in the biographical part of the novel, they aren't allowed to do so to the extent that the narrative of Galileo's life depart from known biographical fact - which makes me question the point of including the future story in the first place.

But this review is turning out to be more negative than is warranted, or than I intended. I may have my doubts about the way these two stories are interleaved, but both are very interesting, and Galileo's Dream, like every Kim Stanley Robinson book I have read, features memorable characters acting boldly on the issues of their time, while engaging in fascinating speculations on science, sexism and society.

Yet what really stands out in Galileo's Dream is its depiction of ageing. Galileo fears, and then undergoes, the loss of his powers and faculties. His failing body, and the fate of his children, torment him. He has renown, but loses the capacity to enjoy its fruits. More than science, speculation or intrigue, it is this portrayal of the impact of age and infirmity on a vigorous creative life that stayed with me when I finished Galileo's Dream.

11 January 2010

Sir Julius Vogel Award Nominations Open For 2009 Calendar Year

The Sir Julius Vogel Awards, New Zealand's equivalent of the Hugo Awards, have recently opened for nominations. Nominations close on 31 March 2010.

Grant Stone has listed some possible contenders for the Vogels on his blog, and I naturally endorse his selection of Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry From New Zealand as one of the candidates! You can find SFFANZ's list of eligible novels on their site; I recently reviewed one of the listed novels, Lee Pletzers' The Last Church.

Short stories and collections are also listed - look for the 2009 publication dates - and I was pleased to see Voyagers contributions and contributors included on the list.

I want to browse through the lists and catch up on some work that I've missed out on reading before deciding what I'd like to nominate - but if you are ready to go with your nominations, here is the official word on how to proceed.

Nomination Procedure

The Sir Julius Vogel sub-committee of SFFANZ is currently accepting nominations for science fiction and fantasy works first published or released in the 2009 calendar year.

Nominations open on 1 January 2010 and close on 31 March 2010 at 8pm.

For more information about SFFANZ and the SJV Awards, please go to the SFFANZ web-site http://sffanz.sf.org.nz/

To make a nomination please email sjv_awards (at) sffanz.sf.org.nz.. Anyone can make a nomination, and it is free of charge.

Please send one nomination per email and include as many contact details as possible for the nominee as well as yourself.

You can find full details about the nomination procedures and rules, including eligibility criteria at http://sffanz.sf.org.nz/sjv/sjvAwards.shtml

A detailed nomination FAQ can be found at http://sffanz.sf.org.nz/sjv/sjvAwardsNominationGuidelines.shtml

The voting will occur at Au Contraire, http://www.aucontraire.org.nz/ - the national science fiction convention being held in Wellington, New Zealand over the weekend of the 27 - 29 August 2010.

01 January 2010

A Book A Week: What I Read In 2009

I kept track of my 2009 reading using LibraryThing. It turns out I read a book a week in 2009 - excluding the many books I consulted as part of research for my novel, and a few I read for work. With rough divisions by genre, they were:

1. Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel (cartoons)
2. The White Road and Other Stories by Tania Hershman (short stories)
3. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (novella)
4. The Bride of Science: Romance, Reason and Byron's Daughter by Benjamin Woolley (nonfiction-biography)
5. From Elfland to Poughkeepsie by Ursula K. Le Guin (criticism)
6. A Good Walk Spoiled by J. M. Gregson (novel-detective)
7. Swings and Roundabouts : poems on parenthood, edited by Emma Neale (poetry anthology)
8. Believers to the Bright Coast by Vincent O'Sullivan (novel-literary)
9. Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages by Bill Watterson (cartoons)
10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (novel)
11. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, by Rob Hopkins (nonfiction)
12. Improbable Eden: The Dry Valleys of Antarctica by Bill Green (essays) and Craig Potton (photographs) (nonfiction)
13. The Six Pack Three: Winning Writing from New Zealand Book Month (fiction/poetry anthology)
14. Speaking in Tongues by L. E. Scott (poetry)
15. Thornspell by Helen Lowe (novel-fantasy)
16. Love All by Elizabeth Jane Howard (novel-romance/historical)
17. Father India: How Encounters with an Ancient Culture Transformed the Modern West by Jeffery Paine (nonfiction-history)
18. George Gordon, Lord Byron: selected poems (poetry)
19. The Discovery of India (Abridged Edition) by Jawaharlal Nehru (nonfiction-history)
20. In a Fishbone Church by Catherine Chidgey (novel-literary)
21. Cretaceous Dawn by Lisa M. Graziano and Michael S.A. Graziano (novel-SF)
22. The Lakes of Mars by Chris Orsman (poetry)
23. Winter Study by Nevada Barr (novel-thriller)
24. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky (novel-literary)
25. Time of Your Life (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 8, Vol. 4) by Joss Whedon (graphic novel)
26. India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha (nonfiction-history)
27. A Dream In Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu (novel-literary)
28. The Sword in the Stone by T H White (novel-fantasy)
29. Tom by Mark Pirie (verse novel)
30. Banana by Renee Liang (poetry)
31. Nearest & Dearest by Mary Cresswell (poetry)
32. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall (novel-SF)
33. The Summer King by Joanna Preston (poetry)
34. made for weather by Kay McKenzie Cooke (poetry)
35. The Law of Love by Laura Esquivel (novel-magic realism)
36. Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (novel-literary)
37. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (novella-ghost/horror)
38. Letters from the asylum by John Knight (poetry)
39. The Secret History of Moscow by Ekaterina Sedia (novel-fantasy)
40. A House on Fire by Tim Upperton (poetry)
41. The People's Act of Love by James Meek (novel-historical)
42. Dressing for the Cannibals by Frankie McMillan (poetry)
43. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Predators and Prey, Season 8, Volume 5, by Joss Whedon, Jane Espenson et al (graphic novel)
44. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa (novel-bildungsroman)
45. Watching for Smoke by Helen Heath (poetry chapbook)
46. The Coldest March by Susan Solomon (nonfiction-history/exploration)
47. Curved Horizon by Ruth Dallas (literary autobiography)
48. The Abominable Snow-Women by Dorothy Braxton (nonfiction-exploration)
49. The Last Church by Lee Pletzers (novel-horror)
50. The Year of Henry James by David Lodge (memoir/criticism)
51. Feeding the Dogs by Kay McKenzie Cooke (poetry)
52. Sorry, I'm A Stranger Here Myself by Peter Bland (literary autobiography)

I haven't kept track of my reading before, so I don't know how this compares to a typical year's reading. My sense is that I have read somewhat less fiction and rather more poetry than usual, with the proportion of nonfiction about the same.

I think, overall, it's the poetry - almost all, this year, New Zealand poetry - that I've enjoyed most. I have read some excellent collections; some I have admired for their technical excellence, while others (without lacking in poetic technique) have moved me: often, these are collections that have featured poems about places or situations I have been to our lived through.

I was highly impressed by the technical accomplishment of Joanna Preston's The Summer King, Chris Orsman's The Lakes of Mars, and Tim Upperton's A House On Fire, yet despite this, it was Kay McKenzie Cooke's made for weather and Feeding the Dogs, Helen Heath's chapbook Watching For Smoke, and Renee Liang's chapbook Banana that made the most impact on me - together with Emma Neale's excellent anthology of poems about parenting, Swings and Roundabouts. I also had a lot of fun with Mark Pirie's verse novel Tom.

In fiction, five novels stood out for me. Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise was the best novel I read this year, by a short head from Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which was wonderful right up to a somewhat underwhelming ending, and Helen Lowe's Thornspell, an excellent fantasy for older children and younger young adults (I think this may be what is called "MG" rather than "YA" fiction). I also very much enjoyed A Dream In Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu, and (a re-read after many years) To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Tania Hershman's collection The White Road and Other Stories includes many fine short - and short-short - stories.

My resolution to read more New Zealand fiction didn't get very far this year. I was underwhelmed by Catherine Chidgey's In a Fishbone Church and Vincent O'Sullivan's Believers to the Bright Coast, both of which, in my view, have the fault common in New Zealand fiction of sacrificing story for style. I think my favourite New Zealand fiction this year was David Geary's entertaining story "Gary Manawatu (1964–2008): Death of a Fence-Post-Modernist", included in The Six Pack Three.

Other disappointments included Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and T H White's The Sword in the Stone, neither of which, for me, lived up to their reputations.

I read some fine nonfiction this year, but the stand-out was Ramachandra Guha's superb history India After Gandhi, with an honourable mention going to Improbable Eden: The Dry Valleys of Antarctica, a superbly illustrated book of essays (or superbly essayed book of illustrations).

Finally, neither volume of Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a continuation of the TV series in graphic novel form) that I read this year were up to the standard of their predecessors in this series, but Buffy seasons often have a sag in the middle, so I'm going to stick with the series to see how it ends up. Therefore, last as it was first, my final highlight of the year was Alison Bechdel's Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, which I was given for Christmas 2008. It contains about 70% of all her Dykes to Watch Out For cartoons, and it's both great fun and great social commentary.