28 February 2008


City of contradictions
made and menaced by the sea:
how to contain you?
You spring out of your box.
A wind
blows you over and over the hills.

This poem is included in my latest collection, All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens.

22 February 2008

Creative NZ Slashes Poetry Society Funding

Like Helen Rickerby, I attended the February meeting of the New Zealand Poetry Society, and enjoyed hearing Johanna Aitchison reading from her first collection, the excellent A Long Girl Ago. Only one thing marred the evening: the news that Creative New Zealand, the Government's arts funding agency, has halved the level of the Poetry Society's funding for 2008.

I was upset to hear this, for several reasons. The first is that it means that the Poetry Society's hard-working coordinator, Laurice Gilbert, has had her paid working hours cut right back. This is tough on her, and also means that she'll be able to put less time into updating the Society's website, arranging guest poets, promoting meetings, editing the Society's excellent newsletter a fine line, and generally advancing the cause of New Zealand poets and poetry. The Poetry Society is the only national organisation with that specific mandate, and as being a New Zealand poet is neither an easy nor a remunerative life, poets need the Poetry Society to continue its good work on their behalf.

But what bothers me most is that Creative New Zealand is completely unaccountable for this and other decisions. In the literary field, CNZ funds individual writers' projects; subsidises literary magazines and the publication of New Zealand books; and funds literary organisations. Each year, the Poetry Society applies for funding; each year, they wait; and each year, they get a reply from Creative NZ which simply advises them how much they'll be receiving. There's no explanation of how that amount is arrived at, or what factors are taken into consideration. There's no warning of an impending funding cut, and there's no consultation before the decision is taken.

Because its decision-making process is so opaque, the recipients of funding - and those who apply for funding, but are turned down - have no grounds for confidence that decisions were arrived at fairly. In the case of the Poetry Society funding, was the funding cut the right decision, based on the merits of the Poetry Society's case and of competing funding applications - or is it just that CNZ's latest crop of literature advisors don't like the Poetry Society? Only CNZ and its advisors know the answer to that, and until some transparency and accountability are brought to bear on CNZ's processes, the rest of us can do little more than speculate.

[Disclosure: Funding applications for several books in which I've been involved have been made to Creative NZ. Some have been funded; more have not. I have not applied to CNZ for funding for specific new writing projects. I am a member, but not an officeholder, of the New Zealand Poetry Society. I am the guest reader at the Poetry Society's next monthly meeting - Monday 17 March, 7.30pm, Paramount Cinema Lounge, Courtenay Place, Wellington]

19 February 2008

Why I Like Hal Clement

Hal Clement was the pseudonym of American high school teacher Harry Stubbs. Hal Clement wrote hard SF: the purest hard SF I have ever read, because his novels depend on the application of fundamental principles of physics and chemistry, as known during his heyday in the early 1950s.

Hal Clement writes about decent men (I use the term advisedly) working together decently to solve difficult problems. Some of the "men" are aliens, and part of the difficulty usually arises from the physical differences between the humans and the aliens. In Mission of Gravity, Clement's most famous novel, the inhabitants of the planet Mesklin are fifteen-inch-long, caterpillar-like creatures whose planet varies in gravity from 3x Earth's gravity at the equator to 800x at the poles. The human explorers need the Mesklinites' help to recover a valuable spaceship from the poles, and the driver of the story is the differing chemistry and physics that apply as the trading ship Bree makes its way across stormy methane seas from equator to Pole.

Sounds dull? It's not - it's fascinating. Though these are not exactly novels of character, the relationship between human explorer Charles Lackland and the captain of the Bree, Barlennan, is by turns moving, amusing and exciting. Although the dialogue sometimes betrays the age of the book - "Dave, put down that slide rule and get to a calculator" - the simplicity of the storyline, and the complexity of the setting, render such anachronisms irrelevant.

In Iceworld, the boot is on the other foot: literally, for here an undercover agent from a planet whose inhabitants breathe gaseous sulphur must somehow work together with the bizarre inhabitants of the incomparably cold, bleak, and seemingly uninhabitable Earth to stop the trade in a deadly drug. (Others of Clement's novels, such as Needle, use a similar intergalactic-crime plot armature.) The book is told from the alternating perspectives of the sulphur-beating Sallman Ken and the human Wing family. Each starts with wildly incorrect assumptions about the other, and the process of learning to communicate drives the plot, as it does to a lesser extent in Mission of Gravity.

Iceworld has some structural problems: the Wing family disappears for a large portion of the novel, as the narrative focuses on Sallman Ken's efforts to make a spacesuit capable of withstanding the hideous cold of Earth. But it doesn't really matter, because the pleasures of Iceworld lie in the triumph of reason over unreason, cooperative effort over selfishness. Chemistry, physics, and decency: three good reasons to read Hal Clement.

15 February 2008

Stupid, Wasteful, and Dangerous

Last night I attended a public meeting to oppose plans by the Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington, and Transit New Zealand to “solve” central Wellington’s transport problems by building more roads and digging new road tunnels, despite the considerable body of evidence (such as this report) that shows this approach does nothing but induce more traffic onto the roads, thus causing further congestion.

I was peripherally involved in organising the meeting, and I’ll be making a submission on the issue. I went along hoping the meeting would go well, and it did: we got over 100 people, lots of whom stayed around afterwards to offer help with the campaign. But the meeting did something I didn’t expect: it made me angry.

Not angry at the presenters, but angry at Wellington’s transport planners who, year after year, decade after decade, trot out the same “solution” to the problem earlier “solutions” have helped to create. Despite the massive contribution of private car transport to greenhouse gas emissions; despite the mismatch between the world production of oil and world oil demand, which is the underlying reason behind high oil prices, and which will only get worse as oil production peaks and then declines; despite the body of research which shows that there are better ways of solving transport problems; despite all that, these planners repeat their mantra that we have to build more roads to take more cars.

There’s some extenuating circumstances. New Zealand’s bizarre transport funding rules mean that local government can get central government to pay for 100% of certain roading projects, but only 50% of non-roading projects. Wellington’s Mayor has openly said that road tunnels are essential, no matter what comes out of the public consultation process. There’s a whole heap of construction companies eager to put on the hard hats and the fluorescent jackets one more time and let the asphalt flow out and the money roll in. And, of course, by no means are all transport planners stuck in the past.

But in an era when climate change and oil depletion are both accelerating, when cities overseas are moving away from the private car, when transport alternatives are available, to keep pushing the same old failed solution is stupid. It’s wasteful – roads are massively expensive to build, more expensive than the alternative options. And it’s dangerous, because it fails to face up to the reality of our urgent energy and environmental problems, and diverts resources that should be spent on tackling those problems.

It’s stupid, wasteful, and dangerous. And it has to stop.

• Reports of the meeting by Matt Bartlett (PDF) and Eye of the Fish.
Make a submission (deadline is 22 February) and read the planning report

10 February 2008

Anarya's Secret on ballot for Sir Julius Vogel Awards

My novel Anarya's Secret is on the ballot for Best Adult Novel in the 2008 Sir Julius Vogel Awards, the New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards, which will be voted on by the members of Conjunction.

The full list of nominees is available online. It's great news for science fiction and fantasy in New Zealand that so many works are eligible this year.

07 February 2008

Book Review: Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Sidon (Tor Books, 2007)

Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of Sidon (2007), third book in a series that began with Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1989), continues Wolfe’s saga of Latro, the Roman mercenary in the 5th century BC whose head wound means that he cannot recall his name or his past adventures from day to day. In compensation, he can see and talk with the many gods of the ancient world. Tony Keen’s thoughtful review of the novel at Strange Horizons gives the detail I will not go into here. I want to make two points:

First, Wolfe’s predominant narrative technique, in which all the necessary detail is revealed, but in such a way that you don’t realise its significance at the time it’s revealed, and have to pay close attention to be able to realise its significance in retrospect, is perfectly suited to the tale of a man who comes to each situation, character and crisis as fresh as the reader.

Second, that much as I admire Wolfe as a storyteller and stylist, Soldier of Sidon continues a feature of Wolfe’s work that I find less admirable: he writes about societies in which females are subject, and sometime violently subject, to males. He writes about these societies outstandingly well, and his female characters are distinct, engaging, and within the limits of their subjugation, strong; but I’d love to know whether Gene Wolfe could carry off a novel in which women didn’t start at a pronounced disadvantage.

05 February 2008

Speaking Ill of the Dead?

I posted back in December about the death of poet and anthologist Bernard Gadd. Mark Pirie recently sent me news that that the New Zealand Poetry Society has set up a Bernard Gadd Memorial page and that Michael O'Leary's obituary of Bernard in the Dominion Post is available online.

Today, I received a comment to my obituary of Bernard which provided links to a couple of pieces from the Reading the Maps blog which are critical of Bernard's writing and political positions. I was inclined not to allow the comment at first - partly because it was anonymous, and partly because of the tone of the content about one so recently deceased - but in the end, I decided to. Since the article links would otherwise be buried way down in my archive of postings, here they are:

Bernard Gadd's Quest for Security.

Bernard's Fling with TINA.

My own view is that these postings, the first in particular, are evidence that left-wing sectarianism - that narrow obsession with "purity" of political thought and hewing to the correct "line" which keeps the left squabbling over trifles rather than working on real, difficult issues - is alive and well in New Zealand.

But maybe I'm over-reacting. What do you think?

04 February 2008


From Taiaroa Head
I rise into the wind
that flows sunward.

Rime grows on my feathers.
I skim swells
that beat the slow pulse of this ocean.

Yachts race through the bergy night.
A whaleboat founders
with six sea-eyed men at the oars.

Whales ruffle an open lead.
Leopard seals shake penguins down for blood.
Captain Oates rises from his shallow grave

and asks for bread or meat.
Told I have none, he sighs,
and turns, and shuffles on.

This poem is included in my latest collection, All Blacks' Kitchen Gardens.