Tom Goulter surveys recent — and not so recent — speculative fiction about Aotearoa

What might have been

James Cook's New WorldSeattle is the home of Amazon, Snow Crash author Neal Steph­en­son, and the Sci­ence Fic­tion Museum, among oth­er bywords in spec­u­lat­ive writ­ing. So it came as some sur­prise, as I browsed the SF sec­tion in one of our city’s densely stocked book­stores, to be hailed by Maori, a thick volume from Alan Dean Foster, best known for pen­ning paper­back tie-ins to the Ali­en and Star Wars movies. This tale of dis­cov­ery in “the strange but enchanted Land of the Long White Cloud” shoots for epic his­tor­ic­al verisimil­it­ude, cul­min­at­ing in the Tarawera erup­tion — with a suf­fra­gette-voiced 1893 epi­logue, no less.

            Maori was released in 1988, coat­tail rid­ing the likes of Wai­titi favour­ite Sho­gun — and though the book’s European prot­ag­on­ist soon becomes embroiled in no end of ebony-hued mys­ti­cism, Maori’s Māori are far less ali­en than the novelist’s bet­ter-known xeno­morph­ic foils. With the Māori Renais­sance well under­way at the time of pub­lic­a­tion, Foster’s work dis­plays a pres­ci­ent lack of ele­gi­ac condescension.

Back home, Graeme Lay has released the second instal­ment of his tri­logy, James Cook’s New World. Pick­ing up where The Secret Life of James Cook left off, New World trades in pion­eer­ing zest and a fas­ti­di­ous depth of research that Lay plainly delights in shar­ing. The fig­ure of the Great White Dis­cover­er has fallen in favour — return to Amer­ica for a second and wit­ness how nuanced the cel­eb­ra­tion of Colum­bus Day has become. So Lay’s wise decision, ably real­ised, is to present Cook as a thinker with a rich inner life, rather than the swag­ger­ing hotel name­sake whose brusque­ness would one day (spoil­er!) prove so incom­pat­ible with the amor­ous trap­pings of St Valentine.

It’s the debut nov­el from Mod­ern Let­ters alum­nus Tina Makereti, though, whose per­spect­ive on form­at­ive Aotearoa war­rants the deep­est explor­a­tion. Where the Rēko­hu Bone Sings builds on the author’s earli­er short story col­lec­tion, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, to cre­ate a work of cul­tur­al con­scious­ness cross­ing bound­ar­ies of time, space and life itself. Makereti’s great skill is in dram­at­ising cul­tur­al con­cerns extant since long before Cook — the story’s cross-gen­er­a­tion­al nar­rat­ive includes Māori, Pākekā and Mori­ori char­ac­ters — with an unflinch­ing intimacy.

And if unad­ven­tur­ous souls blanched at the zodi­ac­al trap­pings of Ms Catton’s prize-win­ning opus, Makereti’s myth­o­po­et­ic­al excur­sions into the numin­ous are a ver­it­able taboo-smash­er. Con­fid­ently voicing a meta­phys­ics that res­on­ates with the writ­ings of Jung, Leary and indi­gen­ous cos­mo­logy alike, it’s an his­tor­ic­al epic to dwarf any num­ber of white-men-abroad fantas­ies; and in its way, as spec­u­lat­ive a fic­tion as turned out by Steph­en­son or Foster. It’s a clari­on call to fur­ther dis­cov­ery — for author and read­ers alike.

About Tom Goulter

Tom is Fish­Head’s book colum­nist. A Mas­ter­’s degree in Cre­at­ive Writ­ing from Vic­tori­a’s Inter­na­tion­al Insti­tute of Mod­ern Let­ters launched Goulter on the life of an itin­er­ant man of let­ters, wan­der­ing the frac­tious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Den­nis Hop­per were after, prob­ably. Instead of get­ting shot by red­necks (yet), he returned to Wel­ling­ton, where he essays semi-reg­u­larly into pop­u­lar cul­ture, psy­cho-geo­graphy, under­ground film-mak­ing, and the uncanny in all its myri­ad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Man­ners Street still had Crys­tal city on it.

About Tom Goulter

Tom is FishHead's book columnist. A Master's degree in Creative Writing from Victoria's International Institute of Modern Letters launched Goulter on the life of an itinerant man of letters, wandering the fractious United states in search of.. whatever it was Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were after, probably. Instead of getting shot by rednecks (yet), he returned to Wellington, where he essays semi-regularly into popular culture, psycho-geography, underground film-making, and the uncanny in all its myriad forms. Not a day goes by that he does not wish Manners Street still had Crystal city on it.

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