Skip to main content

Dear Neil Roberts: Air­ini Beaut­rais, Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity Press

Last Novem­ber, the Gov­ern­ment tightened nation­al secur­ity meas­ures, cit­ing an increas­ing glob­al ter­ror threat. Appro­pri­ately, that month marked 32 years since New Zealand’s only sui­cide bombing.

Neil Roberts was what today might be called a crust-punk. He wore safety pins and found inspir­a­tion in the anarch­ism of Mikhail Bak­un­in. Roberts was 22 when he blew him­self to pieces in front of Wanganui’s Police Com­puter Centre, a futile attack on the digit­al archive main­tained silently therein.

In Novem­ber 2014, the accu­mu­lated scraps of Roberts’ short life were brought togeth­er in Air­ini Beaut­rais’ Dear Neil Roberts. Like Chris Tse’s How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, Beaut­rais’ poetry of report­age re-cre­ates and inter­rog­ates the past. Beaut­rais and Tse mix ori­gin­al writ­ing with inter­views, found text and quo­ta­tion. The effect is thrill­ing: a writ­ten ver­sion of the cut-up doc­u­ment­ar­ies of Adam Curtis or Craig Bald­win. These authors test the cap­ab­il­it­ies of poet­ic form, even while dis­play­ing a mas­ter­ful com­mand of same.

Neil Roberts’ was a pain­fully human­ist strand of lud­dism: a self-immol­at­ing, socially con­scious Unab­omber. He died with­in a dec­ade of the first repor­ted robot-on-human murder, but was neither the first nor the last to take up arms against the machines. Our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with tech­no­lo­gic­al pit­falls is lam­pooned in Paul Mannering’s Engines of Empathy.

Engines of Empathy: Paul Man­ner­ing, Paper Road Press

It’s the premiere of a tri­logy, set in a future when emo­tion­al energy powers everything from toast­ers to super­com­puters. It’s almost steam­punk, not quite cyber­punk — and more soci­etally upstand­ing than crust-punk. Res­on­ances abound with the nas­cent genre of crypto-fic­tion trad­ing under the play­ful monik­er of cypher-punk. Engines of Empathy could be called emo-punk, if that des­ig­nat­or weren’t already taken.

It’s also a deli­cious sub­ver­sion of techno-uto­pi­an­ism, a genre whose cool sur­faces and smooth edges can be off-put­ting to sci-fi neo­phytes. Read­ers with a taste for the spec­u­lat­ive will enjoy accom­pa­ny­ing our heroine, Char­lotte Pud­ding, on a deli­ri­ous saga of con­spir­acy and neuro-lin­guist­ic games­man­ship. Man­ner­ing, as wry as Pratch­ett and ima­gin­at­ive as Gil­li­am, is clearly hav­ing a lot of fun: a joy­ful invent­ive­ness per­vades the book, provided you can keep up with the joke.

While Man­ner­ing pro­jects cur­rent con­cerns out into a Wel­ling­ton-tinged future, loc­al laur­eate Geoff Cochrane has been col­lect­ing the urb­an drift­wood of the city’s present and recent past into enga­ging, idio­syn­crat­ic short stor­ies and nov­elle. Cochrane’s fic­tions are auto­bi­o­graph­ic­ally shaded tales of loc­al wan­der­ers, mis­fits and fringe-dwellers.

A trove of Cochrane’s short fic­tion was recently released under the title Aston­ished Dice. Like the urb­an throw-ups of cov­er artists BMD, Cochrane’s stor­ies bring a keen-eyed per­spect­ive to a world that’s short on abso­lutes, not always pos­it­ive, but quint­es­sen­tially Wel­ling­to­ni­an. And punk as f##k.

Aston­ished Dice: Geoff Cochrane, Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity Press

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.