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14 September 2010 @ 08:16 pm
Kiwi Culture in Spec Fic Stories  
Over the past couple of weeks I have greatly enjoyed dipping into A Foreign Country, an anthology of New Zealand speculative fiction from Random Static Press. It’s been fascinating to see the range of material and the kiwi flavour coming through in the stories.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with New Zealand short literary fiction. There’s a long tradition of the introspective, rural story. Characters grow up on farms. They dawdle down small town streets, consider the significance of an empty cicada skin or bleed from freshly broken noses into slow-moving streams whilst contemplating their loss of cultural identity. Cats grow sick and die. Casual racism shatters dreams of emerald cities. The elderly descend into poignant senility and curse their offspring. As an English teacher I love some of these stories, but many of them seem to speak to a lifestyle that’s rooted in the rural past. Partly that’s because NZ’s classic short fiction is, being classic, from the past. Even then, a lot of it is retrospective fiction – characters in the eighties reflecting on their fifties and sixties childhoods. The corpus of popular NZ literary fiction tends to paint a narrow portrait of what it means to be a New Zealander.

A Foreign Country has been a refreshing read, with many of the authors in the collection looking at other sides of NZ. Of particular note in this regard were Simon Petrie’s Portia Goes A-Hunting, Lee Murray’s Consumed and Miramar is Possum Free by Richard Barnes. Astute readers who check the contents page will note that all these stories are in the first half of the anthology. I’m reading it in order, and am about half way through J

Portia Goes A-Hunting is a playful, richly developed story of environmental destruction, reclamation and exploration preceding a threat of total planetary annihilation. The point of view is split between a scout making planetfall and gathering intelligence and a sort of scout leader in charge of a group of exploring children. The sense of unexplored freshness, of unspoilt terrain and the children who are poised to inhabit it was wonderful. There was a feeling for me of reaching back into New Zealand’s past, to its pre-human state. The fact that the land had reached this state through being pushed to the brink of destruction then terraformed back into its original condition was a lovely detail that encapsulated great sadness and hope within the possibilities of technology. The connection with New Zealand’s natural past as an isolated island nation lacking in mammalian predators was distinctly kiwi, and was something I loved in the story.

By contrast, Lee Murray’s police procedural heist story Consumed focussed on a very different side of Aotearoa. In a dystopian future of dwindling resources and increased lawlessness New Zealand’s status as an isolated island paradise is strained but not lost. The appearance of familiar places, trans-Tasman rivalries and palpable desperation borne of need was an interesting mix. It was fascinating to see a futuristic crime drama play out in a New Zealand setting, to observe my own fondness for the places mentioned, and to see a high tech, modern view of NZ.

Miramar is Possum Free is a title that triggered a few alarm bells for me. Possum hunting is a traditional hobby for New Zealand’s rural youngsters, combining marksmanship with environmental protection. Some of my friends hunted possums when I was growing up. It’s probably a fairly common experience among rural New Zealanders and their friends (and suburban kiwis close enough to a patch of bush), but it is one of those experiences that combines adolescence, a growing propensity to question received morality, and the heady mix of death and birth that’s a potent trigger for teenage musings (and possibly an introspective poem or two) as teenage boys revel in the killing of adult possums, perhaps find themselves killing baby possums when their mothers have been torn to pieces by dogs, then have all the time in the world to reflect on their actions, sometimes with regret.

Richard Barnes has written a story that features possum hunting. It deals with over-zealous cruelty to possums, and doubt about the morality of exterminating a species. It’s also a story that I love. The reason is elegantly simple. SEVEN FOOT TALL MUTANT POSSUMS and MACHINE GUNS. Set in the future in the gated suburb of Miramar, two plucky possum hunters (one an Australian immigrant, the other a Brazilian) stalk a giant possum that has kidnapped a billionaire. It’s a tongue-in-cheek romp of a tale that takes an aspect of New Zealand culture and turns it up to eleven, and I love that.

So, there’s a lot that I love about New Zealand fiction and it’s very refreshing to see even more of our culture explored in new, speculative, ways. I can’t wait to finish the anthology!

This post is part of New Zealand Speculative Fiction Blogging Week
(Deleted comment)
Matt Cowensmattcowens on September 17th, 2010 03:56 am (UTC)
I cry at the cause too.
(Anonymous) on September 19th, 2010 09:47 am (UTC)
Thanks for the comments from Richard Barnes

Many thanks for your kind words about Miramar is Possum Free - I must confess though, I've never been possum hunting in my life.
I loved your contribution to "A Foreign Country" (No Hidden Costs), sharp, pitch-black humour and an original take on the freedom vs responsibility issue.


Matt Cowensmattcowens on September 20th, 2010 12:15 am (UTC)
Re: Thanks for the comments from Richard Barnes
Hi Richard,

Thanks for your kind words :-) I tried to leave a comment over on your blog yesterday but either the wireless in my lounge or some other kind of internet mojo may have got in the way.

Did you hear the interview on Radio NZ yesterday? There was an extract from your story: