Monday, September 16, 2019

John Cranna's Arena (1992)

John Cranna: Arena (1992)

The worst effects of malnutrition, he continued, were on the mind. 'I've known starving men who listened to their thoughts and believed they had invented a strange new language.' He tapped the point of the toothpick on his front teeth. 'They died convinced they were geniuses.'
- John Cranna, Arena (Auckland: Minerva New Zealand, 1992): 104.

Somewhere in the space between J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World (1962) and J. M. Coetzee's Booker-Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K (1983) lies the zone of John Cranna's first (and, to date, only) novel, Arena.

Like them, it's dystopian; like them, disturbingly violent. Arena also shares with both books a kind of deadpan flatness of affect - though all three authors show a taste for occasional flights of poetic fancy.

J. G. Ballard: The Drowned World (1962)

J. G. Ballard's first novel is set in a drowned London of the future. The characters have the usual Ballardian preoccupations with inner space: with the working out of their personal obsessions rather than any more practical, world-altering activities.

Even the bizarre ceremony which serves as the culmination of whatever narrative arc the novel has proves strangely anticlimactic: Dr. Kerans survives his ordeal, and wanders off at the end of the novel in search of "the forgotten paradises of the reborn Sun."

It's hard, however, to forget the lush evocativeness of the picture Ballard paints - of a world ending not with a bang but a whimper. Who would have thought at the time that his fantasies would seem so timely and relevant so soon?

J. M. Coetzee: Life & Times of Michael K (1985)

Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K is more poignant. It is, in fact, a very difficult book to characterise even to those familiar with Coetzee's other novels. The solitary, arduous odyssey of the deformed, hare-lipped Michael K through the war-ravaged landscapes of a frighteningly real - albeit on an alternate historical time-track - South Africa, is simultaneously grotesque and inspiring.

Michael K's status as an unperson ("CM [coloured male] - 40 [his age] - NFA [no fixed address] - Unemployed") is established very clearly in context, and yet it's the actual nature of his quest that matters. The civil war ravaging the landscape is above (or below) his attention. His only approach to success in the book lies in the garden he makes in the provinces before returning to Cape Town.

Brain-damaged by the nineties, openly neglected by authorities, their school buildings falling unhindered around their ears, the kids had all the helpless savagery of young animals left out in the cold too soon.
- Rosie Scott, Feral City (Port Melbourne, Victoria: William Heinemann Australia, 1992): 19.

In terms of a strictly New Zealand speculative fiction, the juxtaposition works somewhat differently. Somewhere between Rosie Scott's Feral City and Albert Wendt's Black Rainbow lies Arena (all three were published in the same year: 1992).

Rosie Scott: Raubstadt [Feral City] (1992)

Rosie Scott's vision of a near-future inner-city Auckland devastated by neo-liberal monetarism may seem a long way from John Cranna's magic-realist city, where "a yellow haze obscured the horizon from the slums of the south to the Guest suburbs in the north" [27], but they do have certain tropes and assumptions in common.

The gleaming teethed "guests" who appear to be in control of the body politic in Cranna's fable are not a long way from the equally sinister authorities in Scott's - or, for that matter, the elaborate Orwellian apparatus of Albert Wendt's.

Albert Wendt: Black Rainbow (1992)

"One day the history of our nation would become clearer to her. When the time was right I would try to explain a few things." [141]

Mary Paul's recent essay "Always Something There to Remind Me: On Growing Up Amid Neoliberal Reforms" Pantograph Punch: 19/8/19) might act as a timely reminder of the spirit of that particular age, for those fortunate enough not to have lived through it.

Hers is, by its nature, a very partial view: Auckland-centric (like the three novels mentioned above), and surprisingly male-dominated. 'Didn't you want to interview any women?' was one of the comments listed under the piece when it first appeared.

That isn't entirely fair, mind you. The last interview (of five) in the article is with the couple Richard Misilei and Mate Colvin, who both work as librarians in Ōtara. All the others, though: writer and performer Dominic Hoey (aka 'Tourettes'); 'Stephen' (not his real name); performance artist Mark Harvey; and AUT Communications Senor Lecturer Thomas Owen, are indeed men, and - it would have to be admitted - offer distinctively male perspectives on the period.

Mary begins with a quote from Economist Tim Hazeldine, who describes the fallout from the 'reforms' of this era as “terrible”:
I cannot find any developed economy in modern times that has inflicted so much harm on itself. 104 major reforms pummel[ed] the body-economic. One manufacturing job in three was lost, and with those jobs basically went the blue-collar core that is crucial to the chances of less skilled workers being able to support their families in decency.
She does, however, preface this in more personal terms:
In the early 1990s I often woke at night worrying about how our children would manage in a newly competitive world. If they couldn’t strive to be the best, or at least buy into the idea of life as raw competition, how would they manage? It was not so much a feeling of pressure as one of loss. Would there be a place for them to flourish – one organised around human values and community, and not only around competition and consumerism?

The country had changed in 1984, when a newly elected Labour Government implemented free-market reforms with extreme rapidity, reforms that were extended in the early 1990s by the subsequent National Government. What was done was oddly extreme for a well-developed Western democracy and an elected Labour government, or any government. However giving precedence to business did fit with the crude empirical generalisations that were current at the time about society being founded on self-interest.
Is that what John Cranna's Arena is about, also? That sense of fear over eroding values? Certainly his (unnamed) protagonist lacks any conventional moral compass. He cuts off a man's ear-lobe and chains him to a tree in the garden as a simple act of discipline, and his somewhat tepid feelings of solidarity with the Aboriginal escapee from the livestock collected for the upcoming Arena Festival do not extend to any attempt to liberate him when recaptured for sacrifice.

His strongest identification turns out to be with the children of the next generation, but even this seems as much sensual as ideological:
The girl child's green, wide-set eyes met mine. Poised there was the question that had been put to me twice, the invitaion that had pursued me to the swamps and had haunted my dreams. And as the wind blew sand in flurries across the arena, and brought to that place the scent of end-of-summer orchards, I reached out to the small white hand of this dancer, my daughter, and told her, Yes. [174]
Bear in mind that this is the end of the same summer in which this particular child was born. A brief riffle back in the pages reveals the question - or, rather, statement - twice put to him: "We want you to be the narrator" [160].

But what exactly is it that he's meant to be narrating?

... in a sense, everything that happened that summer was predictable, and with time it seemed to me that when the sequence of events happened as it did, it did so with an inevitability that left me certain that somehow I had known what was going to happen all along. [50]

There's a certain clunkiness to that sentence, and - it has to be admitted - to John Cranna's book as a whole. It's as if he's so determined to make each action deeply significant, that he neglects to explain it - even to himself. It reads like a sleepwalker's book.

Ballard's novels sounds now like an example of cli-fi written long before that term was born or thought of. Coetzee's, too, has a clear political dimension alongside the fabular narration. Scott and Wendt, too, have their targets (and genres) clearly in their sights.

What, then, of John Cranna? More than 25 years on, any deficiencies in clarity of intention seem - to me, at any rate - outweighed by the obscure feeling of hurt underlying his story. His protagonist (like the author?) has returned to home ground round to tell us his story once more in the faint hope that this time it may end up making some tenuous kind of sense.

His hopes - as always - are disappointed, but at least he's managed, this time, to gather around him a small knot of children who may offer some kind of hope, however fragile:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
- W. B. Yeats, "Among School Children"
Or, to put it more directly, how can there be narrative closure where we ourselves deserve none?

John Cranna

John Cranna

Select Bibliography:

  1. Visitors. Pacific Writers Series. Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1989.

  2. Arena. Auckland: Minerva, 1992.

  3. Homepages & Online Information:

  4. The Creative Hub

  5. Wikipedia entry

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Rosie Scott and the Mother of All Budgets (1992)

Rosie Scott: Feral City (1992)

'... It's not easy setting up in Apocalypse Now city. But at least I can choose the books I love.'
- Rosie Scott, Feral City (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1992): 126.

Francis Ford Coppola, dir.: Apocalypse Now (1979)

I came back to New Zealand in 1990, after four years away in the UK. It was as if I’d left one country and returned to another.

True, my father’s letters had alerted me to some of what was going on during Roger Douglas’s reign of terror over Treasury, and I had made a short trip home in ’88, in time to see the aftermath of the 1987 stock market ‘correction’.

Coming back to live was something quite different, though.

The New Zealand I remembered was a place where people had the luxury of time and leisure to occupy themselves with worthy causes: Apartheid in South Africa, for instance, or the pernicious effects of raising the level of Lake Manapouri.

The New Zealand I came back to was far more brutal and opportunist. The comforting, vaguely socialist, vaguely lefty convictions which had seemed to be the common property of most people I knew had been replaced with Monetarist zeal. Get rich quick or die trying – push the weak to the wall or they’ll hold you back.

I remember seeing, on the news, a funeral eulogy delivered over the coffin of a rich entrepreneur of that era by his grieving son: 'My father taught me an important lesson,' he said. We all awaited some tender homily. 'He told me that if your opponent is down in the gutter, go over and kick him in the throat, then stamp on his face till he dies.'

The audience - in the Christchurch town hall, I think it was - erupted in baying laughter, their jackal faces convulsed with glee. That was the spirit of the age, I'm sorry to say. In some circles it still is.

Ridley Scott, dir.: Blade Runner (1982)

'The seasons have all changed,' Violet said with foreboding. 'The rain's changed. There's no freshness to it any more. It rains and you know that it's pathology. It comes from some global sickness.
'It's like Blade Runner,' I said to myself.
'Blade Runner?'
'It's an old movie. Images of the future, unwholesome rain falling continuously on desolate cities. No untouched nature left to replenish ourselves spiritually with.' [79]

I remember once, shortly after my return, being asked what I did for a living by a woman who ran a bookshop. I told her that I was looking for work at present, having just come back after a long stay away.

‘I have a job for you: cleaning the shop,’ she said.

‘Oh, I don’t think I’d be very good at that,’ I replied, a little surprised at the vehemence with which she accosted me.

‘Too good for it, are you?’

‘No, it’s not that. It’s just that the country paid a good deal of money for me to go abroad and study, and it seems a bit pointless to come back and not use any of the things I learned.’

‘So you’d rather go on the benefit and live off the rest of us?’

I think I managed to extricate myself at that stage, resolving never to enter that shop again.

It’s not that I couldn’t see her point. Of course I looked like a shiftless wastrel – and what good was all that education when all it really consisted of was reading a bunch of books and making a few generalisations about them in the form of a Doctoral thesis?

Outside a very narrow, specialised sphere, I clearly wasn't at all viable in the new New Zealand. It didn't help that (as I subsequently learned) the bookshop lady's husband was a National Party politician.

Frank Oz, dir.: Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

'We used to call it the Little Shop of Horrors,' I said, thinking out loud. 'Quite witty for white trash.' ...
'You keep remembering everything,' Violet said. 'I've been here so long everything's kind of overlapped. The old memories are diluted by the last few years, so everything's just become one long uneasy present.' [26-27]

I suppose that’s why I retain so much fondness for Rosie Scott’s visionary novel Feral City. When I finally got around to reading it, some years later, it seemed to me to capture almost perfectly the feeling of those times.

When the National Party duly returned to power in the 1990 election – after the unedifying débâcle of David Lange’s attempt to impose ‘a cup of tea and a sit-down’ on his madder, more free market colleagues – they sure came in with a hiss and a roar.

Ruth Richardson strode like a colossus over the ruins of that gentler, less stratified New Zealand. Her 1991 ‘Mother of all Budgets’ cut state spending on an unprecedented scale, adding Ruthanasia to the devastation wrought by Rogernomics.

Was it all worth it in the long run? It depends on who you talk to, I suppose.

Certainly some people did become significantly richer as a result of it. Countries such as Australia which avoided such policies at that time don’t seem to have suffered unduly as a result, however.

One would have to know far more about economics than I do to venture a valid opinion – all I know is that what I saw bore more than a passing resemblance to the Britain I’d just left, stricken by over a decade of Thatcherite tyranny.

Feral City is the city of our future, its centre a wasteland people by addicts, violent gangs and the homeless. In a gesture of defiant optimism, two sisters - one a warrior, the other a survivor - open a bookshop in the heart of this decaying city. Their bizarre and moving story mirrors the fragile balance between defeat and courage.
With the passionate imagination we now expect from her, Rosie Scott presents a future shock which is alive with imminent danger.

Does Feral City really qualify as Speculative Fiction? It’s dystopian, yes – set in a near future which is mostly an exacerbated version of the author’s present. But then that is, then and now, the nature of the beast. Certainly the blurb above characterises it as some kind of Jeremiad.

After all, the same could be said of C. K. Stead’s Smith’s Dream or even Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth. Both novels extrapolate from present trends to prophesy and warn. And, while that may not be the whole duty of SF - perish the thought - it’s certainly one important part of its function as a genre.

Mostly, I think, Scott’s novel survives in the mind because of its expert evocation of atmosphere – that, and her fascination with human eccentricity. That memorable image of the old book exchange linked internally by a crudely bashed-in tunnel to the fish-shop next door, simply in order to find more space for Faith's utopian vision of the perfect bookshop, is certainly one that stayed with me long after I'd forgotten most of the rest of the plot.

Ponsonby's Pacific past (Auckland Heritage Festival, 2018)

'... There's got to be a Pacific feel to it, as well. You know that Polynesian bookshop that used to be in K-Road? In the arcade? Is it still there? You used to see all those working people come in with overalls and work-boots on. They were at ease. They were recognising something valuable that belonged to them.'
'You talk about them as if they're some sort of shy forest animal coming in to drink at the bambi pool.' [10]

Of course it's of its time: more than a quarter of a century ago now. There's a certain naïveté to its assumption that we've seen the worst already, and that it consists of social neglect and poverty. That's where the choice of a novel rather than some more one-sided diatribe serves Scott well, though.

Every time Faith says something particularly naff, Violet can shoot her down with more street-based arguments. The two function very well together as the interlocutors in a Platonic dialogue about, on the one hand, offering a possible vision of a life well lived (Faith's green, welcoming bookshop) or choosing direct, practical action (Violet's warehouse of donated goods, her soup runs in the broken-down old van).

More to the point, as they grow as characters and human beings, it allows Scott to say some important things about the deep bond between sisters, the details only they can know about each other: the wounds only they can inflict.

Rosie Scott writes like an angel, of course. The clarity and analytic power of her prose comes from her father, historian and social activist Dick Scott, I guess - but the poetic, incantatory effect of her sentences is all her own:
It seemed more and more amazing that I hadn't really noticed the state of the city in the first flush of homecoming. ... But gradually the city impinged more and more on my consciousness, like a black shield held against the sun. They were still my childhood streets with their shops and garages and pubs ... but as the days went by, I saw more and more clearly that something had changed, a slant of light, a feeling in the air.
At night the homeless people lit huge bonfires in rusty petrol drums and I could see the shadow of the flames flickering on the storeroom ceiling as I lay on a mattress on the floor trying to sleep. I kept hearing their harsh voices, sudden jolting snarls of rage, the clink of bottles, a snatch of ragged singing. They were like voices from the dead, remote, an undercurrent of menace, a strange and ghostly community. In the daytime there were no signs, just newspaper blowing in the wind and young guys walking past like cowboys, stiff-legged, eyes ahead, past the seedy shops. ...
'They're the ragged army,' Violet told me. 'There're thousands of them now. Families camped out in the streets, in old cars, under the freeway flyovers, in shopping malls, in cardboard boxes on the side of the road. There's nowhere for them to go.' [47-48]

Rosie Scott

Rosie Scott

Select Bibliography:


  1. Flesh and Blood: Poems (1984)

  2. Say Thank You to the Lady: A Play (1985)

  3. Glory Days: A Novel. Auckland: Penguin, 1988.

  4. Queen of Love: Short Stories (1989)

  5. Nights with Grace. Pacific Writers Series. Auckland: Heinemann Reed, 1990.

  6. Feral City. Port Melbourne, Victoria: William Heinemann Australia, 1992.

  7. Lives on Fire. Auckland: Sceptre NZ, 1993.

  8. Movie Dreams (1995)

  9. The Red Heart. A Vintage Book. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 1999.

  10. Faith Singer (2003)

  11. Edited:

  12. [with Thomas Keneally] Another Country (2014)

  13. [with Thomas Keneally] A Country Too Far (2004)

  14. [with Anita Heiss] The Intervention (2015)

  15. Homepages & Online Information:

  16. NZ Book Council

  17. Wikipedia entry

Eric Heath: Croaking Cassandra (1991)

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Tara McLeod: 8 Poems by New Zealand Poets (2019)

8 Poems by New Zealand Poets 2019
Designed by Tara McLeod (Auckland: The Pear Tree Press, 2019)

Yesterday I received my two author's copies of Tara McLeod's beautiful new chapbook 8 Poems by New Zealand Poets. It's the fourth in the series, earlier editions having appeared in 2014, 2017 and 2018:

Each book is billed as containing "8 new poems from contemporary NZ poets." It's quite a stellar list. To date the following poets have appeared in the series:

  1. Riemke Ensing
  2. Brian Gregory
  3. David Gregory
  4. Judith Haswell
  5. David Howard
  6. Peter Olds
  7. Paul Thompson
  8. Denys Trussell

  9. 2017:
  10. Riemke Ensing
  11. Brian Gregory
  12. Judith Haswell
  13. John Mitchell
  14. Michael O’Leary
  15. Rachel Scott
  16. Paul Thompson
  17. Denys Trussell

  18. 2018:
  19. Glenn Colquhoun
  20. Riemke Ensing
  21. Brian Gregory
  22. Rachel McAlpine
  23. Daryl McLaren
  24. Karl Stead
  25. Paul Thompson
  26. Richard von Sturmer

Here's my own poem, 'The Oceanic Feeling,' from the latest volume:

And here's a list, in order, of all the poets included:

  1. Michele Leggott
  2. Elizabeth Brooke-Carr
  3. Alan Loney
  4. Michael Harlow
  5. Linda Gill
  6. Jack Ross
  7. Gregory O'Brien
  8. Paula Green
  9. Riemke Ensing

Pretty good company to keep, I'm sure you'll agree!

I guess what's most striking about the books is the inventiveness with which Tara has come up with a different design for every poem: with bold colours and variegated font choices to complement the mood of each of them.

I couldn't be happier with the Pasifika look of the title and layout of my own poem, and I'm sure all the other poets feel the same. When Tara showed me a proof of what he had in mind in his studio in Orewa, I was quite blown away. For someone as addicted as I am to handprinting and poetry posters and all those fascinating surrounds to the classic slim volume of verse, it was manna in the wilderness.

I won't disguise the fact: the books are expensive. If you live near a library with a good rare books or special collections section - and which of us doesn't? - you should be able to get your hands on a copy, though (albeit, probably, with white gloves on).

It's always a thrill to collaborate with a real artist, and it's nice to know that Tara is beginning to get the credit he deserves, with a major new book - Tara McLeod: A Typographer's Journey - on his work as a designer, printer and sculptor due out from Lesley Smith's Katsura Press later this year.

Oh, and why are there nine poets rather than eight in this particular volume? Through an act of kindness on the artist's part, actually. Elizabeth Brooke-Carr was going to be included in the 2020 volume, but the state of her health made it seem increasingly likely that she'd never live to see it.

Accordingly, Riemke Ensing offered to bow out to give space for Elizabeth in this book instead. Touched by this gesture, Tara decided to include Riemke's poem anyway - there's a note explaining the circumstances beside it.

Elizabeth Brooke-Carr died in her Dunedin home on the 3rd of September, 2019. I don't know if she was able to see her poem in print before she died, but at least the rest of us can.

Entitled 'All that remains is pressed flat,' it's a very moving account of a funeral. Was it Harold Bloom who remarked that elegy was the mode in which poets almost always succeed?

Monday, August 26, 2019

Craig Harrison (3): Days of Starlight (1988)

Craig Harrison: Days of Starlight (1988)

Antarctica. A small scientific base. A huge, unexpected discovery made in the ice: something which will alter not just our sense of the history of our planet, but the future of all mankind. Sound familiar?

Of course it does. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is, I suppose, the locus classicus for this particular plotline.

John Carpenter, dir.: The Thing (1982)

The special effects may look pretty hokey nowadays, but I can tell you that at the time they were quite horrifically compelling. Simply coming up with the idea of that severed head with legs scuttling around the base seemed like the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we simply hadn't encountered in horror films up to that point.

Of course there had to be a sequel - or rather a sequel / prequel - The Thing (2011), but it's interesting that they waited thirty years to make it.

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., dir.: The Thing (2011)

And when it did come, it was immediately clear that many things had changed. The director is the star of the 1982 film. It's true that Kurt Russell got to run through his usual (slightly ironic) repertoire of heroics, but the film itself did not pander to the accepted conventions of how such things were supposed to run.

By 2011, the system had closed over and healed itself. There was a pretty girl starring - Mary Elizabeth Winstead - who got top billing, and whose oeuvre it tends to be linked to, rather than to that of its rather obscure journeyman director.

All in all, it's hard to see it as much more than a reversion to type. The first film version of the story, The Thing from Another World (1951), though set in the Arctic rather than the Antarctic, sets up its story by the playbook of the standard 1950s alien paranoia film.

Christian Nyby, dir.: The Thing from Another World (1951)

Of course it's no accident that essentially the same film should have to be remade every thirty years or so. The owners of the rights to a story know that the copyright on their property will expire unless it's renewed from time to time - hence the repeated Hollywood versions of franchises such as King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Mummy, The Wolfman, etc. etc.

John W. Campbell: Who Goes There (1938)

All three films are based - somewhat loosely, it must be admitted - on John W. Campbell's novella 'Who Goes There?', first published (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart) in the August 1938 Astounding Science Fiction, of which he was then editor.

An earlier, longer text of the story, entitled Frozen Hell, found among Campbell's papers at Harvard, has recently (2019) been republished on kindle. It was, however, the original version which was voted in 1973 one of the most influential SF stories ever written - just as Campbell himself is (for better or worse) still considered one of the most influential editors of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction.

H. P. Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness (1931)

Of course, the actual premise of the story - the isolated base in the polar regions (North or South), the frozen aliens in the snow who revive unexpectedly, the desperate struggle for life against them - are all very reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft's classic novella At the Mountains of Madness, written in 1931, then submitted to his usual outlet, Weird Tales, later that year. Farnsworth Wright, the editor, rejected it for reasons of length, and so, instead, it was eventually serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories.

Admittedly the story was actually accepted by Campbell's predecessor in the editorial chair, F. Orlin Tremaine. Campbell did not take over till the end of the following year, 1937, but clearly he must have read it, and presumably it influenced his own story.

Not that there's any great scandal in that. Lovecraft himself makes no secret of his indebtedness to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the closest thing to a novel Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, and, quite honestly, one of the weirdest and most extreme pieces of fiction ever composed.

Lovecraft ends his own story, in fact, with a direct invocation of Arthur Gordon Pym, quoting the strange cry 'Tekeli-li, Tekeli-li': 'a cry associated with mysterious white-coloured birds and uttered by the natives of the Antarctic land of Tsalal whenever they encounter white objects.'

Jules Verne: Le Sphinx des glaces (1897)

The enigmatic ending of Poe's story, with the hero and his companion drifting towards an immense chasm in the (warm) Southern ocean, just as an immense spectral white figure appears before them, is directly addressed in Jules Verne's sequel Le Sphinx des glaces [The Sphinx of the Ice] (1897), translated into English with the rather more prosaic title An Antarctic Mystery.

Dominic Sena, dir.: Whiteout (2009)

Once you start looking, It's actually quite difficult to avoid these rather dreamy associations between ice, enigmatic femininity, and dangerous secrets hidden in the preserving cold.

Take, for instance, the 2009 film Whiteout, where Kate Beckinsale - as a rather improbable US Marshall - acts as the involuntary Lorelei drawing large numbers of men to death in their search for the treasure concealed in an old frozen Russian transport plane (it turns out to be diamonds, rather than the fissionable nuclear material she fears it to be for most of the film).

Curiously enough, the French title for this US / Canada / France co-production, Enfer Blanc, translates as 'White Hell' - not too far from Frozen Hell, the original title for Campbell's novel. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say - or, in Winnie-the-Pooh's paraphrase: "The more it snows, the more it goes on snowing."

[SPOILER ALERT: reading this part of the post before you've finished Harrison's novel will definitely wreck your appreciation of its dénouement!]

So what contribution does the ostensible subject of this post, Craig Harrison, have to make to this set of various flavours of frozen hell?

Thomas Keneally: A Victim of the Aurora (1977)

Familiar, undoubtedly, with the John Carpenter film and its various antecedents - though possibly also influenced by some more literary excursions onto the ice, such as Thomas Keneally's 1977 heroic-age-of-antarctic-exploration detective novel A Victim of the Aurora - he takes a rather unexpected tangent.

When a team of research geologists at a remote American base in Antarctica discovers a two-metre-long silicon crystal, it becomes their most prized specimen. No one, however, anticipates the disruptive effect of the crystal - on the base's technical staff, nor on the silicon-chip technology sperating the base.
An attempt to investigate the powers of the crystal results in a startling discovery that appears to be of unparalleled significance.
But as the long winter darkness descends over the vast expanse of the earth's most alien continent, the research scientists at the base realise they must draw on all their resources to fight for their very survival.

DAYS OF STARLIGHT, set in the not-too-distant future, is a chillingly credible and timely tale, combining elements of the politico-psychological thriller and of speculative fiction.

There's no doubt that Harrison keeps up the claustrophobia and intensity associated with such narratives every bit as well as any of his predecessors. He keeps the sinister political overtones, too. The 'Delta Force' commandos sent by Washington to wipe out everyone with knowledge of this particular strange discovery in the ice are close cousins to the ruthless 'Blue Berets' in Broken October: sinister armed thugs whose idea of a good time is raping and murdering everyone they encounter.

Almost up to the last page, the story sounds like something which would make a heck of a good made-for-TV movie: clautrophobic (= fewer sets to build and maintain); cold (= bleached-out colours and backgrounds, easy to film); and with a very small cast (= great savings on extras, with more to spend on star power).

But then a basic weirdness, which has been growing throughout, only half-perceptibly, begins to manifest itself. What is the mysterious satellite to which the equally mysterious silicon crystal appears to be linked? It's a kind of transmitter, of course. In function, it's very like the moon monolith in Clarke & Kubrick's 2001, designed to send a message to some aliens a long way off just as soon as the inhabitants of this particular rock have reached a sufficient stage of development to warrant it.

I say 'warrant' rather than 'deserve' it because the whole book is about just what we deserve. And by 'we' I mean any and all beneficiaries of European hegemony. 'What if the aliens came and they were black?' is Harrison's basic question.

Roy Thomas: Avengers #102 (1972)

The crystal has been keeping an exact holographic of - everything, you see. The aliens will only need to look through it to see just what we've been up to, and it won't be a pretty sight. The book ends with Ben the protagonist's realisation that we have approximately 30 years to clean up our act - that's how long it will take them to get here, travelling at near light speed. 'What to do till the sentinels come,' to quote the title of a classic Marvel comic.

Is there a certain element of bathos in all this, after so much build-up, so much tension, so much spy-thriller intrigues? There certainly shouldn't be: it's a most ingenious solution to the narrative problem of how to find a new twist on the old Antarctic base story, but somehow there is. Turning it into yet another iteration of the conundrum black-white race relations seems just a little forced after Harrison's far more straightforward engagement with it in Broken October, and even the more effective, albeit fantastical and dreamlike extension of that in The Quiet Earth.

Fred Hoyle: The Black Cloud (1957)

But perhaps, in the end, that's the point. Days of Starlight may not work perfectly as a thriller (à la Whiteout or The Thing). Nor does it really succeed in emulating some of its more strictly Science Fictional influences: Fellow-Yorkshireman Fred Hoyle's classic The Black Cloud (1957), for instance, for the alien intelligence; or Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice (1968) for the baffling artefact from another world (in Lem's case, a line of code in a book of random numbers which turns out to have been generated by the transmissions from a certain part of space).

Stanisław Lem: His Master's Voice (1968)

I suppose, in the end, that's what makes it - for me - an exemplary piece of New Zealand Speculative Fiction. Insofar as this can be seen as a genre at all, it tends to involve a certain rejection of cosmic solutions and speculations in favour of more nitty-gritty, number-eight wire, alternatives.

Sentient oceans and hyper-intelligent clouds are all very well, Harrison appears to be saying, but we've made a terrible mess of the place and the people who are actually here, all around us. Let's make a full acknowledgement of what it is we've done, as a first step in the process of repairing it. It falls almost naturally into the wording of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [Step 4]
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all [Step 8]
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible [Step 9]
As such, I think Days of Starlight must be seen as a worthy culmination to the SF trilogy Harrison began with Broken October (1976) and continued in The Quiet Earth (1981).

Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers (1959)

It falls in line more with the preoccupations of writer / critics such as Samuel R. Delany - who famously argued that the protagonist of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers must be black - and Ursula K. Le Guin, the hero of whose Earthsea books, Ged, was always intended to be dark-skinned, though he's seldom been portrayed in that way in cover illustrations - than with more familiar SF tropes and themes.

Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

But, once you start looking for it, the subject of racial prejudice intrudes everywhere: in Isaac Asimov's "robot" saga; in many other manifestations of the Android theme (such as Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961), filmed so memorably by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972); or - for that matter - Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the inspiration for the 1982 film Blade Runner).

Blade Runner (1982)

So what's the problem, then (if there is a problem)? I suppose, for me, it lies in the implications of Harrison's contention, throughout the novel, that black and white people's brains do indeed work differently, and are based on a different design. This manifests, for instance, in the greater amount of REM sleep required by the black, mostly service people on the base.

It turns out in context that this is a sign of superiority, not inferiority - and the racist assumptions to the contrary of the base's chief doctor, Kellner, are thoroughly satirised in context.

It's just that - even in the context of a quite far-fetched piece of speculative fiction, entertaining such ideas of a fundamental difference seems a dangerous one (Ben, the protagonist, turns out to be tuned in to the alien satellite's transmissions, communicated through dreams, thanks to the fact that his great-grandfather was in fact black - he therefore escapes the tone-deafness of the other honkies in the story).

It's not that Harrison is unaware of this peril. There's a passage early on where Ben and his love interest, Linda, talk about Dr. Kellner's research as follows:
'Well, if people like Kellner can prove that blacks have got inferior brains, then it means that they needn't worry too much about what the West has done in the last couple of hundred years. And goes on doing ...
'And this cerebrum makes us superior?'
'He reckons it's the centre of our rationality.'
'And the cerebellum's the opposite?'
'Yes: and much older. More primitive, he'd say. Controls all the magical, dreamtime, intuitive, visionary perceptions.'
'And the marvellous sense of rhythm.' [35]
Har-de-ha-ha. The trouble is, this isn't all that far from the actual underlying thesis of the novel. It's a little like the anthropologists who've postulated at various times independent lines of descent for Australian Aborigines and other native races from those which produced the Caucasian master race.

Carleton S. Coon (1904-1981)

The most notorious of these is undoubtedly the unfortunately named Carleton Coon, whose notorious book The Origin of Races (1962) argued:
that the human species divided into five races before it had evolved into Homo sapiens. Further, he suggested that the races evolved into Homo sapiens at different times.
Coon claimed that he had been prompted purely by a desire to follow the evidence where it led, but many of his contemporaries saw this idea as providing fuel for white segregationists and racists generally. Was Coon himself a racist? He, and most of his colleagues, have continued to deny the suggestion indignantly.

I did once see a documentary on the subject, though, where one of those colleagues summed up his feelings more or less as follows: he said that Coon had travelled to every corner of the globe, had met people of all races, worked and interacted with them, and lived among them. Many of them had become his close friends. And yet, he concluded, "I don't think for a moment that it ever occurred to Carleton S. Coon to regard any of them as his equals."

Craig Harrison - in his fiction and in his life - is a positive zealot for racial justice. This book of his is no exception. His fictional Dr. Kellner and the real-life Professor Coon would be seen by him as close intellectual cousins. But his book does have a tendency to encourage 'separate but equal' thinking about the various races of mankind.

It would be a real shame to dismiss his book unread on the strength of that, but I think that it does offer some explanation as to why so eminently filmable a story has remained untouched by directors ever since.

Pieter Bruegel: Hunters in the Snow (1656)
- a thematic reference in Tarkovsky's Solaris

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Craig Harrison (2): The Quiet Earth (1981)

Craig Harrison: The Quiet Earth. 1981. Text Classics (2013)

There's a strange plot-twist in chapter 12 of Craig Harrison's empty world classic The Quiet Earth. His hero, John Hobson, is driving down the North Island, looking for any other survivors of whatever it is that's happened to us all: 'The Event,' as he calls it. Then, all of a sudden:
Christ! There was something ahead, on the road, running into the car lights! I jerked the wheel hard across, braked, swerved, nearly lost control. There was a wild screeching. The car tipped right, skidding, and I flinched, expecting it to roll. It didn't. The wheels lifted, then fell back. The car stopped, sideways across the camber, headlights whitening trees. What in the name of God had I just seen? [88]
And what had he just seen? We have to wait almost a whole page to find out:
I had glimpsed, briefly, a bone-white beast the size of a big dog or a calf, hairless, wet and pallid like an abortion. Its head was deformed, a mutant of dog and goat, yet fat and imbecile, wide mouth snarling to the roots of its teeth, and glistening with spit; the car lights had glared back from red points of eyes rimmed pink. I had never seen such a monstrosity, not even among Perrin's worst experimental animals, and they were all mercifully dead. The double shock here was that this nightmare was alive, the only other living thing - ... [89]
This sighting upsets the apparent naturalism of the book. As Hobson muses, driving on towards Rotorua ('The stench was the same as ever, like shit in hell'):
I know what I saw back there. If it was real then there were now things living on earth which should be dead, which defied every law of nature I ever knew. And there must be a reason for that. Something I could not live with, in any sense. It demanded my death. [90]
In the end, the only language he can find for it 'sounded biblical:'
abomination, it surfaced like some diseased vision from Revelations. The way the creature moved! The slow lope totally alien to the run of a dog or calf, a kind of upright slithering ... [89]

Geoff Murphy, dir.: The Quiet Earth (1985)

Those of you more familiar with Geoff Murphy's classic feature film version of The Quiet Earth (with a screenplay by Bill Baer, Bruno Lawrence, and Sam Pillsbury) probably find this episode not at all what you would expect from the story as you know it.

Like the book's John Hobson, the film's Zac Hobson (played by Bruno Lawrence) wakes up alone in a motel room outside Thames. If you watch it on a DVD with the 'commentary' feature on, you'll hear how proud the film-makers are of that first nearly half an hour of screen time without a single line of dialogue.

It's a tour-de-force. And the powerful logic of the film's story persuades us that's how it must always have been: that that's the way these plots are supposed to go: Zac's lunatic delusions in Auckland, cured by a life-giving swim at Piha. His drive south, meeting first one, then another survivor. His eventual self-sacrifice to stop the 'effect' continuing to the destruction of all life on earth. That final re-awakening on an alien beach, with its wonderful last shot of a strange new planet rising into the spectacular new sky ...

So what about this strange beast - this apocalyptic revenant from a nightmare - this living disproof that John Hobson can be driving down the same island he knew before?

On the one hand, there's the mysterious nature of Rotorua itself - that place where hidden forces come close to the surface, seemingly always ready to break through - manifesting in strange events and disconcerting discoveries even for the most casual tourist (as I outlined in another blogpost earlier this year: The Mysteries of Rotorua).

On the other hand, there's the clear juxtaposition of this terrifying sight with Hobson's long flashback, in the next chapter, chapter 13, to the life and death of his severely autistic and disabled son Peter. The sole communication he achieves with the boy is (he believes) a request to be allowed to die:
If he wanted to kill himself, what could we do? I knew what the official answer would be; he would have to be placed under close watch in a mental hospital. If necessary, under restraint. [101]
Now, as Hobson stands in his motel room, with the muzzle of a shotgun in his mouth, trying (and failing) to make himself pull the trigger, he remembers the final scene of Peter's life:
I am sitting on the edge of the bath. Peter's eyes are devious, they glance in all directions and then again with a wrench of his head they fix on my face. I know what will happen. Holding the sides of the bath, he sinks back, slowly. His face goes from the air by inches, mouth closed, the edge of the water sliding up his face in a silver glint of surface tension, the trapped bubbles of air bright like chromium beads, his eyes open beneath the water. His hair floats and drifts, rising from his forehead, combed in slow motion by the lift of the silver line. Now I have to decide. Ten seconds. Wet skin glitters. The eyes widen. I stand, trembling, the reflections slipping over the brilliance. Goodbye Peter. He will only see my lips move. Then the lights.
I go down the hallway and into the kitchen. I go back into the hall. My child is dying. I go into the front room. Joanne is out. He knows that. I go into the kitchen. How long? I shall tell the inquest I went for a towel to the airing cupboard. Some things fell out when I opened the door. Then the phone rang. Wrong number. Then it was too late. I go into the front room. Dear God. I wrap my arms around myself. I am shivering. The sky dark blue. There is no noise. [104]

Craig Harrison: The Quiet Earth (1981)

It's not that the actual idea of a kind of cyclic purgatory, going over again and again the worst features of your life, is such an original one: it's not even that unusual a fictional solution to the idea of fleshing out fantastical landscapes. It's more the fact that Craig Harrison takes it so far, writes with such severe, disciplined precision, that makes this - to my mind, at any rate - one of the very best New Zealand novels, realist, speculative, or otherwise.
The stunned clarity of the landscape seemed almost insulting; but even this was only like an extension of the indifference it had always radiated. I had felt it often when driving through remote hills in the past, on deserted roads. The clear light which scrubbed the hills into such precise definition, which polished seas and rinsed distance from time as well as space, had not changed. The nothingness stretching over huge sections of land infinitely had extended itself everywhere [23-24]
I guess we're more used to this kind of Terra Nullius evocation in descriptions of Australia: the endless sky, the boundless landscape running by. Expatriate Brit Harrison feels it here, too, though. It's as if New Zealand has always been a kind of purgatory for him: an afterlife, devoid of civilised life, not to mention the patina lent to Old World - in Harrison's case, Yorkshire - landscapes by age and long occupation.
The landscape held no possibilities other than those of that moment. You felt you had seen it all forever. It had no psychic resonance, no memories, no past; nothing human had ever happened here. That was not unusual for parts of New Zealand [my emphasis].

What is the reality behind the mystery that leaves John Hobson alone in New Zealand: apparently the only creature still alive?
Craig Harrison's book gives an unforgettable picture of a world where nothing is as it seems, a world haunted by loneliness and fear.
Of course the fallacy in all this will have struck you already. The South Island myth aside, New Zealand is not, nor ever has been - for the past thousand years, at least - an empty world, where 'nothing human had ever happened'.

When it comes to Craig Harrison, though, you're preaching to the choir. Pākehā / Māori race relations have been his bread and butter as a writer ever since he first arrived here, back in the dim and distant 1960s. Having given John Hobson a gigantic case of white man's guilt, he goes on to explain a few of the reasons why, beginning with a childhood meeting with a young Māori boy from 'an old house in the next street':
I said something like 'Come in,' but he looked away, shook his head, and mumbled, 'Nah, better go, eh,' and walked off.
I was surprised, not merely at the warnings my aunt and uncle gave me about the undesirability of associating with Polynesian children, since I already had a vague idea that they disliked Maoris, and remarks about contagious scabies and head lice were familiar in the form of general warnings against people one should not mix with; no, what amazed me was the extent of my own naïveté, revealed by the fact that the Maori boy knew more about my surrogate parents than I did [84]
When John Hobson does finally meet another human being in his strange Odyssey down the North Island it is, predictably, a Māori, ex-soldier Apirana Maketu. And they meet on the Volcanic Plateau, almost exactly in the centre of the island (rather than in Hamilton, as they do in the movie).
'Why us, then?' he asked; 'we must be special, eh?'
'We must have something in common,' I said, absurdly. He stood back and looked at me, in mock confusion. His face was lightened by very white teeth and the going of the frown, but he was quite dark-skinned and his eyes were very black and quick, scanning me up and down.
'You don't look like Ngati Porou to me,' he said. [123]

A couple of years ago I wrote a short story, 'Catfish', the protagonist of which is a retired Academic trying to compose a critical essay on Craig Harrison's The Quiet Earth (whilst simultaneously struggling against his own suicidal tendencies). You can, if you're curious, find the whole story in my recent collection Ghost Stories. Here's a quote from the essay-within-the-story:
Far more effectively than in the more programmatic Broken October, Hobson’s suspicions, fears, and final downright homicidal ferocity against Apirana Maketu – note the closeness of that surname to mākutu [curse] – map pākehā paranoia with deadly accuracy. [86]
As the blurb above puts it: "The conclusion to this disturbing and brilliantly written novel has a deadly impact." Or, as my protagonist goes on to say in his essay:
The Quiet Earth is, basically, a novel about suicide. Its surface preoccupations with colonial guilt and racism, however strongly expressed, mask an obsession with the details of what might happen after death, especially if that death came out of despair.
Immediately after his terrifying encounter with the strange abortion / shadow-creature, Hobson “put the muzzle of the shotgun in my mouth and reached down to the trigger.” On this occasion, though, “I could do nothing.”
It isn’t till long afterwards, in narrative time, after he and his companion Apirana have run down the one surviving woman in Wellington in their car – by accident, but really as a result of the macho rivalry between them – and the two of them have fought to a finish (Hobson wins: sort of), that he finally has the strength to go back to his point of origin and complete the deed.
His realization, at that point, that he hated his own autistic son and indeed caused his death by drowning, linked to the fact that he and his wife spent their honeymoon in Rotorua, gives some substance to his sense that he is indeed creating the circumstances around him: that they constitute a kind of psychological parody of the conditions of his own life.
Of course, as luck would have it, when he does finally muster the guts to kill himself, he wakes up again, in the same hotel room, with – presumably – the same journey of self-discovery to endure.
No wonder the film chose a more cosmic ending, with its hero knocked through a hole between worlds into a beautiful alien beachscape, with a ringed, Saturn-like planet climbing up from a strangely tranquil sea.
The fact that this is clearly the same West Coast beach which he swam at earlier in the movie, might offer a hint towards the inescapable self-referential mise-en-abîme which lies at the heart of the book. [88-89]

Do I still agree with my character? Did I ever agree with my character, in fact? The great thing about fiction is that you can have it both ways at once. It's certainly a plausible reading of The Quiet Earth, and it does tie in nicely with my own story's preoccupations.

Earlier on the essay says:
The strength of the idea behind Harrison’s novel is, however, not so much in this use of Nietzsche’s “eternal return” as a plot-structuring device, as the facility with which it enables him to discuss the racial, post-colonial themes so close to his heart.
That sounds a bit more like it, to me. There are plenty of 'empty world' stories out there - Earth Abides, I am Legend, The Stand. It's safe to say that none of these are one-idea books. All of them take the opportunity to explore in depth just what it is that bugs their respective authors most about the world we humans have built for ourselves.

That, for me, is a bit closer to the magnitude of Harrison's achievement in this, his second-to-be-published - and almost certainly his greatest - novel. Broken October has many strengths (though not probably not as many as the stage play, Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day, that preceded it). Ground Level, which came next, perhaps found more appropriate expression in slapstick form as the pioneering TV sit-com Joe and Koro.

In The Quiet Earth Harrison really found his stride, however. It's a claustrophobic, singularly dark vision he gives us - the film had to lighten it quite a few shades to make it acceptable to a larger audience - but that's what makes it such an impressive novel. It's something one can go back, finding new facets - both disturbing and enlightening - at each repetition of poor John Hobson's self-created, self-cursed trajectory.

Bruno Lawrence (1941-1995)