Hooves of unicorns clattering, Eleanor Toland

The Disestablishment of Paradise
Phillip Mann
Victor Gollancz, $37.00,
ISBN 9780575132627

The Last Sanctuary
P S Mokha
Tangerine Publications, $30.00,
ISBN 9780987664655

Tropic of Skorpeo
Michael Morrissey
Steam Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780987663535

Fantasy and science fiction are genres often underrepresented in New Zealand literature. Ursula le Guin wrote an essay asking Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?, and we might ask why New Zealanders quite happy to watch Smaug and Bilbo at the cinema seem reluctant to support novels of the fantastic from their own countrymen. New Zealand publishers have repeatedly said that otherworldly fiction from Kiwi authors has no market, and the normal situation is for New Zealand novelists to find overseas publishers for their tales of the supernatural. An acquaintance of mine once complained of the irritation of having to write in American vernacular and substitute words like “bangs” for “fringe”.

Of the three books reviewed here, one, The Disestablishment of Paradise, was published by a UK publisher, and none use a New Zealand setting. The Disestablishment of Paradise is set on a distant planet far in the future, Tropic of Skorpeo in an alternate dimension, and The Last Sanctuary partly in London and partly in fairyland. Finding a New Zealand fantasy or science fiction novel actually set in New Zealand seems as unlikely as finding a unicorn. Fantasy, it seems, belongs to Old World Europe, and science fiction to a future where the geography of Earth has been left behind. I personally live in hope for steampunk set in Edwardian Wellington or futuristic stories of cloning the moa.

The Disestablishment of Paradise is prestigious science fiction author Phillip Mann’s first novel in 13 years. As its title suggests, the book is a profoundly cerebral fable filled with Biblical allusion. Set on the planet Paradise, the story recalls the concept of Gaia, the planet as a living, sentient organism capable of turning against its children. To name the planet Paradise is to tempt fate, and in Mann’s story the Fall of Eden plays out a second time, with humanity’s arrogance and callous exploitation of nature leading to its inevitable doom in an ecological fable for our times.

The book is highly complex in style, written as a fictionalised biography of its main character Hera by a children’s author and supplemented with an appendix of diary entries, news articles and fairy tales. Thus, the book is a story within a story, and its didactic moral themes can be read as the simplifying of complex events to a quasi-religious tale of nature turning against humanity. Mann’s imagination is certainly at its best when he turns away from the humans towards the utterly alien planet. His sympathies lie with the sentient weeds and sympathetic artificial intelligences more than the humans.

Mann’s dystopia lacks the sweeping grandeur of an Orwellian nightmare ‒ in his future, petty bureaucracy and internal squabbling put a pristine world in danger. The grungy bickering of office politics forms a stark contrast to the unknowable wildness of the planet Paradise. A character rails against “people who are not comfortable with ideas like beauty or love or self-sacrifice” in one of many didactic sequences. The story is not without moments of humour ‒ the planet is orbited by double moons Gin and Tonic, and the continents of the new world are called such names as Lennon, Horse and Anvil ‒ but it is at its heart a dark tale, a story of humans stranded in the wilderness and finding their true nature, a science-fiction Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. Like a thinking person’s version of the Ridley Scott film Prometheus, The Disestablishment of Paradise is a highly demanding and challenging read.

By contrast, The Last Sanctuary, a young adult novel falling more into the fantasy than science fiction genre, is pure entertainment. This is the first novel by schoolteacher P S Mokha, who originally wrote about the adventures of three orphan girls at a school for fairy children as a bedtime story for his young daughters. Main character Lily has lived with her grandfather all her life when he tells her she is to be sent to boarding school and begs her to, at all costs, “find the hidden room”. The next morning she wakes up to find she has been transported overnight to a strict London school where she must remain for the rest of her adolescence, not allowed to visit or even write to her grandfather. Now stranded in what resembles a cult more than a school, Lily and her two new friends Rose and Olivia set out to find the hidden room and discover their powerful magical inheritance along the way.

With its school setting and plucky orphan main characters motivated by an ancient prophecy, the story will feel familiar to readers of Rowling and Pullman, and its fast pacing and juvenile humour recall Roald Dahl. The school’s tyrannical headmistress Kleek seems like a slightly kinder version of the Trunchbull from Matilda, and readers who remember Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone will probably be able to guess at least one of the novel’s major plot twists.

The Last Sanctuary was published by Tangerine Press, a small publisher, and suffers from a lack of professional editing and proofreading. The text is littered with typographical errors, and Mokha repeatedly, irritatingly, refers to “platted” hair and bolts of “lightening”. The humour is over-puerile, and the author relies to a truly excessive degree on fart jokes. The early chapters especially seem rushed and the characters’ behaviour unlikely. The three orphans, on being chased down a corridor by a scorpion the size of a car, accept without question that the creature has escaped from a zoo. They refuse to see the magic surrounding them until it becomes impossible to ignore. However, in spite of its rough edges and occasionally over-familiar plot, The Last Sanctuary is a page-turner with real energy and imagination, and the story’s memorable characters and back-story of a multiple-world encompassing war between fairies and witches have what it takes to support the six-book series the author has promised. I, for one, look forward to book two.

While The Last Sanctuary is an all-ages book, Tropic of Skorpeo is definitely not. The book is the first full-length novel from Michael Morrissey, better known for his poetry and his memoir about his struggle with mental illness. As the book’s outrageously lurid and pulpy cover suggests, Tropic of Skorpeo is a work of SF worthy of words like “romp” and “bizarre”. Set in an alternate universe the story is peopled by an endless cast of fantastical characters, including a sentient and amorous asteroid, a tortoise capable of stopping time, a planet of bondage-clad “Slutoids” in twelve-inch heels, a gorgon with maternal instincts and a talking hedge that yearns to become a unicorn. At its heart, the story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, against the background of an intergalactic war that has lasted for millennia. Jularetta, a purple-complexioned, four-breasted princess has lived in seclusion with her Gorgonic Nurse all her 17 years of life, until a chance encounter with and separation from green-skinned adventurer Rhameo leads her on a psychedelic and psychosexual quest to be reunited with her true love.

With its “Punkoids, Slutoids and Sleazoids”, cannibal-rapist Amazons, Tropic of Skorpeo pushes the boundaries of good taste. Readers likely to be offended by content such as gratuitous Hitler jokes and sexual assault via octopus might want to avoid this book, but, in essence, Tropic of Skorpeo is a moral tale of love and goodness triumphing over evil and cynicism. Morrissey injects some interesting concepts about alternate universes and virtual realities, but they get a little lost among the plethora of puerile sex scenes. Though the novel is just under 300 hundred pages long, it becomes exhausting as it approaches the ending, like a joke that has gone on slightly too long and isn’t quite as funny as it should be. At its core, the story is not truly as subversive and outrageous as its surface suggests. The hero’s and heroine’s innate goodness and love for each other, not their own efforts, is what allows them to defeat sexual temptation.

The book is the third offering from Steam Press, a local publisher with the laudable aim of printing more science fiction and fantasy by New Zealand authors. Their publications have so far included 2012’s Mansfield with Monsters, a work mashing up Mansfield’s original stories of Karori with Lovecraftian monsters. Excitingly, in 2013, Steam Press has promised an urban fantasy involving the Maori gods arriving on the streets of Wellington and called The Wind City. The unicorns have not yet arrived, but by now we can hear their hooves clattering in the distance, growing ever nearer.

 

Eleanor Toland is a graduate student in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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