First Hunter: Spirit Shinto
The Army of Five Men, Volume One
Hollywood once contacted Craig Harrison requesting rights to a film sequel to The Quiet Earth. “It can’t have a sequel,” explained Harrison politely. “I killed off the human race.” “Production problem,” replied Hollywood, “we’ll deal with that.”
To me, NZ’s sci-fi/fantasy landscape has been as quiet as post-Harrisonian Earth’s – with an occasional glimpse of the superbly quirky Phil Mann on the horizon. Well, there’s been a population explosion: three fantasies (one a 672-pager) recently arrived at my door. Two weeks later, another: “If you haven’t got time to review three, you may as well not have time to review four,” the editor suggested.
The cumulative effect of the four reads is terrific – Johnson proves once again that he is a splendid writer and Hick will quickly climb to the top branch of the international fantastree. Overall, I believe that these books will come to be seen as a major event in world fantasy – Foundation: the New Zealand Empire Begins. New vistas of clean green thought have been added to the genre; new monsters, new methods of war, new landscapes … Also – mischievously but inevitably – new ways of telling the Treaty story.
Chris Baker’s Kokopu Dreams is the most overtly political, a fine parable of what we’ll do Next Time. Kiwidom’s been zapped by a mutant rabbit calcivirus strain and has bled to death. “We couldn’t keep going like we were and something had to happen, something really drastic.” Well, it did – and by cripes, his world lies in ruins: crumbling powerplants, rusting cars. What is left is a rundown version of how things would have been if we hadn’t had a 1769. The marae, not the motel or RSA, is the destination of all shades of shattered, post-calciviral survivors. There, utu can tacitly begin: “When they got the cattle home they started grazing them on the Tamaki Bowling Club greens …”
Fascinatingly, with the return of the old values come those critters formerly consigned to mythology by arid colonial reality: Kurangaituku, a man-eating, nauseatingly smelly bird; the Maeroero – reject fairies who “sounded like Tom Waites on a bad day, like cutlery caught in a waste disposal unit” and the taniwha – the eel from hell. Future fantasy writers will greet them with open arms.
The circumstances in Kokopu Dream are appalling – the language is not. Baker achieves a dreadful majesty with his laconic prose: “He killed the eel by submerging his nausea and chewing its head off.” He remains untroubled by hyperbole in some of the most lurid scenes in NZ fiction.
First Hunter: Spirit Shinto is Book One of a trilogy. The work bears many of the other conventions of fantasy as well – magic amulets, spells, Sodomo-Gomorric cities surrounded by the hovels of the penniless, worthy forest tribes … but there’s a newness about it which comes – believe it or not – from familiarity. These are our forests (under threat of clear-felling), our spirits of the land (mauri), our magic. And the hero’s name is Tane, who’ll be played by Jake the Muss in the movie.
Of course, this all means the unindigenous must take another moral clobbering: “Perhaps not all the Outsiders were to blame but without their arrival nothing would have changed.” Fortunately, the goodness of the forest is soon gnawing away at the evil: “The stories … about life in the tribe made us realise there’s more to life than we have known in the city.”
Dale Elvy is a military man and it shows in his style. He has a tendency, page after regular page, never to get out of step. But precision prevails in the organisation of his narrative, which marches briskly and unerringly to its clear destination.
I will certainly complete the trilogy – there’s social, sexual and satanic themes enough to whet expectation. And in the “skalltha” lies the potential for one of the great monsters of all time. It’s the size of – well, Elvy squeamishly says “a small hut”, but of course he means a brick shithouse: “but by far the most disturbing aspect of the creature was its bulbous, black, human face.”
Now, to The Army of Five Men. It was so good I didn’t trust my own judgement. I took it to a friend who has read far more fantasy than I ever will. He agreed: it’s as good as anything he’s ever read in the genre, and he may well have read it all. And its author is 23.
As in Elvy’s work, the conventions of fantasy are all dutifully present – the statutory forelock tug to the architecture of Gormenghast; magic powers, hidden princes, feisty beauties, quests and of course the usual white trashing: “It is wrong to take him from here, to send him to the white man’s world …” But what Hick makes of the mix – leavened with NZ-South Sea folklore – is sensational. In Book One we meet three of the five warriors, each in a decisively distinct story – with a telling cross-seepage of characters and situation. An illustration of such conflation will illustrate the splendours of this book. Tempo is a trainee wingman living in the plateaux of some high mountains. The world below, though permanently shrouded in cloud, is called the Green Beyond. In the cloud lives the Adarickter, which will eat you if you enter. Like all his peers, Tempo has a stone rod surgically inserted in his back at a certain age. To this is affixed his wing. Training day, on the edge of a cliff for Tempo and many others. The Overseer speaks: “In an ideal world you would all return safely to the training plateau. That will not happen. Some of you will die this afternoon.” They leap; the story begins …
The next story – 218 pages later (this is the 672-pager) – begins thus: “Artimus Reigh wedged the shovel under the body and levered it out of the water. He deposited it on the bank and bent down to remove pieces of canvas and broken frame …” Yep, ole Artimus farms at the foot of a mountain whose top is shrouded constantly in cloud and never seen. Half a dozen unknown youths fall from the clouds each day and block his creek, which antagonises his neighbour … The entire book is as fulfillingly and elegantly organised as that.
It gets harrowing – downright sickening in parts – and sci fantasy isn’t quite my thing, but … well, dammit, I ain’t come out of a NZ book with such a feeling of dizzy completion since the bone people. So there.
Counterpart: “I could hear her voice in my ear and knew again she was … a single breath away if only I knew which way to turn. She was telling me … how we were all guinea pigs for some horrible new world.” In this horrible new world, Harry Blackman tries to believe that “the woman lying beside me was not some sinuous, long-haired stranger but my own Evonne.” But she isn’t: she’s Evelyn. And in a parallel universe, one breath away, is another Harry Blackman: “And what were you doing there? … Making love to Evonne?”
It’s a fantastic dilemma, beautifully wrought. The Harry that Harry now finds himself to be in Universe B is a conniving asshole – but could such qualities have existed in himself? He must ask such questions when he realises: “How much effort did I make to know my own son? It terrified me to think my Timmy had been as much a stranger to me as this little boy was now.” And further, inevitable horrors: “I would see Evelyn in various postures of desire and abandon. To combat this I concentrated on Evonne … but I kept seeing Evelyn, bare-shouldered and eager for love.”
The parallel universes are firmly set in North Shore Auckland – complete with fantasy’s first grumpy next-door-neighbour. So convincing is the evocation of cyber-suburbia that we resignedly realise there is no escape, in any universe, from traffic jams on the Bridge.
There are elements of corporate thriller here, involving laptops, bent oil deals and cross-universe murder attempts; but I’d somehow rather rely on Johnson to get me home from an alternative cosmos than to close a corporate deal. In fact, an inadvertent (perhaps not?) reflection on NZ’s existential state presents itself through these pages: it’s somewhat easier to believe in parallel universes than in NZ oil executives.
The science is elegant, the sex is good; Johnson as always writes beautifully and brings his Einsteinian Groundhog Day to a satisfactory “Yes!” ending.“One day mankind will walk through these worlds at will,” he says. And due to the bold efforts of himself, Hick, Baker and Elvy, it’ll be stopping off in NZ.
Peter Hawes’s most recent novel is The Dream of Nikau Jam.