Kelp triffids, zombie chickens and taniwha, Annabel Gooder

Speculative fiction
At the Edge
Dan Rabarts and Lee Murray (eds)
Paper Road Press, $31.50,
ISBN 9780473354152

At the Edge is an original anthology of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror) stories by New Zealand and Australian authors. The title is advantageously open; the eponymous edge can be outer space, a frontier planet, the border between the mundane and the supernatural, or living down here at the edge of the world. In a third of the 23 stories, that edge is apocalyptic. Another handful feature ghosts, and several more are about body-snatching or metamorphosis. Five take place off planet Earth, and the remaining few are varied – a  protagonist with narcolepsy, a pre-teen girl adopted by a street goblin, a housesitter with a zombie chicken problem.

The anthology is bookended by two well-chosen stories that reflect and contrast with each other. Both are post-apocalyptic, dealing with ecological disaster and bioengineering, and someone being lost in an inhospitable environment. In Jodi Cleghorn’s “Leaves No Longer Fall”, a young scientist brings her children back to the communal refuge from which she had once fled, to try to create a solution to living in an overheated Australia. In “And Still the Forests Grow, Though We are Gone” (a title worthy of Tiptree or Le Guin), the problem is not that nothing will grow; instead, an unstoppable forest has overgrown everything. A small community fight to hold a last bit of land in the South Island, refusing evacuation. The protagonist is an elderly gay man who has also lost his partner, but has never had children. He has had communal living thrust upon him, and plays no part in a possible solution. I would say “Leaves No Longer Fall” is a more involving and interesting story, but A J Buchanan’s encroaching kelp triffids make an arresting image.

It is not hard to find the inspiration for another apocalyptic story, “Hope Lies North”, in which a woman journeys in search of anywhere safe while near-continuous earthquakes rack the land. She does find other survivors, but has to decide if she is willing to accept their approach to taming the earth, or side with the earth herself. J C Hart’s visceral descriptions keep this allegorical fantasy from falling into didacticism.

Turning to more eldritch offerings, the juxtaposition in Debbie Cowen’s “Hood of Bone” between the real estate agent’s comfortable daily life and the single-mindedness of the parasite from the ocean depths is chillingly effective. And A J Ponder’s contribution, “Blindsight”, is truly awful, taking a character that might have been the victim or heroine, and revealing her as an oblivious conduit for a dark and unpredictable power best kept caged. By contrast, Octavia Cade’s “Responsibility” is a whimsical Addams familyesque tale of a woman housesitting for her chthonic sister, who does her darnedest to keep the sister’s chickens zombified, despite a green thumb that brings everything around her to life.

“Seven Excerpts from Season One” by David Versace is a clever and amusing ghost story – a group of students making a web-series about their rural town’s bloody supernatural history for a school project find themselves solving a mystery they did not know existed. From the oh-so-generic school name to the teacher’s mother’s cat’s ghost, “Seven Excerpts” seems simple, but its revelations are carefully paced, and worth reading more than once. A character who awakes with no memory is not new, but the reveal of amnesiac stowaway Rerenga’s identity in E G Wilson’s “12:36” makes for a compelling short space opera with heart.

Summer Wigmore’s “Back When the River had No Name” is also about things that have been forgotten – young Rey knows he has lost memories of the time before, his language, even his mother. An encounter with the blue-skinned woman who controls the only crossing of the great river helps him remember things he did not want to, and start to rebuild his whanau and plan a future. This is an engaging story that makes good use of place; it reminds me of some of Victor Kelleher’s books.

Someone in an altered state commits an act of violence, thinking themself acting in self-defence when in fact they are the attacker in “Narco” by Michelle Child. The first person point of view is well done, but the premise is not particularly new, and it is a bit of a stretch to call it speculative fiction. Horrifying, but not horror.

“Splintr” by A J Fitzwater, the most original of the post-apocalyptic offerings, is reminiscent of Craig Harrison’s The Quiet Earth. Enigmatic aliens have arrived just ahead of a world-devouring menace and offer an escape. Our narrator misses the last transport, and finds themselves living through a final day on earth again and again. The shifts in pronoun, style and language deftly evoke the strangeness and multiplicity of Aeron’s predicament.

Taken as a whole, At the Edge is a strong anthology – there is almost no story that does not deserve to be here, and it serves as both a good introduction to antipodean speculative fiction and a satisfying read for local aficionados. There is a fun game to be had, seeing how early in each story you can guess the author’s country, since even the stories set in outer space are recognisably antipodean. As for the taniwha and bunyips the editors mention in their foreword: yes, here be taniwha, but bunyips get only a passing mention in one story, noticeably the only story to mention Aboriginal Australians in any way. The editors asked for stories that celebrate diversity and inclusiveness – and many of the stories do – but there is still a gap. Where are the Māori and Aboriginal and Pasifika authors writing in the speculative fiction space, in this anthology? They exist, their work exists, but it does not seem to be appearing here, and that is a pity, and a weakness in a good anthology. There is room for editors in the future to cast a wider net.

Annabel Gooder is an Auckland reviewer.

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