Speculating on the speculative, Annabel Gooder

Te Kōrero Ahi Kā: To Speak of the Home Fires Burning
Grace Bridges, Lee Murray and Aaron Compton (eds)
SpecFicNZ, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473428341

“Ahi Kā”, the opening to this speculative fiction anthology, is a sonnet framing prose, blending Māori myth with modern inventions to create a brief and effective tale of hellhounds and standing firm. Eileen Mueller and A J Ponder prove their ability to paint a meaningful action scene with very few words. It serves as an impressive introduction.

Speculative Fiction New Zealand, an online community set up in 2009 to support writers of fantasy, science fiction and horror, has released this first anthology to showcase its members’ work. The call for submissions was unthemed, but the title had already been chosen – Te Kōrero Ahi Kā rendered as “to speak of the home fires burning”, a nicely colloquial translation which still does not quite capture the resonance in Māori of ahi kā, in terms of continuous occupation and connection with the land. Several of the stories do portray that sense of home and connection. Aaron Compton’s “Moa Love” – set in an alternative past in which a young man farms moa at the beck and call of his tipuna’s preserved brain – is bursting with sci-fi originality that deserves to be expanded into a novel. “Breach”, by Robinne Weiss, is a gentle tale of cows switching paddocks between now and a future drier and poorer Canterbury that also speaks to generations tending the same land. And, in “Dancing East to West”, by Simon Petrie and Edwina Harvey, an old woman living a comfortable village community life in post-apocalyptic Australia dreams of her hometown of Christchurch and tells children tales about the aeroplanes that used to exist, while not believing she can ever return home. Canterbury appears three times in an anthology light on place names, maybe a sign that its travails since 2011 make it a natural magnet for storytelling, or maybe just that there is a healthy speculative fiction community based in that part of the country.

Another story that may be in conversation with the anthology title, even as it takes place on a spaceship that will never return to Earth, is Mouse Diver-Dudfield’s “The Nineveh” in which a young woman wakes alone on a colony ship. It is one of several stories that begin with deaths; in fact, more than half of the stories feature death – zombies, science experiments gone wrong, ghost stories, body horror and full-blown apocalypses lead to a high body-count. Lee Murray’s “Selfie”, about a suicidal woman given new purpose by a terrible melding, is a standout story here, darkly humorous in its realism.

At the lighter end of the spectrum, “Back Chat” features an unusual man who is delighted when a local gossip is not put off by his habit of answering questions before they are asked – Mark English deftly makes this out-of-sync conversation work.

Several stories could serve well as the basis for longer works. Grace Bridges’s tale of a group of kaitiaki given power by a local taniwha would make a great kids’ superhero series, so it is good to see that the first book of the Earthcore series has indeed been published. I would also like to read more about Sally McLennan’s “Diggers”, tiny people living in the tidal zone. 

There are a few stories that do not seem to belong in the volume – “Her Grief in My Halls” is a derivative ghost story set in Australia. “Big Enough for Two”, a story about a woman arranging her husband’s death, does not seem to contain anything speculative – not all stories where horrible things happen are horror – and “Why I Hate Cake” is similarly lacking in the supernatural. 

The volume includes poetry and art, as well as fiction. The two short poems by I K Paterson-Harkness are excellent, perfect narratives in a nutshell, one about a girl who can wish things into being, the other featuring a narrator who is a little too magnetic. The art is limited by the format: just two black and white drawings, fairly stock fantasy imagery that does not add much to the atmosphere of the book, but the smoky outline of Aotearoa used both on the cover and as a divider throughout the book is a lovely motif. This is a well-produced volume: there is an unfortunate choice of italic font for some sections of the book that renders some capital letters hard to recognise but, overall, it is a pleasure to hold and read.

Te Kōrero Ahi Kā does indeed showcase the range of talents of those involved in speculative fiction in New Zealand. The final story is Matt Cowens’s “The Iron Wahine”: seagoing robots protect arriving refugees. It is a sympathetic image that I would like to hope is aspirational, rather than us fooling ourselves about New Zealand’s ability to really discuss our place in the world.

Annabel Gooder is an Auckland reviewer.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review
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