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NA VIRO coverWriting about the future is an exercise in extrapolation. It’s also an exercise for the reader, distinguishing the purely speculative elements of a novel from those that are a deliberate response to the time and space in which the author is writing. And when it comes to space opera, the tether between the present and the speculative can seem thinner than normal. After all, the ability to present a story that is literally outside of the Earth’s orbit, and which can include extraterrestrial beings and cosmological phenomena, is an opportunity for wonder. It’s no surprise that fantastic stories can develop that seem to have little concern for what’s happening back on the home planet.

Such is not the case with Gina Cole’s recent novel Na Viro. I admit I was glad to see it; as much as I like the purely extraterrestrial stories, my own science fiction preference is increasingly more Earthbound. I’m particularly interested in seeing how future communities treat science and exploration, and how their priorities in the practice of these adapt to environmental and social change.

As much as we might enjoy the prospect (and the reality!) of exploration, there’s no denying that its history is replete with exploitation. The process and packaging of “discovery” is an artificial construct privileging the worldview and interests of those who consider themselves the discoverers rather than the discovered. Science fiction provides one avenue of critique for discovery, and using narrative to make this critique draws people in, inviting them to consider new ways of seeing and practising exploration, ways that include as much personal and cultural knowledge as they do the scientific.

Science, lest we forget, is itself an artefact of culture. As a way of learning about the physical world, it is arguably without rival, but it has, in the past (and all too uncomfortably in the present) been without boundaries as well. The exploitation that I spoke of above is persistent in the history of science. Having a scientific background myself, I take especial interest in narratives that offer new ways of engaging with the practice of science in the future—particularly as, in a story of exploration, the politics and choices surrounding that method become inextricably linked with exploration and discovery.

Tia, the young adult protagonist of Na Viro, is faced with such a choice. Having just finished her education at the Academy, she chooses not to follow her mother and sister into space. Instead, Tia’s dream is to help map the currents of the Pacific Ocean, working for an organisation called the Global Indigenous Alliance. It’s helpful to take a little time to talk about Na Viro’s setting here. Set several hundred years in the future, after climate change has led to substantial sea level rise, the novel is primarily centred on Pacific Island environments, on sailing between surviving archipelagos, and on Pasifika communities that have adapted to this changing oceanic environment. As a climate writer—albeit someone who is not Indigenous—who lives in New Zealand, itself an archipelago of Pacific Islands, this is a fascinating and extremely relevant topic, and one which I hope to see explored more in future examples of the genre.

Cole, an Indigenous Fijian writer, has written academically as well as creatively on this subject. Her recent PhD thesis in creative writing (which is available through open access at Massey University) talks about Pasifikafuturism, a term which Cole has coined and which, in the words of her abstract, “situates Oceanic science fiction in the afterlife of colonisation and seeks to move beyond postcolonialism to create Pacific conceptions of the future.”

You cannot underestimate the desire I have to read about these futures. (I first heard Cole talk about Na Viro at ConZealand back in 2020, and I kept a note of her words so that I would make sure to get hold of her work when it came out. I’m so glad I did.) Stories of diverse futures not only provide diverse critiques of the ways in which the predominating practices of today fall short, but they also imagine alternatives: ways of living and reacting to the environment, and to scientific and social change, that prioritise sustainability, equity, and resilience. Hence the Global Indigenous Alliance of Tia’s dreams: “The Alliance ran on Indigenous principles, in harmony with nature, with chaos and creativity, with the order of the cosmos […]. A place that honoured Indigenous knowledge” (p. 12).

I’m a little sorry to say that we don’t get to read a lot about the workings of the GIA in Na Viro, as Tia ends up being essentially forced into space on an emergency mission to rescue her sister Leilani, whose own exploratory mission has come to grief. (It should be said, however, that while it can be read as a standalone book, Na Viro is also the first volume in a forthcoming trilogy, so my hopes for the GIA remain high.) Tia’s relationship with exploration and with family, however, are complex, rewarding, and often extremely nuanced. 

She and Leilani, for instance, are exceptionally close, even though the two of them have chosen very different courses for their lives. Leilani, who is perhaps the more traditional protagonist of a science fiction space odyssey, is excited about the opportunity to put her Academy training to work and go into space. The exploration of out-there can of course be fascinating and rewarding work, and indeed the history of the genre is filled with a sense of wonder that the exploration of far-off places can instil. I’m enormously sympathetic! Yet I find myself sympathetic to Tia as well, in her desire to explore her own backyard (her own ocean), and her absolute indifference to the prospect of space travel. I’m sympathetic because, as much as I was raised on science fiction, on going-forth-and-boldly, the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on ecologies and species that I love is inescapably reorienting my perspective, increasing the value of right-here as opposed to out-there. Tia and Leilani both have valid perspectives, is what I’m saying, and I really appreciate that their unshakable loyalty to each other encourages them to take opportunities to flourish in different spaces. 

Because Tia and Leilani have choices … or at least theoretically they do. They can stay in the somewhat rigid, outwardly exploring Academy and make discoveries there, or they can leave the Academy for the alternate exploration model represented by the GIA. As I said, there’s not a lot of detail about the GIA in this first volume, but there is a real-world analogue. The Worldwide Indigenous Science Network has a list of critical characteristics of Indigenous Science that may prove interesting to readers. You can find them here, but the organisation notes that one major difference between Indigenous and Western science is that “Data from IS is not used to control the forces of nature, but instead is used to find methods and resources for accommodating it.” 

Despite the similarities between the two practices, therefore—such as rigorous testing to ensure accuracy and validity of data—their different priorities can lead to conflict. This is, of course, dependent on context. I have no interest in accommodating smallpox, for instance, but there is no question in my mind that the environmental consequences of unrestrained consumption and the exploitation of existing resources have resulted in extremely unbalanced ecosystems, and that this is deeply undesirable. Leilani and Tia represent two different ways of exploration, of discovery, and of technological usage. And when, together, they face the reality of what the Academy is sponsoring in space, those two representative systems come into conflict.

If I’m interested in what goes on at the GIA, I’m equally as interested in the Academy. Educational institutions are strong investors in science and exploration. They have to be; science is more than ever a community discipline, one that relies on others for results and funding and the sharing of information. All these things, however, come with political consequences and political interference. We like to think of science as purely objective and highly structured; we acknowledge the often vicious actions of past scientists and trust that ethical standards are higher now because they needed to be. We hope the oversight that we have is enough.

In Na Viro, it isn’t. I’m not saying that the Academy is rotten all through, because it’s still training individuals like Leilani, who are ethical and sympathetic characters. I doubt she’s the exception. There is, however, a secret side to the Academy, one that does not cleave to established standards. There’s an alien world, a sentient and intelligent species, and they have resources that the Academy wants. Cole’s PhD thesis, recall, talks about the “afterlife of colonisation,” and one of the lingering aspects of that afterlife is the repetition of unethical behaviour. When this behaviour is normalised, it becomes excused, and Leilani and Tia have a mother. Dani is the worst of colonisation come again, with the ability to excuse theft and depredation and murder if such is in the interest of progress. The ethical gap between her and her daughters is vast, and underlined by their physical estrangement. As small children, Dani left her daughters with her own mother and returned to space. Tia and Leilani were raised in the Pacific, in a Pasifika community, and no matter their desire to reconcile with their mother, the horror of her actions precludes it.

It’s a shattering discovery, and one that speaks to the perils of exploring relationships as well as places. I won’t spoil Tia’s final interaction with her mother, but I was glad to see it. When something—or someone—becomes so unbalanced, there is no accommodation possible. Constructing a postcolonial future, whether in the Pacific Ocean, in space, or anywhere else, will have many challenges. Any narrative that doesn’t grapple with the idea of corruption and repetition, of falling into old, imposed patterns, will not be a convincing one.

All of which makes this review, and Na Viro itself, sound rather serious. It is. These are challenging issues, and they deserve serious consideration, but I’d like to end this review on a more uplifting note. The very appeal of discovery, of science and exploration (whether it’s in Western or Indigenous science, and even whether it’s in speculative fiction) is that essential sense of wonder. It’s what keeps us SF readers coming back to the genre. The universe is a wonderful place. It’s wonderful down here, and it’s wonderful out there, and Na Viro is determined to remind us of this. Whether it’s the massive and still mysterious ocean and its recovering island ecosystems, or whether it’s space whirlpools and alien planets and sentient spaceships, there were passages here that reminded me that discovery is a wonderful thing, and that exploration is a worthy endeavour. 

It can also be a diverse endeavour—and an ethical one.             

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold close to fifty short stories to various markets, and several novellas, two poetry collections, an essay collection, and a climate fiction novel are also available. She attended Clarion West 2016 and was the Massey University writer-in-residence for 2020.
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