Aotearoa New Zealand has rarely seemed farther from the US, or from most other English-dominant countries, than in October 2020. One country has a “team of five million,” managed a hundred days with no new COVID cases, and has (as we write) appeared to once again eliminated community transmission after a second outbreak. Some other, more populous, countries … are not doing so well.
But NZ shares with the US—and with the UK, Nigeria, and other nations—tropes and traditions of English-language science fiction. It’s no wonder, then, that in this collection of NZ tales originally published in 2018, some stories will look (especially to outsiders) like ways to represent Aotearoa, and others will look like (often high-quality) SFF that could have been written by anyone from anywhere. However, the authors are all New Zealanders or writing from New Zealand; whether or not the reader can recognise any national character, this is New Zealand literature.
And while looking for national representation in any Year’s Best might be a matter of folly, as it happens there are, in this volume at least, common trends (it would be interesting to see if this holds true of the recently published second volume).
Almost half the stories here are apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. The searingly beautiful opening fantasy, Octavia Cade’s “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice,” imagines allegorical flaming ursines devouring civilization, starting with that famously flammable, already-heating-up nation called Australia. Isabelle McNeur’s more conventional “The Garden” wonders whether the last human beings on Earth should even consider making more. And M. Daryusha Wehm, in “A Most Elegant Solution”—a story that would not have felt out of place in a Fredrik Pohl-edited issue of Galaxy—shows what becomes of the last human beings on Mars.
Our single favorite story, A. J. Fitzwater’s “Logistics,” follows the nonbinary survivor Enfys “rambling across” a post-pandemic Europe, making an audio or a video diary while on a quest first for a tampon, and then for community and safety. The global South has done better than most rich nations in fighting Fitzwater’s novel virus, but even in the North, scraps and channels for online communication might let Enfys find their people at last. “Anyone could be a latent carrier,” so no single refuge is safe. Survivalist preppers, on Enfys’s Earth, have not fared well: the people who banded together and found a public spirit, the ones who listened to one another online, avoided face-to-face contact, and followed common rules—they’re the ones who could sometimes stick around. (Laurie Penny made a similar point, early in our actual pandemic.) Fitzwater’s ear-catching sociolect shows how the story’s characters have already adapted, both to the post-pandemic wasteland of Europe, and to the born-digital existence of today’s real-life Gen Z.
All of these takes on the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it were written and published well before COVID-19 infected a single human, but it’s clear that New Zealand SFF writers have been thinking about the apocalypse for a long time. More specifically, they’ve been thinking about what we should do in and after the apocalypse; which actions we should take and which communities we should build.
Some of them, like Wehm’s, or like Sean Monaghan’s “The Billows of Sarto,” feature journeys away from small towns or into the unknown. Real-life New Zealanders have historically liked to leave their geographic isolation and explore what’s out there, though now they’re coming home, in numbers that the government didn’t expect: airlines still flying to Aotearoa in August 2020 only permitted incoming travellers to book tickets when spaces open in the isolation facilities. SF, with its persistent outward reach, its curiosity about how things might be different—how they might even be better—elsewhere and elsewhen, seems well-positioned to counter the xenophobic insularity, even the self-congratulation, that has become part of present-day NZ identity.
Other stories ask how people can form—or how we lost—a mutually sustaining relationship to sea and land, one theme for storytelling in Aotearoa since its first human inhabitants arrived. In “Bears,” which looks to the future, we’ve already blown it; we’re burnt toast (especially in Australia, which gives New Zealand a harsher, larger Other, much as the US does for Canada). Toni Wi’s “Trees” provides a bloody reminder of humanity’s dependence on the very ecosystem it mutilates. In J.C. Hart’s “Te Ika,” the foundational tale of how Māui fished the North Island from the sea is united with the story of how Māui caught and slowed the sun. Set in the near future or the present day, Hart’s slipstream story presents the vitality of Aotearoa’s oldest chronicles of the land, even—or particularly—through a speculative lens.
Some of the same stories look at how we define, maintain, or protect a family. The extended, Internet-bound, chosen family of “Logistics” gives the most hope in the harshest surroundings, using the overfamiliar language of online community-building. In “Te Ika” a neurotypical sister rescues another who has become “a modern shaman.” “The People Between the Silences” turns the mundane way that many of us have playlists in our heads, songs that come to mind unbidden, into one character’s mutant ability to identify and avoid abusers: the story asks how, and whether, she can exclude them from her life. Andi Buchanan’s complex fable “Girls Who Do Not Drown” follows a trans girl’s salvation by water, her induction into chosen family, on a vaguely Scottish “island that sends all its girls into the sea.” She needs—and later she will find—her people.
As for subgenre, the range is wide, with something to feed most appetites. “Girls” is a fantasy fable and “Logistics” a post-apocalyptic travelogue. Grant Stone’s “A Better Future” is straightforward (and, alas, predictable) social horror, rooted in the middle-class New Zealand suspicion of, and attraction to, elite institutions. Mark English’s “Mirror Mirror” is Cold War science fiction experimentation gone very wrong. At its worst, the prose in this collection stays competent and clear; at its best, it sparkles. There are far-future planets and near-future Mars and contemporary single-novum tales; short-shorts and novelettes.
One of the novelettes, “The Glassblower’s Peace” by James Rowland, is the only story that divided us (Stephanie likes it more than Karen does). It’s beautifully rendered historical fantasy. An old woman in late medieval Venice uses her glass-related magic (inspired by Venice’s real-life bespoke-glass industry) to keep the city safe. The city’s political leaders take advantage of her to launch acts of naval aggression, and only a very conventional shy loner hero, a son who has reluctantly joined the armed services, can befriend the magician and keep politicians in line. Do look to it for spellcasting and for neato images; don’t expect much in terms of innovation.
What’s not here? Hard SF; military SF; grimdark cyberpunk; anything overtly reactionary (NZ creators have a reputation, collectively, as a progressive bunch). No verse, plays, scripts, or comics—it’s all prose fiction. More significantly, what’s not here, unless you count “Bears,” is apocalypse for its own sake, mere warning or hand-wringing about what we can do, or have done, to the only planet we have. In most of these stories the bad thing is already happening, or has happened before we begin: that’s just as true for a far-future science fantasy like “The Billows of Sarto” as it is for near-future dystopias like “Logistics.” In Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond, we don’t need SFF to tell us that we screwed up: RNZ (or BBC or MSNBC) journalism can do that. We need SFF to help us conceive solutions, to help us imagine, or decide, what to do.