Recent New Zealand Speculative Fiction: “Returning” and “The Game”

As well as reading New Zealand speculative fiction collection A Foreign Country over the holidays, I also read two New Zealand speculative fiction novels: Returning by Pat Whitaker, and The Game by Lee Pletzers. Here’s what I thought:


I enjoyed Returning, and it kept me gripped throughout: I always wanted to know what would happen next. I thought the novel had an outstanding first third, went off the boil for a while in the middle, and returned to form with a strong and moving ending.

Returning is the story of Arthys, an alien exiled on Earth, and his attempts to return home. As such, it’s not dissimilar to some of the books of my favourite hard SF author, Hal Clement. The first section in particular is a gripping evocation of the alien protagonist’s coming to terms with his bizarre new environment and his limitations within it.

Returning is, broadly speaking, a science fiction novel, but it also has elements of romance, alternate history and war novel. Keeping all those aspects in play requires the chutzpah and epic scale of a Thomas Pynchon or a Neal Stephenson – it’s very hard to do in a novel of less than 250 pages, and the attempt to do so is what, for me, made the middle section of the novel less successful.

That’s where the war and alternate history aspects of Returning come to the fore, and although the material of these sections is interesting in itself, I felt that the amount of exposition required overwhelmed the narrative for a while.

The good news is that the novel comes back to its original virtues in its final section, to reach an ending that is both moving and appropriate.

This is the first of Pat’s books that I’ve read; Returning leaves me wanting to read more.

The Game

Lee Pletzers is a horror writer; I reviewed his earlier novel, The Last Church, in 2009. Like The Last Church, The Game is horror with some science fiction elements.

The Game is about a virtual reality computer game that sucks its players in more completely than its creator intended – and sucks him in, too. The entity controlling the titular game has a nasty imagination, and as in The Last Church, various characters suffer highly unpleasant fates.

One of the things that irked me about The Last Church has been fixed in The Game: the proofreading is much better. (That might sound like faint praise, but as a writer, badly-proofread books really annoy me!) And, while the basic idea isn’t new, the plot is well worked out.

But, based on both The Last Church and The Game, I think that Lee Pletzers could take a lesson from Stephen King. King’s best horror novels work because of the care he has taken in creating believable main characters. When bad things start happening to them, we care.

In contrast, The Game has a lot of characters, operating independently or in small groups – as you do in a game – to whom a lot of bad stuff happens. Lisa, the daughter of the titular game’s inventor, is as close as the novel comes to a central character, but I never felt deeply engaged in her struggles and her fate.

So my recommendation for Lee’s next novel would be to scale back the number of characters, breathe life into a few of them, and only then put those well-established characters under threat. That would be a horror novel to get my pulse pounding.

Blogging Au Contraire: Day Two: SpecFicNZ launch, Getting Published in NZ Panel, Why I’m Not A Bookseller

Plenty of highlights at Au Contraire today – some of which I attended, and others of which I heard about – but a diminishing level of energy to blog about them. So hey ho, let’s go.


The new Speculative Fiction Writers of New Zealand organisation, best known as SpecFicNZ, was launched this evening by Ripley Patton and other members of the SpecFicNZ team. As the organisation’s web page says,

SpecFicNZ is the association for creators, writers and editors of speculative fiction in or from New Zealand.

It was founded in March 2009 by Ripley Patton and eleven other humans passionate about promoting and encouraging the speculative fiction genre in their own country.

All their work since 2009 has paid off in an organisation that seems to be well focused on meeting the needs of NZ speculative fiction writers in general, and emerging writers in particular. There was a long queue of people joining up after Ripley’s speech, and as one of those newly-signed-up members, I’m looking forward to what happens next.

Getting Published in New Zealand

My talk on this topic, part of the excellent writers’ stream at the Convention, was on at the same time as Elizabeth Knox’s Guest of Honour speech – which was a pity, as I would have liked to attend this, and heard afterwards that she spoke very well.

Nonetheless, about 20 people attended my talk. It isn’t easy to get speculative fiction published in New Zealand, although the recent advent of an NZ speculative fiction magazine (Semaphore) and an NZ science fiction publisher (Random Static) is beginning to make a major difference.

I explained how, in various unlikely ways, I had managed to get quite a few SF stories – including Transported, a short story collection that’s between 1/3 and 1/2 SF – published by “mainstream” fiction publishers and magazines here, and suggested some strategies to follow for doing this: strategies which seemed to chime with the experience of others around the table. I’m going to write this talk up for SpecFicNZ.

Why I Am Not A Bookseller

Some people have got the knack of selling books at sales tables. I haven’t. At the Convention’s Floating Market, I shared a sales table with Pat Whitaker and Lee Pletzers. They sold books. I didn’t… until right at the end. As soon as I started to pack my books away, people came up to buy them!

So I think I have discovered the secret to successful bookselling: every ten minutes, start to pack all your books away. Then, when the purchasers lured by this move have bought their books and moved on, put all your books out again. Repeat every ten minutes, and wealth shall be yours!


… I want to catch up with lots of people I know are attending the Con, but whom I haven’t seen yet. I am moderating a panel on SF poetry with the excellent Janis Freegard and Harvey Molloy. I am doing a live Q&A with Patrick Nielsen Hayden. And, at 10am, I have to explain why “Joss Whedon Is My Master Now”. I’m going to advance the radical thesis that it’s Jed Whedon, Zack Whedon and Mo Tancharoen Whedon we should really be watching out for… sorry, Joss!

4 Unrelated Topics A Writer Can Shoehorn Into One Blog Post

Apparently blog titles with numbers in them, like “6 Writing Lessons From Jane Austen”, are very effective in attracting traffic. So I thought I’d try one.

Kapiti Date Added To Voyagers Book Tour

The Voyagers Book Tour of New Zealand has added an extra date: There will now be a Voyagers event at the Kapiti Library on Tuesday 20 October. Up and down the country, Voyagers poets will be reading their poems in the home towns. I’ll be taking part in the Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington events, and I hope to see you somewhere along the way!

Pat Whitaker Launches His Latest Book

Kapiti Coast author Pat Whitaker launched his latest book, Returning, in Otaki on Sunday 27 September. I had hoped to make it to Otaki for the launch, but a slavering monster called Huge Backlog Of Work snuck up and stuck its claws in me, so Pat, I hope it went well! Anyway, follow the link to find out about Returning and Pat’s other books.

JAAM 27 Hits The Shops

The latest issue of literary magazine JAAM, edited by Ingrid Horrocks, has recently been released, and it’s now hitting the independent bookshops that stock it. I have two poems in this issue, “Family Man” and “Over Islands”, and within its pages you will find some superb poetry, creative non-fiction and fiction, a good deal of it written by people whose names have appeared in this blog over the two years of its existence. You can find out more about this issue over at the JAAM website.

Rachel Walker’s cover image, and Anna Brown’s cover design, for this issue are particularly striking, too:

(image courtesy of Helen Rickerby)

Belletrista Is Launched
is a new website dedicated to celebrating women writers from around the world. To quote from its introductory statement:

Welcome to the first issue of Belletrista, a nonprofit, bi-monthly magazine celebrating the wonderfully varied literary work from women writers around the world. Whether you are a seasoned reader of international literature or someone just beginning to travel beyond your literary shores, we think you will find something, from far or near, in this issue, to intrigue you.

The editor of Belletrista is Lois Ava-Matthew. I met Lois, and many of the other contributors, through LibraryThing, the combination social networking site/personal cataloguing system for booklovers. An interview with New Zealand author Eleanor Catton is one of the features of the first issue.

Although all the writers being celebrated are female, not all the reviewers are, and I am contributing a review to the second issue. If the first issue is any guide, subsequent issues should be well worth reading.

You can follow Belletrista on Twitter: (and while you’re at it, you can follow me on Twitter as well: