Novella Review: “A Sky of Wretched Shells,” by Mark Blackham

Cover image of "A Sky of Wretched Shells", a novella by Mark Blackham


Mark Blackham’s A Sky of Wretched Shells is the third book in The Cuba Press’ novella series, following my novella Where We Land and Zirk van den Berg’s I Wish, I Wish. Both Where We Land and A Sky of Wretched Shells are climate fiction novellas, but they’re very different: Where We Land is about our near-future response to climate change, while A Sky of Wretched Shells is set further in the future, when most of the world has fallen victim to ecological disaster and only one island offers hope for survival.

On the island of Woleai, 15-year-old Mala and his people live in relative peace and safety as the rest of the world falls apart. The arrival of two Western outsiders brings an end to this fragile equilibrium.

I won’t say more about the plot, because a lot happens in this novella that it would be a shame to spoil. I will say that there’s some really beautiful descriptive writing and imagery in A Sky of Wretched Shells: I got a strong sense of place from Mark Blackham’s novella.

Nevertheless, I struggled with some of the choices the central character, Mala, made – from my point of view, he persistently makes choices that puts his island and his people at greater risk. (Though my decision-making at age 15 may not have been the greatest, either, and the end of the novel suggests that he has made better choices than it first appears.)

The ending took the story in directions I didn’t expect, reactivating the sense of wonder I used to get as a teenager from reading science fiction, even as my adult eye was casting a more sceptical gaze over proceedings. So I ended the novella with mixed feelings: but given the quality of his descriptive writing and the scope of his imagination, I’m keen to see what stories Mark Blackham writes next.

Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy, Volume III

Cover of Year's Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy Volume III

I’m really pleased that my climate fiction story “The Double-Cab Club”, first published in Stuff’s Forever Project in January 2020, was selected for inclusion in this excellent annual anthology from Paper Road Press, edited by Marie Hodgkinson. Check out the Table of Contents – lots of fine writers and stories included! – and get your print or ebook copy.

Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy: Volume 3, edited by Marie Hodgkinson

The third volume in our annual anthology series celebrating the strength and diversity of local SFF writing.

Cover by Rebekah Tisch.

Buy the paperback here, or the ebook at all major ebook retailers.

Table of Contents:

New Zealand Gothic, by Jack Remiel Cottrell
Synaesthete, by Melanie Harding-Shaw
Kōhuia, by T Te Tau
Death confetti, by Zoë Meager
For Want of Human Parts, by Casey Lucas
How To Get A Girlfriend (When You’re A Terrifying Monster), by Marie Cardno
Salt White, Rose Red, by Emily Brill-Holland
Florentina, by Paul Veart
Otto Hahn Speaks to the Dead, by Octavia Cade
The Waterfall, by Renee Liang
The Double-Cab Club, by Tim Jones
Wild Horses, by Anthony Lapwood
You and Me at the End of the World, by Dave Agnew
The Secrets She Eats, by Nikky Lee
How To Build A Unicorn, by AJ Fitzwater
Even the Clearest Water, by Andi C. Buchanan
You Can’t Beat Wellington on a Good Day, by Anna Kirtlan
The Moamancer (A Musomancer short story), by Bing Turkby
They probably play the viola, by Jack Remiel Cottrell
Crater Island, by P.K. Torrens
A Love Note, by Melanie Harding-Shaw
The Turbine at the End of the World, by James Rowland

Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy: Volume 3
Edited by Marie Hodgkinson
ISBN 978-1-99-115030-1

My CoNZealand Climate Change Panels

Panel replays currently available for ConZealand members include these panels I took part in:

Climate Change and Conventions (first panel on this list)

Climate Fiction/Climate Fact (fifth panel on this list)

Check out all the great panels, readings etc that are available on replay!

What’s this all about?

CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention is over! The first to be based in Aotearoa, and the first to be held virtually.

There is so much to say about the convention – for now, I’m just going to congratulate the organisers for all the effort they put in to change a planned in-person convention to a virtual convention at a few months’ notice. There were a whole bunch of teething problems that affected many participants – one of my events vanished into a time-zone ether – but the impressive thing is that some many things worked, or were made to work after people spoke up to get them fixed.

For a few more days, many of the panels, readings and other events are available on replay. My personal highlight of the Con was the Climate Fiction/Climate Fact Panel, but right at the start of the Con, I also took part in the Climate Change and Conventions panel – here’s the presentation I prepared for that panel.

Good Reviews on Goodreads For “Where We Land”

My climate fiction (cli-fi) novella Where We Land has been getting good reviews on Goodreads. Here are some excerpts from those reviews:

On Goodreads:

“This novella set in the near future deals with the human impact of the worsening climate crisis…. Amid societal brutality and xenophobia, there are still a few glimmers of compassion.

“This is a beautifully written novella in the cli-fi genre…. The characters are compelling and the story gripping. Highly recommend it!!”

(Read the full reviews here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46028957-where-we-land)


From Tabatha Wood’s review for SpecFicNZ:

“Jones talks in depth about human resilience and the determination to survive. The ability to keep going even when all seems lost. He examines our humanity; how we respond to threats and challenges, but ultimately how we, as a global species, behave to one another. The tension is high, the characters relatable, and Jones deftly manoeuvres you into bearing witness to the unfolding plot. He places you squarely in both Nasimul and Donna’s shoes. What would you do if…? he asks.”

Read the full review: https://specfic.nz/2019/08/12/book-review-where-we-land-by-tim-jones/

You can read more of Tabatha’s reviews and her writing on her blog.

“Where We Land” is a print novella – but you can also buy an earlier version of this story as “Landfall”, an ebook from Amazon.

Who Writes The Best Sentences?

 
I jumped into the middle of a literary controversy last night. On a post reporting Iain Banks’ contribution to the ongoing debate in the Guardian over the literary merits of science fiction, Hugo Award-winning editor and fanwriter Cheryl Morgan said:

For example literary writers, on average, probably produce better sentences than SF writers.

Now, I should hasten to add that this is one sentence taken out of context, and that Cheryl’s post qualifies that statement in a number of ways. But it still got a reaction: Lavie Tidhar and Elizabeth Knox weighed in to the subsequent discussion with Cheryl Morgan on Twitter.

It’s a storm in a teacup, perhaps: one more skirmish in the long war to establish, or alternatively to deny, speculative fiction’s place at the literary table. But it got me thinking: what does it mean to produce a better sentence? What makes one sentence better than another? Is it the beauty of the words, or the use of metaphor or simile or imagery, or the function the sentence plays in telling the story, or a combination of all of these?

As I understand it, Cheryl’s perception – and it’s mine, too – is that, in genre fiction, the merit of a sentence lies chiefly in its contribution to telling the story, while in literary fiction, the merit of a sentence lies chiefly in the beauty of its expression. I’m just not sure that a beautiful but non-functional sentence is “better” than a sentence that is less elegant but contributes to advancing the story.

What do you think? What makes a sentence “better”? And, if that is a meaningful question, then…

Who writes the best sentences?

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:

Returning

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.

Why You Should Be At Au Contraire

I’ve banged on a couple of times on this blog about how voting on the Sir Julius Vogel Awards will be taking place at Au Contraire, this year’s New Zealand National Science Fiction Convention, taking place from Fri 27 to Sun 29 August 2010 at the Quality Hotel, Wellington

But what I should have stressed is how good Au Contraire is shaping up to be.

The convention gets a sizeable helping hand from taking place the weekend before this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, Aussiecon 4, takes place in Melbourne. A number of luminaries are taking the chance to attend both conventions. Subject to confirmation, this is the current lineup of guests and programme participants.

If you look under “Other Programme Participants”, you’ll see the following people:

* Jonathan Cowie (UK science writer and part of the Concatenation team)
* Jennifer Fallon (Australian SF/F author, The Tide Lords series and other works)
* Peter Friend (NZ short story author and multiple SJV Award winner)
* Tim Jones (NZ author of short stories, novels, and poetry)
* Russell Kirkpatrick (NZ author of the Fire of Heaven and Husk trilogies)
* Juliet Marillier (NZ/Australian fantasy author)
* Cheryl Morgan (prominent UK fan)
* Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Hugo-winning senior editor at Tor Books)
* Kathryn Sullivan (US author and EPPIE Award winner)
* Sonny Whitelaw (The Rhesus Factor, Stargate novels)

All excellent people (well, apart from the reprobate who has snuck into fourth on the list), but in particular, if you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer, you would be very well advised to make the acquaintance of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, one of the best and most well-connected editors in the field. I’m also particularly looking forward to catching up with well-travelled fan, writer, energy economist, and passionate rugby/cricket/football follower Cheryl Morgan.

Au Contraire has also released its draft programme. Again, it’s all subject to confirmation at this stage, but if even most of these panels and events go ahead, this will be one of the best-programmed conventions ever held in this country, with the programme track for writers a particular highlight.

I’m involved in three programme items: an SF poetry panel (warning: potential panellists have still to be approached!); a session I’m running on getting published in New Zealand, something which SF/F/horror writers have historically found difficult; and the panel submissively entitled “Joss Whedon Is My Master Now” – “no guru, no method, no teacher”, say I, but the opportunity to spout Buffy trivia to a supportive audience is too good to pass up.

I’m also looking forward to attending the launch of the NZ SF anthology A Foreign Country, in which I have a story; the official launch of SpecFicNZ, the New Zealand organisation for speculative fiction writers; and the Sir Julius Vogel Awards ceremony.

When I’m not doing any of those things, I expect to be on a book sales table with Lee Pletzers and Pat Whitaker, selling books – although this often turns into chatting with people and forgetting to sell them books, which is very naughty of me.

So I hope you’ll think about coming along. And if you haven’t been to a science fiction convention before, and you will be in Wellington, do drop in: there’s a lot of good stuff going on.

Sir Julius Vogel Award Nominations Open For 2009 Calendar Year

The Sir Julius Vogel Awards, New Zealand’s equivalent of the Hugo Awards, have recently opened for nominations. Nominations close on 31 March 2010.

Grant Stone has listed some possible contenders for the Vogels on his blog, and I naturally endorse his selection of Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry From New Zealand as one of the candidates! You can find SFFANZ’s list of eligible novels on their site; I recently reviewed one of the listed novels, Lee Pletzers’ The Last Church.

Short stories and collections are also listed – look for the 2009 publication dates – and I was pleased to see Voyagers contributions and contributors included on the list.

I want to browse through the lists and catch up on some work that I’ve missed out on reading before deciding what I’d like to nominate – but if you are ready to go with your nominations, here is the official word on how to proceed.

Nomination Procedure

The Sir Julius Vogel sub-committee of SFFANZ is currently accepting nominations for science fiction and fantasy works first published or released in the 2009 calendar year.

Nominations open on 1 January 2010 and close on 31 March 2010 at 8pm.

For more information about SFFANZ and the SJV Awards, please go to the SFFANZ web-site http://sffanz.sf.org.nz/

To make a nomination please email sjv_awards (at) sffanz.sf.org.nz.. Anyone can make a nomination, and it is free of charge.

Please send one nomination per email and include as many contact details as possible for the nominee as well as yourself.

You can find full details about the nomination procedures and rules, including eligibility criteria at http://sffanz.sf.org.nz/sjv/sjvAwards.shtml

A detailed nomination FAQ can be found at http://sffanz.sf.org.nz/sjv/sjvAwardsNominationGuidelines.shtml

The voting will occur at Au Contraire, http://www.aucontraire.org.nz/ – the national science fiction convention being held in Wellington, New Zealand over the weekend of the 27 – 29 August 2010.

Like A Virgin, Published For The Very First Time

This is a post for New Zealand Speculative Fiction Blogging Week.

I think New Zealand Speculative Fiction Blogging Week is an excellent idea, but that hasn’t meant it has been easy to decide what to post for it. I started the week with a post advertising Fantastic Voyages, this Thursday evening’s speculative fiction event in Wellington, and I thought I might dip into nostalgia for my next post, and talk about the first time I had a speculative fiction story published.

The year was 1986 (and you can imagine for yourself a portentous voiceover in which I say things like “As the Voyager 2 space probe made its first contact with Uranus [I’m not making this up, folks], the Soviet liner Mikhail Lermontov sinks in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds”). By then, I was what might be called a “technical virgin” as an author of fiction: I had had several poems published, but no fiction, though I had written a few science fiction stories, and made a few unsuccessful submissions to overseas magazines.

Somehow – I no longer remember how – I discovered a call for submissions for an anthology of New Zealand science fiction and fantasy stories for high school students, edited by Bernard Gadd, to be called I Have Seen The Future. I had a story that fitted the word limit, called “Statesman”. I submitted it, it was accepted, and I became a published author of speculative fiction.

I was pleased to be published. I was pleased to be paid – from memory, $50. But my overall emotion, I recall, was relief. At last I could call myself a published author! It was a short but intense moment of excitement, over almost before it had started, but at least I no longer had that particular hurdle to overcome.

So the publication of “Statesman” went down as my first fiction credit, and, slowly at first, more credits accrued. “Statesman” didn’t fit the theme of my first short story collection, Extreme Weather Events, but, retitled “Going to the People”, it was included in my 2008 collection Transported.

Yet I hadn’t actually looked at I Have Seen The Future for years, and I had no memory of who else had stories in it until I opened the book when writing this post, and got some surprises.

The following authors have stories in I Have Seen the Future:

Michael Morrissey, Apirana Taylor, Owen Marshall, Bernard Gadd, Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Meares, J Edward Brown, Sally Whitlock, Dianne Armstrong, Tim Jones, Margaret Beames, Craig Harrison, James Norcliffe, Russell Haley, Albert Wendt.

At the time the book was published, the only names from this list that meant anything to me were Albert Wendt and Craig Harrison. But, looking back, I’m pleased to see that my first story was published alongside work by such a collection of New Zealand literary luminaries.

What’s striking is that many of these authors are best known as poets. Perhaps it was these writers that Bernard Gadd, a poet himself, knew best. But it does illustrate the point I make from time to time that there has never been such a hard and fast dividing line between speculative writers and literary writers in New Zealand as one might think. These days, science fiction stories are being published in The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories. It’s great to have speculative fiction work published outside New Zealand, or in New Zealand’s growing roster of speculative fiction outlets, but it’s not the only route to publication.

Fantastic Voyages: Writing Speculative Fiction: Wellington, Thursday 17 September

Many thanks to Fitz for the poster

That’s right! Helen Lowe and I are going to be getting together on the 17th of September, under the guidance and chairpersonship of Radio New Zealand’s Arts on Sunday presenter Lynn Freeman, to discuss writing science fiction and fantasy in New Zealand — and getting it published too. Unity Books will be there to help sell books, and I hope that, if you’re able to make it, you’ll be there too.

If you’re keen on reading and/or writing science fiction and fantasy yourself, this is your chance to discuss that topic with two writers who have been there and are doing that; and if sf&f are not genres you’ve previously paid much attention to, come along anyway and hear from two writers whose work spans genres.

I hope to see you there!

Helen Lowe
http://www.helenlowe.info/
Helen Lowe’s first novel, Thornspell is published by Knopf (Random House Children’s Books) in the United States. Thornspell won the Sir Julius Vogel Award 2009 for Best Book: Young Adult while Helen herself won the award for Best New Talent. Thornspell was also a Storylines New Zealand Children’s Literature Trust Notable Book 2009. Helen also has the first book in an epic Fantasy quartet, The Wall of Night, coming out with Eos (HarperCollins USA) in September 2010. She has had speculative short fiction published in NZ, the USA and Australia and is represented by Robin Rue of Writers House Literary Agency in New York.

Tim Jones
http://timjonesbooks.blogspot.com/
Tim Jones is a writer, editor and literary blogger whose recent books include short story collection Transported (Vintage, 2008), which mixes science fiction and fantasy with literary fiction and was longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; poetry anthology Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, co-edited with Mark Pirie (Interactive Publications, 2009); and fantasy novel Anarya’s Secret (RedBrick, 2007). Tim has had science fiction and fantasy stories published in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and Vietnam as well as in New Zealand. His science fiction story “The New Neighbours”, from Transported, has been included in the forthcoming Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories, edited by Paula Morris.

Lynn Freeman
http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/presenters/lynn_freeman
An award-winning arts journalist, Lynn Freeman hosts Radio New Zealand’s Arts on Sunday programme (12 noon to 4 pm), which focuses on theatre, film, comedy, books, dance, entertainment and music. Lynn is an experienced and knowledgeable interviewer who is in demand to chair events for arts and literature festivals around the country.