Monday, June 26, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“STAR SAILORS” by James McNaughton  (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)

            About two-and-a-half years ago (14 February 2015, to be precise) I wrote for the New Zealand Listener a review of James McNaughton’s first novel New Hokkaido, which was a kind of tongue-in-cheek romp about what New Zealand would be like if it had been taken over by the Japanese in the Second World War. I judged it an enjoyable enough piece of fluff, marred by its uncertain tone (now farcical, now serious) and its many improbabilities, even as “counter-factual” fiction goes.

Imagine my mortification four months later when I found in New Zealand Books (June 2015) a review of New Hokkaido by a censorious academic who said that it was a piece of rampant racism and Yellow Peril hysteria. Oh the shame! In my ignorance and imperception I, clearly not as sophisticated or finely tuned to subtle undertones as the academic, had almost praised a book that should have been ritually burned for its lack of PC….

It’s so damned easy to take too seriously what shouldn’t be taken seriously in the first place, isn’t it? (Especially if you lack a sense of humour.)

So now I am reviewing James McNaughton’s second novel Star Sailors and I am treading very carefully. I do not take it too seriously. I know that, as in his first novel, much is sheer piss-take. There is not much that is offensive in the “message” of Star Sailors. A dystopian fantasia set in New Zealand about thirty years hence (the 2040s), it hits many buttons that will set purring ecologists and people concerned with social justice and those who like their satire broad. But (alas, alas, alas), at nearly 500 pages (487 to be precise) it is simply too damned long, too unfocussed, too digressive, has too many side issues and sets too many hares running. At some point a rigorous and judicious editor should have gone slash, slash, slash and made it the trim and engaging thing it could have been.

On top of which, the sheer bulk of Star Sailors almost forces us to take it more seriously than it merits.

In the preceding two paragraphs you have in effect read my review of Star Sailors, and if it is only a verdict you are seeking, then you need not read on. But I prefer to prove what I have asserted, so what follows is documentation.

In the 2040s of Star Sailors, the Earth has suffered near complete ecological collapse. Gobal warming has triggered rising seas, floods, permanently inundated coastlines and shrinking arable land at a time of rising population. All this is expressed most fully by Bill, a former journalist in his 80s, as he watches the new-style de-brained television news:

‘The golden age of news’, as it’s privately called by reporters, depresses Bill, yet he occasionally finds himself watching. The days when he felt a sense of relief at being in New Zealand, spared from the rest of the world’s numerous natural disasters, resource wars, civil unrest, and general social and economic disarray, are long gone. Now the scarcely believable images wash over him, leaving him tired and dazed. He succumbs to them. Fires burn night and day in forests and cities; climate refugees battle fences, surround watertankers, overturn emergency food trucks. Deep cracks open in parched land, lakes empty, sinkholes appear by the dozen, trees and animals die, thousands of dead fish wash ashore and rot in the sun, sea walls break, super-hurricanes drown thousands, tent cities spring up, explosions, acres of flyblown bodies, public executions of looters by officers in the uniforms of various failing states, wide-eyed orphans, hospital tents littered with the languid dying, beatings, rapes, machine-gun fire and shelling. All kinds of horrors….” (p.297)

Once upon a time, it was thought that New Zealand was immune to this sort of thing. As an Aussie chef says insouciantly, relatively early in the piece,  “There’s a lot to be said for splendid isolation in the South Paciic, a relatively small population, plenty of precipitation and a government striving to remain transparent and democratic.” (p.109) New Zealand as refuge from global catastrophe is an idea at least as old as Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (written in the 1940s), and it is a fantasy that some still cling to in our own times.

But in Star Sailors, the fantasy has proven not be be true. In the NZ of 2045, wealthy Americans and others make (relatively) safe NZ a bolthole, bringing their values with them, corporations still rule with their evil neo-liberalism, wealth is not shared equitably, and the global ecological disaster is nibbling at the collapsing coastline. In Wellington, where most of the earlier sections of the novel take place, the poorer “Outers” cower behind unstable seawalls near sea-level, where crime is rife; the populace can afford to eat only cheap junk food and therefore obesity is also rife; and there is seething discontent which could coalesce into rebellion or revolution.

Meanwhile the wealthy or “Inners” live in a gated and guarded community The Mount (which seems to be ranged around Mount Victoria) or they disport theselves at The Beach (a domed luxury resort for rich people only) and live largely hedonistic and exploitative lives.

Obviously, this extreme dichotomy of society has its antecedents in much dystopian fiction. I immediately think of H. G. Wells’ Elois and Morlocks in The Time Machine (tho’ McNaughton isn’t as biologically extreme in his dichotomy as Wells was). Or, more relevantly, the hedonistic idlers living in their Paradise and the oppressed workers in the Depths in Fritz Lang’s 1920s film Metropolis. Or even the starving masses not let into the unbreakable dome of the Immortals in John Boorman’s flawed but interesting 1974 film Zardoz.

Sump’n’s gotta give in the socially divided world McNaughton depicts and it seems to be coming when, in the first section of the novel, a terrorist bomb goes off in the wealthy hedonists’ domed Beach. Immediately the “Inners” respond by beefing up their security and there is a sequence set at a gun show.

It is in the world of the Inners that Jeremiah and Karen Broderick, the presumptive protagonists, live. Both originally came from deprived part of society, but managed to claw their way into wealth, he as a lawyer, she as a model – so there is at least some modicum of social mobility and the state still has some of the trappings of democracy. One strand of plot has Karen and Jeremiah (who have a young son modishly called Mandela) testing the strength of their apparently fragile marriage and testing their own moral integrity. Will they or won’t they see the corruption of their privileged lives? Will they see through the neo-liberal mantras that money is the bottom line and the welfare of the whole population is of secondary importance?

Reader, I will not test your patience with more “plot summary” on this matter, save to say that “selling out” on one’s integrity is part of it, as well as a long party scene among the exploitative rich, which is half orgy and half the Masque of the Red Death. Oh how disgusting are the filthy rich! (And oh how that author conveniently has to show their disgusting-ness in explicit sexual detail to make his point!) And come to think of it, a long party revealing the moral rot and vacuity of the upper classes is a very well-established trope in social satire (reference Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God; Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu; Jean Gremillon’s Lumiere d’Ete etc. etc.)

Often, while ploughing through the Karen and Jeremiah sections (yes, I do recognise the irony of naming a protagonist after a prophet of doom), I thought that James McNaughton might have done better to address his satire directly to the age in which we are living, rather than deferring it to some future dystopia. Surely the widening social gap between rich and poor, the phenomena of gated communities and deprived suburbs, and the effects of neo-liberalism are all things that already exist in New Zealand. McNaughton has simply extrapolated from current trends. They might have been attacked more pungently if the attack had been head-on, unvarnished with fantasy, and realistic.

Ah yes, but as well as the social satire there’s the global ecological mess, which is most fully attached to the second line of narrative. Married to a fashionista called Trix is the erstwhile journalist Bill. Long, long ago, in the 1980s, when he was a young reporter in Hokitika on the West Coast, Bill encountered Sam Starsailor, whom he understood to be an extraterrestrial who had apparently come to Earth to deliver some momentously important ecological message to the human race.

Of course in this far past year, Bill was ridiculed for his belief. But now, in the 2040s, Sam Starsailor (or an extraterrestrial very like him) has turned up in New Hokitika. You see, the old coastal town sank beneath the rising sea, so New Hokitika has been built on higher ground. The action switches to New Hokitika. (Thinks – with this name was James McNaughton making covert reference to hs first novel New Hokkaido? Dunno.) The new, and apparently comatose, Starsailor is a sensation with the media and old Bill becomes the ET’s official companion in front of the cameras.

So what will the alien’s great message to the world be? And will the neo-liberal-corporation-controlled media allow the message to get through? And will there be a revolution?

A clear narrative line leading to answers should have been the trajectory of Star Sailors. Regrettably, it isn’t, and this is my major beef with the novel. The side-issues, the digressions, just pile on and on, spinning the narrative beyond the point where whatever it has to say is clear.

To satirise corporatised news – the decline of real journalism and control of media by corporations – is one thing. But to do it at length in a novel that is already top-heavy with social and ecological issues is quite another. When they are one-liners, there is no problem with the intrusion of robot servants, “robotistas” (robotic baristas) and robot cars. But it is hard to see how a long passage on finding a parking space adds much to the tale. The emphasis on old, rich, sexually-jaded men fuelled by rejuvenation tachniques (and some sugical equivalent of Viagra) may be a fair extrapolation of old, rich baby-boomers – but this detail leads us into stuff about sex holograms and the use of stolen personalties for porn. Surely the decadence of the rich didn’t need to be spelled out at such length? The details about fashion and fashionistas were worthy of a few brisk quips at most.

Most intrusive of all is the subplot about Bill’s obese son Simon and his wife Cheryl’s promiscuity and disputed son. Again, it could have been disposed of more concisely without harm to the novel.

I suppose it would be redundant to note that the novel’s topicality makes at least some of its satire very perishable. On p. 91, Bill considers unswimmable rivers and notes : “…the statistic about faecal bacteria isn’t even news, and hasn’t been since the dairy industry went bottom up in the early 2020s with the introduction of synthetic milk. White and mainly water, yet no one saw it coming.” But I guess this sort of thing is inevitable when you set your satire in the future.

I have the distinct impression that, with a good central idea as his first inspiration, James McNaughton then let his mind run too free over a whole raft of things that either amused or dismayed him. There is no real sense of purposeful structure, but more an amble. When it comes, the denouement with the ET is a sad fizzler. And after the bloated novel passes this point, there is a hasty 16-page coda explaining the aftermath of a revolution but sounding like a doctrine of withdrawal. Solve the world’s problems by silence, exile and cunning, I guess, but it seems more like the convenient quietism of the well-to-do.

There are amusements along the way, but I regret the focused thing this dawdle could have been.


  1. McNaughton's first novel was poor but perhaps forgiveable as an early attempt. My feeling is that Dougal McNeill's review was on point, so I won't reiterate his views, but your thin criticism of him is unwarranted, in my opinion.
    The fault with McNaughton's second novel lies partly with the publisher. The book is poorly written, hackneyed, digressive, and boring. It should not have made it out the door, and its publication is a disservice to Victoria University Press and science fiction.
    At points, the boom threatens to involve itself in the plot, but just as quickly dispenses with any actual events by having anything of importance happen off screen. It's almost as if the writer is afraid of his own subject and so dwells instead on the neuroses of the four thoroughly dislikeable main characters.
    The writing itself is littered with confusing inverted clauses. Weak adjectives and cliches litter the prose. Things are big, or small, or large, or wide. Tenses change at random, often within a single paragraph, between present and simple past.
    A main character goes to great lengths to violate Chekhov's maxim concerning guns. In the prologue, a teenage girl in a red beret plays accordian and sings songs about the uprising of the proletariat, which, given the cliche, is a major clue to the writer's lack of chops. The threatened revolution happens somewhere else off the page. What was the point of the hemispherical hill in the prologue? The star sailor is hardly mentioned and appears extraneous to whatever tattered remanants of plot flap around in the prose. The resolution is a tired cliche which only serves to mark the point where the writer - mercifully - decided to just stop already.
    Forgive me for going on, but this book should never have been published.

  2. Thank you for this rather long but interesting comment. You might be surprised at the number of people (writers and publishers among them) who have agreed with my comments here, but the hell of it is that they choose not to make their comments public and therefore remain anonymous (as you do). I don't resile from my comments on the reproving remarks made in "NZ Books" on the earlier novel.