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(Image: Tina Tiller)
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BooksJune 17, 2023

Review: Turncoat takes an intergalactic approach to colonisation

(Image: Tina Tiller)
(Image: Tina Tiller)

Tīhema Baker’s ingenious and hilarious new novel explores what it feels like to be colonised through the lens of satire and sci-fi.

Daniel is in a frustrating situation. He’s joined the government of the alien Hierarch who now governs Earth, negotiating settlements for an oft-violated treaty to protect human rights to their land and air. His girlfriend doesn’t understand why he’s so exasperated. His trip to the moon sanctuary to see some of the last living mammals – rats – is ruined by a condescending tourist. And his colleagues still can’t get his name right; he keeps having to correct them when they call him “Denial”. 

Nevertheless, Daniel persists. As he does, he realises that his idealism (in thinking that by joining the alien government he will help it keep its promises to humans) is flawed: he ends up complicit in decisions where there is no right answer.

Turncoat, Tīhema Baker’s new novel from publishing collective Lawrence and Gibson, is in some ways a straightforward satire about what it’s like for Māori to work within a system that constantly breaches Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The alien captain who has conquered earth several hundred years before Daniel’s birth is called “Kookee”. Each week, his team gathers for “anthem practice”, to sing ancient songs of Earth nations so they feel connected to humans. The cherry on top: Baker himself has worked as a policy adviser for te Tiriti, just like Daniel works in “ChamCov”, the Alien government department for Covenant resolutions.

I have mixed feelings about high-concept satire like this. Sometimes there’s no insight to be drawn from committing to the bit of a weird comparison for something in the real world. Excessively po-faced satire is exhausting, not finely observed. (People will hate me for saying this, but after reading the self-serious Going Postal, I couldn’t bear any more Terry Pratchett for several years.)

Turncoat author Tīhema Baker (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

At its best, though, satire has the freedom to be deeply silly. Stuck in the seriousness of, say, profoundly unequal Treaty relations, it can be hard to laugh about all the things that are, frankly, hilarious. But Turncoat has this in droves. In the first chapter, Baker starts placing human words in comic sans, a joke about how non-English languages in books are italicised. Protagonist Daniel explains that Comic Sans is “an ancient script highly favoured by pre-assimilation Humans”. I loved all the opportunities that Baker took to mock “New Zealand culture”: at an important meeting with a new boss, he’s given precious “fizzy”; there’s an offhand reference to “Toor Academy, which was in the process of renaming itself Victorious University to demonstrate how progressive it believes it was”. It feels both gloriously specific and completely hilarious; this is writing for people in Aotearoa who were subjected to seven news cycles about Victoria University changing its name. I feel grateful that publishers like Lawrence and Gibson exist to make this available, when so much of what I read is funny because I’ve learned to laugh at what British and American people make fun of.

This is satire, but Baker also enjoys the sci-fi elements. It’s not overly technical, but I appreciated the imagination and commitment to coherence in, say, the aliens being repulsed by human contact, including sex; instead of reproducing with messy physical contact, Daniel and his alien partner sit down to sort through their genomes together, picking desirable traits as they plan to reproduce. The use of language in the book – the sun is called Aar, people drink pennoo sitting on consumption mats – goes beyond the “human words in Comic Sans” trick. This world might be a joke, but it also feels lived-in: the interactions between different alien and human cultures are complex and weird. The characters, after all, think this is very normal – it’s only the reader who is perturbed by the clinical descriptions of sleeping pods and clan lounges, which forced me to think more deeply about how profoundly alienating it must have been – it is – to encounter people whose cultural values and ways of operating are different to your own. If you empathise with Daniel, Baker asks, can you empathise with Māori?

Perhaps this makes Turncoat sound high-minded and worthy, but it’s also very funny. What underlies this, however, making it compelling to read as a novel, not a treatise (or indeed a Treaty), is its emotional realism. Daniel is a confused young man; he longs to be a good friend; he sometimes ignores his mother’s calls to avoid confrontation; he wants to be brave but doesn’t know how. I loved the way Turncoat parodied contemporary New Zealand politics and society, but I also just loved Daniel – he’s someone I know. Parts of him look like parts of myself. 

Daniel reminded me, in some ways, of the Showrunner from last year’s play The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom: he has pieces of a fraught power that is made from what his people have given up, and to use that is to implicate himself in that inequality. How could he not try to make things better for humans? But at whose expense will that effort be? Of course he’s angry; of course he’s still trying. 

Baker has not written a subtle book; he wanted to write about alienation, so he used literal aliens. But his characterisation of Daniel allows the parody to operate on one level while also speaking to the emotional shape that colonisation creates for individuals. This novel offers a way for people who don’t have to think about these things daily to wonder: what is it like to have your land taken from you? How does it feel to only have access to pieces of your ancestor’s lives, meat pies and fizzy drinks, rather than the wholeness of how they lived, who they were? What is that sharp and strange twisting in your chest as you stumble through introducing yourself in the unfamiliar language of your people, when you are so good at crafting the language of the aliens? Baker wants you to ask these questions beside him: he wants you to remember how you are complicit, to yearn for a new way, to know where you stand.

Turncoat by Tīhema Baker (Lawrence & Gibson, $30) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland, as well as from Lawrence & Gibson.

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