A section of the splendid cover of Monsters in the Garden (Cover art: Rodney Smith)
A section of the splendid cover of Monsters in the Garden (Cover art: Rodney Smith)

BooksNovember 17, 2020

Fiction of the little breaches: A review of Monsters in the Garden

A section of the splendid cover of Monsters in the Garden (Cover art: Rodney Smith)
A section of the splendid cover of Monsters in the Garden (Cover art: Rodney Smith)

The winner of the 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Award reviews the sci-fi and fantasy anthology of the moment.

Putting together an anthology is a balancing act. You’re making a statement: this is what the genre or scene looks like to me, and I’d like to think it looks that way to you too. Victoria University Press’s latest anthology Monsters in the Garden is Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen’s comprehensive attempt to map out the course of New Zealand science fiction and fantasy. So, what is New Zealand science fiction? What is New Zealand fantasy? With a few notable exceptions, Knox and Larsen’s vision often feels like it’s seeking a very particular collision of the domestic and the fantastical. These are not stories of kings, wizards or assassins – these are overwhelmingly stories of farmers, stories of children, stories of ordinary little people thrown into extraordinary places and – in a way only Kiwis can – responding with wry irreverence.

There’s nothing that turns me off a Netflix show faster than the “irreverent” tag, which usually means you’re about to hear some awful shit about trans people, but Monsters in the Garden has real irreverence to it, a refusal to give mana to those who haven’t earned it or misuse it. Phillip Mann writes a world where all fiction characters suddenly spring to life, and Sherlock Holmes is sent into the ruins of Disneyland to assassinate the dictator Mickey Mouse. Sherlock takes his sudden incorporation in stride, walking among the fallen fortress of the house of mouse, getting increasingly existential as his mission veers off-course. Mann isn’t interested in kneeling before the golden calf of capitalism, because he’s got a fucking story to tell. It’s refreshing to see the gun pointed at power from time to time, as it is in The Gospel According to Mickey Mouse, in Pip Adam’s A Problem, in Octavia Cade’s The Stone Wētā. It’s the righteous rage of the powerless against the powerful.

Often that rage comes at a cost. There isn’t a lot of action in these stories in terms of swashbuckling or spaceship battles, but there is often violence – as an abused child’s head strikes the kitchen tile in Emma Martin’s standout In The Forest With Ludmila, as Tamsyn Muir’s crofter Simeon takes all the town’s defective wives out into the shed with a shotgun, as the men in A Problem gather with pizza and beer to find an engineering fix for the intractable problem of women, who keep getting themselves raped and killed by men. It’s a confrontational book, one that doesn’t go in for the depictions of heroic or redemptive violence so common in genre fiction and instead paints it as simply, well … violence. Brutal and disruptive, the powerful lashing out against the powerless. Even when there is no violence, there is often deep melancholy – Witi Ihimaera writes about the last homo sapien alive, a Māori man whose tā moko memorialises all of human history, being essentially held as a zoo exhibit for wealthy tourists and longing for death; Janet Frame writes the inner monologues of sheep on the way to the slaughterhouse; Octavia Cade writes about a collapsing ecosystem and the scientists keeping climate data safe from authoritarian governments who seek to suppress it.

If Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunters series or The Absolute Book are any indication, she’s fascinated by the idea of border places, of fairy rings beneath the porch and portals at the bottom of the pond, and Monsters in the Garden brims with them. Sometimes they’re obvious demarcations between the worlds (I hadn’t read The Halfmen of O since I was a child, but it’s as gloriously guttural and slimy as I remember it) but sometimes – as in Juliet Marillier’s wonderful By Bonelight – the line is less clear; Susie lives in a rotting apartment block, and she’s sent by her awful stepmother down to the basement to find a light after the power goes out. As she descends deeper into the building it becomes something out of a dream, a man runs screaming past her, the hallways seem to warp and shift, the concierge’s door knocker is inset with bones. These are the places where the natural and the supernatural blur together, the marches of reality, and there is something tremendously Kiwi about them. We all live very close to the forest and the ocean, we’re all a half-hour drive away from an ancient mātua whose roots go all the way down to the bottom of this strange young earth, and Monsters in the Garden delights in seeking them out.

The editors and their monster baby (Photo of Elizabeth Knox: Ebony Lamb; others supplied)

If we’re going to follow Knox and Larsen’s template for what New Zealand science fiction and fantasy is, then let’s call it fiction of the little breaches. There are places in Wellington where electronics stop working, where plants seem to spring up overnight, and staircases seem to go nowhere; there’s a wrecked car that has been sitting in a valley in Whangamoa Saddle for 20 years, that never seems to rust; there’s a tunnel in the rock up near Castlepoint where the wind drops out and the air is electric with possibility. There are probably rational explanations for all these things, but that doesn’t dull the fact that, for whatever reason, New Zealand often feels perilously close to some other side. Knox and Larsen understand that intimately, and they’ve filled their anthology with all sorts of little transgressions against the real.

It’s important to note that Knox, in her foreword, rejects the dichotomy between literary fiction and genre fiction – she instead talks of realism and non-realism, the latter of which includes magical realism, surrealism, ghost stories, and all sorts of odds and ends. I was initially a little confused by the inclusion of Patricia Grace’s The Parson Who Thought She or He Was A Bishop, which is absolutely gorgeous but seemed like an odd pick. Thinking about the anthology as non-realist is helpful in understanding the choices the editors made – The Parson isn’t fantasy or science fiction by any traditional sense, but it’s an extremely affecting piece of non-realist prose, an ode to a tūi who’s a crap singer, who seems to melt into the sunlight, who flies with the dawn behind him. Poetry bleeds into fantasy and it’s unclear how much is real, but all of it is beautiful.

There is some more traditional secondary world fantasy in there, including Margaret Mahy’s previously-unpublished Misrule in Diamond and The Paresach’s Tulips by Dylan Horrocks, but they mingle with magical realism, with gothic mystery, with all sorts of stories a less thoughtful and comprehensive anthology wouldn’t think to bring together, and by doing so Monsters in the Garden asks some important questions about how we construct genre. We often talk about literary fiction (which is good!) and genre fiction (which is bad!!) and if there’s any anthology to finally put that awful discussion in the dirt where it belongs, it’s this one. These stories mingle seamlessly, they belong together.

There have been rumblings of discontent within the literary community that the last two stories in the book were written by the editors’ respective sons. While I understand the grousing, and while those stories weren’t standouts for me, they didn’t seem like the products of obvious nepotism either; they’re good stories, they fit in with the rest; it’s not surprising that writers’ kids are good writers. If I had my druthers I’d have put The Stone Wētā last, to leave the reader dangling from its very painful and timely bittersweetness, but Jack Larsen is a strong finisher.

It’s not a perfect book. The Victorians are a bit stodgily Victorian and were a fight to get through – the book is presented in (mostly) chronological order and the 19th century pieces are a bowl of oatmeal set out before you’re allowed to eat any fruit, but they’re fine. They weren’t my speed but they’re important context to understand where we came from and where we’re going. I would’ve also perhaps liked to see some prominent authors from the small press and independent press scenes like Andi Buchanan and Melanie Harding-Shaw – Monsters leans heavily towards traditional presses and magazines and misses the vibrant New Zealand micropress scene, but maybe that’s an issue for a second anthology to fix. What we have here with Monsters in the Garden is a place where the strange collides with the familiar; a place where magic is just around the corner; a place of darkness, wit, and strange new beauty.

Monsters in the Garden: An Anthology of Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Elizabeth Knox and David Larsen (Victoria University Press, $35) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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