Doug Van Belle–East of the Sun


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Our author for this week is Doug Van Belle, a New Zealand “kiwi.” He writes fantasy and science fiction, and teaches political communication at the Victoria University of Wellington. He holds the record for receiving the second most votes for the Sir Julius Vogel award eleven times–an accomplishment he regards with a great deal of pragmatism.

When most people think of New Zealand, they know of it as either the location of Narnia or Middle-Earth, or a place full of sheep. But like any place on Earth, there is so much more to it than that. Can you tell us a little bit about what you love about New Zealand, and what might surprise visitors to the island?

douglas-vanbelleI think the thing that I love most about New Zealand is the people. I know that is a cliché thing to say, and I could talk about the laid back rural feel, the huge swaths of pristine countryside, or the tiny little cities that have all the big city amenities including some of the best brew pubs in the world, but it’s the powerful sense of community in New Zealand that you simply cannot find anywhere else in the world. The only other place I found anything even close is Iceland, and even there they are a fair step short of New Zealand.

It is also kind of unique in its character. It isn’t the personal, neighbours helping neighbours kind of small micro-communities that you find in suburban and rural America, and it’s not economic, it’s more of a broad consensus that we are going to value everyone. You see it in the politics, you see it in the culture, and most importantly, you see it in every day life. It’s in all the little things that people constantly do for people they have never met before. We’re not perfect down here, just try driving behind or in front of a Kiwi on the cowpaths we call highways and you will seriously consider murder to be a perfectly reasonable thing to add to the driving code, but we have established and are maintaining a pretty high baseline of respect for everyone, and support for everyone, across a lot of facets of life. Pretty much every time I return to New Zealand after an extended stay abroad, I look at the headlines in the news and I say, “If that is our biggest problem, things are pretty damn good.”

As far as visitors to the country, I think it surprises most people to discover that New Zealand is a country of microclimates. It’s a long thin land with steep tall hills and mountains, and it straddles the split between Antarctic and subtropical ocean currents and winds. In addition to the impact of latitude and the east versus west side of the islands as you travel around, seemingly small variations in the landscape have a huge impact on the weather. The western slops of the hills and mountains are always wetter because they are exposed to the prevailing winds. The orientation of valleys and hills and how they catch and redirect the winds also has a huge and sometimes counter-intuitive impact on local climates.

I live about 45km (25 Miles) north of Wellington and I ride through three distinct climate zones on my way in to the university. I start in a coastal climate that usually has a steady but brisk sea breeze and can often be as much as 5 degrees C (11F) warmer than Wellington because it catches the very bottom edge of the tropical wind flow. It is also far drier in the summer than it is in the winter even though there is very little temperature variation across the year.

I ride over a ridge just a few kilometres to the south and through a port and marina area were a valley funnels the colder Antarctic air inland. That valley is colder and has a far more consistent level of rainfall year round. Then I ride into Wellington, which is over another ridge of hills. It is exposed to the frigid winds and ocean currents from the Antarctic and it has Cook Straight funnelling the wind into the city, seemingly regardless of direction, making Wellington the windiest bloody place in the world. On average, someplace in the city records hurricane strength wind gusts on 38 different days, every year.

Go to the east of the central ridge of mountains as you travel north out of Wellington and you will find yourself in one of the best wine regions in New Zealand. It is far drier and has far more distinct seasons. Across the Cook Straight, is a set of fiords that are wet and cool, and just over a ridge to the south of them, but still within about 70km of where I live is another wine region that is the sunniest and one of the warmest places in the country. The whole country is like that. We have a temperate rain forest, a tropical rain forest, desert valleys both on the North and South Island, a volcanic plateau that looks like Mars, glacier fields, rolling grasslands, mountains so rugged they aren’t just uninhabitable, they are almost inaccessible; you name the terrain and you can probably find it here. The availability of all those climates, all close to the cities, is a big reason New Zealand hosts so many big feature film productions.

The other thing that will surprise people is the weather. On any day, any kind of weather can and will occur everywhere. We call it four seasons in a day. It’s more like four season in a week, since it is the day to day shifts in the weather that leave tourists shaking their heads, but the weather can literally change at any moment. Something as simple as a modest shift in the direction of the wind can turn it from cold and damp, to warm and muggy, then to stormy, all in a matter of hours. ALWAYS take a jacket, ALWAYS.

You described your novel The Care and Feeding of Your Lunatic Mage as “the Medieval Europe of most fantasy novels went on to colonize the Pacific and ran into the magic of the region.” Can you expound a little on what kind of magic they would have encountered? What is the mythology of New Zealand like? Are there any particular tales you’re fond of?

LM_cover_test_4We could probably spend hours talking about Lunatic Mage. I wrote it during a time when I was playing around with the structure and form of novels and the story-telling norms in novels. (Yes I do that artsy kind of crap once in a while. I am an academic.) I don’t usually share that kind of experimental stuff. In fact I have a huge pile of it that I have written and tossed into the corner of my office (Yes, it’s a fire hazard). Lunatic Mage was originally headed for that pile but then I had a busy run of people asking me for Kiwi fantasy stories for anthologies and the like and somewhere along the way I realized I had pulled so many stories out of it, that I already put most of it out there. So I decided to put the whole thing together and see what people thought of the novel.

With the novel, I had started out simply playing with radical shifts of point of view across chapters. Not just shifting the narrative POV from character to character, but also shifting the POV from First Person to Third Person and also varying the POV details, such as Third Person that can hear internal dialogue versus Third Person that cannot, or First Person narrative that sits on a characters shoulder and can note things the character doesn’t perceive, versus First Person narrative that is tightly stuck inside the head of a character and ONLY sees the things they notice. Having already reworked several of the chapters into short stories for anthologies, I took my experimentation a step further and turned every chapter in the novel into a stand along short story that, when taken together, formed a novel. I then did the same thing with Barking Death Squirrels, but I had planned on the short story as chapter nature of that one from the very beginning and because of that, it probably fits together better as a whole.

As far as the magic goes I’m a little hesitant to go there in terms of claiming any degree of authoritative knowledge. I’m actually far more comfortable with Native American mythology and magical stories than I am with the Polynesian. Still, there are a couple of generalities that I noticed as significant and that I incorporated in Lunatic Mage. The first is that the magic of Polynesian myth is far less instrumental than the magic in most other mythologies I have encountered. That is particularly evident in comparison to European myths, where all magic seems to be a tool to be wielded, but it also in contrast Asian and Middle-Eastern mythical norms as well. In Polynesian myth I see very little using magic to do something and it is rare to find all that much about magical creatures that embody or employ a specific magical power. For example, the Taniwha (Tan-i-fah), the dragons of Maori myths, are spirits of the land, embodied in a mountain, stream, harbour or other physical feature. They are seldom described as creatures, and stories about them often centre of affronts to the integrity of those features of the land.

Across the Pacific Islands there also seems to be a common belief in the magic of the warriors, with the plural being important. The Maori Hakas are often described as war dances or displays meant to intimidate rivals, but it is far more than that. A European would describe the underlying ‘magic’ as summoning the power of ancestors and Whanau (Fah-nu), which is a broadly inclusive conceptualization of the extended family. This is the element that I really try to focus on when I bring these things into my fiction that spiritual summoning of strength from those around you, but in space and time. I also have to say, it’s still a big part of the ‘Magic’ I find in today’s New Zealand. Whether you are in the stadium, a pub, or just with a group of mates, whenever you watch the rugby in a crowd, the pre-match Haka generates a palpable energy and sense of power. It’s far more, and far different than the energy of the crowd in one of the big U.S. or European sporting events.

What you will see more than the details of myth and magic in Lunatic Mage, is the way I imagined the culture would shape the resulting communities, and relationships, and the politics. In Lunatic Mage, the colonizing Europeans still had the advantage of steel and of an instrumental magic, but it wasn’t the overwhelming advantage that firearms gave them. As a result you end up with a far more prominent place for the Polynesian cultural, familial and political forms and norms and something of a sustained stalemate between the coloniser and the native.

Let’s talk about Australia a bit. What are some of the most striking differences between Australia and New Zealand? You mentioned that there’s one good Australian speculative fiction magazine that also publishes New Zealand authors—Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Are there any other publications or authors we should know about?

ASIM-55-437x620Basically, Australia is nothing at all like New Zealand. Australia is a continent rather than an island. It is dominated by flat desert and New Zealand is dominated by green mountains. Also, pretty much everything on the land and in the sea in Australia is trying to kill you and the most dangerous animal in New Zealand is the occasional runaway cow. The cultures and histories are also completely different. New Zealand is the largest Polynesian nation in the world and that community has essentially no connection at all to the culture and history of the native Australians. The European settlers of Australia are famously deported British criminals, which may or may not be significant in the evolution of their assertively conservative political mainstream. New Zealand is rural to a fault while Australia is the most urbanized country in the world, with not only huge swaths of almost empty land, but also a huge percentage of their overall population living in the capital cities of their states. If you visit both New Zealand and Australia you will probably be struck by how European New Zealand feels versus how much Australia feels like the west coast of the U.S.

With the writing, I notice that the engagement with the native in Australian fiction still feels like a slightly radical artistic act of defying cultural norms. That is probably more about a New Zealander’s perception from the perspective of a far more assertively inclusive norm than the rest of the world, but it is still something I notice.

Andromeda Spaceways, from Australia, is probably the best speculative fiction magazine I have ever encountered. It’s the only one I know of that works with a peer-review system, with all submissions being read and evaluated by at least two published authors before being put into, or kicked out of, consideration for publication. I read slush for them a fair bit, and I always feel like I have accomplished something worthwhile when they pick up one of my stories. I highly recommend buying a couple of issues and just enjoying the tremendously eclectic collection of very good fiction that they publish. That’s about the only Aussie or Kiwi periodical that I really stand up and shout about, but if you want a good collection of shorts that really gives you a taste of what Kiwi authors are writing, I would suggest A Foreign Country, published by Random Static Ltd.

As far as Australian authors, the obvious one to note is Ian Irvine. He’s known for epic fantasy, but he’s got a set of eco thriller novels that I think should have gotten a lot more attention than they did. Simon Haynes’ Hal Space Jock novels are a romp, and I would say that just about anything from Peggy Bright Books is worth a look.

You have two new books coming out, one this month and one in August. Would you tell us what they’re about, and where readers would be able to find them?

breatheThe big release is Breathe, a science fiction thriller being published by Intergalactic Books in the U.S.

After the catastrophic failure of the first station on Ganymede, nine people are trapped in a refuge that can only produce enough are to support four. Five must die if any of them are going to survive.

The electronic version was just released and the hardcopy will be available in a few days, with the official release at the World Science Fiction convention in Kansas City. The initial reviews have been overwhelmingly positive and I can’t describe how excited I am to see how my first novel sold into a big market goes, but perhaps most significant for me is that it is the first book in a six novel contract. So next year about this time The List will come out, and in 2018 A World Adrift will be released. I’m currently working on a similar contract for the film versions of all three of those stories, so, fingers crossed.

The other book I have coming out is a young-reader/family fantasy novel called The Kahutahuta. It’s being included in a campaign to promote reading and there is going to be a big push to try to get a copy into the hands of every schoolchild in New Zealand before our summer holidays. So there’s going to be a couple of crowdfunding campaigns and that sort of thing popping up in about five or six weeks. Intergalactic Books is securing some corporate sponsorship and they are also sponsoring a promotion where they will contribute a copy to the NZ giveaway for every copy (electronic or hardcopy) sold through their online storefront.

Finally, I am astonished at how much science fiction is being written by New Zealand authors that I have never heard of. Do you have any suggestions for how readers can discover some of the great work being written around the world, instead of being confined to the products of their own culture?

Simon Petre is a Kiwi who’s constantly publishing some great short stories, including a collection call Rare Unsigned Copy. I got him drunk and talked him into signing the one and only autographed copy (because irony is cool). Tim Jones is another Kiwi to look up if you are into poetry, but honestly, the best way to find new authors from any country is to look at the nominees for their awards. Having received the second most votes for a Sir Julius Vogel Award a record 11 times (I have won once), the survival of my ego requires me to emphasize the nominees rather than the winners, but I do find that those lists of finalists are always full of the best work produced in the country. For Australia it’s the Ditmars and I hop over to the results page on Wikipedia whenever I’m in the mood for some Australian science fiction.

Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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