I’ve had my head down working for a while, but over the next few months I’m doing a number of events around the country. First up is the weekend after next, when I’ll be at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, where I’ll be in conversation with Wendy Were at midday on Saturday 8 August, and will be speaking about the limits of forgiveness alongside Sarah Armstrong, David Vann and Anneli Knight at 12:15pm on Sunday 9 August and about Climate Fiction with Mireille Juchau (whose much-anticipated new novel, The World Without Us, has just been released) and Anneli Knight at 2:15pm. Tickets are available from the Festival office, by calling 02 6685 5115 or online.
Our sun is one of the approximately 300 billion stars that make up the Milky Way. The Milky Way is part of what is known as the Local Group, a formation of at least 54 galaxies galaxies spanning 10 million light years. The Local Group lies on the fringe of a much larger supercluster of galactic groups and clusters which contains more than 100,000 galaxies and spans some 520 million light years.
I’m not sure how many of us can really make sense of these sorts of numbers, or the idea that the universe is composed of a web of galactic clusters that shift and flow like water. Yet there’s something deeply fitting in the news earlier this week that the team responsible for identifying this vast supercluster have named it Laniakea, a Hawaiian word that means “immense” or “immeasurable heaven”, and was chosen to honour the Polynesian sailors who once navigated the great space of the Pacific by reading the stars.
It’s a name whose poetry extends beyond the obvious resonances with the ocean. It often seems there is something irresistible about our tendency to see the ocean infinite, immeasurable, trackless. There’s little doubt it’s an association that runs very deep, but it’s also at least partly a cultural construction, a legacy of Romanticism and the ways technology has progressively alienated us from the environment.
In fact the ocean is anything but trackless. As the achievements of the Pacific Islanders (and other pre-modern sailors) demonstrate, it is quite possible to read the sea, to learn to make sense not just of the stars but of patterns of wind and wave, the movement of birds and fish and driftwood (as several of the pieces in The Penguin Book of the Ocean attest).
The systems of knowledge, of fine-grained observation and remembered experience that underpinned this process were developed over hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. Yet because the cultures that encoded them were largely oral, they were also vulnerable, and as the Pacific was colonised, and its cultures disrupted and suppressed, they largely disappeared. Indeed the fact that persist at all is largely due to the efforts of people such as the late Will Kyselka and David Lewis, who worked to preserve and recover as much of them as possible.
That systems of knowledge acquired over thousands of years should have been lost like this is strangely ironic: after all, the colonial project was spearheaded by the scientific voyages undertaken by explorers such as Banks and Cook during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, voyages that were themselves part of the extraordinary project of discovery and description that underpins modern science, and which has led, more than 200 years later, to us being able to map the flow of galaxies through billions of light years of space with such sophistication that it is possible for structures such as Laniakea to be identified and understood.
Lanikea isn’t the first astronomical object to be given a Polynesian name: astronomers have already chosen to name two of the dwarf planets discovered in recent years in the outer solar system MakeMake (for the creator of humanity and god of fertility worshipped by the Easter Islanders) and Haumea (the matron goddess of the island of Hawaii), yet it’s certainly the most significant. Nor should we be so naive as to think giving Polynesian names to heavenly bodies will bring back what has been lost: as Victoria Nelson has observed, “the death of a culture, like the death of a star, lasts longer than anyone can possibly imagine. The sadness, the echoes and ambiguities, persist for hundreds of years”. But reading about the naming of Laniakea I found myself wondering whether it’s possible that by incorporating the language and poetry of the Polynesians into the scientific endeavour we begin to acknowledge the repositories of knowledge embedded in their cultures (and by extension other non-Western and indigenous cultures), and just perhaps, go some small way toward recognising the injustices that have been inflicted upon them.
So, it’s December, and although I’m still scrambling to get some things locked away the year is pretty much done. I’m going to post something about the books I’ve enjoyed most over the past twelve months next week (I’m leaving it so late because I don’t want to preempt the picks I’ve made for The Weekend Australian and The Thought Fox, although if you want a preview you can check out my picks for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which were published last week) and if I get really excited I might do a musical round-up as well (although I’m not going to make any big promises on that score).
Looking back over the past twelve months I’m sort of amazed by how much I’ve gotten done. I haven’t managed to write much long non-fiction, but I’ve written a lot of reviews, written and submitted my doctoral dissertation and somehow managed to stay on top of all my normal commitments (or at least mostly on top).
More importantly though I’ve written a lot of fiction, some of which is even good. I’ve knocked over most of the first draft of a new novel (or novelly thing – in fact it’s a discontinuous narrative made up of ten interconnected stories), and with luck I’ll have something deliverable by April next year. Although it still doesn’t have a title the opening section was published as a standalone story in The Big Issueearlier this year and I’m hoping two more sections will be published as stories in the new year. What I’ve got is rough but I’m really pleased with it.
As well as the novel I’ve written and published a number of stories. Some – like my Rapunzel novelette, ‘Beauty’s Sister’, which was published as part of Penguin’s excellent Penguin Specials series (and is available for Kindle, iBooks, Kobo and Google Play), and my alien invasion story, ‘Visitors’, which was published by The Review of Australian Fiction – have been published as in electronic formats only, others, like my zombies in suburbia story, ‘The Inconvenient Dead’ are available online and in print (you can pick up ‘The Inconvenient Dead’ in Best Australian Stories 2012 as well as Overland 206). In addition to the stories above I’ve got another two which will be published in the new year and several more about to go out, all of which I’ll link to as they appear.
I’m also pleased to say my essay about growing up in Adelaide, ‘The Element of Need’, was also republished as a Penguin Special a few months back. If you haven’t read it you might want to check it out: I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written in recent years. There’s a post with more details about it here, or you can buy it for Kindle, iBooks, Kobo, and Google Play. And staying with the creepy theme, you might also want to check out my essay about ghosts and ghost stories, ‘Encounters with the Uncanny’, which appeared in Meanjin earlier this year. I’ve also just finished a longish piece on 2001: A Space Odyssey that I’m really pleased with and will link to once it’s published in the new year.
At this point I’m hoping next year will be equally productive – I’ve got a pile of stories that need writing and at least two novels I want to get written once this one is done – but for now I’m just happy to have gotten so much done over the past twelve months. I hope you’ve all had equally productive years.
Just a quick note to say that if you’re free tomorrow night you might want to head over to Sydney’s Ashfield Library, where I’m joining Richard Glover, Debra Adelaide, Boyd Anderson, Gabrielle Carey, Christopher Cyrill and Catherine Walsh at an event celebrating the Seven Deadly Sins in literature. I’m speaking about envy, and I’m planning to say some things about monkeys, Milton, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Doctor Doom.
Things kick off at 6:00pm in the Ground Floor Activity Rooms, Ashfield Library, 260 Liverpool Road, Ashfield. You can book tickets on 02 9716 1810 or visit the Library’s website for more information.
The second is this week’s launch of issue 6 of P76. This is a project with a rather wonderful story behind it. As some of you may remember, P76 was a small but adventurous literary journal that produced five issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s before folding just before the publication of its sixth issue in the summer of 1992/3.
Earlier this year P76’s editors, Mark Roberts and Linda Adair, found the setting for this lost issue, which features work by M T C Cronin, joanne burns, Gary Dunne and others and decided to publish it as a time capsule showcasing the state of Australian literature 20 years ago. This was a decision that was of particular interest to me because the issue also contained one of the first poems I ever sold, and which, as a result of the magazine’s collapse, never saw the light of day. If you’d like to read the issue it’s available from Rochford Street Press. Issue 1 of P76 is also available for free online. My poem’s called ‘Wintering’, and it’s actually not bad.
The air was warm and clean; it cleared some of the fumes from his head. He walked the brightly lighted slidewalks, adding his own pace to their own ten-miles-per-hour speed. It occurred to him that every city in the world had slidewalks, and that they all moved at ten miles per hour.
The thought was intolerable. Not new; just intolerable. Louis Wu saw how thoroughly Beirut resembled Munich and Resht … and San Francisco and Topeka and London and Amsterdam. The stores along the sidewalks sold the same products in all the cities of the world. These citizens who passed him tonight looked all alike, dressed all alike. Not Americans or Germans or Egyptians, but mere flatlanders.
In three and a half centuries the transfer booths had done this to the infinite variety of Earth. They covered the world in a net of instantaneous travel. The difference between Moskva and Sydney was a moment of time and a tenth-star coin. Inevitably the cities had blended over the centuries, until place-names were only relics of the past.
San Francisco and San Diego were the northern and southern ends of one sprawling coastal city. But how many people knew which end was which? Tanj few, these days.
Pessmistic thinking, for a man’s two hundredth birthday.
But the blending of cities was real. Louis had watched it happen. All the irrationalities of place and time and custom, blending into one big rationality of City, worldwide, like a dull grey paste. Did anyone today speak deutsch, English, francais, espanol? Everyone spoke Interworld. Style in body paints changed all at once, all over the world in one monstrous surge.”
I’m thrilled to announce my partner Mardi McConnochie’s most recent novel, The Voyagers, has won the FAW Christina Stead Award for Best Novel. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s a fantastic book and it totally deserves it. If you’d like to know more about it you can read Angela Meyer’s interview with Mardi or read the first chapter for free, otherwise you can find prices for print copies on Booko (or you can grab it for 20% off via Booktopia), or buy it in digital format from the Kindle, Kobo and iBook stores.
And while you’re there you might want to check out Mardi’s blog, which is a bit occasional (though no more so than this one has been lately) but very worth a look.
Inspired by the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, filmmaker David Parker set out to make a film about the ways we waste energy, but somewhere along the way it grew into Light, a haunting, poetic meditation not just on human wastefulness, but on the eerie, even spectral textures of the urban landscape.
My apologies for my silence over the past couple of months: despite good intentions about getting back to regular posting after two months trapped in the time vortex of school holidays I’ve ended up swamped with work, which has rather slowed me down.
I suspect that situation isn’t going to change any time soon, not least because I’m now working on a new book and at least two sets of short stories on top of my usual reviewing commitments (which is exciting but more than a little consuming) but with luck I’ll still be able to keep things at least ticking over here.
In the meantime you might want to check out a few of my recent reviews (though many are now hidden behind The Australian’s paywall), in particular my pieces on Colson Whitehead’s terrific zombie novel, Zone One, Dana Spiotta’s electric Stone Arabia and Margaret Atwood’s deeply flawed In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.
And finally, if you haven’t seen this outstanding video of the savage grasshopper mouse, I recommend you watch it now. Apparently they’re carnivorous mice that let out their piercing shrieks before moving in for the kill, and you can read all about them over on Wired’sLaelaps blog, but basically they’re just made of awesome.