Review: Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy Volume III

Reviewed by Louise Ward

Strange times call for strange fiction and in Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy Volume III we can redefine beauty, find moa in the wild and investigate the worlds of the dead.

Art mirrors life and there’s a rich seam of 21st century problems for this collection of writers to mine: the end of the world, dystopia, humanity’s inability to learn from its mistakes. Strange times call for strange fiction and in_Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy Volume III_ we can redefine beauty, find moa in the wild and investigate the worlds of the dead.

In New Zealand Gothic, a second person, present tense narrative peels back the skin of a clean, green country to reveal the anxieties of a world we don’t recognise or understand any more. In only 11 short paragraphs, Jack Remiel Cottrell creates a sense of impending doom and a surreal panic reminiscent of The Matrix – “…you are not real. You never were.” Dark, scary stuff to begin the collection.

For Want of Human Parts by Casey Lucas had me hooked early in the piece. Bone Pile watches from the storm drain, a pile of tangled bones, old fibres, strings of hair and a shattered jaw. It looks forward to the regular appearance of a colourful, vibrant woman; it watches, something stirring within it. Bone Pile feels the urge to return to the living world in some way but will need more limbs, a face, a voice. The story pieces Bone Pile back together, reminiscent of The Iron Man.

This is a genre-defying story. It could be horror; Bone Pile is just that, a grotesque pile of former human. It could be a ghost story; Bone Pile was clearly a fully-fledged, living human at some point and no longer is. But it’s more than this. It’s a mystery, the search for memory, love, justice, what it is to be human, the colour and energy lost to the putrid pools of death. This is a poignantly rendered tale of life confronted by death and reacting rather badly to it.

A portal, an Endless and greedy sentient life form, a sassy human and a newly formed being. How to Get a Girlfriend (When You’re a Terrifying Monster) by Marie Cardno is the first LGBTQI+/newly-formed-entity-identifying-as-female space story I’ve seen. Heck, it could be the first in the world!  Our human hero, Sian, is a woefully underprepared human researcher and our alien hero, Trillan, has broken from the Endless to form edges of her own. They eye each other up from afar for a bit before danger throws them together.

There’s a bit of alien body shaming in this one; when Trillan is deciding what shape she wants to be, she immediately thinks the human form is best, the most attractive. She fancies Sian and wants to be something Sian will like to look at (oh, honey). But Sian fancies Trillan, because Trillan can morph and create extra eyes (all the better to ogle you with), a skeleton, whatever you like. Cool!

This is a love story and a space adventure wrapped up with humour, cute creatures and a tendency to solve plot issues with convenient inventions. I found it endearing and entertaining. 

In The Double-Cab Club by Tim Jones, it’s the climate emergency that’s dividing communities. The Earth heats up, floods, young people do service in the Climate Corps, a black market in parts for old utes is thriving. Protagonist Mike is clinging on to the old ways, meeting up with his mates to blow his carbon budget on steak and beer.  

Mike gets a wakeup call one night as he speeds through the rain to the Double Cab Club, and there is a small epiphany as he reflects upon what is important to him, but he still struggles to let go of the before: “Sometimes, he wished the world had just ignored the terrible events of the ‘20s, fire, flood and pestilence, and put up two fingers to the future. Eat lots of meat, drink lots of milk, burn hydrocarbons and be merry…” I shuddered at this, which is the point.  There’s a lesson in here for the Mikes of Aotearoa but will it get through? 

The Secrets She Eats by Nikky Lee is a reassuringly solid fantasy story of murder and magic. The Eater wanders the towns and villages, relieving people of their secrets, sating her hunger with tasty, repressed thoughts, words and deeds. This time, she can sense something huge, a whopper of a gourmet secret, and like a magical detective, she follows the clues to solve the mystery and receive her prize.

I really like this story. It felt like watching a game of Dungeons and Dragons without any of the boring decision making, stuffing about bits. The plot could have been more intricate perhaps but everything that needed to happen, happened. There was a bad guy, a good guy, and a couple of in between guys; the dialogue was sharp, the character building speedy and efficient and the world developed enough that I roamed the streets and the dark alleys alongside them.

The Moamancer by Bing Turkby is a great deal of fun. Jareth is a guy who plays in a band and noodles around the environs of Palmerston North. He’s known for his motormouth and the tripe that comes out of it, so when he forces his deep dark secret upon his mate Alex, she thinks he’s full of it. Is Jareth a Musomancer who can control magical fields and (extinct) animal behaviour with a few well-plucked chords, or is he leading Alex down the bush path?

These characters are likeable and affable, their dialogue the teasing repartee of good friends. They are a thoroughly entertaining pair to wander the bush with, in search of the impossible.

What a collection! There are a couple of stories that I found obfuscatingly bizarre or that I struggled to wrap my head around and that’s the beauty of an anthology: one woman’s treasure is potentially boring. Your right as a reader is to skip something, find your gem. I know where I am in a dusty old town tinged with magic but I liked the unease I felt when confronted by worlds and communities that are like ours, just a bit off. I have been challenged, kicked out of my literary comfort zone and I really liked it.