Star Sailors by James McNaughton (Victoria University Press, 2017), 487 pp., $35
Star Sailors is a New Zealand science fiction novel set in 2045. It’s in the sub-genre known as climate change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’: a sub-genre that has been around both internationally and locally for many years, with Kim Stanley Robinson among its most notable international practitioners, and which Victoria University Press has recently and enthusiastically embraced.
At a time when government, communities and businesses alike are mostly interested in averting their eyes and pretending that the causes and consequences of climate change are a problem for someone else, it’s good to see the arts looking straight at the problem.
Star Sailors is an ambitious novel: I like that. It paints on a broad scale and sets itself lofty goals. That I don’t think it entirely reaches them doesn’t diminish the skill of James McNaughton’s writing nor the evident thought he has put into the state of New Zealand in 2045. Star Sailors is a novel that’s well worth reading, and that should provoke plenty of discussion.
In Star Sailors, today’s calls for action and plans for steep emission reductions have fallen on deaf ears and firmly shut wallets. Climate change has proceeded unabated, devastating much of the rest of the world, but late-capitalist globalisation is still hanging in there, enhancing shareholder value in all sorts of shiny ways. Venture Group, the employer of many of the leading characters, is a patriarchal conglomerate that is doing very well out of disaster capitalism.
Compared to the rest of James McNaughton’s world, New Zealand is in comparatively good shape climate-wise, although you’d be unwise to unfurl an umbrella in 2045 Johnsonville, and the health of Wellington’s 20-year-old south coast seawall is constantly monitored.
In Wellington the continued accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands has been made concrete in the social and physical division between Inners, who live under heavy protection on the slopes of Mt Victoria and enjoy extended lifespans, and Outers, whose lives are nasty, brutish and a good deal shorter. Bombs go off, shots are fired, and revolution beckons.
So the fate of the nation and the world is at stake. But the characters in Star Sailors spend much of the book focusing on other things: what is the future of fashion in a world of rapid warming? Can the chichi Wellington dinner party with optional orgy survive the revolution? Will the corporate lawyers and the Comms team ever get along?
James McNaughton has chosen to set his novel among the Inners, not the Outers. His characters aren’t the desperate, the dying, the determined-to-overthrow-the-system – instead, they’re doing quite nicely thank you. At the core of the novel are two couples: young corporate lawyer Jeremiah – a putz trying very hard to become a mensch – and his dissatisfied model wife Karen; and fashion designer Tris (Karen’s boss) and her elderly partner Bill, a disillusioned journalist.
What other sort of journalist is there in fiction? But Bill has very specific reasons for his disillusion: it was he, as a young tyro, who interviewed Sam Starsailor, an apparent alien who washed up near Hokitika with an unheeded message of approaching calamity to deliver to the world.
Now another alien has arrived – ‘Sam II’ – and just when he thought he was out, Bill gets drawn back in to matters that affect the fate of billions.
By choosing to set his novel among the ‘haves’ of this world, the already privileged trying to become more privileged still, James McNaughton gives a good sense of how capitalism’s winners live their lives and navigate or avoid their moral quandaries. But this has the effect of distancing the main characters and hence the reader from the severity of the situation. It’s obvious that the author has thought in some depth about the nature of the interlocking crises such a world would be facing, but for much of the novel those crises are in the background. The protagonists view the trauma and the horror through their screens for a few minutes before turning them off, depressed by all that negativity, to check the details of their next corporate function.
This is climate change as scenery, a scrolling ticker of disaster in the protagonists’ peripheral vision. Maybe that’s the way we live now, but will even the elite – those most insulated from climate change’s worst effects – be able to live that way in 2045?
Similarly, the revolution – or at least, the isolated acts of despair and revolt that rudely interrupt the good life from time to time – is very much a business of ‘noises off’. Who’s behind it? Who benefits? We don’t know, because we never hear from any of the characters who are trying to overthrow the system that benefits Karen and Jeremiah, Bill and Tris. The play of wider social forces is kept in the background while, in the foreground, the main characters obsess over trivialities.
Many facets of the complex and interlocking problems unchecked climate change will bring are held up to the light in Star Sailors: Ebola X, for example, is a proudly Kiwi strain carried by native bats. Yet apart from one scare that depends strongly on a literary antecedent, the characters remain at arms’ length from these issues, isolated in their cocoons of privilege.
But it’s time to talk about the good stuff in this novel – and there’s plenty to talk about. There is a lot of strong writing and nimble storytelling in here. While I can’t say that I particularly liked or even empathised with any of the main characters, I did enjoy such peeks inside their heads, such as Jeremiah’s four-page reverie-turned-sexual-fantasy that begins on page 161:
Sometimes while drifting near sleep Jeremiah experiences a sense of grace rare in his working life and things fall unbidden and perfect into place. Some things he returns to, replaying and improving seamlessly, such as his dream house in the golden doldrums of the Wairarapa, which builds effortlessly once more in his mind, a large two-storey English-style country house with steep tiled roofs, ivy climbing the white walls and columns at the entrance between the wings.
James McNaughton is particularly good at writing set-piece scenes: the description of a particularly decadent housewarming party – Spartacus by way of Edgar Allen Poe, the tension rising with the hourly tolling of the clock until midnight comes and all is revealed – is probably the best scene in the book. And he is also great on memorable and telling character names: Torrentz for a teenage boy, Solangia for a baby, and those nubile objects of Jeremiah’s lust, Tiroli and St Tropez. And it wasn’t just character names that raised little grins of delight – what should Auckland’s walled enclave of Inners be called, if not the Grammar Zone?
I had two structural issues with Star Sailors. One is that the novel takes too long to get going. Although we spend plenty of time with the characters in the first third of the novel, and events happen which impact the characters’ lives, the plot only kicks into gear once the second alien, ‘Sam II’, washes ashore in Hokitika. That’s revealed a few pages after the passage quoted above, and if the novel had started with that very passage, and then delineated the main characters’ personalities by how they respond to the twists and turns of the Sam II plot and its corporate ramifications, I think that would have strengthened the narrative.
After that slow start, the plot builds nicely, and seemingly disparate storylines gradually intertwine. But then, just as the climax seems to be approaching, it is handwaved away: we skip thirty years into the future, to an ending that offers hope if not certainty. The survivors among our main characters look back from a position of relative tranquillity on the tumultuous events that would, in another novel, have formed a gripping climax: a climax in which our main characters would have been confronted with the questions of life and death that their privilege had allowed them to sidestep for so long.
I liked the resolution of the novel, with its counterpoint of hope and danger – but I wanted those protagonists who survived to have earned their tentative peace and cautious optimism, rather than being whisked into the future by authorial fiat to enjoy it.
‘Can the rich and entitled survive the worst effects of climate change more or less unscathed?’ is a question the novel poses, and answers, but I wish James McNaughton had widened his gaze to encompass the fate of those who don’t have wealth, power or privilege to protect them. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to like about Star Sailors.
TIM JONES has published several volumes of short stories, a novel and several volumes of poetry. He is a writer, editor, web content manager, anthologist, husband, father, political activist, and lover of cricket, music and many other fine things. His most recent collection of poems is New Sea Land, published in 2016 by Mākaro Press.