How would New Zealand fare in a climatic apocalypse?

by Sam Finnemore / 13 May, 2017

Jim McNaughton.

A local novel takes a worrying guess at how climate change may amplify some of our social ills.

A little under 30 years from now, we do know how lucky we are: New Zealand has become the beneficiary of an unevenly distributed apocalypse. Rising temperatures and sea levels, along with burgeoning pests and disease, have dismantled entire ecosystems and destroyed law and order across much of the world. We’ve ridden it out well by comparison, and Wellington’s a desirable place to live (coastal flooding and ruinous weather aside) – at least if you’ve got a chance to climb to the top of the local pecking order.

James McNaughton matches a convincing picture of runaway climate change with an equally worrying guess at how it may amplify some familiar social ills. Corporate power and what’s left of democratic government maintain an uneasy truce; the well-to-do have literally walled themselves off from social and environmental unpleasantness, in globally connected enclaves; and the few who cross the great divide from “Outer” to “Inner”, including dogged social climbers Jeremiah and Karen, know that they’re unlikely to get a second or third chance to make the grade.

When an alien dubbed Sam Starsailor washes ashore near a relocated Hokitika, supposedly with world-changing revelations, it’s unclear whether anyone in a position to make change really wants to listen. Jeremiah and Karen are chiefly absorbed in diverse neuroses and social-professional projects – including a long-planned housewarming bacchanal in the heart of the hyper-exclusive Wairarapa.

At the same time, ex-journalist Bill’s memories of a past encounter with the alien occasionally trouble his contemplation of a peaceful vineyard retirement, before coming back to well and truly haunt him.

With a few late exceptions, none of McNaughton’s characters here are out-and-out despicable, but they are frequently silly, usually compromised in one way or another, and often act on their good intentions late, if at all. In other words, they’re awfully, believably us – and even when they’re doing reprehensible things, much of the enjoyment in Star Sailors is in their occasional triumphs, and more common reverses and embarrassments, happening on the fringes of the central plot.

It’s a question of when rather than whether Sam Starsailor’s influence will give the comfortable corporate order a jolt; when it does happen, McNaughton mostly keeps the results nicely true to his earlier character- and world-building.

Some familiar conspiracy plot beats do eventually show through, ruffling the careful, downbeat mood built earlier. But it’s atmosphere and character, rather than narrative tension, that make Star Sailors worthwhile. With its sense of a dizzy, overheated world strewn with unheeded warnings, it is full of people much like us, stumbling their way forward.

STAR SAILORS, James McNaughton (VUP, $35)

This article was first published in the April 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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