The Time of Achamoth (2017)

John Geraets, ed.: JNZL 34.2: New Writing 1975-2000 (2016)

The Time of Achamoth:
M. K. Joseph and the Rise of New Zealand Speculative Fiction

M. K. Joseph: The Time of Achamoth (1977)

The Hole in the Zero

It’s an old country. One day out in the back of beyond you come across a small town, run-down because many of its young people have headed for the city. In an unpretentious building you discover a local art gallery-cum-museum. A solitary caretaker puffing a pipe turns on the lights and you are startled by the paintings on the walls... Here are old images of heaven and hell that now have a surreal air. You’d like to understand this odd iconography but the caretaker has a curiously literal approach – he tells local stories about the paintings as though he were pointing things out to you through a window.
(Roger Horrocks, ‘The Invention of New Zealand’, And/1 (1983)

Horrocks’ caretaker’s ‘curiously literal approach’ has prevailed for a long time in our discussions of – in particular – New Zealand fiction. The ‘surreal air’, certainly detectable in such mid-twentieth-century texts as Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry (1957) or David Ballantye’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down (1968), could still be assimilated critically, albeit with a certain strain, into the essentially unmediated realism of the Settler Fiction tradition.[1] It wasn’t really until the 1970s that the first genuinely unassimilable fictional texts started to appear here. The straight Science Fiction of Pat Booth’s Long Night Among the Stars (1961) or M. K. Joseph’s The Hole in the Zero (1967) was succeeded by politically prescient thrillers such as C. K. Stead’s Smith’s Dream (1971 – memorably filmed as Sleeping Dogs) and Craig Harrison’s Broken October: New Zealand 1985 (1976 – based on his play Tomorrow Will Be a Lovely Day). Both were set in the very near future, and made little secret of their polemical intentions: in the case of Stead’s novel, to alert us to the dangers of a quasi-fascist dictatorship in New Zealand (provoked by the suppression of dissent during the Vietnam war); and, with Broken October, an outsider’s view – Harrison emigrated to New Zealand in 1966, in his mid-twenties – of the ongoing scandal of the dominant culture’s repression of Māori independent identity.

Both Stead’s and Harrison’s novels were interesting and thought-provoking, but neither was particularly inventive in formal terms. They didn’t suggest any larger dissatisfaction with realism as a dominant literary mode. The emergence of speculative fiction as a viable alternative genre in New Zealand over the last quarter of the twentieth century therefore requires a certain amount of explanation. How did we move from Stead’s and Harrison’s books to such complex and multi-layered texts as Mike Johnson’s Lear (1986) and Phillip Mann’s Pioneers (1988) – not to mention Harrison’s own later works The Quiet Earth (1981) and Days of Starlight (1988)?

A recent re-reading of M. K. Joseph’s 1977 novel The Time of Achamoth suggests at least a partial answer to the question. The attention of speculative fiction critics such as John Clute (in his magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) has tended, to date, to focus on Joseph’s more technically experimental text The Hole in the Zero (1967), largely overlooking Achamoth. Could the reason for that be as simple as the latter’s contemporary New Zealand setting? The Hole in the Zero, after all, takes place in the affectless reaches of Outer Space. Whatever the reason for this critical neglect, one might as easily argue that Achamoth’s sense of fusion between realism and speculative intent was a conceptual advance for Joseph, than a retreat from the repetitively symbolic patterning of The Hole in the Zero.

Certainly The Time of Achamoth, as a narrative, seems designed to challenge the need for unreflective realism in New Zealand fiction. I shall therefore be arguing here that taking a closer look at both the book and its author may help us to discern some general principles to apply in reading the later speculative fiction works of Harrison, Johnson, Mann, and their various successors. It might also help us to suggest reasons for this change in the fictional weather in the late 1970s and 1980s.

M. K. Joseph (1914-1981)

‘Many future tracers of trends and categories will have to start at or near M. K. Joseph’, commented Dennis McEldowney in his Listener obituary (Robinson & Wattie: 276).[2] That still seems a just assessment. He may have dropped from sight to some degree, but there’s much to be gleaned from the very varied body of work he left behind.

Born in Essex shortly before the outbreak of World War One, Michael Kennedy Joseph emigrated to New Zealand with his family in 1924. He completed his schooling at Tauranga Boys High and Auckland University College, where he completed an MA in English in 1934. He then returned to England to study at Merton College, Oxford, in 1936, graduating just in time to join the Artillery at the outbreak of World War Two. He returned to Auckland as a lecturer in English in 1946. His first major success as a writer came with the Second World War novel I’ll Soldier No More (1958), followed by a satire on Academic life (A Pound of Saffron, 1961), and another war story, A Soldier’s Tale (1976). The latter was brutally parodied by Allen Curnow in his poem ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit”:
A man I know wrote a book about a man he knew
And this man, or so the man I know said, fucked
And murdered a girl to save her from the others
Who would have fucked and murdered this girl
Much more painfully and without finer feelings …[3]

The tone of this poem shows – to say the least – that Curnow, perhaps our foremost literary connoisseur of physical and psychological cruelty, found Joseph’s book an easy target. Whatever straight experience-based realism had done for him previously was no longer working. His preoccupations had moved on, and while A Soldier’s Tale remains one of his most popular books, The Hole in the Zero (1967), one of his least popular, seems to have been the one that offered the more valid way forward.

John Clute calls The Hole in the Zero ‘a significant contribution to the field’ – an ‘examination of the metaphorical potentials of sf language and subject matter’, which:
begins as an apparently typical Space-Opera adventure into further dimensions at the edge of the Universe, but quickly reveals itself as a linguistically brilliant, complex exploration of the nature of the four personalities involved as they begin out of their own resources to shape the low-probability regions into which they have tumbled.[4]

It’s certainly ambitious enough as a novel, dispensing with most of the normal appurtenances of plot and characterisation to set up a kind of infinite regress of competing forces, embodied in megalomaniac financier Kraag, his neurotic daughter Helena, and her husband (heir-apparent to Kraag’s empire) Hyperion ‘Billy’ Merganser. While this may remind us, at times, of the similarly helter-skelter triangle of Ignatz, Krazy and Offisa Pupp in George Herriman’s surrealist comic strip Krazy Kat, there’s no denying the sheer originality of Joseph’s intentions.

Whether the end result is readable or not must remain a matter of taste. To me it would seem an immensely interesting but not entirely successful genre experiment. Which is one of several reasons I’ve found myself concentrating increasingly on its more nuanced successor The Time of Achamoth. It was not in ‘pure’ science fiction but in the strange combination of speculative and realist fiction pioneered in the latter novel, I would argue, that Joseph’s true distinction lies.

The McGuffin

In the latest, online, version of John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry on M. K. Joseph a very suggestive addition has been made. He remarks of Achamoth that ‘The cover image of Karl Marx is a McGuffin’. Certainly Errol McLeary’s jacket design for the original hardback edition is a striking one. I have to confess, though, that it never actually occurred to me that it was meant to be an image of Karl Marx until I reached the end of the book. I saw it as a portrait of some ancient patriarch of the forests, an interpretation helped by the words on the back cover: ‘a New Zealand novel by the author of A SOLDIER’S TALE’. It seemed, in fact, some kind of allusion to the natural world of New Zealand itself.
‘Don’t tell me Karl Marx was a Gnostic’, said the ambassador. …

‘I got the impression it was not the statue but the place. Something connected with the place’. …

Suddenly Iremonger spoke up. ‘Highgate Cemetery. I’ve been there. Morbid sort of place, full of great ugly Victorian vaults and catacombs. You could hide a small army there’. …

Anne shivered. ‘I wish it didn’t have to be a cemetery’ (165).[5]

A McGuffin – for those of you unfamiliar with the term – is Alfred Hitchcock’s name for a plot-driving device which seems to be at the centre of a narrative but is actually just a pretext for stringing together a series of compelling scenes.[6] So is Karl Marx’s image a McGuffin? For that matter, is the book’s whole Gnostic conspiracy theme, Achamoth, Madame Sophie, the Illuminati and all, simply there as a placeholder – a distraction from the real meaning of Joseph’s novel?

It’s worth noting just how late in the story the information about Achamoth himself starts to appear. Without the book’s title, and the last twenty pages, it would be virtually impossible to anticipate it from the complex series of time-travel scenes which have gone before. Certainly the variety and intensity of these individual vignettes seems more central to the overall effect of Joseph’s book than the rather reductive life-force against death-force struggle of the last few pages. What does come through clearly in the protagonist Holloway’s various ventures through time – to the Paris Commune in 1870, to a faux-medieval pageant in the early nineteenth century, to a book-burning future where undergraduates have set out to reverse the sexual revolution in the interests of greater social purpose – is a strong sense of the paradox of inherited European paradigms imposed on gradually emerging local individualities.

In this sense, The Time of Achamoth matches well with Joseph’s meditations on the subject in his ‘Mercury Bay Eclogue II’:
The farmer and his wife emerge
All golden from the ocean-surge
Their limbs and children speak
The legend of the Greek.[7]

Like Marxism (and Feudalism), even the sexual revolution can become a stifling orthodoxy, left unchecked. There may be even more to it than that, though.

Holly Willy is Free

Around the walls he had a vague impression of maps and charts, of shelves of books, of uncertain shadowy shapes covered by cloths. But what caught and held his attention was in the centre of the room. A figure was seated at a heavy desk, staring down into something which shone with an interior light. At first it seemed merely bulky and shapeless, a head framed in a straggle of white hair, a body huddled in some kind of loose dark cloak or robe. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the inverted light, the face defined itself, and it was Madame Sophie laying out the tarot cards by candlelight – Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, Achamoth, the last and greatest of the Illuminists, perhaps two centuries old, perhaps more, with a massive square face swollen with power and evil (176).

So begins the climactic confrontation at the heart of Joseph’s novel. On the one hand we have Mark Hollister, his rather faceless protagonist, veteran of numerous excursions into time past and time future; on the other, Achamoth, Master / Mistress of the Illuminati.

Achamoth (we now discover) has been behind the mysterious deaths of all the other time-travellers in the course of the narrative. When Hollister finally succeeds in catching up with the ‘Man Up Front, where all the orders come from’ (157), he discovers that the basic problem all along has been Gnosticism:
The basic Gnostic creed held that there was a Good God who was remote and unknown to man. The universe and all it contains was created by an inferior power … in order to scatter and imprison the various particles of spiritual light which come from the one God … Since the world is false, there is neither good nor evil in it, merely illusion. All things are permissible, but the best thing is to fling the world back in the false Creator’s face and die … It was not until the eighteenth century C.E. that a late Gnostic sect, the Illuminists, were able to conceive the possibility of hastening the destruction of the world. They took the name of Achamoth which, in some Gnostic systems, is also the Sophia or Wisdom of God’ (160).

Hollister’s mild protests against this grandest and most overarching of conspiracy theories are dealt with rapidly by the Man Up Front, in his android guise as a ‘lean, sunburnt ... young man ... in a plain smock and loose trousers’ (158):
Hollister remained silent for a while, digesting this. ‘Then what happens if we destroy this thing? Is man free? Is there no more evil?’

‘No no no no no. You have saw perchance, world is better. But come others. Is no devil to casting forth’. …

‘What sort of world do you live in?’ …

‘World is quietly, quietly. … Always afternoon. We are olding race, lowered fertility. Man survives. Many guesters come from new planets named such like Poenamo, Elsinore, Merdeka, Kamikaze’. …

An awful suspicion crossed Hollister’s mind, this young-old man tired of the long human story – ‘Are you by any chance’, he asked, ‘God?’

‘If I understand rightly, no no. But we believe Holly Willy is free’. He corrected himself after consulting the cube. ‘We believe free will is holy’ (161-62).

Holloway’s destruction of Achamoth is, therefore, in context, to be seen as a triumph of free will over determinism, of respect for life over the death principle.

If, however, one continues to entertain the notion of all these details about Gnosticism and the Illuminati as a kind of McGuffin: at best, camouflage for the larger intentions of his novel; at worst, active misdirection, it’s necessary to ask just what Achamoth is meant to symbolise? It’s true that, at least on first reading, he/she – ‘bulky and shapeless, a head framed in a straggle of white hair, a body huddled in some kind of loose dark cloak or robe … perhaps two centuries old, perhaps more, with a massive square face swollen with power and evil’ (176) – sounds rather like a reference to contemporary politics: a kind of awful amalgam of Rob Muldoon and Lyndon Johnson. It isn’t easy to erase those images of our ex-Prime Minister in drag, in his last years, as the narrator for a local production of The Rocky Horror Show!

Certainly there are clear allusions to recent history in the person of ‘Colonel Choy’, the South-East Asian leader Holloway (hypnotised by Achamoth) attempts to assassinate at the beginning of the novel. But given their tangential, non-specific nature, it’s hard to read this book as political in the same sense as Smith’s Dream or Broken October.

Unpacking the description a little further, though, one finds: ‘Two centuries old’ – hence a child of eighteenth century rationalism; ‘bulky and shapeless’ – a little like those ‘loose baggy monsters’ which constituted Henry James’s view of the nineteenth-century realist novel; ‘a massive square face swollen with power and evil’ – the choice of the adjective ‘square’ can hardly be seen as accidental here. Joseph was, after all, writing after the social, sexual and psychedelic revolutions of the 1960s What was the ‘squarest’ orthodoxy of all? The reductionist absolutes of the metonymic, social realist tradition in literature.

The death of Achamoth in Joseph’s novel, therefore (I would suggest), is meant to enact the symbolic death of Settler / Social Realism in fiction. This is, admittedly, a large claim, but it’s one which is perfectly consistent with Joseph’s revisioning of the pastoral tradition in such poems as “Mercury Bay Eclogue” (quoted above). Just as, there, “A shepherd on a bicycle / Breaks the pose of pastoral”, while the sun-tanned “farmer and his wife” seem to “speak / The legend of the Greek” rather than their own machine-based mythology, so
The surfboards and the fishing-lines
Tell that our life might be
One of simplicity.[9]

In other words, something real can be conveyed by a modern author who embraces such archaic, artificial, modes as pastoral (or, for that matter, realism), but only at the moment of rupture. The artistic restraints imposed by such classical, predetermined genres are valuable to us mainly in the form of dialectic: only at the moment we acknowledge their unreality are we able to grasp their underlying truth.

Consider again just why the certainties of Gnosticism are typed as ‘evil’ in Joseph’s extravagant plot: not simply because they are life-denying, but because:
Since the world is false, there is neither good nor evil in it, merely illusion. All things are permissible, but the best thing is to fling the world back in the false Creator’s face and die (160).

The ‘illumination’ promised by Gnosticism denies not only the simple virtues of beauty, love, and fellowship (the tools Hollister uses against Achamoth in the penultimate scenes of the novel), but also the possibility of any transcendence of the world’s veil of illusion.

It is, in effect, the world guyed so effectively by Curnow in his devastating ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’ [Poetry and Truth] poem: ‘this man, or so the man I know said, fucked / And murdered a girl to save her from the others / Who would have fucked and murdered this girl / Much more painfully and without finer feelings’. That’s where realism [Wahrheit] gets you, if you eliminate the element of fantasy, imagination, inventiveness: poetic truth [Dichtung]. What better place for this symbolic conflict than the tomb of Karl Marx: the home of the Master of absolute faith in the inexorable laws of history? Everything partial, half-thought, half-felt, must dissolve under the searchlight of that brutal orthodoxy. Socialist Realism in fiction, then, can be seen as the logical culmination of the rationalist, Enlightenment frame of mind.

The Glow-worm Caves

The first fruits of this new dispensation in New Zealand fiction, this liberation from the chains of a narrowly defined Settler Realism, can be seen in Craig Harrison’s ‘empty world’ novel The Quiet Earth (1981). His protagonist, John Hobson (played memorably by Bruno Lawrence in Geoff Murphy’s 1985 film) wakes up in a world from which the rest of humanity has mysteriously disappeared. His phantasmagoric odyssey from Thames to Wellington takes him through the very heartland of provincial New Zealand realism, then straight into conflict with the Other: another survivor, a Māori soldier.

As the story proceeds, it becomes clearer and clearer to us how much of what Hobson sees is influenced by the experiences and paradigms inside his head: we are forced gradually to the conclusion that he is, at least to some degree, ‘creating’ the events he describes. Unlike the film, which ends with its protagonist sprawled on a beach in an alien world, the book ends with Hobson committing suicide – again. When he wakes up in the sunlit bedroom of the Thames motel where the story began, we realise, finally, the motivation for his reluctance to pull up the blind and expose himself once more to ‘the enormous light’.[10] He has been here before. He is enacting his own misanthropic, dying dream of a world without the pain of other people.

Joseph’s novel, too, begins and ends with the same scene in the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves. Holloway, attempting to kill Colonel Choy, meets his own later self, returning from his own more successful assassination of the monstrous Achamoth:
With a wrenching jolt he swung away into the greyness and his two timelines streamed and crossed. He was moving, floating, in the green spectral light of the ghost-cave, and himself was running towards himself along the duckboards, confused and wild with terror. It seemed to him that, as they passed, he made some sign of friendship or reassurance to that other earlier innocent self. Then the last jolt came and it was like dying (178).

The strength of the idea behind Harrison’s novel, then, is not so much in the use of Nietzsche’s ‘eternal return’ as a plot-structuring device, as the facility with which it enables him to discuss the racial, post-colonial themes so close to his heart. Far more effectively than in the more programmatic Broken October, Hobson’s suspicions, fears, and final downright homicidal ferocity against Apirana Maketu – note the closeness of that surname to mākutu [curse] – map paranoid Pākehā resentment of the other with deadly accuracy. Harrison’s novel is not solely about New Zealand and its discontents – its range is wider than that – but the precision of its local setting does play a part in lending it an almost mythopoeic force.

Mike Johnson’s Lear (1986), by contrast – subtitled ‘The Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon’ – eschews direct topographical precision in its evocation of a post-apocalyptic society of small villages clinging precariously to the banks of an unidentified ‘river’.[11] Johnson provides few further clues to the setting of his dark, Gothic yarn. It might as easily be taking place on the banks of Joseph Conrad’s Congo as the Wairoa or the Whanganui.

The one certainty in this shifting world is language. Johnson’s troupe of travelling players enact their chosen vehicle King Lear in their own lives as well as on stage, and their destinies are woven into their roles. Stage ‘Gloucester’ (a gambler and river-rat named Slink) is literally blinded on stage, then led to the edge of a jetty which mirrors Shakespeare’s cliff at Dover. The only difference is that when he jumps, he drowns. Cordelia is raped, Lear overthrown – new recruits for the company (perhaps most significantly) picked up from an audience which has witnessed real and stage mayhem with the same incomprehension.

Like Joseph’s book, the strength of Johnson’s lies in the fact that this fairly standard science fiction locale can be used by him to examine the sheer extent of our dependence on such predetermined literary (and cultural) paradigms for our survival. Johnson concludes his list of acknowledgments with one to ‘Phil Dick, who would have liked it’ – no doubt a reference to the latter’s classic post-Apocalyptic yarn Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965), itself a kind of sequel / corrective to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964).

New World identities can take a long time to establish even partial independence from their Old World exemplars. Both Lear and Achamoth make a valiant attempt to clear away the sheer circumstantial detail of realism in the interests of seeing the post-colonial subject more plainly in this new, funhouse mirror of speculative fiction. As a result, they both are and are not specifically ‘New Zealand’ novels.

The speculative fiction canons they both employ so adroitly – time-travel, nuclear war, distorted consciousness – are familiar enough to aficionados of the genre. What is not so familiar is the idea of attaching them to local and regional questions of identity, rather than the ‘soulless cosmopolitanism’ more readily associated with science fiction as a global genre.

Like Joseph and Harrison, Phillip Mann is a UK import to New Zealand literature. His early works, The Eye of the Queen (1982) and the Master of Paxwax series (1986), all published by Gollancz, fit more readily into international than local canons of Science Fiction. Both are fascinating and inventive stories – as are his later works Wulfsyarn (1990) and A Land Fit For Heroes (1993-96) – but it would be rather a stretch to attempt to assimilate them to the ‘New Zealand speculative fiction’ label.

Pioneers (1988) is a different case entirely. In it Mann attempts to combine his ongoing interest in the Android theme – touched on lightly by Joseph in Holloway’s contacts with the ‘Man Up Front’ – with a strong sense of ‘New-Zealandness.’The narrator of Mann’s novel, Angelo, is a ‘part-human’ bred for the purpose of deep-space exploration, and now employed to bring back the ‘full-human’ pioneers sent out in the full flush of technological self-confidence to a post-apocalyptic Earth denuded of natural resources and biological diversity.

One of these pioneers, Murray, saves Angelo's life after a brawl with the ignorant full-humans who still linger in odd settlements here and there in the few habitable parts of Aotearoa – in this case, the resort-town of Rotorua. Angelo's partner Ariadne is not so lucky, and is killed in the fight. Or is she? Part of the pre-planning for Angel and Ariadne's expeditions is the provision of a fully-functional and periodically-updated clone for each of them. Now that he knows that Ariadne is dead, Angelo's dilemma is whether or not he should revive her clone. Angelo decides to do so, only to find that the clone denies any real identity between them:
I am not Ariadne. I might have been Ariadne. I have her memories but I don't have her experience. Memories aren't experience (227).[12]

‘Curiously in her anger she was identical to the Ariadne I remembered’, Angelo concludes, though he is willing to acknowledge a number of other character discontinuities between the two.

To say that Pioneers is about identity is a little bit like remarking that Camus’s Outsider is about existential doubt. Everything in the book seems designed to complicate our view of what it is to be ‘intelligent’, ‘conscious’, ‘sentient’ – let alone ‘human’.
The first thing an awakened intelligence does is ask questions (226).

The second thing, apparently, is to start to tell stories. Pioneer Murray claims:
Look, what I'm telling you is true. Heightened a little, that's the art of storytelling. But true all the same (330).

Angelo’s own view of the matter is slightly different:
I ... stared down at the milky rivers that wandered through the dark bush. We were already close to the volcanic region. I saw pits of yellow sulphur and dark green lakes which opened like holes in the bush. Vaguely, though I could not have given clear expression to the thought, I associated the suffering of the land with the grief that was now beginning to work though me (192).

The addition of a specific New Zealand-ness to Mann’s book has the effect of transforming it from a meditation on natural and constructed selves – fascinating enough, but not unfamiliar – to a powerful evocation of an immigrant’s experience of New Zealand itself.

Like Joseph and Harrison, Mann is specific about detail in a way that more ‘local’ writers such as C. K. Stead or Mike Johnson don’t really need to be. Is Ariadne’s clone, Aira, the same person as Ariadne? She is and she is not. So too, one is tempted to extrapolate, with the exiled and ‘home-grown’ self. As with Harrison, whose fascination with the dysfunctional race relations manifested in his adopted homeland (culminating in the strange Antarctic fantasy Days of Starlight) might have remained latent had he never left his native Yorkshire, Mann has found his overarching theme simply by changing place.

There’s something here akin to the poignancy of the ‘land of settlers / With never a soul at home’ evoked in Allen Curnow’s classic poem ‘House and Land’.[13] speculative fiction, then, has the advantage for aspiring fiction writers of allowing them to operate effectively without the entrance requirement of local childhood and formative experience demanded by Settler Realism in its purest, Sargesonian form.

Success Stories

Genre fiction has never really flourished in New Zealand: mainly, one has to admit, for economic reasons. Our writing has tended to be ‘literary’ because we lack a mass audience of consumers. Detective stories, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy novels: all have been and continue to be written here, but they have to compete for attention with the same small stock of book readers and buyers.

This lack of a pulp tradition might be seen, in some ways, as a weakness: we have no equivalents to Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and the other giants of the speculative fiction form (in particular). On the other hand, this deficiency does mean that we have a tendency to judge books of this type by the highest cultural standards. Johnson’s book, I would argue, marks an important crossroads in New Zealand literature. Behind it lie the certainties of realist fiction: a literary mode dominated by the need not to ask questions, not to question the essentially artificial nature of any fictional projection, lest the illusion of verisimilitude, Coleridge’s ‘necessary suspension of disbelief’, be shattered.

In front of it stretches the proud, alternative tradition of New Zealand speculative fiction: composed mostly by otherwise mainstream writers with a definite social or political axe to grind, but also informed by the artificially repressed anti-realist tendencies in earlier works such as Robin Hyde’s Wednesday’s Children (1937) or Graham Billing’s Statues (1971).

As a result, it’s never really been necessary for New Zealanders to conduct those tiresome debates about whether or not Kingsley Amis or Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood or other ‘serious’ writers are slumming when they turn their hand to speculative fiction, or simply ‘adapting’ the form to their own (by implication superior) literary purposes. A local legacy including Samuel Butler, C. K. Stead, and M. K. Joseph has never really needed to apologise for itself. Most of these triumphs still lay in the future when Joseph, just a couple of years before his death, published The Time of Achamoth. His book does, however, already show many of the characteristic hallmarks of New Zealand speculative fiction: strong ideological consciousness, technical inventiveness, and sensitive evocation of the details of New Zealand life and landscape. It may not consider race relations, the interfaces between language and lived experience, and the question of immigrant and ‘part-human’ identity with quite the same intensity and insight as (respectively) Harrison’s Quiet Earth, Johnson’s Lear and Mann’s Pioneers, but – as I’ve argued above – the adroitness with which it moves from local detail to science fiction inventiveness, from (if you prefer) the tenor of his narrative to its various McGuffins, has provided a powerful precedent for these three authors of the 1980s. It’s hard, too, to imagine the various dystopian texts which set out to interrogate the social costs associated with Roger Douglas’s and Ruth Richardson’s neo-liberal economic ‘reforms’ in the 1990s – John Cranna’s Arena, Rosie Scott's Feral City and Albert Wendt's Black Rainbow (all 1992), in particular – would ever have been written, let alone published, without these successful literary precedents.

Joseph’s Time of Achamoth concludes with a conversation between Hollister and his love-interest, Anne Faraday:
… Suppose your crazy story was true, though of course no-one could possibly believe it. Suppose that this time station or whatever it was really existed, but now its work here is done … They need a proper base – oh, maybe on some island somewhere. Now suppose there was a man, like it might be you, who’d done good work for them, but his potential is used up. … And suppose there’s someone else whose work for them is finished. So they leave – this other person – behind to look after him and see that he’s happy and doesn’t get into trouble’.

‘Do you suppose that it might be a permanent arrangement?’

‘It might be’.

He eased down on the accelerator and the car gathered speed, back toward the main highway, people, cities.

‘I think I’d like that, he said ‘very much’ (181).

It was, I think, important for Joseph to allow himself so unabashedly romantic a conclusion to so dark and self-doubting a story. Joseph’s new hero, unlike the protagonist of A Soldier’s Tale, gets to keep the girl and his new life, too.

That may sound like escapism, but that, too, is one of the purposes of fiction. It may be employed as a vehicle for social, political and aesthetic doctrines, but that does not exhaust its uses. Confusing its artificial, symbolic order with the sleight-of-hand which constitutes literary realism does, however, lead inevitably to such reductive absurdities. As Shakespeare reminded us long ago, ‘the truest poetry is the most feigning’. The rise of speculative fiction marks the moment when New Zealand fiction writers, as well as our poets, finally started to take this lesson to heart.


1. A process documented in Alex Calder’s The Settler’s Plot: How Stories Take Place in New Zealand (Auckland: AUP, 2011).

2. Roger Robinson, ‘M. K. Joseph’. In The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature. Ed. Roger Robinson & Nelson Wattie, ed. (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998): 276. [available online at:,%20M.K%20(Michael%20Kennedy)].

3. Allen Curnow, Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems 1941-1997 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997), p.111.

4. John Clute, ‘M. K. Joseph’, in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute & Peter Nicholls (1979, 2nd edition). Contributing Editor Brian Stableford. Technical Editor John Grant. 1993. Orbit (London: Little, Brown and Company (UK), 1999), p.650 (available online, in updated form, at:

5. M.K. Joseph, The Time of Achamoth (Auckland & London: Collins, 1977). Page references will be given in parentheses following quotations from the novel.

6. In the movie North by Northwest, for instance, the ostensible plot (about a search for some stolen microfilm with ‘government secrets’ on it) has to seem circumstantial enough for viewers to take it seriously in context, but actually serves mainly as a mechanism for manoeuvring Cary Grant across 1950s America, dodging murderous crop-dusting planes one minute, hanging precariously off Mount Rushmore the next.

7. Jack Ross, ed. ‘Mercury Bay Eclogue I & II’, in Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006) pp. 26-28 (p.28).

8. Henry James, The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces (New York & London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947), p.84.

9. Ross, pp.27-28.

10. Craig Harrison, The Quiet Earth (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2013), p.4 & p.263.

11. Mike Johnson, Lear: the Shakespeare Company Plays Lear at Babylon (Auckland: Hard Echo Press, 1986) p.3.

12. Phillip Mann, Pioneers (London: Grafton, 1990). Page references will be given in parentheses following quotations from the novel.

13. Curnow, p. 235.

JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature


JNZL [Journal of New Zealand Literature] 34.2: New Writing 1975-2000. Edited by John Geraets. (Wellington: Victoria University, 2016): 61-80.

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