Star Sailors by James McNaughton.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
RRP: $35. Pb, 487pp.
Reviewed by Shelley Chappell.
James McNaughton’s first novel, New Hokkaido (2014), was an alternate history in which the United States of America never entered World War II, Germany lost to the USSR and the Japanese Imperial Army won the Pacific front and now rules New Zealand with an iron hand. His second novel, Star Sailors, delivers the same dystopic vision of a New Zealand changed beyond all recognition – in this case, due to the horrific global impact of climate change.
The cover, evocative of Golden Age pulp science fiction, with its tagline of ‘Love! Revolution! Aliens! Hokitika!’ appears to promise an entertaining read. It is a great cover – but a poor match for the serious contents within. McNaughton’s genre is science fiction, but not of the pulp variety. More Orwellian than Wellsian, the novel paints a grim picture of the future world and McNaughton’s portrayal of dissatisfied housewives, inept men and awkward social encounters appears more influenced by the literary style of New Zealand’s own Katherine Mansfield than the American fathers of science fiction.
There are four narrative points of view, the first and foremost that of former model Karen, a beautiful but unfaithful wife and mother who dopes herself on ‘happy pills’ and plays games of passive-aggressive one-upmanship with her unsuspecting husband, Jeremiah, the second focalising character, who is a pretentious corporate lawyer with an interest in media and communications. Jeremiah’s ambition and flawless DNA have enabled the couple to escape a hopeless future in Outer Wellington. They are now Inners, and soon make the acquaintance of the novel’s other focalising couple, Bill and Trix. Trix is a fashionista and Bill a retiring communications manager who has the dubious claim to fame of having once met Sam Starsailor, an alien who washed up on New Zealand’s shores and preached for a better future.
The delineation of setting is excellent – we learn of a Wellington hammered by high tides, of a world geographically and politically falling to pieces due to drought, disease, and the devastating social effects of extreme climate change. While New Zealand has it better than many other parts of the world, corporations are the true powerhouses and in this capitalist environment the Inners and Outers of Wellington represent the haves and have-nots of New Zealand. The ‘haves’ stave off aging with specialist treatments enabling them to live long, youthful lives in beautiful surrounds while the opiate of the ‘have-nots’ is virtual reality and they grow obese from lack of exercise and poor nutrition. With a setting in which the privileged one percent keep the world in a perpetual state of decline but don’t care so long as they get what they need, the social climate is ripe for revolution.
Little signs of potential revolution pepper the plot, and the promise of an alien’s appearance lurks throughout the lengthy text, but the main focus of the story is the disjointed and dissolute social encounters and relationships of the four protagonists. Those protagonists are deeply flawed and difficult to like. While the promise of character redemption and revolutionary social change underlies the plot, the resolution may strike some as sudden and too pat.
Shelley Chappell is a literary analyst and writer of fantasy fiction and fairy tale retellings for children and young adults. She is the author of Beyond the Briar: A Collection of Romantic Fairy Tales (2014) and a variety of short stories.