JANE: As a Tangent off our quest to understand what makes New Zealand a unique nation, rather than something to be lumped into “antipodean” nations, we’ve been chatting about New Zealand authors.
In an e-mail, you mentioned you had a tangent off of that tangent. I eagerly await!
ALAN: Well, I found myself wondering if there were any books about New Zealand written by authors from other countries. Parts of David Brin’s novel Earth are set in New Zealand. Also Poul Anderson has a series of far future stories in which the Maurai Federation, descended from the New Zealand Maori of course, dominate the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas of the world.
But I think that the very best New Zealand novel by an overseas author was written by Alan Dean Foster: Maori, a most magnificent novel set in nineteenth-century colonial New Zealand.
JANE: That’s interesting. I’ve seen it about, but I admit I haven’t read it. I do like much of his work, however, and I like him, too. Have you met him?
ALAN: Yes, I met him when he was a guest of honour at a New Zealand Convention. We commiserated with each other about how often people spell our first name wrongly. That was an instant bond. I asked him to autograph Maori for me. He was quite flattered to be asked and very pleased to find that I’d read and admired it. He told me that he’d spent his honeymoon in New Zealand and the things he saw here inspired him to write the novel.
JANE: I first encountered Alan Dean Foster when we were among a slew of writers invited to attend the grand opening of the main Phoenix (Arizona) Public Library. I’d been looking forward to meeting him, since (for reasons I’ll share later, if you wish) some of his work had made a great impact on me.
Jim and I had arrived and checked in, collecting our badges. I pinned mine on, then we headed for the elevator. I was one of the keynote speakers. For reasons that completely escape me now, I was coordinating the upcoming panel discussion. (Rather than the much more famous and very nice Harry Turtledove.) For this reason, I was incredibly nervous.
Then, as we’re riding up on the elevator, another passenger greeted me very casually, something like, “Hi, Jane. Good to see you.”
Inside I froze. His tone was so friendly, it seemed as if we must have met before. His face looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think we had met. This is one of the horrors of being a semi-demi-hemi public person. You meet a lot of people. I try hard not to forget anyone, but sometimes it happens.
I decided not to bluff. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t recall if we’ve met.”
His face lit up into a beautifully impish grin. “We haven’t. I’m Alan Dean Foster.”
I liked him instantly! And then I remembered… I was already wearing my badge!
ALAN: That’s him! You’ve described him perfectly. He’s impish, amusing and very entertaining company. I liked him instantly as well.
JANE: Tell me more about Maori.
ALAN: Maori tells the tale of the explosive eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 in which 120 people died. A few days before the eruption, local Maori reported seeing a phantom war canoe on Lake Tarawera. Tribal elders believed this to be a waka wairua (spirit canoe), a definite omen of doom!
In telling this story, Alan Dean Foster talks a lot about whaling in New Zealand, the Maori wars, gold mining, and the fascinating wild life. He does a magnificent job of bringing the time and the place alive. It’s my very favourite of his books, though I have a soft spot for several others. What do you think about his books?
JANE: Well, as I said above, Alan Dean Foster’s work actually had a big impact on me. I doubt the works in question are ones he would consider his best, but they hit me at the right time. These were his adaptation of the Star Trek animated episodes into print fiction. I came to Star Trek in re-runs, and didn’t catch the animated version when it was aired.
(Remember, this was in those dark days of yesteryore, before VCRs changed viewing habits forever.)
So, one day, during a visit to the Smithsonian, I saw a boxed set containing four books containing more Star Trek. New (to me) stories, even… I plunked down my hard-earned pocket money and took them home.
(This was in the days before every TV show had novelizations all over the place…)
ALAN: I’ve always been very suspicious about novelizations of films and TV. Often they are rather dull. But it seems that Alan Dean Foster is actually quite good at them. Finish what you were saying, and then I’ll tell you why I think that…
JANE: Fantastic! Okay, here’s the rest of my story.
I might have been disappointed by these adaptations, but Alan Dean Foster did a wonderful job. He gave the characters backgrounds and depth only hinted at in the visual versions. I don’t think it’s too much to say that these books helped shape me as a writer because I compared and contrasted what print could do that visual media could not – and the reverse.
In other words, I wasn’t just reading as a fan getting a “fix” on a show I’d thought forever gone. I was developing creative impulses – and critical ones as well. Now that I think about it, Alan Dean Foster may have also contributed to my becoming interested in lit crit. Amazing!
ALAN: Yes – that sounds just like him! He’s actually written a lot of novelizations. One of them was the novelization of the film Dark Star. I’ve always been a fan of the film. Not only was it first class science fiction, it was also extremely funny, often quite subtly so. I approached the novelization with some trepidation. Would the humour still be there? Much to my relief, it was. Alan Dean Foster perfectly captured both the letter and the spirit of the movie and now I find that the book and the movie are inextricably mixed up in my head.
It turns out that he is really rather good at humorous SF, such a relief in this day and age when so much SF takes itself far too seriously.
JANE: Okay. I’ve my pen and paper ready. Can you give me some titles?
ALAN: I suppose you could call Mad Amos a weird west book. (Yes, that really is a genre.) The book is a collection of linked short stories about Mad Amos Malone. He is a mountain man who rides a horse called Worthless. He has adventures out West with dragons and spirits and shamans and volcanoes. The stories are enormous fun. I particularly enjoyed the very understated scene where Amos adjusted the leather patch on his horse’s forehead and reminded himself to file the horn down because it was starting to grow again…
JANE: I bet these are good. Alan Dean Foster lives in Arizona, so he’d have an advantage when writing about the wild west… I’ll definitely look for these.
ALAN: Yes – Ross Ed Hagar, the hero of Jed the Dead, wants to see the Pacific Ocean, so he sets out to drive across America. On the way he comes into possession of the corpse of an alien. As one does…
He calls the alien Jed and sits him in the passenger seat and talks to him, though the conversations do tend to be a bit one sided. Jed attracts a lot of attention on the trip, but Ross Ed always bluffs his way through. And then the government gets in on the act, and so do several other interested parties, some of them more or less sane, some of them more or less legal and some of them more or less human. But Jed doesn’t care. He’s dead. Even just thinking about this book puts a smile on my face and I really feel I have to go and read it again.
JANE: “As one does…” You are distinctly evil! Now I must find a copy of this book. In fact, after our recent book chats, the idea of being able to raid your library would be a definite incentive for us to move to New Zealand.
ALAN: Then I suggest you book your tickets.
Meanwhile, next week is Christmas Eve. Do you have any special traditions for the day?
JANE: Definitely! I’ll share them with you next time.