Here is an interview with John Toon, President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand.
Please present yourself to our readers
My name’s John Toon and I’m the president of SFFANZ, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand. I’m also heavily involved in Wellington Phoenix SF, the local fan group in our capital city. I’m a 44-year-old genderfluid government employee, and I’ve written two short academic books about Doctor Who (available from Obverse Books).
Please try to make a brief introduction to New Zealand SF history.
The story of NZ SF begins with Sir Julius Vogel, who was the Colonial Treasurer and then the Premier of New Zealand in the 1870s. He wrote a novel that was published in 1889: Anno Domini 2000, or, Woman’s Destiny. You can tell that it was written by an economist (!) but it’s also a love story set in a future in which women hold the highest political positions. Vogel was in favour of giving women the vote, which finally happened four years after his book was published. (As luck would have it, NZ’s Prime Minister in 2000 was a woman, so Vogel made an accurate prediction!) We claim this as our first SF novel, and our annual national SF awards are named in Vogel’s honour.
After that there isn’t very much until the 1970s, when Cherry Wilder, Maurice Gee, Margaret Mahy and others started to produce SF and fantasy stories, some of them set in NZ. In 1981 there was a TV adaptation of Gee’s Under the Mountain, a story about aliens in Auckland, and 1985 saw the release of The Quiet Earth, which was The NZ SF Film for a while. More recently we’ve gained attention around the world through the work of Wellington film-maker Peter Jackson – perhaps you’ve heard about his adaptation of The Lord of the Rings? – and we’re probably best known as a SF filming location and as the home of Jackson’s Weta Workshop, who have provided visual effects for dozens of movies.
Which are the printing houses that publish mainly SF and Fantasy?
NZ is a small market for books – the best selling book in NZ in any given year might sell no more than 1,000 copies – so we rely heavily on overseas publishers. This can make it difficult for NZ SF authors to get noticed at home or abroad. There’s some overlap and co-operation with the SF publishing and fan communities in Australia – IFWG Publishing takes on a lot of NZ novels and anthologies. Beyond that, our current authors tend to use independent small presses or self-publish. Paper Road Press have notably started publishing an annual Year’s Best collection of NZ short fiction.
Which are the most popular SF magazines and fanzines (printed and online) in New Zealand?
NZ SF short fiction regularly appears in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Clarkesworld and Asimov’s Science Fiction – all published outside NZ. Again, we largely rely on overseas publishers, but we are starting to see some homegrown SF magazines emerging. Breach (online) and New Orbit (sustainably printed) are two that started up quite recently and are looking healthy.
You’re unlikely to find any NZ fanzines online. NZ fandom experienced something of a crisis in the early years of the millennium, and what you would probably recognise as fanzine culture disappeared at that time. We have club fanzines – Wellington Phoenix SF has a publication called Phoenixine that’s distributed to its members each month. Similarly, the Stella Nova group in Auckland has one called Novazine.
Which are the SF&F Clubs that have regular meetings?
So, there’s Phoenix in Wellington and Stella Nova in Auckland. Elsewhere in the country, fans tend to be widely distributed and can’t meet up as easily, although there are other small local groups that I honestly don’t know much about. We’re fairly informal about socialising, other than at the annual natcon.
Which are the most important local and national SF&F associations?
Why, SFFANZ, of course!! The purpose of SFFANZ is to provide some continuity across natcons and to administer the annual Sir Julius Vogel Awards. With CoNZealand, we’ve seen the emergence of SFFCONZ, which is currently focused on helping to make the WorldCon happen, but which we expect will become a resource for NZ natcons in the future.
For NZ SF writers, probably the most important national resource is SpecFicNZ, which will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of its launch this year, shortly after the WorldCon. SpecFicNZ works to support writers of all forms of speculative fiction, and since its creation we’ve seen quite a robust community develop.
Which are the most popular SF&F conventions in New Zealand? What are their main attractions?
We have one annual national convention (natcon), run by ad hoc committees each year in different locations around NZ. It’s an opportunity to meet up with old friends, to promote and buy new books, and often to do a little sight-seeing in another part of our beautiful country.
There are other conventions that are organised outside SF fandom but that connect to some of our interests. It seems like there are ever more board gaming conventions – WellyCon is the main one in the Wellington area. And there’s Armageddon, which is run as a commercial venture and which features popular film and TV actors and an apparently limitless supply of merchandise.
Who are the main author names in today’s New Zealand SF&F?
We’re a close community, and I’m reluctant to name names in case I offend anyone by omitting them! But I can’t fail to mention Phillip Mann, who’s the patron author of Phoenix. Phillip was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in 2017 for his contribution to literature and drama, which is probably the highest honour awarded to a NZ SF author short of being elected Prime Minister.
Give us some names of SF&F New Zealand graphic artists.
Weta Workshop has a whole team of graphic artists whose work you’ve probably already seen, even if you didn’t know it. One of them, Greg Broadmore, will be appearing as one of the Guests of Honour at CoNZealand – he was the lead concept designer on District 9. If you’re asking about comics, I think the biggest name in NZ is Dylan Horrocks, creator of Hicksville and Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. He’s also written for Batgirl.
What makes New Zealand SF original?
I think NZ SF has only started to find its own voice in the last few decades. NZ writers used to follow the model of British, American and Australian writers quite closely, and that was probably due to our reliance on foreign publishers. There was a Māori language TV series, a late night horror anthology called Mataku, in the early 2000s, and since then NZ SF writers have shown more interest in Māori concerns and Māori culture. (It’s probably best not to mention Alfred Bester or Orson Scott Card in that context!)
More generally, I might define the NZ character as down-to-earth and resourceful, and that probably comes through in NZ SF. We have a quirky sense of humour, which I think can be seen in What We Do in the Shadows and its TV spin-off Wellington Paranormal. New Zealanders also tend to be optimistic, with an attitude that things will turn out all right, but that certainly doesn’t come through in the work of our horror writers!