Varied worlds arouse the imagination

A not-so-typical collection of New Zealand short stories.

Tim Jones
Vintage, pbk, $28

Review by Mike Crowl

A book of New Zealand short stories. Yeah, we know what that'll be like. All high-falutin' literary and no story.

But wait! This first one isn't too bad, and hey, the next one's pretty good, and what . . ? In no time at all the book's finished and the stories hang on around the mind like old men in a pub.

Tim Jones' Transported is a pleasant surprise.

None of the tales has that kind of super-seriousness about them that's typical of New Zealand short stories. Instead, they're an intriguing mix of tongue-in-cheek, subtle humour, history turned inside out, and sci-fi.

The sci-fi stories increase in number as the book goes on, though forcing some of them into that category might be inaccurate.

But where do you put stories about ordinary people that take place slightly in the future, when climate change has caused oceans to rise, and well-known places (like a good deal of downtown Wellington) have been submerged? Jones has a deft and succinct style, and his writing is considerably better than what's normally found in sci-fi writing, even when the story's set on a distant planet.

Some of the stories are plain fantasy: When She Came Walking, for instance, in which the "She" of the title draws inanimate objects skipping after her, or Homestay, in which "angels" visit a farm, upsetting the locals and themselves.

And then there are short shorts featuring Borges, or Foucault, or Coleridge: humorous re-imaginings of the lives of other writers. Or the satirical stories: A Short History of the Twentieth Century, with Fries; or Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev!, in which Mikhail and his wife turn out to be not quite who they seem; or The New Neighbours, in which the immigrants aren't Asian, or Pacific Island, but alien.

Often the stories leave you to fill in the background from a few particulars, as in Filling the Isles? Why are all the people apparently living literally side by side on hills? Is it population explosion, or something not quite explained?

Sometimes Jones teases the reader, most effectively in Robinson in Love, in which a man meets up with a woman who seems to lead him up the garden path. Or does she?

Perhaps the most chilling story is Best Practice - chilling not just because it's set on an exposed plateau in Mt Aspiring National Park, but because of the corporation's cold and calculated attitude towards the staff who are taken there for their annual Christmas party.

This story is enough to make anyone get out of the corporate world, and quickly.

Overall, this is a most entertaining collection. Jones' widely varied worlds thoroughly arouse the imagination.

- Mike Crowl is a Dunedin writer.


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