COVID-19 twist to visiting writer’s stint

Visiting writer-in-residence at the Manawatū campus, Dr Octavia Cade.

Cover of Dr Cade's new book

For Massey University’s new visiting writer, sci-fi and eco-fiction author Dr Octavia Cade, the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has provided some unexpected literary food for thought.

Like everyone else, Dr Cade has gone into lockdown, and she is spending her isolation period at the Square Edge flat in central Palmerston North working on her next book. The work deals with ideas such as extinction and the ethics of experimenting on the natural world.

“It’s a great place to write, and for all the complications that COVID-19 is bringing to our lives it’s fertile ground for the arts,” she says. “A lot of science fiction involves imagining the future, and how changes in culture and events can ripple through a society. We’re going through a (hopefully) brief period of extreme change right now, and the potential effects of this – both short and long-term – are fascinating to imagine.”

Some of those effects are inspiring her current work. “My current project is in some ways an exploration of contagion. I don’t want to make that the main focus of the work but the intersection between science and disease and isolation is particularly compelling right now. It’s an intersection we’ve seen in New Zealand before. 

“The recent threat to our kākāpō, for instance, with nine of them succumbing to the Aspergillosis fungal infection, has led to birds being taken from nests to prevent exposure. It’s an interesting similarity, and one that will I think be getting a chapter of its own in my new book. I’m looking forward to working on it!”

Dr Cade has a PhD in Science Communication, focusing on the power of story. She has won three Sir Julius Vogel awards for her work in the genre of speculative fiction. While in residence at Massey’s Manawatū campus, Dr Cade was to collaborate with Massey’s School of English and Media, Square Edge Community Arts and the Palmerston North writing community to share her work and writing experience. Those plans have been put on hold as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However her new novel, The Stone Wētā, will be published on Earth Day, 22 April, and is already receiving rave reviews. Reviewer Maria Huskins wrote of the book, “a near future sci-fi book that cuts deep into our present reality of climate change, politicians ignoring and silencing scientists, and global resistance.” 

Dr Cade, who grew up in Nelson and now lives in Cambridge, says so much of the history of the science fiction genre has focused on ways of grappling with the critical issues of the day. She cites as an influence the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which gives the world less than a decade to make significant changes to present behaviour before the long-term consequences become unmanageable. 

“I feel this is an area of literature that is about to increase profoundly in importance. For example, my upcoming climate novel, The Stone Wētā, draws on a number of contemporary issues regarding the accessibility and reliability of climate data, and political interference with that data. It’s an example of science fiction exploring the practice and culture of science, and that’s an area that I’m keen to work in more.”

For more information on Octavia Cade:

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