Sci-fi novel in line for major award

It's in line for the sci-fi equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, but Phillip Mann's latest novel was nearly locked away forever.

Now, more than 10 years after it was penned, the 71-year-old Wellingtonian's latest novel, The Disestablishment of Paradise, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Arthur C Clarke sci-fi book awards.

If he won, publishing experts say it would be the science fiction equivalent of Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize win for The Luminaries.

The winner, announced in May, will be the latest in a list including Margaret Atwood, M John Harrison and China Mieville.

Mann is up against five others with his 10th sci-fi novel, based on a utopia close to ecological collapse and abandoned by humans.

Former Dominion Post books editor Malcolm Burgess describes the novel as "a love story, a spiritual journey and an ecological parable" which recalls the best moral science fiction of the 60s and 70s in the vein of Frank Herbert's landmark epic Dune.

"It's also a book that's very much of the the now because of its focus on a planet mankind has affected in an adverse way."

Mann's place in the pantheon of sci-fi writers was already cemented but winning the award could be the sci-fi version of Catton's Booker win for her West Coast zodiac mining saga The Luminaries, Burgess said.

Mann's long-time friend and Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand board member Alan Robson agrees.

"In sci-fi terms winning the Clarke award is the equivalent of Eleanor Catton winning the Booker - the publicity and things that go along with it are the same."

Mann joins Catton and another Wellington writer Lloyd Jones - who was shortlisted for the Booker in 2007 for Mr Pip - in giving the Kiwi literary scene an enduring shot of global exposure.

Mr Pip has been turned into a film and Catton's book is being considered as a TV series.

Mann, who divides his time between his home in the Wellington suburb of Brooklyn and a converted barn in rural France, describes himself as a visual writer. The creatures of his books are drawn before he writes them so he can get to know them .

Parallels with the Avatar blockbusters are obvious and the potential for the richly imagined narrative to be transferred to the silver screen is clear.

Mann said he would be happy to collaborate with the right filmmaker.

But the book almost didn't see daylight, let alone the limelight - after completing it in 2002, Mann failed to find a publisher, so eventually locked it away with a note to his great-grandchildren saying how much he enjoyed writing it and how much he hoped they would enjoy it.

Not long after, UK publisher Victor Gollancz called and the book was pulled out of the vault in 2013. "As soon as I'd given up it was published," Mann said.

Melanee Winder, of Mann's New Zealand publisher Hachette, said recognition for the author was long overdue.

"The Clarke is the single most prestigious award within the science fiction and fantasy world and it's an incredible honour for a New Zealand author, indeed any author, to be recognised in this way . . . if he wins, perhaps next time he's in the same city as Lorde and Eleanor Catton someone should organise a photo shoot in a hotel room."

But Mann is reluctant to be cast as our next pop-culture ambassador. "I try not to think about it too much - for me it's all brand new."

Instead, the ex head of Victoria University's theatre school is busy with "another voyage of discovery where the old gods of earth re-emerge and take over".

Sunday Star Times