Arms Race, by Nic Low

Low’s collection of short stories spans the globe, tracing lines of warfare, surveillance and oppression with fierce wit and masterful story telling. Flitting from Laos to Mongolia and London, Low tackles a globe-full of publicists shaping reality, drones controlled by 14 year –olds and a viral hit that has lives dependent on it. With European and Ngai Tahu Māori descent, Low is an extremely exciting talent that New Zealanders can claim as their own. The opening story ‘Octopus’ begins in a pub with two men scaring tourists with the idea of a Māori terrorist cell: the climax of the story is far more fantastical and the mix of humour and rebellion rings throughout a collection with a keen eye on the greater powers and narratives that shape us.

Readers of household names such as Don Delillo, Will Self and Douglas Coupland may be familiar with a satirical edge to their literary fiction, but Low makes their observations of the evils of the modern world seem grounded in antiquity. American voices often survey our era as post-9/11 where British voices see post-colonialism and coherent class division: this ‘post-‘perspective makes modern life a descent that in from language, privacy, safety to innocence and political monoliths. Low acknowledges the complacency of late 20th Century ideological battles and, as Fukuyama put it, ‘the end of history’ with a comment by a general: ‘History hasn’t ended. It’s been outsourced’.

Low may not be the first writer to observe the asbestos splinters of social media, but he plays his themes so deftly – a particularly poignant encounter with the ancient records held by Facebook is a highlight – that his talent for story-telling elevates any gimmicky elements of the work. Low revels in the realities that have rapidly appeared through technology and climate change without looking back to the past for a reference of less corruption or conflict. In his present day stories, the Australian outback holds a lot of secrets, as it always has, and an artist offers to pass on the secret to talent that has been possessed by every genius for generations.

Another enjoyable element shared by Low in contemporary literature is globe-hopping narratives. From David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to Thomas Rachmann’s recent The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, writers are becoming more confident in plotting their narratives across continents. Low immerses readers in each setting with little effort and is as comfortable writing about Canary Wharf as a military base in Mongolia. A pulpy comparison would be Max Brooks’ World War Z, a zombie epidemic that follows each country’s response: both Low and Brooks play with aspects of globalisation that portrays the historical grudges of each nation and their relationship with the future.

Arms Race is cat-nip for cynics and a joy to read by a talented new author whose work already feels accomplished and an essential part of the literary landscape.

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TITLE: Arms Race
AUTHOR(S): Nic Low
PUBLISHER: Text Publishing
RRP: $35.00
ISBN: 9781922147981

General fiction reviewer and generally bumbling Literature graduate. Having recently moved from London to Wellington, she’s still getting to grips with the Kiwi accent, not having to queue for everything or saying ‘sorry’ constantly. Her literary tastes sway towards modernists, novels featuring moany women (Madam Bovary) and authors with a filthy sense of humour (Henry Miller). Read more at jazzcroftjc.wordpress.com

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