Available in Lektu
and in Amazon
Cover by Carolina Bensler
Edited by Arrate Hidalgo and Cristina Jurado
Felicidad Martínez: New Vitality in Spanish Science Fiction – Maria Leticia Lara Palomino
Lektu: Spain’s new e-bookkeeper – Cristina Jurado
Short stories: the seeds of science fiction - Cristina Jurado
Interviewing Elías Combarro: What it means to be a bilingual SFF blogger in Spain - Cristina Jurado
Francine (draft for the September lecture) - Maria Antònia Martí Escayol - Translation by Sue Burke
Prayers to the Sun by a Dying Person - Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Herbarium - Layla Martínez - Translation by Lawrence Schimel
Mimicry - Daniel Pérez Navarro - Translation by Lawrence Schimel
First Blood - Israel Alonso - Translation by Lawrence Schimel
Wake Up and Dream - Josué Ramos - Translation by Lawrence Schimel
‘Tis a Pity She Was A Whore - Juan Manuel Santiago -
Translation by Sue Burke
You can downloaded for free in Lektu
Special English issue with a selection of 17 stories by Spanish authors, interviews and articles about the current state of Spain’s science fiction
Table of Contents
Juan Miguel Aguilera
Science fiction, fantasy and horror speaks Spanish - Cristina Jurado
A sociological look at the geek subculture in Spain - Cristina Martínez García
Javier Negrete: a classic futurist – Maria Leticia Lara Palomino
“I will never cease to learn new things about my own mother tongue”: interviewing Manuel de los Reyes – Cristina Jurado
Interviewing Rachel Cordasco from the blog Speculative Fiction in Translation – Cristina Jurado
“National authors were to be judged the same way as the foreign ones”: Interviewing Felicidad Martínez – Cristina Jurado
“I only wish other countries were translating Spanish writers more often into their languages”: Questions for Cristina Macía – Cristina Jurado
“Spain’s fantasy literature resists”: Interviewing Guillem López – Cristina Jurado
Nevsky: the adventure of publishing genre literature in Spain - Cristina Jurado
Sportula: Spanish science fiction beyond Spanish borders – Cristina Jurado
Conversation with Spanish science fiction and fantasy editor Mariano Villareal – Cristina Jurado
Javier Olivares, creator, showrunner and writer of El Ministerio del Tiempo– Cristina Jurado
Excerpt from The Map of Chaos - Felix J. Palma
“Ship´s Shepherd”- Felicidad Martínez
“Killing Time” - Guillem López
“Little Sisters” - Rocío Rincón
“To Sweep, Perhaps to Dream” - Emilio Bueso
Excerpt from Monteverde: Memoirs of an Interstellar Linguist - Lola Robles
“Black eagles” - Eduardo Vaquerizo
“Alphaland” - Cristina Jurado
“Embryo“ - Rodolfo Martínez
“You cannot kill Frownyflute!” - Sofía Rhei
“The Fast Blue” - Juan González Mesa
“Pink Footed” - Marian Womack
“Dressed in Blue” - Santiago Eximeno
“The Hunger of the Yamamba” - María Angulo Ardoy
“The history of Fäntasystical Literature in Central-Europe. Today: Mittelpfrünia” – Francisco Fernández
“Leyends of the black kiss” -- Armando Saldaña
“Drydock City” - Javier Trescuadras
Lavie Tidhar is one of the most interesting and original fantasy authors in English. The Guardian has described his novel, Man Lies Dreaming as a “twisted master piece”, and one that will be published in Spanish next year by Kailas. His novel Osama won the World Fantasy Award 2012 and, since then, titles like The Bookman or The Violent Century, or Art & War continue to make readers and critics agree in their favorable opinions.
Central Station, his last published novel, was a synaesthetic experience for me, a canvas in which each story is part of an ensemble that talks about a crossroads, a unique location in which peoples lives blend, featuring original ideas in a plausible way. The location, a hub situated in a future Tel Aviv, is so realistically described that we can smell, hear and taste as much as see the characters in their domesticity. Tidhar’s talent is such that, despite the distance in time with this place, we can actually picture ourselves on it: our future is nothing more than our present filled with speculative elements. In that regard, Central Station is a character in itself, influencing its inhabitants almost in a Solaris-sort-of-manner.
Diasporas have been a favorite in human History. In a way, we are witnessing a big one right now in the form of immigrants from war zones -there always have been military conflicts and it looks like they will always been-. In Central Station Tidhar narrative is built around the results: the constant outpouring of people coming and going; the half men-half machine soldiers in the aftermath of wars, the colonization of other worlds, etc. The consequences of society’s great relocations can be seen no just in the spreading of human life in the universe but also in the creation of parallel worlds in the digital realm. So the novel is filled with cyberpunk as much as with contact with other intelligent beings.
Technology is overwhelmingly present: from a virtual reality in which you can live a parallel life, to a constant integration with the Conversation –the Net-, as well as genetically engineered babies, digital vampires, priest robots, and cyborgs. The author conveys it all in a kind of impressionistic painting, better enjoyed from far. I’ve always thought Lavie’s prose has the intensity and power of impressionist painters while the topics and ideas he tackles are mostly expressionist: with few strokes of his words, he can submerge the reader in an intense state, sort of a Van Gogh’s picture, walking a fine line between a descriptive art and this expressionistic themes. This is exactly what I admire in Tidhar’s art.
You, reader, need to get this book and read it. This is a glimpse of a probable future, one that is closer than one can think, with all its gradients of grey; with immortality and new sicknesses; with isolation and boredom as well as new ways to communicate and relate to reality; with new types of humans, from the half-machines, or the symbiosis between men and aliens, to tranhumans.
After being one of the guests of honor in the last Celsius Festival, SuperSonic was able to interview him to get to know him better.
Cristina Jurado: How much did you have to rework the stories of Central Station to unify them into a novel?
Lavie Tidhar: Hi! Well, it's an interesting question. You have to understand that the plan from the very start was to write a mosaic novel - I put the accent on novel here! - which in turn is in following a long tradition in science fiction (think Simak's CITY, Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT, etc). Which is of novels made up of more or less stand-alone "episodes" which were published first in the magazines of the day. It was something I long dreamed of doing, but never felt able to do, before.
So this is what I did, but when I was done, it didn't quite work. Not entirely. And I was too close to the material to know what I needed to do in terms of editing. Luckily, Tachyon knew exactly what I was trying to do and were able to offer me the feedback I needed. So, from a technical standpoint, it was things like changing the order of the stories to fit better, cutting one story entirely, cutting another one in half, removing redundancies, smoothing down the linkages between individual episodes, and so on! It was a very interesting process for me, and it felt great! It shows you how important it is to have an editor, someone who both understands what you want to do and able to give you the tools to do it.
CJ: You recently mentioned that there were a total of 120000 words, 28 more stories, set in the universe of Central Station. Do you have any plans to consolidate them all one of few books?
LT: I was always fascinated by the idea of a "future history" - I think Heinlein coined the term, but the one that most inspired me (as might be obvious in the writing) is Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series. So my more specifically science fictional stories started fitting into this loose world, where I felt I was able to offer a sort of vision of the future of humanity - one future, anyway. Central Station was the culmination of that, I think, and once it was done, I felt I was also finished with that particular version of the future. It's a sort of fun thing to do, though! To be honest, I am not entirely sure about a collection at this point. Much of it was me learning as I went, and some of the early stories might not be as good, or need a lot of polish. But never say never... (and actually, I include my short novel, MARTIAN SANDS, and the novella CLOUD PERMUTATIONS in that universe, as well as an unpublished, far-too-weird novel called CHAINS OF ASSEMBLY, so the total word count on that universe would be in the region of 330,000 words!)
CJ: The next question is related to your vision of the future of humanity. I’ve always been fascinated by your uchronic stories (Osama, The Violent Century, A Man Lies Dreaming, etc) and, in a weird way, your future stories feel to me like also like Alternate Future History. I know it's a strange idea, since the future is unwritten, but you are able to provide a patina of credibility in your stories than make them believable, even when talking about the future (this is the best way I can explain it!). Maybe it’s the familiar elements you include, as well as the themes per se. How do you choose your writing projects and the angle in which you approach them?
LT: Well, Central Station was a way for me to talk about a real time and place - in this case, the part of south Tel Aviv around the real life, and very strange, central bus station, and the real people who currently live there - but to do it through the distorting lens of science fiction. I think an important part of the book, actually, is the sort of prologue, which does open up in the here and now, and then makes that sort of slingshot into the far future. But, I think you're right that, like my other books, it's trying to address very contemporary, real issues.
The other thing I'd say is, it's not so much my vision of the future - more me corresponding with an older vision of the future, that sort of very optimistic "Golden Age" view of the future, and at the same time getting the chance to interrogate it and re-shape it. My next full SF project will be very different, I think, as I've become much more interested in issues of sustainability, for instance.
As to how I choose my projects - I don't! Central Station came from living in Jaffa back in 2010-2011, and being very much influenced by the area of the station, the current situation there. Usually I have several projects on the go at once, but it's about finding the one that somehow clicks, that makes you stick with it. Sometimes you think a book sounds great, but it never clicks, and the idea just sits there, never written or, worse, you've written some of it but then it fizzled out... I find writing books very difficult, it always feels close to impossible that you've actually finished one!
CJ: You mentioned Simak and Zelazny as an inspiration but, what other authors outside science fiction have inspired you in writing Central Station?
LT: I think one very obvious influence on Central Station is V.S. Naipaul's Miguel Street, which is a sort of mosaic about the lives of residents in a small community in Trinidad and Tobago. I wanted to really write about these ordinary people, who just happen to live against this dazzling sort of science fictional future background. I think it's been confusing some people, of course, but I didn't want to write about heroes and battles and epic... stuff. I wanted to write domestic SF!
CJ: I’ve always been fascinated by authors’ creation process. How do you face a new story? Do you use outlines, characters cards and so forth? Do you have beta readers?
LT: I don't really have "beta readers", no. It's more that sometimes I'd be aware of things I want to get a specific perspective on, so I'd run the book by a colleague, but generally I have my own instinct as to what I want to achieve and whether the book has come close enough to it or not. With short stories, I just write them and then send them out.
With novels, I've become much more of a planner. I never used to! Usually novels just germinate for a very long time before I start them - I had Osama in mind for years before I started it, for instance. Some books never take off, of course... Usually I just search for the right voice, I ask who is telling the story. Once I know that, everything else sort of just slots into place.
CJ: You are a British-Israeli writer, and you incorporate a lot of Middle East cultural elements in your stories. Why do you think there is so little science fiction written in Arabic speaking countries?
LT: I hardly think I'm an authority on Arabic literature... though I'm aware of various instances of science fiction writing in the Arab world, in Egypt and Syria for instance. But, you know, it's a very American genre, really. So those of us from outside it, we need to either subvert it to fit our own cultures and perspectives, or... well we need to react either with or against it, but the hard thing is to metamorphose it into something unique. I run into a lot of aspiring writers who just want to transpose their favorite books (or, more likely, TV shows) - say, Game of Thrones, or zombies - and they just want to transpose it, so we get, say, "It's zombies, but in Jerusalem!" you know? And that doesn't work... we have such a rich history and culture, and the secret is to really reach inside and to do something original and startling.
Interviewing Angela Slatter
Angela Slatter (Australia, 1967) is an author of dark fantasy and horror. Graduated in 2005 in Creative Writing, she decided to devote her life to this endeavor. After obtaining her PhD, she teaches at Queensland University of Technology. She has published numerous short stories in collections and anthologies, as well as in magazines and other types of publications. Among her collections of stories, stands out The Girl With No hands (Ticonderoga, 2010), Sourdough and Other Stories (Tartarus Press, 2010), The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings (Tartarus Press, 2010) and The Female Factory (Twelfth Planet Press, 2014). Her stories are included in anthologies organized by renowned editors, like Jeff and Ann Vandermeer or Ellen Datlow. Perhaps, her most popular publications have been published by Tor: Of Sorrow and Such (2015) and Finnegan’s Field (2016), which can be read online in Tor’s web. Some of the many awards she collected are: the World Fantasy Award, thanks to The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings; and the el British Fantasy Award, thanks The Coffin-Maker's Daughter.
Alexander Páez: Sadly, in Spain you haven’t been published yet. Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
Angela Slatter: I’m an Australian writer and I write dark fantasy and horror, and most of my tales have their roots in fairy tales. I’ve published six short story collections − Sourdough and Other Stories, The Girl With No Hands and Other Tales, Black-Winged Angels, The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, as well as Midnight and Moonshine and The Female Factory (these last two co-written with Lisa L. Hannett) − and will have a seventh collection out in October this year through Prime Books, A Feast of Sorrows: Stories, which will be my first US collection! My debut novel, Vigil, will be out in July this year from Jo Fletcher Books in the UK, with the sequels Corpselight and Restoration coming in 2017 and 2018 respectively. I’m fortunate to have won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and five Aurealis Awards. My website is http://www.angelaslatter.com/ and I lurk on Twitter as @AngelaSlatter.
AP: You write fairy tales and short stories, but they used to be horror stories, or with a horror environment. Why this genre and why fairy tales?
AS: I’ve always loved fairy tales and they were the first stories read to me as a child, so they retain a place in my heart. They’re a link to our past for me, not just the recent past like childhood, but the distant past where people sat around fires that kept the darkness at bay and told stories that were actually warnings (for example, if you walk in the woods and leave the path you WILL be eaten by a wolf). I guess the genre of speculative fiction appeals to me because it’s the literature of possibility; it allows you to let your imagination fly. As long as you keep your worldbuilding tight, then you can pretty much get away with all kinds of flights of imagination and dreams. As for fairy tales, I love that they are more than they appear; I love that the old forms were warnings, were horror stories for our ancestors, I love that there are coded messages we can read in them. I love that we can reclaim them from Disneyfication and all the ways frightened people try to ‘clean them up’ so the stories don’t scare children anymore. It’s good to be scared! It prepares you for life!
AP: You retell many fairy tales. What inspired this?
AS: When I first decided I wanted to write seriously I tried several genres − one of those being women’s lit/chick lit − but I didn’t really feel comfortable until I started reworking fairy tales. The first one I rewrote was “The Little Match Girl”, and the story came to me so quickly I wrote it in one afternoon. I just knew I’d found my place then.
I like retelling fairy tales because I like a reader to look at the old story in a new way, I like to pick away the civilised, non-threatening layer a lot of new versions have been wrapped in and get to the frightening things hidden inside. I think that’s a challenge, taking something familiar and making it unfamiliar, playing with the German idea of unheimlich. One of the reasons I love Angela Carter’s work is that she does this so brilliantly, and reading her The Bloody Chamber for the first time was like a revelation, a great light that tore the scales from my eyes and opened my mind.
AP: Is this one of the reasons for your desire to reshape and retell fairy tales?
AS: I’ve always said that, at the most base, most crucial level I personally write to manage fears. They might be childish fears, but if I can write them down and rework them then I can be in charge. There’s a reason the first retelling I ever did was “The Little Match Girl” − as a child I remember my mother reading it to me for the first time and I also remember being in floods of tears at the end because it was such a cruel tale! I suppose it embedded in me a not-unreasonable fear of not being loved, of being left alone, of losing my family. When I wrote my version of “The Little Match Girl”, I made sure the main character had agency, got to make her own decisions, made her own fate (even though it’s not a happy ending), but I got to do things that satisfied me. Too crazy?
Or maybe I just like writing fairy tales.
AP: You have an amazing bibliography, amazing critical acclaim and many awards. Also a PhD in Creative Writing and many works published. How do you deal with writing?
AS: I’m lucky enough that I have been a freelance writer for the last four years, so I haven’t had to balance an office job with trying to write − although I did do that when I was studying writing and working to pay the bills and writing and editing stories to build my career and publications list for the eight years before that. I write most days; the days I don’t write I’m doing research or the business side of writing (like answering interview questions!), working on synopses, editing, going over galley proofs, planning and scheduling the next project. The last few months have been tough because I didn’t schedule very well, so I’ve been trying to finish a novel and a novella and two short story collections ... almost done, but I will be much more careful in the future!
AP: What inspired Of Sorrow and Such?
AS: I’d been asked to write a novella and I’d had the character of Patience from two of the stories in my first collection Sourdough and Other Stories − she appears there once as a young girl (“Gallowberries”) and later as a much older woman (“Sister, Sister”). I’d always wondered what happened in between, and I wanted to tell that story. I thought a lot about how our past can come back to haunt us, even if we’ve tried to live an exemplary life and we’ve done all we can to try to make us for the sins of our youth. I’ve always read a lot about witches in history as well as in fiction, and I’ve been carrying around in my head this old folk tale that I’d read in a book my father gave me thirty-odd years ago about witches turning into cats. I wanted to use that somehow, as well as working with and subverting ideas about witches and sisterhood, weaving them into a fairy and folk tale mix ... and have the women come out safely at the end.
AP: What are you working on at the moment?
AS: At the moment I am editing a novella called Darker Angels to go into the A Feast of Sorrows collection. I am about to start editing the novel Corpselight. I have four commissioned short stories to write, I have another novella to edit and find a home for, I have to start researching for a book on the Hammer Horror Karnstein vampire films, and I need to start writing the new novel, Restoration, for Jo Fletcher Books! And then I need to do final edits on a new collection, The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales, which is the third and final book in the Sourdough series.
AP: Your stories have strong female characters. How important is for you to have strong female characters in your stories?
AS: It’s very important: I’m a woman, why wouldn’t I want to write about female characters? It’s important for there to be a female voice in fantasy that doesn’t always say “Oh, won’t some big strong man come and rescue me? My silver bikini has fallen off!”
AP: Do you think the role of female authors has changed in fantasy genre?
AS: I hope so. I hope that we’re gaining broader readership that more readers are coming to see what we can offer through our tales. Not everyone wants to rewrite Conan the Barbarian. There are a lot of women writing amazing fantasy, such as Kate Elliott, Kristin Cashore, Elspeth Cooper, Juliet Marillier, and Sara Douglass’ body of work is quite incredible.
AP: Who is your favourite female author?
AS: That’s too hard to chose just one! I will make a list, which is in no way definitive: Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Margo Lanagan, Zen Cho, Nnedi Okorafor, Lisa L. Hannett, Damien Angelica Walters, Juliet Marillier, Nalo Hopkinson, Barbara Hambly, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Aliette De Bodard ...
Interviewing Brandon Sanderson
Brandon Sanderson (Nebraska, 1975) is currently one of the most prolific fantasy writers. With a BA in English and a MA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University, he is nowadays a full time writer, podcaster (he is part of the Writing Excuses podcast) and university teacher. In his student years he volunteered in The Leading Edge, the university science fiction/fantasy magazine. In 2005 he published his novel, Elantris (Tor), an epic fantasy followed by the Mistborn trilogy: The Final Empire, The well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages (Tor). In 2007 his first children’s book Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians (Scholastic Press) came out, and its sequels -Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia, Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens (Scholastic Press), followed in subsequent years.
His novel Warbreaker (Tor) was published in 2009, and 2010 was the year The way of kings (Tor), which started his series The Stormlight Archive, saw the light. In 2012 he published Legion (Subterranean Press), a novella, as well as The Emperor’s Soul (Tachyon Publications). The following year he started a new YA series with The Rithmatist, and not happy with this, he published Steelheart (Random House Childrens Books), the first tittle in yet another YA saga –The Reckoners-. 2014 was the year in which a sequel for Legion, titled Legion: Deep Skin (Subterranean Press), was published. In 2015 he continued The Reckoners with Fireflight (Random House Childrens Books). Chosen as the writer to end The Wheel of Time series, he finished A Memory of Light (Tor), the final book, in 2013. Words of Radiance, the second novel of The Stormlight Archive, was published in 2014. In between all this, he had time to write the novella Infinity Blade: Awakening (Epic Games), and a sequel to the Mistborn trilogy, titled The Alloy of Law (Tor). Calamity, published in 2016, ended the trilogy of The Reckoners.
I had the opportunity to attend a panel and a presentation he gave at Emirates Literary Festival in March 2016, and could interview him afterwards. Here you can read the result of our encounter.
Cristina Jurado: You are a teacher of Creative Writing. I would like to know how your experience as a teacher has helped, shaped or influenced your work.
Brandon Sanderson: It is always great to meet with new writers, people who are just breaking in. They have such an enthusiasm, and sometimes innocence, about the publishing business. It really helps me keep my excitement to read their writing, to be helping them, just as writers helped me when I was breaking in. I think it is a very important thing to do, and it does influence me. Writing can be very solitary, where we sit in our rooms, by ourselves, all day, getting out at night. I only teach class once a week, so going out, meeting these new students, and reading their writing, it’s really a great experience.
CJ: I want to ask you about your writing process. It's such a particular thing for each author… I’m fascinated about this. I asked everybody when I interview them. How do you manage it? Do you write a plot and character cards, and then write several drafts or you go ahead and swim into it?
BS: About my writing process: I’m an outliner, a very strong outliner. I like knowing where I’m going, and I actually build my outline in an interesting way: I build it backwards. I start with what I want to have happened in the book, the emotional experiences. My outline is not subheading A, paragraph B, it's not like this. It’s more like: here it is a really great scene, and here are the ways I’m going to earn that scene, and here it is another great scene near the end, and here are the ways throughout the book I’m going to earn that scene and make it work. So, I build my outline backwards. Then, I write my book forward, starting on page one and go straight through. I don't always stick to the outline. What I do is, if I´m getting off, I stop and then I rebuild the outline and look at it. Then I come back to the story, and go a bit further. If there is something different from the outline, I look at the outline and see if I like where it is going, and I rebuild the outline. It’s a kind of back and forth process, through the course of the book until the ending. In my second draft I fix big problems. Big problems always pop up in a book, as you are writing it along. The third draft is a polish, where I get all the language to not be quite as bad, because the first draft’s language is terrible. It always got more “tell than show” and it's passive voice. I try to clear all that out, kind of like ten percent. Then I send the book to my Alfa readers, which are my wife, my editor, my agent and my writing group. While they are working on it and giving me feedback, I usually write something else. I come back to it and compile all the things they’ve said into a revision document, a guide to do this revision. This is kind of like an outline for a revision. So I organized it by the most important things at the top and the least important things at the bottom. I just build through them the draft number four, trying to fix those things. Draft number five is a polish, and then I send it to Beta readers, who are fans, to give me kind of a reader response. An editor would tell you “Oh, I think this is broken. You should do this”, whereas a fan, what we are looking for is just the “Hey, I like this. I was bored here”… that sort of thing. Then I do another draft incorporating their comments and the last comments my editor had made. And it's done! I ship it off to the publisher.
CJ: So it is all least six to seven drafts?
BS: Yeagh. Usually, about six or seven drafts.
CJ: I have heard you talking about the authors within the genre that have influenced you. I am more interested in the authors outside of the genre that have influenced you. I think it says a lot about writers in general. What can you tell me about those?
BS: Oh, boy… There is a ton! I would say that my single biggest influence outside genre is Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, one of my favorite books. I love his use of character. Another is Moby Dick, and really all the writings by Herman Melville. I like his world building. Theirs feel like epic fantasy novels. That is one of the places I went to learn world building. Sherlock Holmes for plotting, of course, [Conan Doyle] is awesome. And Jane Austen, for relationships. You can steel from each of this: you can see world building, plotting, relationships, and all those things coming together with characters. There are a lot of great things in what we call Literature, as suppose to genre fiction, although I don't know if that distinction is useful or not. There are a lot of things in there that feel like fantasy, even if they aren’t. You can learn a lot by reading outside your genre. I find that it brings things inside on what you are writing.
CJ: Right now, what things outside of your genre are you reading?
BS: The last things were mostly non-fiction. Non-fiction can be really useful to a writer when you are looking for ideas, when you are exploring. So I read a lot of psychology books. Why gender matters was a really good one. Things like Freakonomics, I find fascinating. I read a really good book about North Korea –see if I can remember the exact tittle- … Nothing to envy. It was mainly interviews with North Korean people who had escaped North Korea. That one was really good for looking at a different world and understanding it.
CJ: They asked me to ask you if you keep a sort of Wikipedia of Cosmere to avoid any contradictions.
BS: Yes. We actually use it! You said Wikipedia, and we use a Wiki. It’s called WikidPAD. It’s open source wiki software and it’s the source of all continuity for the Cosmere. After I finish a book, I give it to my continuity editor –Karen- who goes through it, and ads all the things from the new book to the Wiki. Peter, who is my editorial assistant, will go though it to see if there is anything that is contradicting. I usually have a big list of contradictions that I need to revise or rewrite or change.
CJ: I didn't know there was this fan web site called 17th Shard. I knew there were lots of fan sites, but I didn’t know there were so well organized like this one. I went to take a look into it. It’s a mazing the amount of information and how well systematized is it. You mentioned that, sometimes, you get to see what they are doing, and your assistant goes pretty regularly. Any of the theories they post, do any of them influence you a little bit?
BS: This is dangerous because, as a fan of the Wheel of Time, I’ve read all of the fan’s theories. As a writer, looking at these “signing on my one”, I feel that, if you change something because of a fan’s theory, you are in danger of undermining all of your foreshadowing. You have to be really careful as a writer: they are going to guess things; they’ll figure it out. You can’t feel bad if they do, because that just means that your foreshadowing is good. They are occasionally things that fans will say that spark me in an interesting direction of the world building. Like “Oh, yeagh… I should be thinking about this”. It’s not usually what they say, but the concepts they talk about that will send me in a certain direction. So, does influence me? Not as much as people might think, but it does.
CJ: Whitesand is going to be published as a graphic novel. Do you have any other projects to be published in that format?
BS: Right now, this is the only one that we have. We thought about doing several others, but we really want to see if people like this one, if this one sells well and if it's interesting to people. If so, we definitely will do more. So far we have shelved every project we’ve came up with -other than this-, because we don't know if this is going to be successful or not.
CJ: Let’s talk about your next book published in Spanish. How excited you are? Are you looking for coming as a special guest to the BCon2016 in November?
BS: I love coming to Spain! My wife studied abroad in Spain, and she speaks Spanish. The very first country that I was invited to as a writer was Spain. I was invited to Barcelona to do the speech at the UPC award. That was my first trip where someone outside of the United States even cared who I was. So I’ve always loved coming to Spain. I tried to get there every year or two. I’m really excited to be having The Reckoners coming out in Spain, as well as Steelheart. I’m super excited to be coming to the Convention in November. I’m glad that the timing worked out, because I was coming to Italy and, it turns out there is a Con next weekend in Spain, so…
CJ: Can you tell us something special for our readers, something that nobody knows? For the Spaniard only!
BS: Oh, My Goodness! For the Spaniards only… about The Reckoners specifically? Let’s see… what nobody knows… So, right now I’m writing a novella, because in all my plane flights I work on a novella. I’m working on a science fiction novella called Snapshot and nobody knows that yet.
Interview to Pat Cadigan
It is summer 2015 here in Copenhagen and I am heading to the Fantastikon, a Danish Science Fiction Convention. I am about to meet Pat Cadigan, there to interview her. Since I know her work as a writer, I never googled any picture of her and I realized that I don’t know how she looks. Luckily I find Ian Watson and Cristina Macía at the convention, they were inside a very interesting panel about schizophrenia and character building and they pointed me a very lovely lady with a Viking horned wool hat. I liked her. She was smiling and she got an aura of calm. After the panel we moved to a very comfy sofa and the interview went as you can read from now on.
Patricia K. Cadigan (1953) also known as Pat Cadigan, is a North American Science Fiction writer. Her work is mostly focused into cyberpunk subgenre, but she doesn’t classify herself like that. She wrote several works, such as novels and short stories. Among her work we can find: Mindplayers (1987), Synners (1991), Fools (1992), Datableed (1997), Tea From an Empty Cup (1998), Patterns: Stories (1999), Dervish is Digital (2000), The Ultimate Cyberpunk (2002), Twilight Zone: Upgrade/Sensuous Cindy (2004), Cellular (2004), Jason X (2000 AD S.) (2005), Jason X #2: The Experiment (Jason X) (2005). Moreover she wrote short fiction and novellas such as The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi, worth of a Hugo Award in 2013. She has won several number of awards, such as the Arthur C. Clarke for Synners and for Fools.
Alexander Páez: You´ve mentioned that, when you write science fiction, you go for hard science fiction. Why is that?
Pat Cadigan: I am interested in things that can possibly happen. The fantastic stuff is great too, but I like puzzling things out. Trying to workout, extrapolate things like that. I love science; I’ve been always very interested in science. Basically I write stories about things that I am really interested in. If I want an excuse to write about the brain I must have to do a lot of research. And because I love science is why I love science fiction.
AP: So you’ve done any research in real science?
PC: [Laugh] No. I have a problem with science, mostly with maths. I have some kind of “dyslexia for numbers” I switch them. I also have this dyslexia when I am really tired, I start switching letters. If you give me a phone number you should always double check how I written it down.
AP: There is a certain evolution in your writings, from the early cyberpunk stories to the more recent ones, oriented to biopunk. Do you feel that is the logical progression in the genre or it just reflects your interests as a writer?
PC: Part of it is my reflection of interests as a writer, but also basically is things that I’ve been invited to write about. "The Girl-Thing Who Went out for Sushi”, is a story I wrote specifically for Jonathan Strahan’s anthology and he had set down certain conditions, all the stories had to occur in the Solar System, no one could drove faster than light, all with known science or something grown out of known science. So I started to wonder how people would live in Space. I wasn’t that interested in doing a space flight story, I wanted to do something with the Solar System being settled by people who live in habitats or in different planets. But also I thought about how people would adapt living in Space, because we evolved to live under forces of gravity. What could be a good form to be both weightlessly but also maybe extreme acceleration for short periods of time? And I decided that an octopus would be an ultimate form. Octopus lives under pressure and at the same time is a weightless environment.
AP: Have you ever feel “lonely” as a female SF writer in the beginning of your carrier? How do you ponder the current increase in the number of female SF authors?
PC: We were getting more science fiction writers when I started my career. There were number of times when I get picked on. Some people felt that I should not be included with cyberpunk writers because I was a girl. For the most part I knew lots of other female writers, I was friend with Connie Willis, Karen Joy Fowler, Lisa Goldstein, and also the editor who had the most effect in my work was Ellen Datlow.
AP: Every author has a particular creative process. We are interested in yours: how do you face any given writing project? Do you prepare a detail outline, write characters’ cards, etc?
PC: I use an outline when I am writing a novel. I don’t do it for short fiction. I might make a note while I am writing a piece of short fiction, usually within the body of the story itself in big brackets “remember to put where you are going”. Or if I have something specific like how do I want a story to end I put a note at the bottom so I write all the way down to it. For novels I write an outline because when I get caught up on something I remember where I was going. I don’t use cards or anything, but the outline I often add to, as things occurred to me and the things goes on. Sometimes I might take things out from the original outline, I leave them on the outline but with a line through it so I can see what it was and what I decided to do next instead. I try to have a balance between knowing what I want to do and leaving enough space so I can surprise myself, because when I am writing things will happen. This will be a good thing for the story.
AP: We´ve secretly asked few people to send us questions for you, Pat. It is a pleasure to see that many wanted to be part of this interview, celebrating your work with us.
AP: The first one is from Lisa Turttle.
AP: Do you feel you learned anything that helped you with your fiction from your time working for a greeting card company?
PC: Actually I used a lot of what I learned about business and corporate world in an indirect way, but also I had to write to order a lot for Walmart be very specific. I learned how to write in a limited period of time and try to approach things from different angles you can write anything.
AP: Also from Lisa Turttle: Howard Waldrop wrote a story called "El Castillo de la Perseverancia" some years ago (in the 1990s) and read the first draft, hot off his typewriter, at a convention. Pat Cadigan was in the audience for his reading, and afterwards she told him a couple of things he did not get right -- details about the exact model and year of car that the wrestlers in the story are in, the other was about a piece of music being played. Howard says: "She knew EXACTLY what I needed in that story. I have always wanted to thank her. Thank you, Pat!"
PC: [Laugh] It’s terrible that I don’t remember doing that! That’s riot!
AP: From Ian Watson: "Pat, how did you, an American deep in America, meet the gallant Chris Fowler whom you wedded? Has this anything to do with Her Majesty's Secret Service?"
PC: [Loud laugh] I was invited to be guest in a Brittish convention, they write me to come over so I told Ellen Datlow about it and Ellen said, “Oh, you know what I think I’ll go too”. Then Ellen called me back and said “We are going to stay at John and Judith Clute. We are going to be at the UK for two weeks so we are going to stay with them and then we are going to spend the weekend with friends.” and I was “Oh. Ok, ok.” I never had been anywhere so that was fine with me. So we stayed there and Christopher Fowler found out about it. Now, there are two Christopher Fowlers, there is Christopher R. Fowler who writes the horror and mystery novels, and there is Christopher J. Fowler and he got my address and wrote me asking me if he could interview me. I wrote him back and I said “I see you modestly left out, all those wonderful books you wrote… There can be two of you.” So he wrote me back and said “Actually there are two and I am the other one”. I was so embarrassed and he came and interviewed me and Ellen separately. I really liked him, so I put him on my long list of people I was going to look up when I was single again, because I had a feeling that I was going to be single again. I was right. When I was single again I looked on my list and crossed out all the names except his. I had to go back to UK again and stayed with John and Judith and I fell in love with him. Very unusual, because we come from completely different backgrounds but we were very much alike. It is such a love story, and it is still going on. In 1996 I moved my entirely family which in that time was my son and my mother, to London, and that same year Chris and I got married. [Sighs] It is so romantic, I am so in love.
AP: From Ellen Datlow, “Which do you prefer? Writing short stories or novels, and why?”
PC: Probably I would just write short fiction. I started out with short fiction because when I started my career I had a full-time job so short fiction was the thing I could complete. After we came here my husband had to take of my mother a lot so I ended up retrieving back to short fiction because it was the only thing I could really get done. After my mother passed away I started to work on a novel that jumps off from my Hugo short fiction story “The Girl-Thing Who Went out for Sushi” so I started to work and when I looked up on February 2013 I had 86.000 words only half of them good. I had taken so many short fiction assignments that I actually lost a year while I fulfill them and then I went back to work on the novel. The problem is that you can’t support yourself only with short fiction, but if you could, I would. But at the same time I feel that I like having the room in a novel to stretch out and explain and describe things and have things happening over a long period of time. If I could earn enough money from short fiction I would write just it, and mostly for Ellen Datlow probably. I have to say short fiction is my first love.
AP: From Aliette de Bodard, “Which one of your characters would you like to sit down and have a drink with, and why?”
PC: I never think of them that way. When I am working on a novel I get much immersed in it and I’ve been much immersed in the book I am working in now. I am not sure actually that any of my characters would fine me particularly interesting to have a drink with. I don’t know, it is a really good question. I think the character I am related the most, would be the hero of my first novel Mindplayers, Allie. I probably understand what she is saying more than anybody else. Is not like they are not real to me, but they are creatures of my imagination, I do get deeply immerse and over focused sometimes. They are also creatures of their context and put them out of context to have a drink with is not the way I really think.
AP: Maybe you could get into the context to have a drink with them.
PC: It will be very interesting to socialize with the characters I am working on now. They all live in Space. Not in Space, in habitats, but there is no gravity, they are born in Space, their bodies have been adapted, they look really strange, and they talk very strangely. I really got into the culture of people living in Space. And they would think of me of someone who lives in an area of the Solar System called The Tropics, and they think of people living in The Tropics as being crazy from the heat. We could have a very nice time together. [Laugh]
I am sorry, that is not a very good answer to a very good question. Every writer has a kind of relationship with their work and some ways very over focused but also I don’t take work home with me.
AP: From Greg Bear, “What’s your favorite memory of the early years of cyberpunk?”
PC: I am not sure, because I wasn’t really that involved that stuff that went on. Early years of cyberpunk I had a small baby and I couldn’t travel that much so I couldn’t get involved. All those guys had wife, I needed a wife, but I was the wife. I got to somethings, Greg and I were on a panel, the same year my son was born, and I went to this convention in Texas and we were on a panel that was supposed to be about cyberpunk and this guy came in who know nothing about cyberpunk, he just wanted to make cash out of the panel. Orson Scott Card was in the audience, I was sitting on the other side of the moderator and there was Sterling, Shirley and Shiner and they got fed up with was what going on and suddenly they stood up and they left, and that left me and Rudy Rucker and Greg Bear on the other side wondering what to do. It was a really uncomfortable situation. Before they left, Orson Scott Card interrupted the panel (I never met him so I didn’t know who this guy was) and said “you are not telling us nothing worthwhile you are just sitting up there talking about how great you are”. And I said “I didn’t have a chance to talk about how great I am yet”. And Scott went on castigating the panel. And this was in the years before Scott became very strange right wing, hm… the… “guy” he is now. [Laugh] No! I am serious, what I remember about Orson Scott Card, he was kind of upset about cyberpunk; he was one of the people who rejected it. What I remember about him is that he used to have these revivals at the science fiction conventions in which you would admit that church and state were separated and church was a matter of fate and you would testify to your favorite science fiction belief. And I remember he had everyone write down their favorite science fiction principle. I thought this was brilliant. Someone said “I believe in the Heisenberg principle” and Scott said “Are you sure about that?” He is not like that now and I am sorry about it. He was a lot more tolerant and a lot more fun.
Although I have to say we never chat. Anyhow, back to the panel. I knew it was harsh; I was just sitting there waiting for it to finish. I was sitting between Rudy and Greg and I felt they were protecting me, shielding me from the nightmare. Later on Rudy and I were talking about the panel and said “I didn’t come here to walk out”. That was the answer I was looking for. Why I didn’t walk out.
AP: From Manuel de los Reyes: “Since Patterns is the only one of your anthologies that has been translated into Spanish, so far, that means most of your vast production is still unknown for your Spanish-speaking readers. Your essential and multi-awarded short story “Pretty Boy Crossover” has been translated twice, at least, both in Argentina and in Spain. Many of your long-form titles have both influenced and inspired a lot of outstanding authors through the years, however. If you could choose one of them to be translated for the whole Spanish-speaking world to enjoy it, as a “visiting card” of sorts, which one would that be? Mindplayers, Synners… any other one?
PC: I think I would choose Synners. It was the first novel I wrote from beginning to end without preexisting material and I had to work so hard for the research. I was inspired M.I.T Media Lab by Stuard Brand, but my research was harsh, we didn’t have the web as is exists now, so I kept writing to M.I.T Media Lab saying who I was and asking to go there and look around. And they answer me back saying “no, you may not”. I wrote them a few more times but the answer was always “no, you may not”. So I finished most of the book by 1999 and I was at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, sitting in a sofa, and there is this young guy looking over me, a lot. I was thinking “I still got it”. My late 30s and still got it. Finally he came over to me and it was like 3am and he asked me if I was Pat Cadigan and if I wanted to visit the M.I.T. Media Lab, we can pick you up at 8am. But I turned him down because everything I needed I had now fabricated it and if I see the Media Lab and the reality of it I might be tempted to go back and retrofit. If I do that the book is going to be even later than it is now. I was really pleased with the book and the world I have created and what I was able to accomplish as a writer. And that was the first of my books that won the Arthur C. Clark Award, so I am extremely proud of it.
Hot Cross Son
by Steve Redwood
For most people, the name Albert Jenkins simply recalls a somewhat gruesome Easter Day prank. For those of us who knew the full enormity of his crime, it was a little different. We were aware that we were facing the threat of the end of civilisation as we knew it.
Yes, it really was that bad.
Here’s what I was able to piece together from the local newspaper reports. The Reverend Albert Jenkins was celebrating Mass in the small church in the Devon village of Ashleycombe as he had done for years now. Everything went fine up to the saying of the Lord’s prayer. But then, instead of offering consecrated wafers and wine, he produced a small plastic bag from behind the altar, and emptied its contents on the table. Splosh! Out poured what looked like chunks of stewing steak.
“Bread and wine, me hearties!” said he, departing somewhat from the liturgy.
Even the most devout found it odd that the bread was bleeding.
“It’s the latest style,” announced the priest, “you get to eat the body and drink the blood all in one go. Saves problems with the chalice if any of you lot have got any poxy diseases!”
It is not for nothing that a church congregation is called a flock. Despite wondering looks, five pillars of the community meekly accepted the ‘host’ until:
“But this is raw meat!” protested an old lady who had once shaken hands with Mrs Thatcher, and so wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
“Isn’t that what I just said? Come on, tuck in!”
But she staggered back, spitting the offering out of her mouth.
Her decisive action at last broke the sacrosanct spell. The communicants who had been obediently chewing away finally came to their senses, and followed the lady’s example.
The priest became furious. “You fools! All these years you’ve been quite willing to be fobbed off with bread and wine, and now I offer you the real thing, you don’t want it! Bloody well eat it, you stupid cretins!”
And he leapt over the altar rail, picked up a bit of the ‘host’ that had been spat out, and tried to force it into the mouth of the lady who had defied him.
Churchgoers are usually a placid lot, and loyal to their priests. As old Neetzchy said, Christianity is pretty much a slave morality. But this was Easter Sunday, and they were all wearing their best clothes: clothes which were now getting spattered with wine/blood and assorted retchings. That is the only way I can explain the ferocity of their attack on their pastor. A well-wielded crutch put him into a coma, which lasted a week.
There’s a fascinating letter in the State Archives in Florence, dated July 24, 1567, from one Piero Gianfigliazzi in Pisa to Prince Francesco dei Medici.
‘On the 19th of the present month, while celebrating mass in the Cathedral of this city … the priest registered a most fetid taste and odour in the act of receiving the consecrated wine. However, he swallowed it down as best he could. Then, when he came to the purification, he wanted none of the wine that they wished to give him, saying that he didn’t want any more of that piss (non voleva più piscio). After expressing his displeasure to the choir master and the sacristan, he was brought another chalice and given good wine, which he was told he could purify. From all of this, I deduce that he was given urine to consecrate in place of wine. Though the Vicar has not been able to uncover the truth regarding who is responsible for such an obscenity, he has put a priest named Giobbo in solitary confinement…’
I never did find out whether they finally hung it on poor old Giobbo. I guess with a name like that suspicion was bound to fall on him.
I mention this little anecdote to show that this wasn’t the first time the host and wine had been interfered with. The police were informed, but didn’t find it important enough to investigate, or even to check just what meat it was. The deacon had already thrown it in the park for the local dogs, anyway
But a contact of mine was so amazed by what the priest told her when he came out of his coma that she gave me a call. I was passing my Easter vacation in Torquay for sentimental reasons, revisiting the spot which had witnessed one of the most satisfying moments in my long tumultuous relationship with my darling Katie – the place where I had thrown her first lover off the cliffs. Well, he should have known better than to mention my accident.
I asked to be alone with the Reverend (my Ministry of Defence ID secured acquiescence) and he at once burst into an amazing diatribe.
“The Central Mystery of the Church! Poppycock! The only mystery is why people have swallowed it for so long! It’s just word games. Transubstantiation: the bread and wine no longer exist, though there it is, sitting right in front of you. Consubstantiation: the bread and wine do at least exist, but they are also the body and blood of Christ. Impanation, Eucharist, host, elementals, accidentals, scaring bell, fraction, epiclesis, oblation, credence table, chalice, paten – words, words, words! Verbal foliage to hide the greatest con trick the world has ever known! Our version of the Emperor with no clothes!”
Strange stuff, coming from such a meek-looking priest, but in my profession we deal with all sorts.
“You’re preaching to the perverted,” I said. “But I don’t see that making the congregation sick with raw meat is any solution, do you?”
“Flesh, not meat. You, poor lost soul, indulge in the sins of the flesh, not the sins of the meat.”
I was on holiday, so I didn’t break his arm.
“You mean, that was human flesh you gave them?”
“Of course. A real Eucharist is the only way to save mankind! John 6:53-54, ‘Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, Verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.’”
Well, you couldn’t put it much straighter than that!
“I’ve still got the rest of the body at home,” he added, clearly concerned lest I doubt his word.
Well, I called in my contact, and we got him dressed and into his detached house faster than a premature orgasm. First, the fridge. Contents: week-old skimmed milk, a few shivering veg, and a plastic bag containing maybe ten kilos of what looked like diced stewing steak. Then, the freezer. Contents: sundry innards, two arms, one leg, and a head attached to maybe half a torso.
I felt a new respect for this guy. Maybe we could recruit him later.
Only… that head. That head, I swear, was looking serenely up, with a warm forgiving smile on those frozen lips. Just looking at it, I felt that this guy would have immediately understood why I’d arranged for my darling Katie’s second lover to come into a terminal headlock with a bulldozer.
But that wasn’t all. There were nasty-looking holes in the hands and the foot.
You can’t blame everything on junk food. I was starting to get a real bad feeling about this whole thing.
I kept my voice even.
“Who was this … gentleman?”
“Jesus, of course.”
I’d expected that.
“No, I mean, who was he really?”
He looked at me, puzzled.
I went on: “Yes, of course, you knew it was really Jesus paying a secret Return Visit, but who did other less discerning people think he was? How did he disguise his Divine Effulgence? What did he do? Where did he live?”
“He lived here, down in the cellar, of course. No one else ever saw him. That’s not what I cloned him for.”
Well, that one threw even me, and I’m trained for the unexpected. Yes, cloning’s the in-thing these days, but you still need something to clone from. That’s why I still keep my darling Katie’s little finger, just in case I go too far one day, though at the time I was cutting it off I admit I was doing it simply for pleasure: we were going through one of our little tiffs.
The good Reverend smiled indulgently.
“You’re wondering where I got the DNA? Let me remind you, St John again, chapter 20, 6-7: ‘Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seethe the linen clothes lie, and the face-cloth, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.’”
What did he think I was? Your average uncultured assassin?
“The Turin Shroud? That tatty old sheet that’s supposed to have been wrapped round Jesus’ body in the tomb, and seems to have got a negative photographic image of a crucified man on it? Don’t come that old chestnut with me. That was Carbon-14-dated ages ago, and proved to be medieval, not first century.”
“Hardly proved,” muttered Jenkins, for the first time looking a bit nettled, “since they only took tiny samples from the edge of the cloth, which could well have been contaminated by later accretions. But, yes, its authenticity is in doubt, and besides it would have been impossible to break into Turin Cathedral and steal it. Too well protected. And anyway, what I needed was blood. And there was much more chance of finding that on the Oviedo Sudarium.”
Damn, he’d got me there. Sudarium? But come on, my hobby is to break limbs, not read up on Fairy Tales For Religious Nutters.
He told me that the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo in northern Spain is now really famous for one thing – it’s the only cathedral in the world with just one tower. This wasn’t minimalist design, it was poverty. But it used to have a lot of prestige. El Cid himself had a quaff or two in 1075. The reason was the silver chest in the Cámara Santa, which contained what was believed to be the Sudarium, or face-cloth, which had been wrapped round Jesus’ head on the Cross to mop up the blood and serum coming out of his nose, and which was taken out of Jerusalem at the time of the Persian invasion, reached Seville, and then moved north in stages before the Moorish advances. But times change, and very few have even heard of the Oviedo Sudarium, all the glory being stolen by the Turin Shroud. The Italians just have more razzmatazz than the Spanish, and besides, the Pope lives there.
Jenkins went on to explain how the Sudarium is only brought out to be viewed three times a year, twice on saints’ days in September, and then again on Good Friday, and how he had broken in and stolen it at the end of September, knowing that it wouldn’t then be missed again for six months.
He’d then cloned Jesus from the DNA he’d found there.
By now I was growing impatient. OK, so the guy was funny, and had a neat way of hacking off limbs, but was he trying to take me for a sucker? I know all about Dolly, Polly, Golly. And all the mice, cows, cats, cockroaches, and top models cloned since then. Cloning takes time. Not just six months.
“There speaks an abandoned soul!” Jenkins said sadly. “You think a god isn’t going to grow a bit quicker, you idiot?”
I saw that he had a point, but I gave him a backhander anyway. Guess in my job it’s a kind of reflex. Besides, my darling Katie’s third lover had been a vicar.
He turned the other cheek, bless him, so I gave him another backhander, and then we went down to the cellar, and, yes, there sure enough was a pretty impressive looking laboratory. (I learned later that Jenkins wasn’t the first priest to play around in labs. Apparently, Hoffman’s mad scientist in Der Sandmann was modelled on the Roman Catholic priest Lazzaro Spallanzani who filled in his time blinding bats, decapitating snails, and resurrecting dried microscopic animals. It also turned out, would you believe it, that Jenkins had once turned down a job in the Roslin Research Institute – you know, where they cloned Dolly – because Wilmut and the other researchers were ‘amateurs and charlatans’ and had ‘a pathetically superficial knowledge of genetics’!)
In one corner of the lab, there was another freezer with the door hanging open and shelves full of what looked like a lot of Easter eggs for undernourished Hobbits. But I only noted that subliminally. Because next to the freezer was a cross.
A used cross. Unoccupied now. But used.
Don’t ask me. In my profession, you just know.
“But why the hell did you have to crucify him?” I asked the Reverend, who was tenderly releasing a fly trapped in a spider’s web.
He looked at me pityingly. “Don’t you know anything? A lot of good it would have done us if the Son of God had turned up the first time, taken a look round Palestine like Queen Elizabeth visiting Australia, and then just gone back to Heaven with unwanted gifts of Middle Eastern coffee pots and pictures of the Roman emperor! He had to die and be crucified to absolve us of our sins. The power lay in the crucified body, that was the whole point of it. The same with my new Jesus. Don’t think I enjoyed it! Or that it was easy! Have you ever tried to lift a struggling man up on to a cross by yourself?”
Well, not entirely by myself. My darling Katie and myself were still close at that time. That was the guy who’d sliced off… but I don’t want to think about that. But then he’d deserved it!
The Reverend was reminiscing. “And the names he called me! You could tell he had royal blood all right!” The gentle smile of the tolerant fanatic played about his lips.
I’d always thought the original Jesus must have done a bit of name-calling, too! ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’ my ass!’ Sure, I can just see it!
Well, we had a pretty gruesome murder on our hands. A benign-looking parish priest somehow breaks into a Spanish cathedral, steals one of its relics guarded behind an iron grille, impossibly clones a man from old DNA in the cloth, accelerates the growth so that there’s a full-grown man within a few months, crucifies him, chops him up into wafer-sized pieces, and offers the pieces to his congregation on Easter Day.
Pretty bad, eh?
Well, that wasn’t the worst of it!
Those Easter eggs, you see.
The good Reverend suddenly noticed the open freezer, dashed across, and scrambled among the eggs – which I now saw were made of glass, not chocolate – with the ferocity of a tumescent, but unprepared, man searching for an unused condom. The eggs all had a spherical hole at one end.
“They’ve escaped!” he screamed.
The Reverend Albert Jenkins was a true visionary, a man who cared deeply about the whole human race, who hadn’t just wished to save the souls of his own small flock on this one Easter Day, but had planned to stamp out the Eucharistic fraud everywhere for a long time to come. A passing lamb had provided the uterus for his Jesus (no longer the Lamb of God, but the God of Lamb), but he had retained a hundred embryos which he had intended to later implant in other unwary passing lambs.
Now I admit I’m only guessing here. Very little research, it seems, has been done on divine chromosomes. A divine cell doesn’t necessarily obey the same laws as a humble undivine one, as Jenkins had found out with his accelerated Jesus. Certain faculties may be developed before the organs normally associated with them. The auditory sense, for instance, might precede the ear. Prayers not only have to reach as far as Heaven, which I’m told on very good authority is quite some distance away, but frequently aren’t even uttered until one reaches one’s death bed, by which time one’s voice tends to be muted. Maybe straining to hear these deathbed prayers had preternaturally developed the Divine audition.
Now the good Reverend had crucified his Jesus just a few feet away from the embryos. What if they’d heard the nails going in, sensed what was in store for them, and during the week the Reverend had been in a coma, done a bit of accelerated growing up by themselves, and then scarpered? Can’t say I’d blame them really.
Of course, I had to report all this to Section Thirteen. And the instructions went out just as I’d expected.
Search and destroy.
The world is ruled by economic imperialism. But judging from the antics of the original JC in the temple with the moneylenders, his clones wouldn’t be likely to accept that. And some of those Commandments! No other gods: end of the pop music and film industry. No killing: end of the armaments industry. No bearing false witness: end of politics and international diplomacy. No coveting your neighbour’s cow or wife: end of capitalism and good healthy competition.
In short, living by Christian precepts would rapidly bring the Christian world to its knees.
The next few days were tense. The Section’s greatest stroke of luck was when the main body of jaycees got cornered in Portsmouth, remembered their old skills, and cockily walked across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, making rude signs as they went. Hubris. Next day the island was nuked. Pity about the local inhabitants, but Section Thirteen has to see the bigger picture.
After that, it was a case of mopping up. Three jaycees foolishly headed for the Vatican, and were brought down by the halberds of the Swiss Guard on the direct orders of the Pope himself twitching furiously, and still mumbling incoherently, on his Balcony. Well, he stood to lose most, I suppose. Bit like King Lear: once you hand over your power, people don’t want to give it back.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre used their expertise and accounted for half a dozen more jaycees. Quite a few were spotted because of their allergic reaction to the sight of a cross, and a fair number were nabbed in brothels: well, each generation does tend to rebel against the earlier one. One particularly cunning fugitive even set himself up as a pawnbroker, but gave himself away by offering fair prices for the articles pawned.
Oh yes, Jenkins ’s jaycees got up to all the tricks in the book, but Section Thirteen has branches in every country in the world. Soon we were pretty sure we’d bagged the lot.
Like Woody Allen in Zelig, this one popped up everywhere. Tiananmen Square, the White House Lawn, Red Square in Moscow, Mecca, the banks of the River Ganges, Super Bowl stadiums – anywhere where there was a crowd he would appear, stick his tongue out, blow raspberries, make dire threats, and somehow melt away just before our agents could get there.
Me, I bided my time. I knew that he would become more and more human every passing day. I knew that in the end, he would fall victim to that most elemental of weaknesses – the desire for vengeance. I knew that some day he would come back to settle the score with the Reverend Albert Jenkins.
And he did.
And I was waiting with my Kalashnikov.
He’s got plans. Big plans. Big horrible plans.
Losing ninety-nine brothers. That’s a lot. Kind of hardens your character. Seeing as he got resurrected on Easter Day, he declared last night as we placidly drank daiquiris, he’s going to wait till All Hallows! Samhain. And it won’t be the spirits of the dead he’ll be raising, but what’s left of their bodies. They’ll start with the World Bank. Chuckling, he said to me: ‘For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom he will.’ Check in St John, chap 5, if you don’t believe me, you heathen!” He clapped me on the shoulder. “It’s not just the Devil who quotes scripture, you know!”
Oh, come on! The gun was just to show him I wasn’t negotiating out of weakness. You think I was going to blow away a guy who could heal the sick? Raise Lazarus? For a guy like that, my embarrassing problem was nothing. I don’t limp any more, and it sure does feel good having my balls back again.
My darling Katie’s back with me now, of course, now that I’m complete again. I guess that was the root of our problem all along.
Of course, I had to give him the Reverend in exchange. And I did feel a bit sorry for the old guy, dying like that – upside down, too, and in such a public place as the Dome of St Paul’s! – but then he had planned to crucify another five score jaycees.
Yep, I really do believe I’m going to enjoy working for my new boss.
por Marian Womack
The ospreys’ deaths—by the dozens—are inexplicable, as is the bluish taint on their beaks, heads and chests. It simply should not be there. I should know, for I designed the birds.
Every morning, day breaks over the mudflats, covered in osprey corpses and unexpected bluish reflections, as if a hundred will-o-the-wisps of the wrong colour were advancing over the watery surface. The smooth flat mirror of the mudflats shines indigo: fluorescent, freakish, wrong. From their beaks, and from sores on their chests and bellies, there pours a tainted viscous liquid that resembles watery gelatine, odourless and sticky to the touch.
This is, of course, not what our star product for the Scottish ecosystem should do. Our fabricated birds, to start with, should not die this soon, a mere fifteen years after their release into nature. They are engineered: to sustain longer life, eternal in some cases, to maintain fish numbers—a delicate dance of environmental equilibrium.
‘Dr Hay, your presence is required, code A-001.’
A summons from God himself. I cannot recall being asked to Philip’s office since our last disagreement, and that was months ago. But I do what I’m told. In recent times I have been treated by everyone as a newcomer, or at best an embarrassing uncle. No one remembers that I was here at the beginning, exactly like he was, building the company up from nothing. Fighting against those who believed our work unethical. I risked as much as he did, more in fact.
‘Thank you, Dolores.’
I close the intercom, walk towards the cabinet, and slide open its glass doors with a light wave of my hand. Behind a row of gold-tooled volumes, I find a little bottle of vodka that I take gently to my lips, with a furtive movement, in case I’m being observed.
The green rocks and hills of the Scottish highlands reflect the yellow glow of the bio-engineered grass, and the landscape shines on the other side of the glass and white-aluminium dome. The colossal hall, built to the proportions of our greatest achievement to date, the de-extinct monolithic squid, is a vast oblong chamber of pure whiteness into which the landscape pours its new colours. On sunnier days the yellow and orange reflections are almost unbearable, and the glass octahedrons taint themselves a shade or two darker to keep us sheltered. The Highlands can be particularly hot during the winter months.
The dome is a hive of these glass panels supported by white aluminium, a triumph of de-modernized architecture imitating late twenty-first century design. The vast column of the aquarium occupies the centre, placed there to greet the visitors with our impressive bio-engineered reproductions: sharks, whales, dolphins, coral, moonfish. The squid moves gracefully amongst its fellow inmates. I walk round the watery cylinder. It takes me seventeen minutes to complete the circle. I notice new species locked in there. Apparently, we have starfish now. Only the natural-correct colours, in accordance with the Scottish Law on Bio-Ethics, and the International Consensus on De-Extinction. We pride ourselves on reproducing environments; no one is interested here in the new fashions for violet sheep or pink cows. We leave these frivolities as the pets of rich Russians.
Philip’s office has its own private elevator, as well as another entry-escape route: a helipad on its balcony. I press the only button in the white capsule. The answer comes back in flashing red; it has been a while since I have been granted direct access to him.
Two members of the security staff push the doors open to find me there.
‘Sorry, sir,’ one of them says, their attitude relaxing a bit. They have obviously been briefed. They put down their white machine-guns, one of them presses the button again, and the system reacts, positively this time, to his DNA.
The doors close and the elevator moves upwards.
Philip is standing behind his desk when I enter. His office is immaculately white, as is everything else in XenoLab.
The genetically-engineered Siberian tiger, re-imagined by Neo-Bio to be as tame as a gigantic cat, is stretching in the middle of the chamber, causing echoes as he plays with a worn-out red plastic sphere. I cross the vast space, cavernous with the sounds of the beast, and those of my own shoes over the white marble.
‘Andrew, dear friend,’ Philip’s voice resonates. His hair and his trimmed beard are also white now, I notice, in communion with our corporate surroundings.
‘Philip. You wanted to see me.’ I hope I don’t sound like an obedient child.
He looks down, turns awkwardly and advances towards the glass-wall on the south side of the chamber. He looks diminutive with his hands behind his back, looking through the glass in the direction of the distant aviary, an external structure of gigantic proportions, shaped like a huge pinecone.
‘How have you been?’
I would like to imagine that there is some genuine interest in his tone of voice. But I know my ex business partner well enough not to hold false illusions. Nonetheless, his question brings Barbara’s face back to my mind. It was probably designed to do exactly that, throw salt into the old wound. I hate him for it.
‘Marvellous.’ There’s no point hiding the lie. ‘What’s up, Philip?’
He cannot see the birds from where he stands. It is obvious he’s looking in the direction of the cone to avoid turning to face me.
‘The ospreys were one of our first, were they not?’ he says laconically. I notice he still speaks the same way, ending sentences with a negative answer. Manipulation 101.
‘That is correct.’
‘I am sorry to say this requires swift action. We cannot allow the reputation of our company to be affected.’
‘What do you propose?’
‘Go there, back to Black Isle, and take a small team, of your choosing. Find out what is wrong with the birds.’
‘I need someone I can trust’. I believe him, God knows why. Perhaps because I want to believe him, even after everything that has happened.
‘Why are a bunch of birds so important, Philip; what aren’t you telling me?’
He turns and smiles briefly, more with his squinting eyes than with his mouth.
‘Nothing, old friend, nothing.’ Now he is the one who doesn’t bother to hide the lie. ‘But they were some of our first, were they not?’ he repeats.
His meaning dawns on me at last. I never had his powers of memory, and it’s been fifteen years. Fifteen years in which I have had reason enough to forget.
I reply that I’ll do all in my power, and turn in the direction of the elevator. Before leaving I specify that I will go on my own. He does not refuse me this small request, the only victory I contemplate gaining anytime soon. I savour it in silence.
‘Andrew,’ he calls as the elevator’s doors are closing. I push them open, and wait for him to speak. ‘Andrew. Mendez has already been there.’ This surprises me. I thought I had kept myself informed of the company’s recent goings-on. It had obviously been a secret outing. ‘He went and returned, no conclusive results. You should seek him out, talk to him.’
‘Of course, I will do so first thing.’ I let the doors go.
‘Andrew!’ I put my foot just in time once more between the doors before they close.
‘Yes, Philip?’ My tone is ironic, disdainful. Each one of us is back in his proper place, and mine is obviously that of the delivery boy.
He looks in my direction again, and advances towards the elevator. I did not expect this; I tense unexpectedly. Even at a distance he looks haggard, strangely old. I wonder if my ex-friend has stopped following his re-juvenating bio-treatments. ‘Mendez is in Hospital Zero Zero Sixteen. Committed. Mental ward.’ The matter-of-fact manner with which he delivers this piece of significant information freezes me out. I leave at last.
The elevator takes me back down into the hall. This time I fancy that I see a bluish foam coming out of the whale’s mouth as she exhales. There is nothing there. It is only a reflection of a rare passing cloud over the glass cylinder, staining the structure with its shadow.
I am alone in bed. Dolores has just left me and gone back to her own compound. I get up and go to the bathroom and splash my face with cold water.
I open my computer and connect myself to the company hive. ‘Black Isle’, I say to the screen that waits flat like the surface of calm stagnant water. The requested information starts popping up fast over the screen, reports and charts and scientific articles, and I am startled by the number of species that we have introduced into that particular environment. Not only birds, but fish and mammals as well. Insects, some species genetically engineered to help decimate the rapidly multiplying ones. Genetically modified grass, the kind that won’t miss the disappearing clouds. Flowers. I wonder how much of the landscape is fake in the place, how much of it remains original, if any.
Close to us, Black Isle was one of our first proving-grounds. A small peninsula twenty minutes to the west of Inverness, it is placed right in front of the vast watery expanse of the Bauly Firth in the North Sea. On the opposite shore, the hills and the glens of The Aird are visible in the distance, with its farmland and its pretty copses, and a soft mist dancing over the small summits.
The Bauly Firth is an unusual spot. The place is subjected to dramatic changes in its ecosystem every few hours following the tides. For half a day, twice a day, the water recedes, and an expanse of mudflats extends itself further into the distance, crossing the whole bay and reaching the Aird, a strange black mirror filled with the inevitable quick-sands, a deceptive landscape that looks barren but that is full of life. I notice this landscape of an entire bay without water has been called in the company reports “a long view of a lot of mud”, not very flattering.
The mud houses a particular type of animal life. Afterwards, in a few hours, all of a sudden, the water re-conquers it all, with its undulating dark glimmer. It is then when the birds reappear, together with certain type of fish, seals, dolphins, crossing the bay in direction to Inverness. Enormous hen harriers and cormorants, diving gracefully into the water to hunt their prey, small martens running around, birds coming and going, ever-changing, as subtly as the rhythms of the water. The place is utterly fascinating for a biologist. The bay becomes a completely different biological environment in each of its distinctive phases.
Black Isle is also one of many self-contained late twenty-first century environments, protected by its own glass and aluminium dome. The company will organise the necessary paperwork to grant me access.
The ospreys were not simply one of our first; they were our first one hundred per cent success story. After the ospreys, everything else came swiftly, easily, and Neo-Bio gave a massive leap forward. Everything changed. When they first disappeared, the transformations in our ecosystem posed an unimaginable danger to our species. Hundreds of birds suffered a sudden decline in numbers, vanishing, at the same time as their main food, small insects, increased in numbers out of all proportions. Maintaining the insect eaters constant became XenoLab’s first mission. After the success with the ospreys, we turn our attention to the insects-eaters, re-imagine them with a supra-hunger. Success after success, our reputation grew without equal.
I remember the day we freed the ospreys. They all had a white tag embedded in their legs, shiny, easy to spot with binoculars.
I glide over the avenues and the open squares, marvelling as always at the daring of some of our competitors. I ascertain, even from manoeuvring-height, that the new fashion for taking polar bears as pets has reached our city, as has the one that prizes giant lizards, tigers, and other unusual animals for human company. My opinion about this hasn’t changed: It does not matter how tame these beasts have been re-imagined by Neo-Bio; it is obvious that this new fashion for modifying the instincts of species not suited for human company has to pose some kind of danger.
At least, the Scottish Republic’s law spares us from the blue bears, the orange lizards. I will not be able to stand seeing them around when they are legally available, which will surely happen eventually.
I negotiate the narrow entry into the parking dock at the block where the hospital is located. I do not know this area of the city well, but my vehicle has brought me in with the autopilot. It is a new model, provided by the company, a convertible which will also run over ground once I am granted access to the domed zone of Black Isle.
I show my credentials and am ushered quickly to the exact place by a young assistant doctor. I am impressed by the effectiveness and power that a card from XenoLab still commands.
The hospital is as white as every other building in the city—Scotland still misses, all these centuries later, its snowy winter landscapes—but I am led through one white corridor after another until we reach a back area outside of the main wards, and here the paint is peeling, the plumbing is exposed over the walls, the lights flick, covering each turn in increasing darkness.
We stop in front of a metal door with a dirty hatch for food. The door is unlocked and I am pushed in, then it is locked again quickly after me.
The place is hardly illuminated by an orange bulb. Mendez is a formless bundle in one corner.
‘Mendez?’ There’s no answer. ‘Mendez?’
He turns and finally sees me. He tries to focus his eyes on me, tries to recognise me.
‘I am waiting for him.’
‘Do you mean Philip?’
He looks up, and crawls closer. He has aged beyond recognition. His re-juvenation program had stopped him at age twenty-four. He looks nearly forty now, or perhaps fifty. It is difficult to know.
‘God’ he says simply. Just before I ask again if he is talking about Philip, he utters a few words that I don’t quite catch, and takes something into his mouth.
He is eating flies. I don’t even know where from. There are no flies—not officially at least—under the city’s dome.
‘What have you said?’ I ask.
‘Pan. I am waiting for him.’
I do not have a clue what he is talking about, but understand I will get no useful information, and leave. His mind seems to be gone completely.
Later, I will be reminded of this in Black Isle. While I am in the hospital, all I think is that Philip has made me waste my time, as usual, and get unduly annoyed.
I stay with Peter and Anita, the allocated occupants of Pier Cottage, exactly like I did fifteen years ago. The house enjoys a privileged situation, a mere five minutes walk from the Gothic ruins of Red Castle, a small turreted structure abandoned to rot at the end of the twentieth century, when its owner decided he could not pay more taxes on the property and removed the roof to stop paying them.
On the right side of the cottage there is a path that leads into the old quarry, with its oddly flat and reddish walls cut into the hill. The house and the Castle are both built out of this local stone, as it is the abandoned Victorian pier that gives its name to the cottage, put there in order to transport the stone from the quarry into Inverness over the bay. The pier’s abandonment means it is no more than an overgrown greenish and rocky long structure that advances into the water, hard to walk over, and which gets dangerously covered by the regular tides.
Apart from the striking landscape, and the Gothic ruin of Red Castle, Black Isle is particularly rich in Megalithic chambered cairns. It was inhabited in 3000 BC by prehistoric men, and New Stone Age folk constructed these tomb-buildings. There seems to be two main types on the isle, the Orkney and the Clava, one rectangular and one a stone ring, with a circular burial chamber underground. I promise myself to visit some before my fieldtrip is over, something I did not manage to do during the release-trip all those years ago.
Everything is pretty much unchanged over the past fifteen years. Anita’s cat startles me as much as it did back then, its red eyes marking him out as one of the first, discarded models of genetic manufacture of the old days, reimagined not to attack the birds but unsuccessful in every other aspect. Everything is pretty much the same, including Anita. Her smile still awakens something in me. The way she looks at me makes me think that she hasn’t entirely forgotten our brief affair. I take mental note of this.
The place is quite magical, utterly unspoiled. That is, unspoiled but at present subtly different from what it was, due to the interaction of companies such as ours with the landscape, precisely so as to keep it unspoiled. It is strangely unreal, this truthful version of a late twenty-first century Scottish ecosystem. The irony does not escape me. It has been my major point of conflict with Philip in recent times.
The green expanses reflect the yellow glow of the genetically engineered grass. Once the motorway crosses the bridge over the water, you find yourself negotiating narrow winding country roads framed by little stone walls, trees and thickets. Some of the moss over the fake walls is also fabricated. I can see it plainly even from the moving vehicle.
From the window of the kitchen one can observe even without binoculars the birds that come to the feeders, mostly chaffinch, greenfinch, blue tits, bullfinch, and a rare young woodpecker. Several of these birds are of our own manufacture, as an inspection with the binoculars reveals the white tags in their legs, shining with their unusual plastic glimmer. Not the woodpecker, however. He seems the genuine article.
We walk over to the pier. To reach its end a short walk is necessary, no more than three hundred metres, but I am reminded quite soon how hard is to advance over the abandoned structure. The overgrown reeds and the muddy grass have covered it all. The seaweed climbs onto it from its deceptive little shores. But the worst is that the remaining rocks of the man-built pier are now out of place and out of shape, as if a giant had scattered the original square stones from the sky without looking to see where they would fall. Time and abandonment have covered them in the green of the reeds and the grass, so much so that it is impossible to find steady ground, or even to avoid holes and uneven spots where it would be easy to twist one’s ankle.
We need nearly half an hour to get to its rounded end.
Halfway onto the pier, the grass is spotted here and there with the corpses of crabs of different sizes. They are all the same kind of local specimen, and they are all tainted with the irregular bluish-green. I collect several of them, and some of the bluish-tainted grass around their emptied bodies. The cottage is provided with a small working lab, well enough equipped to carry out small tasks. Anita is carrying plastic sample bags, and Peter is taking digital photographs for my initial report, for which these notes are intended. They both have been most helpful.
I see a figure over the mud, and I put my binoculars to my eyes: a man is dragging a net-fishing bag full of what I can make out as the huge cadavers of a few birds, bleeding their cobalt liquid into the darkened mirror of the mud as he walks.
‘Who is that?’, I ask.
‘Oh no. Good gracious!’
Peter advances to the uneven border of the pier, and starts shouting at the man.
‘McKenzie! You’re going to drown, you stupid son of a bitch!’
I am startled by his reaction. I remember Peter as an educated, mild-mannered, retired science teacher. He turns in my direction and explains.
‘Tomorrow morning those birds will be laid at our door.’
I am not offered an explanation as to how the man McKenzie, who is braving the quicksand in such reckless fashion, knows of Peter and Anita’s connection to XenoLab, or why he directs the birds’ death towards the inhabitants of Pier Cottage. Or how much he knows about our de-extinction work in the area. But that he is angry at us is clear.
Later in the day we observe the tide covering the mud, rapidly filling the Bay, splashing around the pier. The remains of the structure get completely covered except for its round tip. I make a mental note to find out the tide times as soon as possible; it is more than likely that venturing into the pier again will be needed, and I do not desire to get stranded there, with the vicious winds and the vicious seagulls.
I see the man McKenzie is walking along the shore, dragging behind him his trophy of dead fabricated birds.
I am thinking of how quiet has this new nature turned out to be. There are hardly any bird sounds, an unexpected silence. I know by memory the osprey’s call, as described in my field guide: A short, cheeping whistle, sometimes slightly declining. I guess I can remember it; I certainly can imagine a sound described like that. But I haven’t heard it once here, and it has been a while since I’ve heard it anywhere else.
What I have seen is their clear white bellies, the black wing patches, when the birds glide overhead. I have seen them, alive and flying; and I have also by now collected their cadavers and dissected them by the dozens. The man McKenzie has not graced us so far with his grim reaping, despite Peter’s assurances that he would.
Evening approaches, and my hosts must be preparing dinner. I am out for an evening walk after one of this dissecting sessions, trying to regain my appetite with some much-needed fresh air. Almost by impulse I turn at the last moment in a two-way path and venture into Red Castle’s abandoned grounds. I reach the structure, inspect the plaque on the wall, inscribed with the date 1641, and I look over the Bauly Firth, the bay in front of me in its formidable vastness. I admire the Castle’s formidable defensive position. I decide to push into the extensive woods and to come out on the other side of my hosts’ home. I trust my instinct not to get lost, and to cross eventually into the area of the old farmlands, now covered in decorative crops.
Barbara would have liked this contrasting landscape. I bury the thought as deep as possible.
Something is shinning blue on the Castle’s grounds. It’s a hare, or a rat. It is difficult to ascertain, as all there remains is a furry wet pulp of flesh, and something that looks like a strange bluish-green gelatine.
I pack the remains of the animal into a sample bag, and carry it back home with me.
I am in bed when I hear a dry bump against the main door. I look out of my window but see nothing. The next morning Anita shows me a robin, dead from the collision with the door of Pier Cottage. Inside his breast a bluish heart is shining. The right leg displays its whitish plastic tag.
My notes from the previous trip to Black Isle are little more than useless. Apart from the observations of the releasing day proper, they contain nothing helpful. The acquired wisdom of observations relating to the weather. Indications for sowing the seed, for when to begin harvesting. Customs outmoded now, since we have completely eradicated hunger with our genetically engineered crops, destroyed death and illness with the widely available re-juvenating processes.
I remember those nights in which Anita explained these wonders to me: that tomorrow’s weather starts to be foretold the previous evening, that if swallows fly high in their search for insects, there will be good weather. If the cattle bunch together in a corner of the field, rain may be expected.
There is only nice weather now; it was one the first things man learnt to interact with. Our satellites, strategically placed around the globe, provide a never-ending provision of cloudless skies, mild temperatures, constant and bright sun.
If the lights of the Aurora Borealis, or Merry Dancers, sweep across the sky, and Scottish countryfolk can see them from their homes, disturbed weather is on the way. I do not know very well what the Aurora Borealis is. Must find records on the company hive; I remember clearly making the same promise to Anita fifteen years ago, while I noted down all these. I obviously wasn’t interested enough, and only took notes on these useless bits of local information as a means to flirt with her.
Fifteen years ago, Barbara waited for me back home. There had not yet been any renal failure, no transplant from the genetically-engineered pigs, performed strictly against her religious wishes, and no final rejection of the animal’s harvested organ by her body. Fifteen years ago we had not managed to crack that side of our business, I’m afraid, and Barbara was little more than an experiment for Philip, a stoat, small but vicious, a little guinea pig.
Red rowan berries protect against witches. Some flowers (broom, hawthorn, foxglove) should never be taken into the houses. Robins have a drop of God’s blood in its veins. It is unlucky to hurt one of them for that reason.
Barbara would have said that God himself was angry with us, producing the blue viscous liquid. Was Jesus’ blood meant to be bluish? Or was that what was said about kings and queens in the tales of the old days? I wish I had kept the old meaning of these things buried in some field notebook, I wish I had my own archive, my own private hive, my personal stack of useless knowledge from past days.
When I see him is too late to hide. The stone circle, in the middle of a round, dark meadow, half covered by the treetops falling on it from its side, offers no other hiding place than the actual cairn that I have come to visit, which turns out to be a mound with a little excavation entrance. I glance over it; it seems blocked, or rather leading nowhere. It is too late anyhow to escape. Are the Neolithic tombs also a decoration, perhaps? No time to muse about it.
‘Morning’ I say.
‘Morning’ he answers. He stops in front of me, and says nothing else. He has his hands on his pockets.
Attack is a good defence and, since I’ve got the notion that he considers me the enemy, I waste no time:
‘I guess you know who I am, and what I am doing here.’
He smiles crookedly but says nothing, taken aback by my forwardness no doubt.
‘Oh yes, I know who you are,’ he says at last.
‘And how can I help you?’
‘Oh, no, you cannot help me… You cannot help us.’
This is leading nowhere. I start again:
‘Look, man… McKenzie, isn’t it?’
‘I just want to show you something.’
I am not surprised by his offer. I had expected something similar to these: proofs of the company’s mismanagement of the environment, threats of dismal intensity, perhaps just expecting some kind of compensation, maybe in the form of re-juvenating credit.
‘Very well,’ I say at last. ‘I’ll come.’
We head deep into the woods, leaving the quarry behind. Very soon there is no sight of the sea, although it can clearly be heard from practically everywhere in Black Isle, due to the lack of animal noise I have already noted. The sound of the water makes me feel strangely at ease.
His cabin is quite well kept, a fresh lick of whitewash on the walls, recently fixed wooden fences. A kingfisher hangs by the door, dead and somehow preserved, to ward off the strong sea winds.
He takes me towards the back, into a small working hut. I wonder who this man is, why he is allowed inside the dome, what role he performs, if any, on Black Isle. I gather that he has what are called ‘historical rights’, that is to say, that his family has always belonged to the area, and therefore he can stay. A controversial idea. But I cannot imagine any other way in which he would be allowed to be here.
He opens the door and then I see it.
There is absolutely no smell, but the animals, of all sizes and shapes, are the bluish mash I have half expected. I am in shock. There are not only birds here. A bucket is filled with what looks like different kinds of insects and rodents. The birds are hanging upside down. At the back of the hut there is a dead blue-sheep lying on a worktable. I have no idea such large species have also been affected. I turn round in disbelief.
‘Where did you find her?’ I asked.
‘She was mine, my sheep.’ That is all the information he offers.
When I leave I am asking myself what have we done here, and what we should do next.
My report concludes: the experiments I have conducted with Anita’s help have formulated no final theory, although I am still waiting on the samples I have sent Philip’s way. But I really see no way to stop this extravagant virus which is not a virus, but which seems nonetheless to be spreading all over the area, at a level I could not have anticipated. The animals themselves seem to be carrying this possibility of de-continuation. I offer no possible solution. There is none until we look more in detail into the issue. I recommend the creation of a research team back in XenoLab to start working with immediate effect. Secretly, of course. I understand the sensitivity of the topic. My final prediction is to expect more cases outside of this particular dome, quite soon. I fear that all our product will eventually de-continue itself, everywhere. This possibility is too horrible to contemplate.
The cat is staring at me with his ‘evil’ fake red eyes. He comes and rubs himself against my leg, and I shudder. I go to sleep and my mind is uneasy, heavy images of what I have been shown hanging on me. I dream of Barbara, of the days prior to her operation.
I was privately offered another option before that fatal day: a experimental dose of proto-phomaldeion to keep her in animated suspension, living eternally, until the xeno was not experimental anymore, and we had better results with the harvesting of organs from animals. I never got to see the huge capsule where the substance would be provided, but in my dream a blue syrup is injected into her small arm, and Barbara cries blue tears as the liquid fills her up.
Philip is also crying blue tears while his face, no longer treated with the re-juvenation process, collapses into old-age all of a sudden, in front of my very eyes, while he communicates to me her passing.
I wake up covered in cold sweat, and wet with tears, thinking about xeno-suspension, xeno-cloning, and other rapidly progressing issues I simply cannot cope with, but which nonetheless are under way, even in the minutes of the Scottish parliament’s Bio-Regulation Commission’s latest meetings. I lie in bed thinking that, perhaps, Philip has been right to cast me away from the front line of things. I am an old-fashioned man, typing these notes with my fingers on my computer instead of talking into it, collecting field notebooks written with ink, or rather a succedaneum of ink manufactured by myself, since it is impossible to find where to buy it. A man unable, as it were, to accept the realities that surround me. Perhaps I should commission a shiny red goat as a pet, and snap out of it once and for all.
Philip has read my report, and demands to talk with me through HiveCam, but I do not have my profile active anymore, although that small act of rebellion on my part comprises a breach of company regulations. I then receive a strange message through an encoded email provider, contracted during the early days of the company, and which we used to communicate highly delicate issues. We have not used it to talk in years. I am confused when I see the red flag on my screen, until I suddenly remember what it is.
I command the computer to open the message. I am even more confused after reading it: ‘Code Z-666’. Get out. Leave. Abort operation. I’ve always prized myself on knowing the company’s code-protocols by heart. I helped write them after all.
I trust I’ll find the cabin of the man McKenzie. I trust that I will not get lost. I reach without problem the stone circle with its Neolithic tomb, and from there I try to re-orientate myself. I do reach the cabin, and the hut, eventually. I hardly notice the twilight, which is nothing more than a pale-grey sky miles higher, beyond the distant dome.
It’s a statement, and affirmation. I walk in the direction of the strange man.
‘What do you want?’
‘Talk, just to talk.’
I am not sure which kind of help I expect to get from him, but if nothing else I want his assistance to conduct a larger survey of Black Isle. I’m also carrying the digital camera, and want to ask permission to photograph the animals in his hut. For now, I let myself be led into the cabin, where the man flicks on the electric kettle.
The man rinses a few herbs and puts them inside a teapot. He pours the water.
‘Do you take sugar?’
I say no. He puts some in my cup anyway. The infusion is still acidic in my tongue.
‘Do you want any of this?’ he says holding a small bottle of whisky. I say no, wishing it was vodka instead.
‘What do you think is happening here?’, I ask.
He shrugs for an answer, but says:
‘Nature will re-conquer, will she not?’
I am startled for a second. Something unexpected has happened: the way he has spoken has reminded me of Philip.
‘She will battle back,’ he continues, in his dark Scottish drawl.
I look into his eyes, and then I see it. Philip’s eyes, his nose. In a body twenty years his senior. I consciously wonder what the hell is going on here.
I get up and go towards an old-fashioned static-photograph on the wall, where two children are showing the animals they’ve hunted to the camera, each of them holding a huge bird by the legs. The Bauly Firth’s mudflats shine behind them.
I turn to say something more, but I feel unexpectedly dizzy. My vision blurs, and I try to find something to grab.
The herbs. I am a biologist. I suddenly recognise the herbs he has made me drink. I think I’ve seen a hedge of it outside, with its horny stems and foxglove-like flowers. Datura stramonium.
Thorn apple, devil’s apple, devil’s trumpet, feuille du diable, herb du diable, green thorn apple.
I fall to the floor at last. I look up, and a blurry image walks in my direction. McKenzie. Or rather a re-imagined version of the man McKenzie, completed with hooves and horns and the face of a sheep.
I close my eyes to the hallucination, and doze happily into oblivion.
I wake up cold, uncomfortable, wet. It takes me a few seconds to understand where I am lying, at the very end of the pier. The tide is coming in, in full spate. I notice that there is water all around me. Only the rounded end where I have been dropped is not covered by it. There is no escape now until the tide goes down.
I see them then: hundreds and thousands of dead fish, floating over the grey-bluish water.
It is at this moment that I understand Philip’s strange message. But I understand its meaning from a distance, far away, impossible. Through the clouds of my sleepy and confused mind.
Then the birds start falling from the sky, hundreds of them.
Behind me, a huge roar announces that the trees in the Castle’s grounds are collapsing.
Everything is dying, at the exact same moment. As if someone had orchestrated it all, or pushed the required button from a safe and distant location.
I notice the sea is exploding now: here, where it has always been an unmoving mirror of greyness.
From the sea, an enormous whale is coming in my direction. Only it doesn’t look like one. It looks like a shapeless monster, bleeding its blue foam as it advances into the pier.
I try to remember a prayer, but I can’t.
I close my eyes and think of Barbara.
The whale opens her mouth and swallows me up.
This short story was translated from Spanish into English by the author, and it is included in Alucinadas, the anthology of science fiction short stories written by women in Spanish published by Palabaristas.
Kings and Thrones in Fantascy: An interview with Saladin Ahmed and Joe Abercrombie
by Cristina Jurado @dnazproject
It was the beginning of March in Dubai (United Arab Emirates). A cool breeze stroked the creek in which the Intercontinental Hotel was, the setting for the Dubai LitFest, one of the main cultural events in the Middle East and, certainly the high of the literary season for me. Fate, destiny, coincidence, luck or a combination of them all worked to bring together Saladin Ahmed and Joe Abercrombie to this festival. Both were announced in the beginning of the year as the authors of the next releases in Spanish for Fantascy: Throne of the Crescent Moon and Half a King were translated into Spanish. I decided to take this providential opportunity to meet them in a very noisy place, the restaurant of the hotel, and had a conversation in which we spoke about their books, about Fantasy as a genre and about their craft, among other things. Well, I really just questioned them and they very graciously answered and interacted with each other. This is the complete transcription of that meeting.
Thanks to everybody in Fantascy and Penguin Random House for helping organizing the encounter and, specially, thanks to Saladin and Joe, Joe and Saladin, for your interesting, captivating, intelligent and funny talk.
Cristina Jurado: Thank you so much for being here with me, Saladin Ahmed and Joe Abercrombie. I just want to start with a brief description of the novels that are going to come out in Spanish in the next few months. In the case of Joe Abercrombie is Half a King (Medio Rey) and I want you to describe briefly what is it about.
Joe Abercrombie: Sure! Half a King is, I guess, a young adult (YA) fantasy novel set in a Viking-style world. It follows a character called prince Yarvi, who is the second son of a king. He is been born with a malformed hand, so he is unable to hold a shield, or to row, or do many things that are expected of a man in this society -this warrior society-, which he finds himself in. He is being trained to become a minister, which is a kind of adviser, a keeper of knowledge, a healer, traditionally a female role and quite an important one. But when his father and brother are horribly killed, he is forced to become a king himself, and he tries to use his skill of cunning knowledge and expertise to overcome so much more physical enemies.
CJ: Now we are going to proceed with Saladin Ahmed. His novel is called Throne of the Crescent Moon (El trono de la luna creciente). I´m going to let him present his novel.
Saladin Ahmed: Throne of the Crescent Moon is an adventure fantasy novel that it takes its inspiration, rather than in European History, in Islamic History. It is set in an invented made-up world. That world bears a resemblance to medieval Bagdad rather than Medieval Britain. It stars Adoulla Makhslood, who is an old man who´s profession is being a monster hunter. He finds himself at the end of his life, ready to retire, and yet, as things often go, he cannot quite retire. There are still dire forces threatening the city that he loves, so he finds himself at one last quest. As his aging body and tired soul are having to mobilize themselves, he faces this last challenge.
CJ: One of the questions I want to ask you both, as writers of fantasy is, why fantasy? And why epic fantasy?
JA: Epic fantasy sells very well (laughter). It´s also what I´ve read a lot as a kid. I think we all, as writers, tend to write, at least to begin with, the kind of thing we like to read, the kind of thing we enjoy reading. For me, I grew up reading a lot of fantasy. I played a lot of role online games. I became quite steep in fantasy, I suppose, on the shining, heroic, quite predictable kind, and felt the lack of some of the darkness, and grits, and counter-focused elements you find in noir pictures and westerns, and some of the other books I was reading. So I suppose, for me, writing epic fantasy, it´s being about bringing some of that noir sensibility, the more modern style approach, the side-focus on character, the grittier and the more anti-heroic, more morally ambiguous characters into that epic fantasy setting. That just what´s always interested me.
Historical fiction needs a lot more research and that´s hard work and I would rather avoid hard work as much as I can. I think that fantasy gives you the opportunity, as well, to combine a lot of different influences and ideas, different historical periods in all kinds of different ways. If you want to write a slightly western-style scene, or sequence, or book within a fantasy setting, you can do that. If you want to write more like a romance, you can do that. It´s very flexible and fluid, and gives you all kinds of opportunities. You don´t have to necessarily sit down and very punctiliously and carefully work out exactly how the world was, exactly what kind of windows had, or what kind of trousers people would wear in a given time period. You can just throw different combinations together in whatever way suits the drama of a scene. You don´t have to do a lot of research.
SA: For me, Throne of the Crescent Moon was almost inevitably the first novel I was going to write because, like Joe, I grew up reading a lot of heroic fantasy, playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and stuff like that. It really shaped the way I see narrative and the kind of archetypes that I´m attracted to. Somehow, like Joe also, when we write, we sort of write what we love reading. But we write modifying it according to who we become since those golden days of reading. For me, one of the great lacks that I saw in epic fantasy was a concern with settings other than a version of Medieval Europe. Because of my background (I´m of Arab descent), very naturally I started imagining what these seem archetypes of the virtuous holy warrior, and the cranky old wizard, all these sort of familiar figures, and thinking what those would look like in a more Arab and Islamic context. And also became an opportunity, because of that, to start to question not just the setting, the sort of superficial furniture, but also the kind of values that that would entail. So, this is why my protagonist is an old man, who is sort of protecting his homeland, rather than a young man who is going out and exploring new worlds. Arab culture is for a number of reasons, and especially in the 20th century, very concern with questions of homeland and defending tradition, rather than breaking it. That was very important to me, to convey in this mode that I love so much, and other things that for me are just personal poetically, not so much about the Arab setting. I´m a leftist kind of guy in my political outlook, so I got tired of reading books that were all about princesses and kings and nobility. I wanted to think about “what if the guy hunting the monsters and going on a quest was essentially the equivalent of the garbage man,” except of his working class job is killing monsters. Those intersections, the clash of cultural difference and geographical difference, for me fuse, very intuitively, with my geeky love of the more traditional fantasy.
CJ: I want to talk about the violence in epic fantasy. I guess it´s part of the genre, and it makes it incredibly attractive to young audiences. What do you think that violence brings into the stories: credibility?, a reflection of the times?, or just sells adrenaline?
SA: For me, this is a fraud question from the beginning because I´m a lefty but also something close to a pacifist lefty. I don´t like violence and I don´t think that violence is a very sustainable way to solve problems. And, yet, we have this inheritance of how problems are solved in genre fiction, whether is superheroes, or space battles, or knights and dragons: you solve problems by killing and blowing things up. It was like squaring a circle for me to put my personal attitude towards violence side by side with the fact that I hate real world violence, but I love watching martial arts film where one guy just bits the shit out of thirty other guys in the room. I had a bit of a cheat in my book, most of the targets and violence are essentially unanimated monsters. I have to think, as I get more and more further into the series, about more violence between people, and the cost of it. My main character is a very weary figure and he is weary partially because of the blood and killing that he has seen in his life. It was important to me to trying to maintain the action, dazzling fight scenes and, at the same time, to question where all that leads. There are some quite bloody scenes, although my novel is generally suitable for a thirteen year old. I hope those bloody scenes didn´t come cheaply, that we can look at this violence and be entertain by it, and let if rise our adrenaline as you said, but we need to think about what it really means if you are in a culture that is solving problems with swords and arrows.
JA: I suppose epic fantasy is a very violent genre, it always has been. It usually takes place against a kind of background of warfare. It often features violent people as the main characters: in The Fellowship of the Ring there are warriors, fighters, killers… some other characters, like Aragorn, is a swordsman first of all, a fighter. He fights his way through a lot of orcs, if those were people, one would be horrified. I suppose epic violence is very violent, but it concentrates on the outside, on the heroic and “shinning” aspects. I was always interested in what that contrasted with how is war in the real world, how damaging violence is for both the victims and the perpetrators, how often those who come back from war come back very damaged, very unlikely to become noble kings and good husbands, specially if they are very good at killing people with weapons. I was very interested in investigating that, looking some characters who feel very deeply the consequences of some of the violence, both they are committing now, and what they´ve done in the past. They were struggling with what they have done, unable to escape the consequences of what they´ve done. Time often gives us magical ways to escape consequences, to heal wounds, to repair damage and I wanted to look at characters who didn´t have that option, who caused a lot of damage and were very damaged themselves. I wanted the violence to feel very real, visceral, involving and personal. I didn´t want to look from above, from a distance, and describe simply the big battle scene from the top of the tower. I wanted to feel like if you were really in the midst of it. I tried to bear in mind that kind of simultaneous attraction and repulsion we feel towards violence: we are fascinated by it, but we are also horrified by it. I tried to look at that, and be as honest as I could about it.
CJ: When I read Half a King and Throne of the Crescent Moon I found some similarities, not just because they are both fantasy, possibly epic fantasy,…
JA: And because they are superbly well written, of course.
SA: Yes, yes.
CJ: …because they are superbly well written, of course, and both writers are equally attractive
JA & SA: Oh, yes, yes
JA: … as it happens
CJ: I thought it was very interesting, even though the main character in both books have not the same age, but we have Yarvi in Half a King, which is a main character- and we have Rasheed in Throne of the Crescent Moon, which is the second most important character, a youngster also in the process of learning. As you mentioned before, Saladin, I though that could appeal to younger audiences. Both characters are examples of bildungsroman, the initiation kind of novel. I want you to comment on the importance of this initiation in the novels.
JA: In Half a King the idea was to write a novel that was partially aimed at younger readers. Young adult fiction is became a very wide canvass. There are all kinds of work in there, all kinds of genres and types. The one thing you really have to have in a YA book is a YA protagonist. I´ve read a lot of used-up, old world-weary cynical characters, autobiographical I suppose you can say. During my carrier, my adult books tend to feature some of those types of characters, so I was quite interested in trying a character who was almost “unformed”, who was coming of age, who was finding about the world, and was perhaps a little cloistered. It was quite an interesting experience for me. When you write a book that is from the point of view of a character who is fifteen or sixteen years old or so, inevitably there is a coming to age quality to it. This particular character goes through quite an ordeal. He has to find his own way of negotiating very dangerous and tough situations and, hopefully, to learn his own road to adulthood, and take responsibility for his own life. I think that´s a kind of very classic story, and one that we are always interested in hearing again, with slightly new “furniture”, with a new type of character and a new angle. I guess the same way the First Law book was my take on epic fantasy, Half a King is really my take on that coming-of-age tale.
SA: For me it´s interesting because, tonally, Throne of the Crescent Moon could easily be a YA novel, except for the fact that the main character is an old man. Almost everything else about the book could fit very neatly into the subgenre of YA fantasy. Rasheed, who is the main character’s assistant -his partner- is kind of the second character in terms of the amount of page time he gets. He is a young man in his teens, literally cloistered –he grew up in a monastic order-. He is just coming of age in this city full of, to his eyes, sin and decadence and all this. He is starting to wrangle with his sexuality and all of these thing he didn´t have to face growing up in this kind of warrior monk monastery. Having him in there, for me, was almost a subversion; traditionally, he would be the main character. This young man would be the focus of the story. My main character –Adoulla- would be the kind of advising wizard. Instead, my aim was to focus on the old wizard who has seen a lot, and to have this other character to provide a counterpoint to his world-weary-bitter and tired voice. There are a couple of other characters who serve that function -Zamia is another one-. The bildungsroman was not making this book at this point, then. There is this character from a bildungsroman fantasy who happens to be in this other sort of story. In another world, Rasheed would be the main character of his own book, but this is not the story I wanted to write.
JA: That duality, pairings that represent the two sides of the same cord, like Holmes & Watson –the genius who lacks the humanity, and Watson provides the humanity Holmes could never have-. Yarvi again has some old guys around him, who provide that aging experience and old weary voice. He is the essential naive voice, if you like. Similar in the First Law book, without even thinking about it, I had a young guy who was counterbalanced by a sort of older mentor. It is a timeless set up in a way, that pairing, that complements each other.
CJ: One of the things that I also like about both your stories is that they have, as you Saladin mentioned in your presentation before, strong female characters. Some of them are quite different that the stereotype. I can think of Laithlin, the mother of Yarvi. I thought it was a lot of like Cercei in certain ways. Also Mother Gundring, who was a presence throughout the story even though she wasn´t there, but she was. In the case of Throne of the Crescent Moon, of course I thought of Zamia, this wonderful character -a shape-shifter- that can become a lion. She is also very important in the plot. Why did you choose to make those characters like that? What did you wanted to achieve?
SA: As I was saying throughout the presentation here at the Festival, that´s an archetype, that kind of woman warrior like Xena or whatever warrior princess archetype, this woman who can beat up any men around her, like also in martial art movies. Those movies are a big influence in the action side of this novel. That kind of kick-butt women characters is a statement. It was inevitable that one of those types was going to end up in my book. In my particular instance though, having that kind of character also served an important purpose that is part of the whole ethos of what I am doing in this book, which is to dismantle stereotypes that existed in the West about Arabs and about the Islam. With the figure of Zamia, in particular, it was about stereotypes about Arab women, and about what the role of Arab women is, how they conduct themselves. So I just had the most kick-ass character in the book, a character that can literally tear a guy to shreds, who was going to be this teen Arab girl. That was wired there almost from the beginning. I had this couple of characters that I knew they would be there from the beginning, and she was one of them. There is also a prominent older woman character, Litaz, who is an alchemist of sorts. She really is in there because… she came out of the story but, when I looked back and analyzed what I was doing, which I wasn´t doing consciously at that time, she is in there as a kind of scientist figure in the novel. She is the most rationalist of any of the characters. She is in that role partially, I came to realize, as a counterpoint to the notion of female characters as the emotional sounding board for the novel, and the embodiment of the novel´s heart rather than its brain, if that makes sense. Having a character that coldly measures everything and reduces everything around her to a mathematical formula, I think is much more powerful if it´s a woman, because we are not used to thinking of women as that sort of figure. If anything, she is the book´s Mr. Spock. I think there is something interesting when you have a woman in that role rather than a man.
JA: When I wrote the First Law, without thinking about it, I reached for a very patriarchal faux-medieval sort of epic fantasy society. Most of my characters were men. I was minding male archetypes, I guess, like the wizard, the boy who will be a king, and the man of honor, and that kind of things. I made them all male characters. I realized overtime I´m not done too well in terms of female characters, and in terms, generally, of just having women present in the story, even in the background. So when it came the time to write in a new world, I was quite keen that it should be some mechanics within that world that would very easily allow me to have some women in the story.
CJ: Like Sumael, for example?
JA: Exactly, yes. I hit this idea of having the warrior´s sphere and the sphere of work, and war being the male areas of control. And women have always been given the responsibility of the households and wear the key of that household around the neck. The household has grown and has become the whole area of property, and money and currency. The Queen is responsible for her husband´s property, so that makes her responsible for the money of the kingdom: she is become the chancellor and the supreme merchant. So merchants and ships captains are often female, a lot of crafts people are female, because they´ve taken over their husband´s businesses and things like this. Half a king has a lot of variety. I wanted to write many types of different women in the story, if I could. I´ve done some quite “male” women before, some badass women if you like, which is great. I love those kind, but I wanted as much variety as I could. This story is happening at a time when money is becoming more and more important, as it was in the Viking world. As the Vikings expanded into Asia, they brought a lot of silver home. Therefore, I wanted female power, and the power of money to be becoming much more powerful, almost unbalancing the nature of the culture. Forces acting against that are almost what set the story into motion. So I have Laithlin, the mother of the main character, who is quite cold, calculating, very cunning merchant, a banker really. She is becoming very powerful by virtue of her innovation in money. You also have a ship´s captain, who becomes very important over the life of the main character.
CJ: I cannot pronounce the name.
JA: Shadikshirram! She is a very dangerous and quite physically powerful woman. There is also Sumael, who is a navigator and is very valued, and effective, and important because of her ability to read the stars and find a way from one place to another, which is quite a key and limited skill. I really was keen to get just as much variety as possible. The next book has, again, a very different range of women, with a woman in the central role this time: a girl who is very keen to try to impose herself in the male sphere and became a warrior. I was interested from the start to make sure this time around I got a good range of women in there.
CJ: What is it with people and disabilities, either physical or emotional? Well, often times when there is a physical disability there is also an emotional one attached to it. Why is in the stories?
JA: I´ve always been fascinated, I supposed because a lot of the fantasy I read as a kid featured a lot of very perfect heroes, a lot of physically perfect and emotionally very sure of themselves and confident heroes. I guess I thought people who have fought a lot of battles are likely to be to some degree injured or left emotionally or physically very damaged by their experiences. I wanted my characters to reflect that. I often have very scared, very emotionally and physically scared characters. I thought that there are people in real life who struggle with disabilities of all kinds, constantly. There would probably be many more or so in a medieval style society, if you like. Many of these characters were know to be born like that, in one way or another. There are quite few very noted Viking figures, which were disabled one way of another. There is a famous figure called “Ivan the boneless”. Nobody knows why he was called “the boneless”. He was supposed to be carried into battle on a shield. He couldn´t walk properly but he was an extremely powerful and important figure. So there is a good tradition there, and an interesting area to mind. I´m interested in the way people who are not perfect, who don´t have all the advantages, make themselves known and have a big impact in the world, maybe through means that wouldn´t be considered normal in that culture. I´ve always been fascinated by those kinds of people and I feel we don´t see enough of them in fantasy. So I wanted to put in a few myself.
CJ: (To Saladin) Would you consider the main character in The Throne of the Crescent Moon, emotionally wounded?
SA: Yes, I would. His parents died a violent death like in Batman. His physical exhaustion was a pretty big thing for me. I´m asthmatic, I get wheezing easily, I was a geeky kind of kid in that way. As Joe said, so often in fight scenes there is this gleaming well-oiled muscled Hero who swings a sword for hours without tiring. I´ve got a couple of characters like that in there, but my main character´s physical exhaustion was a very big thing that I wanted to convey. He spends a lot out of the book physically winded, the fat old guy walking up the hill, he has to stop to catch his breath and he might get killed when he is doing that. The toll that Adoulla represents is a physical and certainly an emotional one: from a lifetime of seen people die around him and killing some people, he has what we called now PTD (Post-Traumatic Disorder). He is trying to get some distance from that life and some peace. There are also minor characters that are physically and traditionally disable figures in that society because they are very prominent figures in the Arabian Nights, which is a very big influence on the book. Partially because of what Joe was saying, there was a lot more disability that had no –I don't want to say cure-… there was no means of dealing with that physical disability. Many conditions that now may be treated early on …
JA: Like asthma?
SA: Yes, like asthma or just all sorts of things. Those figures are going to be actually fairly large in certain percentages of the population. People are going to get ill and that illness leaves a physical mark, a toll on the body in a pre-industrial era in a way that doesn´t probably so much today. The cities in the Arabian Nights are full of one-legged guys or one-eyed women or whatever. Those figures are not necessarily at the center of the novel, they are a lot of Adoulla´s friends –he is a street guy- have some sort of physical disability of one sort or another.
CJ: Let´s talk a little bit about the writing craft. I want to know about the process that you follow to write your work, if you write outlines, or character cards, whatever is interesting about the process of writing in your case.
SA: I have the limited experience of only having one novel under my belt and having struggle mildly with the second one. I did outlined quite extensively. Literary fiction differs from genre fiction that the latest has such a heavy emphasis in the plot. I don´t know many genre writers who don´t outline in some way or another, just because there is so much invested in the building of suspense in the structure, what happened before what happens, the characters have to go here before they can find this thing, and they need to do this… it´s much more of an emphasis in fantasy that it is in, let´s say, traditional literary fiction. If one is writing a genre novel, and unless you are one of those very exceptional rare people who can just have them pour from of them, I think that outlining is pretty essential to the craft. I do a lot of outlining and also a lot of deleting, probably more that what it is healthy. I´m a poet by training, actually, so I get very perfectionist about each line and paragraph and how they connect together. I tend to just scrap things when they are not working. I edit as I write, essentially. When my editor bought the novel, this is one of the things she remarked. She said “I´m so glad I won´t have to edit this”. She was pretty happy with the level of polish. That´s because it takes me forever to write: I got three, or four, or five drafts of a paragraph, scraped them; three, or four, or five drafts of a chapter, scraped them, before I actually get down what I need. My advice is, don´t do that, because it would take you four years to write a novel that could take you a year, otherwise.
JA: My process developed a lot and tends to be a little different with each book. I was a very exhaustive planner. I wouldn´t start any book without planning any more than I wouldn't start a house without a plan, the chance of a dangerous collapse was high. So a plan is always a good thing to have. You can always move off the plan later, if better ideas occur. But without a plan you never know where you are going to end up. I plan quite carefully. With these books a started planning a little less exhaustively. I tend to start with a good idea of where the book is going, breaking it up into parts and, then, I plan each part as I get to it. By the time I get to the start of that part, I usually have a much better idea who the characters are, how the relationships are developing, what´s making better sense so I can plan more tiredly as I come into it, imagining the whole thing at once. It´s easy to throttle a project by planning it too much. It´s nice to start writing and, hopefully, get some excitement about what you are doing, get a feel for what your doing, let the characters talk to each other and develop a little bit so you feel “Ok!, This is going to work. I like the feeling of this”. And then, when you start planning with that in mind, it´s a bit more vivid, more vibrant and lively. So I try to let the writing and the planning to work together a bit more, these days. Beyond that, what can I say? I think everyone has to work out the right process for them.
SA: I would like to say, for the aspiring writers out there that, in particular in fantasy… I started to freelance editing occasionally as a side line, and I see a number of unpublished novels from aspiring writers, and a great many of them read like rings of notes that have been dumped into a novel-like shape. I think that comes from, essentially, people imitating Tolkien, and feeling like they need to do all of this world building, like they need to have all. You have a handful of authors who have an entire language mapped out or a map with every town and city for the whole world, even though the action takes places in this much of the map, and yet they haven´t written a lot of actual interaction between characters or not a lot of a plot happening. Having a skeletal plan at least, a skeletal outline, is close to essential for most of beginner writers because, I think Joe is right, you can get very bought down in that kind of planning, and loose the joy that can generate the energy when you are actually writing. I have a very specific tip that it worked for me and that I´ve seen it work for other writers-another writer once gave to me- which is: write the first three chapters of your book and, then, write the last chapter. Like that, you know where this is going and, of course it will change, of course it won´t not stay the same, but you´ve got an end point and you´ve got your beginning point: you are building a bridge. It´s a trick and it won´t work for everybody, but it´s worth trying.
JA: I did that almost without thinking about it, I think, not when I was writing the first book but, as I was starting to write the second book, I kept having ideas about what the final few scenes might be. Because when you are suddenly grit to it, here there is another dialog and another and another… things start spilling, like dominos falling, I just typed out a few paragraphs of a scene until I got all bored, but then the end will start to develop and, by the time I got to the end, I actually have written pretty much the last ten to five chapters. They needed tweaking and changing but, basically, it was all there. Again, I think that´s an excelent advice, because, if you know what the end is going to be, if you know where the end is, in a way that dictates the rest of the book.
CJ: What do you think the Spanish audience can get out of your books?
JA: I would hope that Spanish audiences would get what any other audience would get, which is a thrilling mixture of page-turning adventure, vivid characters, thrilling action, roaring excitement, little bit of sex…
CJ: And sex?
JA: In the YA books obviously you don´t have too much explicit sex but a little light romance, some nuzzling, perhaps. Just a good story: some shocks, some twists, some surprises, something page turning and exciting with a few humor on the way. That´s what I would hope for.
SA: You forgot modesty (laughing).
JA: I´m the very God of humility.
SA: Like Joe, one hopes that the story that is been told can transcend languages. I hope that what English readers have told me, what they found there, this interesting world with characters that they want to continue living with, a very exciting plot, and fun fighting scenes, the traditional staff of fantasy novels. Particular to the Spanish audience would be the influence of Arab culture and civilization which, of course, is a big part of the history of Spain. Maybe Spanish speaking readers generally, but particularly the readers from Spain, might find some sort of reflections of architecture, the long cultural shadow of the Moorish Empire. You´ll see some neat reflections of that in what is still a very exciting– noir fantasy novel.
CJ: To end this wonderful conversation, Joe, is there anything you want to ask Saladin?
JA: When is your second book coming out?
SA: I knew you were going to do that (laughing). 2016 in English, at least, in the beginning of the year. And hopefully, not too long in Spanish.
CJ: Great! And is there anything you want to ask Joe?
SA: How did you get so handsome?
JA: (Laughing) It´s nothing special, just seven or eight hours in the gym, it´s eating carefully, is a crippling skin care regime… all those things. Careful shaving! I spend two to three hours a day shaving
The Grace of Ken Liu, an interview
by Elías Combarro firstname.lastname@example.org
Ken Liu is one of the most acclaimed short fiction authors of the last few years. With his short stories, he has won almost every award in the field (Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy Award... you name it), some of them even several times. Now, he has published his first novel, The Grace of Kings, an amazing epic fantasy with Ken Liu's unique style. I've had the pleasure and the honor of talking with Ken Liu about this novel and his work in general.
Elías Combarro: You have written and published more than a hundred short stories in the past years. How different was the experience of writing your first novel? Did you have to change your creative process?
Ken Liu: It was a big change to go from short stories to novels. The most surprising thing for me was how important recordkeeping became to maintain basic continuity. For short stories, it was possible to keep the whole thing in my head and just take notes on a few critical, recurring details. For the novel, on the other hand, I had to take extensive notes on every decision: timelines, subplots, clothing, character description, linguistic quirks, etc. It was like writing an encyclopedia for a world at the same time I was trying to drive a story forward. I gained a great deal of respect for TV writers on long-running shows who also have to deal with such a challenge at a (possibly) far vaster scale.
I ended up employing a technological solution by maintaining a mini-Wikipedia for Dara, my fictional world. It’s come in really handy for writing the next books in the series.
EC: In The Grace of Kings we find emperors, warriors and epic battles, but also airships and submarines, gods and other mythological elements. What is exactly “silkpunk”?
KL: “Silkpunk” is the name I give to an aesthetic based on an economy and technology level somewhat similar to medieval China, but with extrapolation and development of select key technologies far beyond their real-life historic counterparts. For instance, I imagine kites being developed for military use as early gliders, and passenger-carrying flying machines based on Kongming lanterns. There are also echoes of steam engines, gunpowder-based rockets, and other similar ideas. The homage to “steampunk” should be obvious.
Just as steampunk often straddles the line between sci-fi and fantasy (I don’t think many steampunk inventions would actually work), silkpunk contraptions are not intended to be one-hundred-percent plausible from an engineering point of view. Though I’m a technologist at heart, I’m working in the traditions of Western epic fantasy and Chinese historic romance here, and generally I’m satisfied if my engineering calculations show that the inventions are within an order of magnitude of being functional.
EC: You’ve mentioned that your novel is loosely based on the history of the Han Dynasty. How much would you say is based on real events and how much is fruit of your imagination in The Grace of Kings? What kind of research did you need for writing the novel?
KL: I’d say that The Grace of Kings retains as much of the history of the Chu-Han Contention (primarily in Sima Qian’s accounts) as James Joyce’s Ulysses retains the plot and characters of The Odyssey. Readers who know the source material will see the parallels and understand how the fantasy world maps roughly on to history, but readers who don’t know the history will not be at a disadvantage in enjoying the story. Just as Joyce was interested in writing a modernist novel with mythological echoes, I’m interested in writing a new kind of epic fantasy with historical echoes, not “magical history.”
I am, after all, a fan of wonder and surprise and gritty battles and opulent palaces, and so this is a novel filled with water beasts who bring soldiers safely through stormy seas, magical books that know our innermost desires, maids and princesses with secrets and plots, gods and goddesses with their own agendas, and heroes and heroines who share in honor and courage.
Most of my research fell into two categories. One part involved reading the Classical Chinese texts to extract the bare bones of each episode, which I then re-created in my fantasy world, taking care that they still served the new narrative arc. The other part involved working out the various silkpunk technologies, cultures, languages, myths—this meant a lot of reading of old patents, specialized books of scholarship, and all sorts of fun computer modeling and simulation.
EC: The world building of The Grace of Kings is truly amazing, with lots of details that make it vivid and believable (I’m thinking, for instance, about the fragments in Ano language, or the social meaning of the different seating positions). How did you approach the creation of a whole world and its history, language and customs?
KL: I read a lot of accounts by various authors of how they go about world building and took bits and pieces of their advice that worked for me. My wife, Lisa, knows many more languages than I do, so I asked for her help in creating the artificial language. I’ve always had an interest in history and anthropology, and I knew that to make a believable world, an author had to think both about deep culture and surface expressions.
I also took a lot of inspiration from East Asian cultural models, and I tried to be careful and respectful by not “copying” these cultural details over literally, but by creating something new that echoes the source material without suggesting that it is a representation of the source.
Above all, what worked for me was to do the hard work of actually writing that Wikipedia for Dara so that I could be sure that the world was solid, even if readers would only get to see perhaps 1% of it.
EC: The Grace of Kings is the first part of a trilogy. Why did you decide to begin your novel-writing career with a series instead of a stand-alone book? When can we expect to see the second and third books? And what are your plans after finishing the trilogy?
KL: I didn’t start out planning to write 200,000-word doorstoppers (much less a series of them)! I was a short fiction writer, and writing at such a length was something I had to learn in the process. Indeed, The Grace of Kings began life as a stand-alone work, but as I wrote, I found that the characters and the world demanded a larger canvas and a longer arc than a single book could provide. I had to pare back the plans for the novel again and again, and in the end it just made sense to structure the work as a series instead.
The second book is scheduled to come out in 2016, and the third book in 2017.
EC: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
KL: Interested readers can go to my web site: http://kenliu.name to learn more about my novels, short fiction, and translations. I’m also active on Twitter at @kyliu99. Finally, I encourage fans to sign up for my monthly newsletter at http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/, where I announce giveaways, share interesting news, give sneak peaks of my upcoming releases, and explain a bit about my creative process.
EC: Any other thing you’d like to add?
KL: Besides my original fiction, I also do a fair amount of translation of Chinese fiction into English. One of these translation is The Three-Body Problem, the first book in author Liu Cixin’s bestselling hard sci-fi series about first contact and mankind’s journey to the stars. I’m pleased to say that the book has garnered a Nebula nomination this year, which testifies to Liu Cixin’s skill as a writer and the book’s appeal. This is the first time a work translated from Chinese has been nominated for a Nebula, and it is only the second translated novel ever (after Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities) to gain such distinction.
I’m very honored to have had the chance to help bring this work to Anglophone readers, and I hope readers check it out.
Finally, thank you very much for the interview. I hope you and other readers have as much fun reading The Grace of Kings as I did in writing it.