“The Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String” is the second of your South East Asia stories that Fantasy has run. The inspiration for last year’s “The Integrity of the Chain” arose from a tuk-tuk ride. Could you tell us about the process of writing “The Spontaneous Knotting”? Was it also inspired by a specific event?
Maybe less obvious than the tuk-tuk thing—it was me walking around and seeing this woman walking from shop to shop, selling trinkets—and it sort of clicked. I wanted to write about this woman, or someone like her. And it tied in, strangely, with this scientific theory of agitated strings that I’d read about around that time. I thought, that’s pretty cool research! Someone needs to do something useful with it!
Going back to tuk-tuks though, one of the stranger evenings I spent in Laos had to do with meeting a midget hunchback tuk-tuk driver. The next day I had a terrible hangover so naturally I wrote a story about it. . . and “Aphrodisia” is going to appear in Futurismic in a couple of months. Life really is weirder than fiction.
In “The Spontaneous Knotting” memory and understanding are tied to language. Mrs. Pongboon reminds the girl that “mothers, too, were lovers once” and uses English words to associate her lockets with advanced technology. When her customers transfer their memories to the lockets, they erase even the language to describe the memory. What, do you find, is the relationship between language and memory? How does the relationship change when working within several languages?
It’s a tough one. I’m not actually sure how to answer it. I think English is very much associated with technology. I see it in Israel as well as in Laos. And then, since Laos was a French colony before, the French are still there trying to push the French language, while everyone in their 20s is out to learn English—there’re Business English books everywhere and courses. The English are winning against the French still. . .
But languages acquire words and terms from one another all the time. It’s very possible Chinese will be the dominant language in a century, or we’d end up with a new sort of pidgin. . .
I think the most startling—the most obvious—example, for me, of the way language works in the brain is in remembering numbers. I remember some telephone numbers in English and some in Hebrew, and it’s virtually impossible to make a rapid switch between them. So if you ask me for a number my brain stores in Hebrew, I will have to literally go digit by digit and mentally translate them for you—whereas I could just dial them immediately otherwise. It’s just a very clear example of the brain as a storage device—the same way we have a short-term memory “number buffer” that can store 7 plus/minus 2 digits.
So the brain as machine fascinates me, and the way you probably could, in future, manipulate it more directly with technology. We’re not there yet, though. . .
Now for a tangential question. Both stories mention Pepsi instead of Coke. Is Pepsi more popular in Vientiane? Where do you fall in the great Pepsi/Coke debate?
You’re absolutely right. Pepsi has a factory and distribution in Laos. Coca-Cola doesn’t. So while you can get Coke, it comes in from Thailand, whereas Pepsi has a strong presence everywhere (including advertising, etc.). In fact, the way you’d normally get a Pepsi in Laos isn’t by buying the bottle, but getting a plastic bag full of crushed ice, into which you pour the Pepsi, and then stick a straw in it. This way the sellers keep the bottles for recycling, see. . .
Which is unfortunate, because—please don’t tell anyone!—I’m definitely on the Coke side of the debate. . .
Your work on World SF highlights unity and distinctions within the global SF community. Do you see particular trends at the moment and where do you think the community or the market will head in the future? What would you recommend for authors or readers who want to engage with the wider community?
I’m not sure if there are trends—at the end of the day we’re looking at a whole bunch of very diverse people working in very different environments, and what I try to do—with the World SF Blog, and with the Apex anthologies (I’m working on a second volume at the moment, with a different geographical focus to the first volume)—is to simply showcase some of it.
It’s been very exciting—there’s a definite sense of people interacting with each other now, of a lot more openness. It’s telling that a lot of our visitors to the blog now are not from North America, but from mainland Europe and from Asia. People are bypassing the American SF scene to some extent, and talk to each other instead.
How do you engage with the wider community? You’d be surprised how just being interested can make all the difference. We never really run out of material to post on the blog! But of course, we have the whole world to look at. . . and you should probably pick up a copy of The Apex Book of World SF, to get just a taste of what people are doing right now.
Your debut novel The Bookman has recently been released in the UK and Australia and is due in North America later this year. Before we conclude, could you tell us what else you have coming up?
I have far too many books coming out in the next couple of years. The Bookman is coming out in the US in October; Camera Obscura, the second novel set in that world, will follow in both the UK and US in early 2011. I have a short novel due, probably this year, from Apex Books—Martian Sands is something between Schindler’s List and Total Recall—it has kibbutzim on Mars, possible time-travel, four-armed Martian warriors, plots, schemes, fictional detectives and the Holocaust. Apex will also release a revised edition of my novella An Occupation of Angels.
My novella Cloud Permutations should be out fairly soon from PS Publishing in the UK. It’s a sort of planetary romance set on a world settled by Melanesians, and about a boy who wants to fly. . . PS are also doing another novella of mine—Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (my sex, drugs and guns homage to sword & sorcery)—as well as a novel I’m tremendously excited about. I’m not sure when Osama comes out but when it does I’ll be very happy. A lot of commercial publishers were afraid to take it on and I think it’s to PS’s credit that they did. It’s going to be awesome.