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Interview: Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald is the author of the 2011 Hugo Award-finalist The Dervish House and many other novels, including Hugo Award-nominees River of Gods and Brasyl, and the Philip K. Dick Award-winner King of Morning, Queen of Day. He won a Hugo in 2006 for his novelette, “The Djinn’s Wife,” and has won the Locus Award and four British Science Fiction Awards. His short fiction, much of which was recently collected in Cyberabad Days, has appeared in magazines such as Interzone and Asimov’s and in numerous anthologies. His most recent book, Planesrunner, is the first in a series of young adult adventures.

This interview first appeared in The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which currently airs on Wired.com and is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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In recent years you’ve been writing these science fiction books set in countries like India, Turkey, and Brazil. How did you come to write those books, and what were some of your goals for them?

I’ve been interested in fiction in the developing world for quite some time. I live just outside Belfast, in Northern Ireland. It’s one of those places that’s kind of on the periphery of things. In many ways, it’s one of the least science fictional places in the world to grow up in. In another sense, it’s the perfect preparation for life in the twenty-first century—living through thirty years of civil, religious, and political violence is fairly good prep for the way I feel the twenty-first century is going to go. But it’s never really a terribly science fictional place. So in a sense, to write science fiction I’m always having to look somewhere outside my own country. I’ve written science fiction set in Northern Ireland, but I’ve found myself very much looking outside the country, and so if everywhere’s foreign, you might as well go somewhere interesting. I mean, the United States is as foreign to me as India or Turkey or Brazil is—we just speak a common language, and even that’s fairly tenuous. So that sense of not being at the center of things, of being very much on the periphery, it made me look for interesting places where the future is happening as well.

I started globalizing way back in the 1990s, with what’s known as the Chaga Saga—Evolution’s Shore, and Kirinya, and “Tendeleo’s Story,” the novella, which were all set in East Africa. And that got me thinking of other places where the future’s arriving that isn’t necessarily the West, and doesn’t subscribe to Western thinking or values. That got me thinking in a kind of—I was going to say a flash of revelation, but it was actually over a long boozy lunch with champagne, as you do, with my former editor John Jarrold, and we got talking about novels about India, because it’s the place for the great social novel. In a sense, a big fat social novel is a fantastic way to explore a science fictional future—you’re writing about an entire world, not just some technological change, but you’re writing about how that change works through an entire society at every level, from top to bottom. And we got talking about the great novels about India—A Suitable Boy, The God of Small Things, Midnight’s Children, all the big novels about India—and it kind of came to us that nobody had done the big science fiction novel set in India.

I tend to get the feeling that when Americans think about Asia, it’s always China/Korea/Japan, whereas on our side of the Atlantic we think of Asia, we think of South Asia—India/Pakistan/Bangladesh. And so in a sense it had never seemed to have really appeared on American science fiction radar, so I saw a gap in the market, which I fully exploited. And that got me thinking about other places, and other interesting burgeoning economies that are going to be major players in the coming century, and Brazil was interesting, and Turkey was interesting, because it’s the complete flip-side of colonialism. We tend to think it’s a white man’s thing, colonialism. Well, no it’s not. The Turks ran the Ottoman Empire for eight hundred years, and they have their own painful and complex—and ongoing—decolonization program, as much as the British Empire did. And that seemed to be an interesting kind of flip-side to a lot of the fairly obvious, glib stuff that’s being done at the moment—to actually move it to another colonial power, Turkey. And that’s quite a long answer, and I haven’t really touched on the science fictional themes yet.

Could you talk about some of those science fictional themes that you brought to some of those countries?

Yeah, so for River of Gods, it was artificial intelligence. I’d been reading quite a bit about AI. The way we seem to think about AI is, it’s going to be like us, it’s a little homunculus, a little miniature human being—a brain in a box—and it will think the way we think, and it will think the things we think—and this didn’t seem terribly convincing to me, because everything that makes us human is a response to the environment we live in, the social environment, the physical environment. Our intelligence has evolved in response to a fairly specific set of criteria and constraints. A disembodied brain in a box has none of those physical constraints. In a sense, it would be a copy of an intelligence rather than an intelligence in its own right. That started me thinking about, well, what are the differences between the way an artificial intelligence might work and a human intelligence might work? What are the different constraints, the different evolutionary factors? At the moment such computer intelligence as we have can only move if it’s carried around by human beings, in the form of a laptop, or if it copies itself to another platform, and then it can make endless copies of itself, whereas our intelligence is trapped in one place for one time, and the information degrades with time.

The more I got into this—I’d been thinking about India for quite some time—the more it seemed to in some ways reflect Hindu thinking, and the entire Hindu pantheon of small gods that build up into bigger gods that build up into even bigger gods, and then you come to the big three—the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity—at the top, and likewise, how that cascades down as well. And that rather pleased me aesthetically, that I had a nice non-Western model for how artificial intelligence might work, that huge artificial intelligence might be composed of thousands of smaller sub ones, none of which were totally conscious that they were part of a bigger consciousness. And I wanted to draw a portrait of a society—rather than just do the classic science fiction way of exploring one idea, one novum—and play it out through different characters’ lives. I wanted to go widescreen, and top to bottom, and write that big Indian social model of the future.

For Brazil, I looked at quantum computing, and the many worlds theory—which I’ve come back to in the kid’s book. And then in Turkey, I wanted to think about nanotechnology, and the kind of nanotechnology we’re likely to get, rather than magical assemblers or Fabi replicators or things like that. While I was researching things that scale down and things that scale up, I came across an exhibition in the British Museum in London of religious writing, and they have this Sephardic Jewish “micrography,” it’s called—which is a big letter, a big Hebrew letter, and the body of the letter, that one letter, is made up of lots of smaller letters, and then the bodies of those smaller letters are made up from smaller letters yet, so it’s letters and writing all the way down. And that struck me as an interesting way to think about nanotechnology—to give it a slightly Turkish perspective, a Central Asian/Middle Eastern perspective on things, to think of it in terms of the big composed of the small, and the small building into the big.

So what kind of response have you gotten from readers in Turkey and India and Brazil?

Pretty good. If I get grumbles, they’re usually from Westerners. I mean, I’ve seen several nice reviews from India that say, “Not bad for a gora,” which is a foreigner or a white guy, and that I take as praise indeed, actually. Brazil I found much harder to get an angle on. I’m not sure it’s quite as successful. The simple reason is it’s much, much easier in many ways—more interesting—to write about quite a conservative society than to write about quite a free-going and liberal society. In conservative society, your characters have much more to work against and play against, and it’s actually much easier and much more fun to write. Now, the book’s sold in Turkey. I haven’t seen an edition of it yet, but we shall see. I think I managed to vaguely insult Ataturk, possibly, which is kind of one of the “sins against the Holy Spirit.” I haven’t had too much feedback on that yet.

You’ve spent most of your life living in Belfast. How has that environment shaped your outlook and your writing?

I think as I said earlier, it is a perfect preparation for life in the twenty-first century. We’re becoming one big Belfast out there. We’ve had our bags searched on planes, and intrusive body searches and frisking, we’ve had that for about thirty years, so we’re all well used to it. In fact, you used to get searched going into shops, a quick pat down as you went in, just to make sure you weren’t carrying incendiaries or anything bigger. You got so used to it that whenever you went to London, you’d go into a shop, and for a moment you think “oops,” and then catch yourself about to stand to be frisked by somebody, and then realize that people don’t do that here.

In the early days, when there were no-warning car bombs, it was scary. Everyone was a target then. There was an event called “Bloody Friday”—I think we’ve possibly had every bloody day of the bloody week now in Northern Ireland, as in “Bloody Sunday”—but there was a Bloody Friday, where the provisional IRA left a series of car bombs in a ring around central Belfast. My ex-wife and her mother were shopping in Belfast when the bombs went off, one after another, and they didn’t know where to go, because you didn’t know where the next bomb was going off, and she said it was one of the most terrifying things in her life. There were thousands of people trapped in the center of Belfast trying to get out, but not knowing when the next bomb would go off. The IRA fairly quickly wised up after that, because randomly terror-bombing civilians does not win hearts and minds, and certainly didn’t impress the funding bodies in the United States as well. I’ve said this before, and I’ve been questioned on it by a few people, but I firmly stand by it, that Northern Ireland is a great post-colonial issue. Ireland was Britain’s first—and probably last—colony, and certainly the end game of empire is being played out there.

Do you see that coming through in your writing in any way?

It skews the way I look at things. I’m interested in societies with internal conflict, like Northern Ireland. I’m interested in political/social/religious divides. Where you have two different societies, two different religions running up against each other, two different belief systems, you have tension, and where you have tension you have drama, and where you have drama you have a story. So I’m naturally drawn to the chaotic, let’s say.

On Wikipedia it says that you sold your first story to a local Belfast magazine when you were twenty-two. What was the story, and what was the magazine?

The magazine was called Extro. It was a very glossy, very shiny local science fiction magazine run by a guy called Paul Campbell. And the story was called “The Island of the Dead.” It actually appears in my first-ever collection, Empire Dreams, which is going way, way back to about 1988 that came out. It was the first story I ever wrote. I sold it to him, and he paid me in cash in a bar in Belfast and shook my hand—if only all business was done like that—and I went out and bought a guitar with the money, which is the kind of thing you do at twenty-two.

Is there an active science fiction scene in Belfast?

We do have the biggest genre media event on the planet going on at the moment. They’re filming Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland. It’s just down the road from us in the old Paint Hall Studio, down at the Belfast docks. It’s right beside the dock where they built the Titanic, actually. It’s called the Paint Hall because they used to paint bits of ships in it, and a lot of the interior sets are all done in the Paint Hall. A lot of the exteriors are out and about around Northern Ireland. It’s quite fun playing spot the location, actually. Virtually everyone I know has been an extra in Game of Thrones as well.

Speaking of TV shows, could you tell us about how you worked on Sesame Street?

I was part of a production company, and the company I was with—it was kind of a new-start television production company—wanted to get into children’s television. A tender came in from Sesame Workshop. They wanted to do Sesame Street in Northern Ireland. Now, people usually fall about laughing when I say this, but it’s absolutely true. They’ve done productions of Sesame Street all over the world—I think there are 138 nations—to any place they feel needs a bit of the Sesame message. So it’s paternalism, but it’s paternalism with nice puppets. And of course you want to work with Sesame Workshop. So we devised a pitch, and we got the gig, and we got to design our own muppets, and we had them built with the Jim Henson Creature Workshop.

And there’s that thrilling moment you get when you go into the office, and there’s a big black box, about three-foot square, sitting in the middle of the floor, and you snap off the bands, take the lid off, and inside, under all the bubble wrap, there is your muppet. And of course the first thing you do is you have to put your hands on the thing and run around the office muppeting away at everyone. But the thing they don’t tell you, actually, is that after you’ve done a series of fairly intense, high-energy muppeteering, the inside of a muppet smells simply unbelievable. It’s like some evil mutant crab has crawled up inside it, covered itself in yoghurt, and then died and left itself to rot. That’s kind of what it smells like. It’s like a combination of really bad athlete’s foot and B.O. all together, just pure locker room. That is what the inside of a muppet smells like. So the next time you see Elmo pop up, just think what he must smell like inside, actually it must be really foul.

So your new book is a YA novel called Planesrunner. Can you tell us what that’s about?

Our hero Everett Singh’s dad gets kidnapped on the streets of London five days before Christmas, but he’s left Everett a little fail-safe device, which is an app on his iPad. He clicks it open, and out of it unfolds the “Infundibulum,” which is what Everett’s dad’s been working on as a quantum physicist exploring the many-worlds theory—always a hint in the character name. What he has discovered is the map of all the possible parallel universes. So far, only ten universes have got in contact with each other, using a device called a Heisenberg gate, more or less by hit and miss, but to have the map that allows you to travel anywhere, or open a gateway anywhere, in any of the billions and billions of possible parallel universes, is a pearl beyond price, and is the reason Everett’s dad had been kidnapped by the bad guys who want this information. So Everett, of course, goes on the run across parallel universes to try and get his dad back, and in the process he jumps to Earth Three, which is an earth that never had any oil. They had coal, and they discovered electricity late in the eighteenth century, so they had electricity and rudimentary electronics early in the nineteenth century, and he falls in with an airship crew—because it’s parallel worlds, you have to have airships—and adventure ensues.

How did you settle on the term “Infundibulum” for the world-traveling device?

It’s Kurt Vonnegut, isn’t it? The chronosynclastic infundibulum. It also gets a mention in John Crowley’s Little Big, where the structure of the world is “infundibular”—the further in you go, the bigger it gets. Technically, classically, infindubular means funnel-shaped, and I think I and John Crowley probably use it in the opposite sense to Kurt Vonnegut, in that the way we take it is, you start at the spout end and the further in you go, the bigger it gets, and it unfolds into many, many worlds. But certainly I like a good mouth-filling word.

You mentioned that a lot of the book takes place in this parallel London where oil was never used. Could you talk about how you got that idea, and how plausible you think that parallel world is?

I read a thing in New Scientist a couple of years back, and it was kind of “what-ifs in science,” and it was fascinating. There was the usual stuff, you know, Babbage and the calculating engine and all that—that’s okay. But there’s a fascinating one that . . . I think it was Cavendish, possibly—I’m terrible with names, I never remember names—but it might have been Cavendish, the English scientist, almost discovered the electric motor in the 1780s. If he’d done something different, he would have discovered the electric motor, and therefore also the electric generator. And instead of the dark satanic mills of the nineteenth century, it would all have run on electricity, and I find the idea of an electrically powered eighteenth century very, very cool indeed. So I thought, well, why not just take away the oil, so you don’t have any internal combustion engines. I wanted to have airships as well, because you have to have airships—parallel worlds, you have to have airships. I was trying to think, what’s a feasible world that would have airships? Well, one that didn’t have jet engines. Why wouldn’t they have jet engines? Because they don’t have any liquid fuel. Why don’t they have liquid fuel? Because they don’t have oil. And then, couple that with the whole idea of them discovering electrical power in the 1700s, and I suddenly had a world I really, really liked. And then extrapolating that into a present, you know, a 2011—in Earth 3, which is what this parallel world is—that seems convincing. There is another parallel world, Earth 2, which I refer to, which I’ll be coming back to later in the series, which is alternate geography, which is where Britain—not Ireland, Ireland’s fine—where Britain is an island lying just off the coast of Spain and Morocco. “Alberac,” it’s known as—a play on “Albion.” So it’s this very cool, high-tech Moorish London. I’m actually coming back to that because I like it a lot. It’s an extremely cool universe. I’ve got several others as well, but I can’t mention them, because it’s giving the game away! But there will be some very, very cool stuff indeed.

The book features a lot of invented slang. How did you go about inventing those words, and what are some of your favorites that you made up?

I didn’t invent it. I stole it wholesale. I’m a big fan of Polari. Polari is an old London secret gay language. Homosexuality was illegal until—I have a feeling it was the late sixties, early seventies, somebody can correct me on this—but it was fairly late in the day, and so to be gay was very, very much underground. People were prosecuted and sent to jail. Reputations were ruined. And like any underground culture, they invented their own language, and it wasn’t so much invented, it was borrowed—it was stolen as well, an honest bit of thievery. It was stolen from older subculture languages like Thieves’ Cant, bits of rhyming slang, bits of back slang—where you say a word backwards—bits of Romani, bits of Lingua Franca—which was the old Mediterranean trading language—bits of Fairground Cant as well, and it became Polari. It was pretty well known in England, actually, and it’s given lots and lots of words to contemporary English, like the word “naff,” meaning bad or trashy—you know, “That’s like a really naff hat”—is originally a Polari word.

And I’d been looking around for a slang. I didn’t want to use anything that was contemporary, because it’s going to sound rubbish in about three month’s time. And I didn’t want to make something up either, because it wouldn’t have the feel of a used language. I’d be making up words for the wrong things, or things just wouldn’t sit right or be used right, and then I remembered Polari, and thought, “Why not?” Why not have these guys use the old secret gay language, in a parallel universe? And I transposed it from Polari to “Palari,” which is a variant spelling of it, added a couple of new words from original Romani roots, and hey, presto, had a proper London subculture secret language. And if I can do my little bit to keep Polari alive in some form or another, I’d be very happy to do that.

Tarot cards feature prominently on the cover of the book, except they’re not the Tarot cards we’re familiar with. How did you go about developing your alternate Tarot deck?

William Blake is the answer. I’m a huge fan of William Blake, as all right-thinking people should be, and there’s some fabulous artwork he did. It’s a series of small plates, each of them looks like a Tarot card, and each of them is absolutely unforgettable as soon as you see them. They’ve been copied umpteen times, and they’ve actually made their way into some people’s Tarot decks, and other fortune decks, role-playing decks. The most famous one is of a hand reaching out of a stormy sea, with the words “Help! Help!” written under it. Once you see that you never, ever forget that. And that got me thinking about building your own Tarot deck that’s specific to your own life and your own people, and the places you are, and the people that surround you.

You mentioned that the hero of the book, Everett Singh, is named after Hugh Everett, who created the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I read an article recently saying that Hugh Everett actually believed that the many-worlds interpretation implied immortality for everyone. I was just wondering if you’d ever heard of that, or if you had any thoughts on that?

I’ve done a story on that. It’s the quantum immortality paradox, isn’t it, where you stand in a room facing a gun triggered by a quantum event, and the quantum event happens, the gun either fires or it doesn’t. If I remember rightly, because you can’t perceive your own death, therefore you must always remain in that universe where the gun doesn’t fire, and therefore, because you can’t perceive your own death, you must always end up in the universe that’s most favorable to you, the universe where you never die. So, no bad accident will ever happen to you, no fatal disease will ever happen to you, because you must always be in the universe where you never die. Eventually, you will get to the point where they will invent immortality for you, and you will continue living on, as well. The problem with that for me, appealing as it seems, is that it banishes everyone. It’s like the complete solipsistic masturbation fantasy, and everyone ends up in their own private universe that works just for them, that’s only perfect for them, and in a sense no one else and nothing else is real, they’re all just quantum echoes of other quantum states.

You said you wrote a story using that idea?

Yeah, it was in Pete Crowther’s Postscripts. It was my one and only Brasyl spinoff story. “A Ghost Samba,” it was called. It’s about a guy who goes in search of an unfinished album by a musician who died, and I play around with that quantum immortality idea.

And finally, do you want to talk about what you’re working on now, what you have coming up?

Everness Book 2 is delivered. Lou is reading it. John Picacio is working on the cover. Not sure when we’ll have it scheduled for, but it’ll be sometime this year, because we want to get them whacked out, bam bam bam. I’ve got book three in the series planned. It’s going to be fun. And I’m re-working an outline and sample chapters for the next grown-up novel, Hopeland. Every ten years it’s time to reinvent myself as a writer, hence the YA series—the younger reader series, I hate the expression “YA.” And I also thought it was time to kill off what I call the New World Order series, you know, River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House. It’s time to move on from that, and try something new. It’ll still be near-future. I’ve always set stuff in the near-future, but it’s been getting ever-closer to the present. 2047, River of Gods. 2042 for Brasyl. 2027 for The Dervish House. And this one starts so near-future it’s actually last August, during the Tottenham riots. So ever closer to the now.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.