Nick Harkaway is the author of The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker. His latest book, Tigerman, presents an unusual take on the idea of a costumed superhero.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the host and his guests discuss various geeky topics.
Your new book is called Tigerman. What’s it about?
It’s about a lot of things. The plot is about a guy on an island who’s been sent there very specifically to relax and is told not to see any of the bad things that are happening there. He finds a friendship with a local kid who just wants him to see everything bad that’s happening there, so he has an immediate problem. His way of resolving this ultimately is to put on an ad hoc superhero suit and try to do something about it in a way that can’t be traced back to him. But it’s not ultimately just a story about a guy putting on a suit. It’s also about the friendship, and basically, it’s about fatherhood. I was becoming a dad when I was writing this book.
When you say there are bad things, what sort of bad things are happening?
What we’ve got is an island in the middle of the sea where the international community has decided there’s a kind of legal gap, and the island, in legal terms, doesn’t really exist. So all around has gathered a fleet of off-the-book shipping, which I call the Black Fleet, which involves data haven deniable port-centered interrogation rooms, and the kind of hospitals where you can get a kidney replaced, no questions asked, and you can even bring your own. It’s just full of all kinds of the worst things you could imagine. In fact, the thing I keep saying about it is [like] Mos Eisley—nowhere will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
You mentioned the story concerns the friendship between this man, Lester Ferris, and the character who is referred to as “the boy.” Tell us a bit more about the boy.
He’s a local kid. He’s apparently an orphan, or at least no one can put a hand on his parents, and he’s extremely bright. He’s obsessed with comic books and internet stuff. His English reflects that. He speaks exactly the kind of mixture that you get if you spend a few hours surfing.
On the one hand, you’re reading a piece by Lawrence Lessig, and on the other hand, if you’re playing World of Warcraft at the same time, you can easily end up talking to a kid in Shanghai whose English is not great but who is incredibly enthusiastic and has picked up a raft of unusual idioms from different movies and comic books. That’s the boy. He’s got this extraordinary mixture of English, which I loved writing. I got incredibly enthusiastic about it. He’s one of the people I really enjoyed writing.
Could you give us an example of the sort of things he would say?
The thing that people keep quoting back to me is “full of win.” He uses “full of win” all the time. He uses a lot of leetspeak, which is kind of hard to do out loud; you can see it on the page. He talks about getting “pwned.” He sees everything in terms of movies and comics. Obviously, I’ve already referenced Star Wars, but part of his daily wear is a t-shirt that proclaims that Han shot first, which is a reference to the updated Star Wars movies where they fudge that slightly.
For me, that’s a religious discussion. I remember seeing the movie and quite clearly Han Solo shoots Greedo under the table. That’s completely straightforward and then they fudged it later. He has this vocabulary and this concept set that comes from comic books and movies and games. He sees the world in those terms.
As a big science fiction fan, I really enjoyed this idea that even in the most remote place on earth, you would be able to find a kid who knows what a Voight-Kampff test is.
Exactly that. Someone for whom it is completely inconceivable, that someone wouldn’t know what a Voight-Kampff test is, like obviously everyone in the universe knows that.
Did you have to do any research at all or were you just emptying your brain?
No, I don’t think I did anything at all for that. I just remembered it all and I treasure it. I’m constantly picking out bits of language and so on like that, which I really like. And the one that I didn’t get in was that beautiful thing “tiny grass is dreaming,” which I just think is one of the most poetic things I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure if it’s real. It’s supposed to be a sign on the grass somewhere in the world that’s obviously intended to mean “stay off the grass” or “the grass is growing” or something. But as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter what it’s supposed to mean, it just matters that it’s beautiful. I wanted those things in there, but that one doesn’t have a place in the book, so I’ll carry that around for a while and use it somewhere else.
I saw a video where you said that your initial title for this was Tigerman Make Famous Victory Full of Win, and you said that you were going to win this battle with your publisher this time.
And then I didn’t.
What happened with that was very straightforward. I was reading the book through and looking at the title, and I was suddenly just very uncomfortable that if you hadn’t read the book yet, it was potentially superficially mocking of people who don’t speak great English. I thought that this was already a post-colonial story, and it’s about the British empire’s tail end, of the consequences of empire and how badly we behaved. Actually, it’s potentially un-funny if you offend someone. You’re taking the mickey out of people from other countries, and it wasn’t a discussion I wanted to get into. I was like, “Actually, you know what, forget it. Let’s just go with Tigerman as the title and people can find the great stuff inside the book.”
The thing is, I always have this problem with titles. I work with a book for however long it takes to write it and I always give it a title, like Angelmaker was called “Crazy Joe” for however many years. The Gone-Away World was called “The Wages of Gonzo Lubitsch,” and when it comes to it, nobody wants to use the title that I think is the only obvious title in the universe. They’re always right.
On the one hand, I get very entrenched because I get very attached to these titles. I still, in my head, tend to think of Angelmaker slightly as “Crazy Joe,” because that was the central character, and it was his story. There’s a desire to hold on to that past part. Heaven knows what the new book is going to end up being called, the one I’m writing now, because I have this really great title on the front page of the manuscript, but it’s completely incomprehensible. My editor’s going to go nuts, and he’s going to turn around and say, “Are you kidding? We’ll call this something that people can actually understand the first time they see the book, as opposed to having to read however many hundred pages to find out what the title means.”
It’s obvious you’ve been a life-long fan of science fiction and comic books and video games. Did you always want to write science fiction or did that develop later?
I always wanted to tell stories. I don’t really care what kind of stories I end up telling. This is why every time one of my books comes out there is a brief classification tussle. There’s the whole “is this properly science fiction or is it something else?” The absolute question for the majority of people who read science fiction—Is this the kind of thing that they read?—but there is a taxonomical debate to be had about whether it’s classically science fiction. io9 called it “existential pulp,” which I love. I thought that was one of the best things I’ve ever heard. So I’m very determined now that I’m an existential pulp writer.
The thing is, I go where the story takes me, and yes, obviously all the stuff is in my head, so everything I write tends to be mildly nuts, but I don’t set out to fulfill a shelving category. I set out to tell a story and I see where it ends up. This time, I think Tigerman, and actually Angelmaker as well, got reviewed in the thriller section rather than science fiction section in several papers. People make their own determinations and I’m good with that.
I agree with that, although your first novel, The Gone-Away World, is pretty clearly science fiction by my definition.
I would agree with you, but then, I got in big trouble with a couple of very academic thinkers about science fiction who were just like, “Well, clearly this isn’t science fiction, it’s blah blah blah. It shouldn’t be considered in that category.” I have no stomach for that fight. I don’t want to crash the party for anybody. All I want to do is tell a story. There are people who read lots of science fiction who read my stuff and are delighted by it. There are people who read lots of science fiction who (and thankfully there are few of these) read my stuff and hate it. Then there are people who, generally speaking, refuse to read science fiction in any way, shape, or form, because they think it’s spaceship fiction, and they see in their mind’s eye when they hear those words pictures of women in bikinis with goldfish bowls on their heads, and that’s science fiction, so they don’t read any science fiction, but they read me.
It really is a shelving convention and that’s very useful in the context of being a bookshop, but it’s also not useful in terms of talking about books. I’m very content to be stuck in the middle, although I think some of the time my publishers wish I would write something that was a little bit more overtly recognizable, because it’s sometimes harder to sell a book that is less easy to characterize.
Well, talk about existential pulp. Why do you like that term so much?
Just because it sounds awesome. I guess because, in a weird way, actually, it’s very apposite, because it’s a mash-up of this very serious notion of existentialism and this kind of playful, ridiculous writing form that was about churning out the largest number of words possible with garish, lurid images in it and so on. The two don’t really go together, except that if you chop them up and mash them around, of course they go together. Both Angelmaker and Gone-Away World were filled with ontological angst and existence angst. Whether it’s existential or not is another question.
Tigerman is definitely full of a sense of worry about what it means to be a dad and how to be a good person and all the rest of it. So it belongs in that category, and then, at the same time, my pulp roots are showing. Here’s all the serious stuff about global geopolitics and the bad ways we behave overseas, and about being a father and trying to do the right thing. How do you become a new person when your old life has come to an end? The answer is: You put on a superhero suit and you go fight crime.
The thing is, though, that actually I would do dumber things than that for my kid if that was what they needed me to do. I think we all would. I get into this thing about the definition of “real.” There’s a big sense in mainstream writing, and particularly literary writing, that you have to be portraying a “real truth,” and there has to be a sense of reality. Indeed, there’s a dogmatic thing and a filmmaking thing, where you’re not supposed to use any artificial special effects, and you’re not supposed to use any lighting or makeup. So it should just be raw and real, and that’s the way it is.
The thing is, to me, that’s an illusion, particularly in writing, because crazy things happen all the time. Completely mad things happen to ordinary people every day, and everybody has some kind of crazy story about something that has happened to them. When you go out into the world, you meet more and more people to whom weird things have happened.
There’s a woman who has lunch everyday down the road from me—actually, I haven’t seen her for a while—and she operated a listening post during the Second World War, and when I say a listening post, I don’t mean a signals and deception station. She sat in front of a giant concrete parabolic sound mirror, and she listened for the sound of aircraft coming in over the sea. That was her job, night after night. She was terrified that she would cough and miss the sound of a bombing raid, and hundreds of people would die.
So this was the extraordinary life that she lived, night after night, which if you write that, people think that’s burlesque. If you thanked her, and there was other stuff going on in her life—I’m sure she fell in love, I’m sure stuff was happening. That was all going on.
At the same time, it turns out that actually, all those people who were listening to those things, certainly if we moved later into the war, that it was redundant because we had radar, which we weren’t telling anyone. That was a secret. Then the question would be, this woman on the south coast says she’s heard planes which we already knew about, is that enough that we can plausibly intercept those planes? Or are we going to blow the existence of radar if we do that and we have to let the planes bomb some village somewhere? The idea that the ordinary mind or the ordinary day doesn’t experience completely crazy stuff drives me nuts.
My standard rant on “realistic fiction” is that the most fundamental fact about reality is that our sun is one of a hundred billion stars in the galaxy that’s just one of a hundred billion galaxies in the universe. This is just the most fundamental thing about reality, and you would never know it from reading “realistic fiction.”
It’s quite interesting; it shows up in all kinds of ways. Most people generally, in their daily lives, do not address the fact that, actually, the world is not Newtonian. Most of us live in a kind of billiard ball world. Of course, the world zooms around in much stranger ways and time varies depending on your relative speed. People generally don’t get their heads around that. So yes, exactly.
The world is just very much stranger than it appears, and then on a much more prosaic level, there are quite a lot of writers, who, for example, do not like mobile telephones. Not as in they don’t use them, but as in they don’t like writing about mobile telephones because they mess up the plot.
Quite a lot of the time, you’re talking about an artificially constructed 1993, except with everything else being now. For me, a lot of novels that people think of as being “real” are actually basically alternative reality fiction designed to be in an a-technological world in order to get to something that is supposed to be fundamental. The thing that’s supposed to be fundamental is the human condition and the human emotional state, and that also exists only in the interaction with the world, and the world contains this technology, so you can’t do it honestly without discussing, on some level, accounting for technology. That reticence makes me cranky.
Why do you think so many writers are reluctant to take that on? Is it just that they don’t know technology?
I think a lot of writers are reluctant because it messes with plot. If you read Here and Now, the Paul Auster and JM Coetzee dialogues, which they conducted by fax, there’s a section where they address this, and Coetzee says, “I don’t like mobile phones, they mess up plotting, they make things more difficult, and they short circuit plot, and they bring people together to communicate and communication resolves conflict.” Which is true.
Conflict, as my schoolteacher told me, is the heart of drama. Communication absolutely can resolve it, so that is a problem. Auster, meanwhile, does use technology in his stuff, so there’s a whole discussion on that. But the thing is, we’re talking about something that happens. It’s real. As soon as you say “I’d like to tell this as a real human story, but I won’t use this technology because it gets in the way of telling a real human story,” you’re in a very weird place for me.
So there’s that. There’s a convenience aspect in terms of plotting. It takes away from your ability to do a kind of pure unity of narrative, because there’s a danger people will meet too early and talk. It’s a real danger, but I think you just have to get around it.
Technology and technological activities very often don’t dramatize well. Sitting and talking on the phone, typing onto a keyboard, whatever—those are not things that particularly work well as scenes, and they work terribly in movies, but even in books they don’t work very well. So you have to work around that, and again, it feels uncomfortable. Underlying that, there’s unease about technology as something that’s scientific and purely cognitive, and therefore somehow opposed to an emotional engagement with the world, which is a whole other discussion which I’m uncomfortable with. But a lot of people feel that way, and therefore, as soon as you introduce a beige box or an IMAX screen or an iPhone into a conversation, you’re somehow getting away from a narrative or what’s important about life. I think it’s wrong, but I think people are frightened of it.
You say technology resolves conflict, but certainly we live in a world with plenty of technology and plenty of conflict as well.
Communication can resolve conflict. Technology, no. Technology can provide an awful lot of conflict, too, absolutely. This is the logical tail end of that point.
I saw an ad years ago, actually, when I was in the States. I was living in New York and there was an ad on the Discovery Channel, which was a really, really, really old guy in black and white on the screen and he’s talking into the camera. I think we only see him to the shoulder but I don’t think he’s wearing a shirt, and he’s telling us how many children he has, how many grandchildren he has, how many great grandchildren he has. He’s talking about the fact that he’s thinking he’s going to go and maybe do a degree because it has been a long time since he’s done any studying. This extraordinary, huge number of people who are his direct family and his plans that he has, and then he says, “I want you to meet someone, but you have to be very gentle and quiet because my mother’s quite shy.” He’s like a thousand years old already, so the idea that he has a mother is completely extraordinary and underneath the caption was, “When this happens, you’ll want to know why.” And we will, when that happens, will want to know why, and I think a lot of mainstream culture isn’t going to tell us and isn’t preparing us for that conversation.
Every funky scientific experiment that happens provides me with another piece of ammunition about this. The most recent one for me was—the real extraordinary one—was actually the program where they networked a couple of rats together in late 2012. Do you know about this?
This is where they drive them around by remote control?
Well, no, it’s even crazier than that. Basically, there was a team in the U.S., I can’t remember exactly where, and I think the other team was in South America, was it Brazil? They put electrodes—quite crudely—scientifically and with great precision, but the object is crude—it’s got a big spike—into the brain of each rat.
One rat had run a maze and the other one had not, and once they networked them together over the Internet, the second rat, which had not run the maze, was able to run the maze faster using the memory of the first rat. The thing that was extraordinary about it was not that they’d done that, but what was even crazier was the guy who was running the experiment said, “Listen, the thing you have to understand here is that we have not created web-telepathic rats. We haven’t made two rats talk to each other telepathically. What we’ve done is turn two rats into one rat with two bodies on a basic level.”
I was just blown away by that, because I generally try to keep my eye on this sort of concept of humanity-reshaping stuff that we are doing and that one had completely passed me by. I was ready for the idea that we could start to do proper brain machine interface and you can have proper prosthetic limbs, which would give feedback, directly moved by the brain rather than by a combination of muscle signals. I wasn’t ready for the idea that we could network two brains together, and in fact, I had thought that that kind of thing was much more difficult. So it turns out these guys have done it.
Now, there will be all kinds of stumbling blocks along the way, but ultimately what we’re talking about is the beginning of the possibility of getting inside someone else’s head and indeed merging two people together, which is a completely society-reshaping possibility. Whether we pursue it or not, how we deal with it and so on, those are the things that determine whether a science becomes a usable technology or whether it becomes a culture. The possibility is there for something completely extraordinary and you could walk from one end of my country to the other without finding, as far as I know, anything being written as a consequence of that.
I’m sure someone’s got it somewhere, and certainly outside of science fiction you’re not going to hear a mention of it, and the newspaper article that covered it, broadly speaking, began with “It sounds like science fiction but . . .”, which is media code for “hey, guess what, you can ignore this, but isn’t this a weird thing.” It’s a phrase that, if I ever became editor of a news organization, I would ban from use forever. You simply never get to say this anymore, because it’s a cultural tag or a coded rhetorical tag that just means “By all means, tune out. This isn’t actually that important.” It is, it always is, when something like that gets said, it’s always something very important.
I feel exactly the same way. They always say, “It sounds like science fiction,” the implication being it sounds like something crazy that could never happen, the implication being all science fiction is crazy stuff that could never happen, when in fact lots of it comes true.
Precisely. “This is this week’s episode of Star Trek, you may miss it, you may not.” I find that very bizarre, I really do. It seems to me that there’s a determined effort to ignore completely extraordinary things that are happening. It’s a very, very odd thing.
I would say you find people writing about it in science fiction. I think one thing that’s interesting is that you have authors like Cory Doctorow, Neal Stephenson, who are classically science fiction authors, but are actually writing about real life right now because real life has become so science fictional that you can write about things that are actually happening and it reads like science fiction.
Now, that’s quite interesting to me because, first of all, that’s fascinating, and I enjoy living in that world. I wouldn’t choose to live in any other time, although this is, in many ways, the best of times, the worst of times. But I find that very promising. It fills me with hope for the future that we’re doing this extraordinary stuff. I think we need to be in more control of our own genome, because otherwise the problems that we’ve created for ourselves with the industrial revolution period are just going to swamp us.
At the same time, I find it weird and a little bit worrying, because I have this shtick about spaceship fiction, that for a long time, a lot of science fiction was about spaceships because the future as we saw it was composed of hard science travel to other worlds. That was the next logical step. That was the Apollo program ethos, that this was the beginning of something. We were moving the planetary envelope and going out into space, and we didn’t do it. We got as far as the moon, then we decided to do something else for a while.
That kind of ethos was nonetheless driven by those incredible illustrations that NASA commissioned of orbital housing. Did you see those? They’re amazing. Great toruses, and they’re basically the suburbs in space, with the best view ever. People almost literally in a business suit with a goldfish bowl on their heads. It’s great stuff. But it kind of defined an era and then, when it didn’t happen, people got funny talking hopefully about science, and they got cautious and they got, “Well, we won’t be fooled again, we won’t fool ourselves again.” At the same time, science fiction carried right on ahead in spaceship fiction mode a lot of the time.
People continue to think about science fiction as being spaceship fiction, but as you say, as we get a more science fiction-feeling world, it gets harder and harder to pursue those shapes. They start to feel weirdly dated. Also, you have very valid and very problematic critiques, which basically say. “This is a kind of white, western European, male, hetero-patriarchal, fantasy of space colonization. It’s the West reenacted in space. Why are we still telling this story in 2014?”, which is not a very strong thing to be talking about.
So, through the combination of those things, you suddenly have a difficulty with that kind of fiction, which we should, but we’ve also pushed the science in many cases so far that everything that you could try as an alternative starts to feel familiar and reheated. How do you write science fiction in that environment? You either write about now or tomorrow, or you write about parallel worlds, or you have to come up with something that’s completely off the shelf, off the wall, or just completely nuts. And then that’s one of the boxes that I get into, is people start to say “Well, that’s not really science fiction because the science is absurd or the ‘what if’ question is completely ludicrous,” which, guilty as charged in many cases.
But a lot of real science is absurd.
That’s also true. Occam’s Razor is another of the things with which we have to contend, because it’s actually baseless. It’s an inductive reasoning trap.
The thing I get to from that is that we need science fiction that’s about biotechnological possibilities, that’s about the possibilities of consciousness, and all these things are being done, but there isn’t the same singularity of purpose. There isn’t the same sense of a drive to the stars, so people haven’t hoisted on board, quite, that science fiction is more than just spaceship fiction, and that it needs to be, maybe.
Incidentally, I love spaceship fiction. I mean good, solid spaceship fiction is fantastic, but I think it becomes increasingly problematic. You can see the problems with it in the extraordinary efforts that people who write good spaceship fiction are going to, to combine it with new societies and new ideas about impossible technologies.
Iain Banks, when he was alive, was writing Excession, about this extraordinary, high-tech culture encountering a culture whose technology it doesn’t understand, which is a potential extinction event. It could turn out to be the moment where they’re simply overmatched, and they’re like the guys on the small island when the great big sailing ship appears with the armed men on it. I think he says that an excession is the kind of thing that most cultures only encounter in much the same way that a sentence encounters a full stop. It is great stuff, but still and all, for me, I want to be pushing in directions that are not in that area and are unexpected, and that force you to recast your sense of what people are and what it means to be in the future. What the future looks like. It’s going to be more weird and more unexpected than that template would normally allow.
You mention Iain M. Banks, and he’s one of my favorite authors. They didn’t even use to sell him in the U.S. I didn’t even discover him until I did a study abroad in Ireland and like a third of the science fiction section there was Iain M. Banks.
The weird lack of crossover or the number of authors who are published here but not there or there but not here who are amazing is very, very strange. It bewilders me, who is and who is not published, transatlantic. Banks, absolutely. I’m always bewildered that Lois McMaster Bujold isn’t better known here, because I think she’s an extraordinary storyteller. Tim Powers, for a long time, was not published here or was published only quite quietly, and he’s an extraordinary writer as well.
We’ve interviewed Lois McMaster Bujold on the show. Tim Powers is definitely one of my favorite authors. How much involvement do you have with the science fiction community? Do you hang out with science fiction authors or go to science fiction conventions?
Mostly what I hang out with is my kids, because I’m the dad of two small children, three and one, so they eat up a lot of my time when I’m not writing. I’m naturally focused on them and my wife and my writing, almost an exclusion to everything else, but actually, I was at Nine Worlds on Friday, which is a wonderful fan convention here, and I’m at Worldcon on Monday, the eighteenth, basically talking about this. Talking about where science fiction waterfalls into the mainstream and vice versa. I have great fun.
I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Bill Gibson a while ago. Neuromancer was one of my formative books, and he’s one of the nicest men in the universe, which is always really nice when someone you admire turns out to be an incredibly nice person.
Actually, at some point in the next twenty-four hours, I have to book the table for lunch with a bunch of writers, so yes, I absolutely hang out, to the extent that I hang out with anybody. Those guys are on my list of people I hang out with, but I’m so constantly trying to claw back some time to write a book at the moment that I’m probably less sociable than I would be otherwise.
Just looking over your Twitter feed, it looks like you retweet John Scalzi a lot and you’ve contributed things to his Big Idea?
Absolutely. I have never met him in person, but I would really like to. He seems like a really nice guy. So that’s one of my excitements for the future, if I get to do that at some point.
Let’s talk a bit more about Tigerman. One thing I was wondering about is, there’s a scene early in the book where the main character makes an improvised grenade out of a biscuit tin. I was wondering if that’s possible, and if it is, how you discovered that that’s possible.
I was warned a long time ago about that being possible. Exactly how possible it is, I’m not sure. So the caution about explosive yield, which is in the book, is a caution that was given to me by my chemistry teacher when I was in school, and it’s true about a lot of powders with a very fine grain size—custard powder is one, pepper is another—that if you put a small amount of them in a box and shake it up and find a match, you get a big whompf.
It is a real, do-not-try-this-at-home moment, because you can get a real power of flame and if you’ve enclosed that, you get an explosion. I don’t know, to be honest, exactly how powerful that explosion would really be. I think, if you absolutely nailed the distribution and you added the trail of gunpowder, maybe you might get a seriously big bang. I just don’t know. But it’s one of the things where it’s sort of ridiculous enough to be plausible and I didn’t want to check it and mess it up. Certainly, you would get a respectable flash and a bang out of that. Whether you would get any serious percussive force, I don’t know.
That’s interesting. I know that your father is the famous spy thriller author John le Carré. I just imagined, growing up, that you guys just talked about garrote wires and poisons over the dinner table.
That’s a great idea! I wish we had. I don’t think he was ever that kind of spy. I think he was more the kind of “sit behind the desk and take reports from agents in the field.” He’s very reticent about exactly what he did. He asserts strongly that it wasn’t very much and that he was quite bad at it. So we have not done the seminar on custard powder explosives.
I have a tendency, with things like that, to work out something which is approximately possible under the right circumstances and just let it go, because the thing that I’m definitely not is a hard science guru. My scientific qualifications are relatively scant. I like science; I try really hard to educate myself about it, but in the end, if something has to go boom and it would probably only go whoosh, I am relatively unconcerned about that, which is a sin, but not, I think, a grave one.
I also saw you say in a video that your father’s father was a confidence trickster?
Yes, he was somewhat notorious for a little bit of professional trickery from time to time.
What sort of things did he do?
I’m not really supposed to answer that question anymore. His surviving family, apart from us, are getting a little bit tired of hearing about it, but he did some pretty colorful stuff. My advantage in this respect is, although he was still around when I was born, I don’t remember him as a person, so I have all the great stories about selling a bunch of unbreakable plates to a Greek wedding, which you can imagine didn’t go down very well. The reality of it was potentially a bit darker, but I just don’t know. I wasn’t there.
It just strikes me as interesting that novelists and confidence tricksters are two species of liar, in a way.
Of fiction-makers, yes. And more than that. As a novelist, your job is to persuade people of things they know aren’t true, and at the same time, to impart, in some ways, something that is. Under the heavy cover of darkness, you’re in the business of fiction, you’re in the business of storytelling. You’re not in the business of offloading great chunks of actual fact and forcing people to memorize them. There is an absolute similarity there. And plausibility—that definitely runs in my family. We’re all plausible and usually able to find an explanation for where we are when we shouldn’t be or something. That’s a comparison that always makes me giggle.
There’s a line in this book about how it’s hard to lie backward. Is that a thing?
That’s apparently true, but I got that off a TV show. This is one of those things I’m not even sure where it comes from exactly. My recollection is that in interrogation, it’s difficult to lie in reverse because you can’t keep the sequence of events straight, because you’ve imagined it rather than actually remembering it. The other thing though, which I suppose really mitigates against that, is that interrogators, as I understand it, one of the things they look for is stories that are too perfect, where people remember exactly the sequence of events and never change. When you’ve done that, it’s because you’ve memorized it. Normally, if someone’s telling a true story, they’ll go back and they’ll revise.
Novelists are always told to include all the telling details, but I’ve heard that that’s one sign that someone is lying to you, is if they’re trying too hard or if they’re including too much detail.
I think, in the name of being able to continue to lie convincingly, assuming that I ever could, I try to avoid information about how to sound plausible, because I think the more test-conscious you become, the more obvious your deceptions become.
As a matter of reality, when you’re writing, it’s always about sleight of hand. You include just enough detail that people start to fill in the rest for themselves and then they think that you’ve described something perfectly, whereas what you’ve actually done is indicate. You’ve drawn a vector drawing and they’ve then filled in the colors and the surfaces on it.
I have to do that a lot, because I tend to pick things which are impossibly difficult to describe. Like the state of mind of being a genius, which is not something into which I have insight. What you have to do for that, particularly a mathematical genius, is to—my arithmetic is poor, my math is completely untested because I never got passed arithmetic stage at school. I have the qualification that you take when you’re sixteen that you have no choice but to take it. I have that in math but nothing else, and everything to that point is just brute calculation, you don’t get to do any proper mathematics. So, in any case, I have no grip, as a matter of personal experience, on what it’s like to be brilliant with numbers, but I read G. H. Hardy’s book, A Mathematician’s Apology, which is absolutely fantastic, and the first thing that I realized was this was an account of a creative life. The fact that this guy worked with numbers and I worked with words does not alter the fact that everything he says really about the experience of being G. H. Hardy is very familiar to me from being me, in terms of work and how you feel about it.
That was very nice, but then specifically in terms of numbers, what I did with Angelmaker and the brilliant mathematician in Angelmaker was just keep telling everybody that she was brilliant and then give her an insoluble mathematical problem and she solves it. If you balance the emotional flow and the action right, when she does something that feels impossible, instead of saying “Well, that’s just impossible,” people go, “Well, of course it’s impossible, except that it’s not impossible, just really, really hard, and she’s a genius, so she’s done it.” Then they believe and they invest more and more in the idea that she’s brilliant, and then she becomes effectively magic, which is great. That’s exactly what you want. If you start trying to write down a clear account of the thought process in her head, first of all, you have to be a genius or go find someone, and second of all, you have to be a genius to understand it, and so the novel’s going to get slightly derailed while everyone goes running off to try and look up what the hell that paragraph was about.
Actually, I had exactly the same experience. I had read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and the character, he’s good at blowing up bridges. In my head, I remember that there was a lot of detail about how to blow up bridges, and then I went back and analyzed it, and there’s almost no detail on how to blow up bridges, but there’s a lot of detail about how it feels to have the confidence that you know how to blow up a bridge.
That’s the gig. For me, it’s the same with action sequences. I have a better understanding of action sequences because I have this early, incompetent, but nonetheless comprehensive martial arts education, and so I know what the body mechanics feel like, and I know what the crucial point of any sort of physical exchange is going to be. I know where the moment is when one person takes the other person’s momentum away from them or moves their center of gravity somewhere they didn’t want it to be. I understand how that works. I just can’t do any of it.
I don’t really bother to tell you the terribly exciting flurry of blows, which in a movie would look really great but on a page is just dull, but I do tell you about the crucial moment where the person who is grabbing you by the wrist is suddenly the person who is now flying through the air and how that feels, and people respond to that. They get very excited by the action sequence. It’s not exactly a piece of sleight of hand, but it’s the one detail you need, as opposed to the twenty or thirty that might look like a good idea but actually aren’t.
Speaking of hands, your author photo in this book . . . you have some writing on your hand?
I do. And it’s actually even relevant! That photograph was taken at the end of a festival a couple of years ago when I was writing Tigerman, and the text is, if I can remember, a reminder to me that there is a book called The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys by Mick Farren, which had a passage about a seasonal madness that comes into play in a place where one of the characters is living, and I wanted to go back and reread that to remind me about the effect of geography and seasonal shift on mood.
When I went back and reread it is exactly what we’ve just been talking about. It has very little of that in there. It just happens, and it’s really affecting, and it’s powerful because it’s very well done. And then there was also a note to reread Ned Beauman’s book The Teleportation Accident, which is absolutely fantastic. It’s completely nuts. It’s basically this incredibly long science fiction shaggy dog story with some of the funniest, goofiest passages in it. You’ve got to take a good solid run at it, because it’s quite densely written. Ned’s a very, very good writer. He’s irritatingly talented and young. He drives me crazy. He’s also really nice, which makes it worse.
But if you want to get into it, it’s this goofy, strange, disturbed story about a guy who is basically a kind of slacker party society guy in Berlin, who’s also a theater designer rebuilding this extraordinary theatrical mechanism. It gets stranger and stranger as it goes on, there’s a kind of Lovecraft aspect to it, which is very small, but then there is another science fiction aspect about actual teleportation, which is strange again.
The whole thing is incredibly amusing, and when it gets to the very far end, the last couple of pages delivered a punch line I did not see coming that made me laugh a lot. I think it’s a great book, and I can’t even remember what it was, but I wanted so much to reread and reference it in Tigerman. Obviously I must have done it, because I finished the book and it was okay. So there’s some notes on my hand. It’s a genuine part of the process, although these days I tend to use Evernote rather more and the back of my hand rather less.
Just beneath that, your bio says that your wife is a human rights lawyer?
You mentioned there is all this stuff in the book about the Fleet and all the human rights abuses they’re doing. Was that influenced at all by hearing her talk about stuff she’s working on?
Absolutely. There is this extraordinary thing that is happening at the moment, where it’s possible that we’ll get some clarity on what did and did not happen on the island, and is not happening on the island of Diego Garcia, which is being subjected in the newspapers here at the moment as the possible sight of a black detention facility.
When I was writing Tigerman, Diego Garcia was in my head, having been on the news relatively recently because of the tangle the British government gets itself into every time Diego Garcia comes up, because the legal status of rendition in the UK is pretty clear cut. It’s basically not allowed. So if a rendition flight touches down in the UK, that’s a big deal for our government, because it means that they’re breaking the law, as far as I can see, anyway.
So every time that Diego Garcia comes up, there is a whole thing that happens and they go nuts about it. They got themselves into a tangle in 2004, 2006, and again in 2008. That was all very much in my mind. Then it went away for a while, and then, almost to compensate—due to the fact that the Ukraine just went into total catastrophe, and I had Ukrainian characters who made no mention of it, instead of getting that right—I got this Diego Garcia thing back in the news.
The great thing that right now I’m really treasuring, in that kind of horrified, I-can’t-believe-this-is-the-planet-I-live-on kind of way, is that, as far as I know, the British government is currently maintaining that the crucial documents to a case that involves Diego Garcia were damaged in water damage in the archives of Diego Garcia in June 2014. It was an unusually but not ridiculously dry month in Diego Garcia. It’s one of those things where you’re like, “Okay, well, we’re just never going to know. You’re just not going to tell us, so whatever.”
One thing we were talking about in the last episode was how the climate for writing spy thrillers has been changed by Edward Snowden and all the revelations that have come out about all these horrible things our governments are doing. How does that affect your ability to write a spy thriller, when people are so suspicious of the “good guys?”
Tigerman isn’t really a spy thriller. It has an espionage angle. Actually more than that, it has a geopolitics angle; it doesn’t really have an espionage angle. So I haven’t had to go there. There’s an awareness of the possibility of surveillance in the book, but it’s quite lightweight.
One of the things that happens is, the way that the Sergeant and the boy first end up talking to one another is that they both take the batteries out of their mobile phones. They both have a habit of doing that. So there’s an awareness of that there. For me, it’s not a problem.
It’s, again, this thing about technology and the intrusion of our awareness of it into the conventional shapes of a spy thriller, because the U.S. in particular, but also, as it turns out, the UK, pours money into technological analysis of signals. A lot of stuff, we just decode it. We get it and we break it, or we do it with data. The other slightly terrifying thing about the drone program is that it seems to be that metadata is enough to get you drones now, which is slightly alarming. For me, it’s not a problem, it’s how the world is, but I can see if you’re writing a more conventional espionage, to those it’s a serious problem because it changes stuff, but I don’t think it shuts down those stories. You just have to be a little more complex about it.
I also wanted to ask you about this book you wrote a few years ago called The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World. I’ve only read the description of it, but it says that you talk about how we risk living in a world which is designed to serve computers and corporations rather than people. Could you expand on that?
The point about The Blind Giant was it wasn’t supposed to be, as it were, a technology-heavy book about technology, so it wasn’t supposed to go out of date as quickly as it would if it was mentioning specific implementations of technology. It was more about the human aspect, how we deal with our technology, how we interface with it, and where technology becomes a cultural influence.
The business about building a world that’s actually intended for computers and corporations is perfectly pointed out if you’ve read Flash Boys, which is a wonderful read, the new Michael Lewis book about algorithmic trading and what happened there. That’s an absolutely fantastic read. The meat of it is, basically, it seems that for a period of a couple of years, maybe, the infrastructure of trading was reconfigured to favor a new model and almost no one knew.
So traditional brokers were at a massive disadvantage and they were losing really large sums of money per year because their own software, or the way that the trading system was laid out, was putting them at a disadvantage. That was partly about the construction of fast pipe between exchanges. I don’t want to get into it, because I don’t want to spoil it and also because I don’t want to say something someone could sue me for, but the book is a perfect example of that.
If you take the automobile as an example, imagine that today, a bunch of aliens dropped down from the sky and they say, “We’ll give you much, much faster transportation, personal transportation, but we’ll also just kill a certain number of you a year randomly. We’re giving you the teleporter device, but it’s only 99% reliable. Sometimes you just get vaporized. And by the way, you’re going to have to build rivers through your major cities of this foreign chemical that will kill you if you touch it.” Would you take the technology? No, but that’s the automobile. That’s exactly what we’ve done.
We’ve already reconfigured our world to make parts of it hostile to human life and useful for machines, and we’re doing the same thing with various bits of digital technology. The question is not, “Oh my god, how do we stop this from happening?” because it’s going to happen. The question is, “How do we constrain it? How do we make it serve us rather than creating systems that are basically born in the ring-bindered DNA,” as Neal Stephenson would call it, “of false corporate culture?” because big corporations are not always the best decision-makers for people on the ground. You see that in the fracking situation and governments likewise.
I find politics increasingly depressing, but that may just be an aspect of being forty.
One of the craziest things I’ve heard along the lines you were saying is I read about this proposal to create a line of hovering drones across the ocean in order to transmit stock market orders a fraction of a second earlier.
That’s the kind of thing that they deal with in Flash Boys. If the end point of the Flash Boys narrative is accurate, I think the impetus to do that may have faded away, but that’s also partly maybe because I didn’t properly understand the mechanisms of that kind of trading. What I do think is that it’s one of the areas in our financial world where we need to look very hard at what we are evolving. It seems to me that a lot of stuff, in finance, particularly, is emergent.
It will come along and if someone doesn’t really think about it and just starts doing it, they may make a lot of money and then that may crash the rest of the market, and we’re all back in 2007 wondering where all the money has gone. Actually, we don’t have to live like that anymore. We can say, “Okay, guess what, we are choosing this particular version of the game. We are not choosing your game because it will blow everything up, so stand down that way of doing business.”
I also wanted to ask you about this thing you said. You said, “A corporation is not a person unless I can punch it in the face for being a jackass.”
Seriously. Obviously, I’m not going to go around punching people in the face. That’s not really my thing, but the statement of personhood, unless the more mature version of that statement is actually something that I think John Scalzi may even had said on his blog, is that a corporation is not a person until and unless it can go to prison.
If a person commits murder, or even what we would call manslaughter, they can go to prison for that. Certainly we wouldn’t consider it an adequate punishment to fine them, say, a fifth of their income. That’s not acceptable. If you want a corporation to be a person, if they’re going to have the kind of rights of personhood that they are being accorded, particularly in the U.S., it seems to me that they also have to have the risk that goes with that. If you get caught doing something very bad, you can go to prison for the rest of your life. In a corporate sense, I don’t know what exactly what that would mean, but some states still have the death penalty, (which, as an aside, I’m not in favor of,) but if you’re in a state with the death penalty and you’re operating as a corporation and kill someone, I guess you should get the corporate electric chair and should just cease to exist as a corporation.
If you’re going to follow that metaphor in that direction, that’s where it takes it. I was being a little frivolous, so I said a corporation’s not a person until I can punch it in the face, which is, as I said, the cheeky version of all that rather more sophisticated stuff.
Do want to tell us about the next book you’re working on? I hear it has six main characters, alchemy, semiotics, time travel, and Greek politics?
So it would seem. I have a history of biting off more than I can chew because it’s kind of the only way I can feel the momentum increasing as I write. This is very much that. It started out with five characters, which I figured was enough, and then, in order to deal with one of the characters, I realized I had to have another one. There’s an issue about who is actually the truthful narrator, if any of them are, and there’s a whole host, as you see, of different characters.
It begins with a woman under interrogation, and we’re seeing directly into her head. There’s a kind of surveillance state issue there. We talked earlier about the networked rats, so I am writing about that. Then we’re also dealing with a woman in the far past, a somewhat genderless entity in the far future, a Greek banker, and an Ethiopian painter. They are all looking for something that may or may not be the same thing and suffering from a problem that may or may not be the same problem. I’m a little bit daunted by it, but at the same time really enjoying it.
As long as it has time travel in there.
There is mysticism, time travel, various different iterations of the possibility of magic and science. I’m hoping it’s really going to blow people’s socks off. I’m halfway through the book. You can only ever be as sure as you are through the book. When I’m sixty percent of the way through the book, I’ll be sixty percent sure it’s going to be okay. Right now, I’m sitting here holding all the pieces and staring at them on the ground, thinking, “Oh my god, what have I done? Why did I not just write something very simple?” It seems to be it’s not in me to do that.
It sounds great. Nick, thanks so much for joining us.
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