TB: Are you a cyberpunk author?
TS: All my editors seem to think I am: it never occurred to me that I was, but ... what do you think?
TB: I'd say that your second novel, Someone to Watch over Me, was certainly more cyberpunk than either of the others, in that it has somebody able to watch another human being via an implant – not by magic, not by telepathy, but by a distinct physical device. In some ways that’s become a cyberpunk cliché, but you had quite a different take on it. Your emphasis was resolutely on the people involved, their humanity – not their post-humanness, their integration with technology or their ‘cyber nature’. You're still talking about faith and the unconscious, and the body, and humanity.
TS: I guess a big problem of mine is that I don't really know my science fiction, I'm not very literate in the field, and I'm fairly sure that a lot of the clichés that are in my books are actually there because I simply don't know any better. I'm just using that device because it helps me to get at something that I need to get at. Which is why the question 'are you cyberpunk?' makes me uncomfortable, because I don't really feel that I know what that means. I respect some cyberpunk authors – I certainly respect Pat Cadigan greatly – but the idea that I was working in territory that was already so well established by other writers … well, I was just too naïve to realise that. It’s not so much that I had a different take on it, as that I didn't even know there was a take to have on it. Probably by that time it had seeped so much into the popular culture that I just thought, 'Well, I'll put a chip into somebody's head and that'll solve that problem, and then I can get at it.’
TB: You were writing a novel and that was a whole new way to get into it.
TS: Essentially, yes.
TB: So when we say 'it', what's 'it', in Someone to Watch over Me?
TS: Identity and individuality, I think. When I first started writing Someone to Watch over Me I thought that I was writing about how we all interpenetrate each other through mass media, the idea of whether you can really know another person, the idea of empathy: those kinds of issues. But by the time I got to the end of it I realised that the only thing I was really writing about was writing. I had written one novel already and I had the experience of people coming to me and saying 'you wrote this, you said this, you meant this' – and I'm going 'huh?' I didn’t know how to deal with the fact that a reader could encounter me in such an intimate way, a way that I had absolutely no control over. Someone seeing things in my book that I don't know are there, that are probably unconscious and totally unintentional and maybe very embarrassing. Realising that it's so intimate and trying to come to terms with that: that's why I put one character literally inside another person's head, because when you read a book that's what you're doing. Every day I sat down at the typewriter I had to come to terms with the fact that I was actually engaging with people that I didn’t know. I wasn't going to be able to hide anything from them, because no matter how hard you try when you're writing, the truth will out.
TB: There's a theme in all your books of the division between body and mind, and then the division between conscious and subconscious. In all three books there's someone who feels they're going mad, or who has very good reasons for thinking that somebody else is controlling their mental processes in some ways. In Someone to Watch over Me Adrien attempts to deal with it by taking more control of his body – he's doing karate to get back in touch with, or regain control of, the body. That was an image that really brought out the split between the mind as something that can be interfered with, and the body as something you live in.
TS: I have a lot to say on that because it's sort of a pet topic. I had an experience when I was about 12. I had a virus: it was Reye’s syndrome and I was in the hospital and lost my memory for about two or three days. I remember waking up around the bed were all these drawings of horses and things like that. I was really keen on art when I was a kid. I had done the drawings but I didn't remember doing them. It was such a strange thing to look at them, and have someone saying 'yeah, you did that, don't you remember doing that?' and not remember. I think maybe that was the seed to all of this that now preoccupies me; the realisation that consciousness is such a thin membrane on such a big ocean. There's so much going on that you don't know: the body, the evolutionary history, all of those things that are in you are so mysterious. I have this ‘inner Nazi’, this internal control freak: I think I am that way because I know that I don't have a prayer of ever controlling anything. Physical instinct, I think, governs so much more of what we do than we like to acknowledge, or are comfortable acknowledging. I feel only marginally in control of myself at any given moment, and it's probably why a lot of my characters are like that.
I don't believe in the mind/body dichotomy. I wish I'd never been exposed to that kind of Descartian split. Even language – we don’t have a word for the two together. This separation, which is not a real separation, has somehow become inculcated into us so that we have to think in terms of 'this is my body and this is 'me', I'm up here somewhere' – which is just not the case. I'm always trying to get away from that.
TB: Some of your characters demonstrate that there are ways in which that dichotomy could be real. In Someone to Watch Over Me there’s an old woman lying in a bed, in a state of sensory deprivation: she is living through other people. In Lethe, your first novel, there are characters who can’t trust their minds, and a whole group of people who can’t trust their bodies.
TS: I grew up in suburban America. What you do there is essentially, you watch TV, and you live through what you watch on television and what you go to the mall and buy. The character 'C', in Someone to Watch Over Me, who's sensorily deprived, is living vicariously: that's just an exaggeration of what we all essentially do in modern society. We’re all – I won't say 'victim' to that, but we're all kind of complicit in that kind of relationship with the world. In Lethe, where they all turn into these aquatic baby-killing monsters at adolescence, is just a sort of exaggeration of what it feels like when things get out of your control. I do think that children have it in a way that we don't, and that somehow when you cross over that barrier between childhood and adulthood you lose something that I don't know if you can ever get back. Kind of an animal relationship with the world, an intuitive, natural relationship with the world that just goes. I think that maybe the tragic quality of the transformation in Lethe is just a reflection of what I feel happens.
TB: They lose everything, don't they? They lose their memories as well: their memories go into – I keep wanting to call it a collective unconscious, which it isn't really. It’s a forest mind: a way in which the people still out on land can somehow tune in to the memories of those who’ve transformed.
TS: The way Lethe ended had a kind of romantic ending for me, with the idea that once they go out to sea they become something else, and maybe they have a shot at something different. There’s the idea of a transition to some more primitive form, or some genetically engineered more primitive form. And maybe they're being relieved of consciousness, which on some level I probably perceive as a burden. Tsering, who is an old woman trapped in a young girl's body, is carrying the burden of being an adult, and taking care of children that she knows are going to leave her. To me, when she finally gets to make that change herself it's like being able to surrender to Nature.
TB: In Lethe there’s been three big corporations fiddling around with genetics, and then releasing a series of viruses upon the world. That leads to a completely hostile environment and a very distinct separation of pure humans from the mutants and the modified, who are actually a lot better-adapted to life on the altered Earth. Lethe was written back in 1994, way before genetically-modified crops, and Monsanto and so on. What do you think now? Is the current panic about GM foods a kind of early-warning of the future that you painted?
TS: I hope not! I don't know. It's always weird when people ask me official science questions because I have a very limited grasp of these things. I find it difficult, emotionally, to get to grips with some of the things that I read in the popular science press about new things being done genetically. I suppose the theme in Lethe was the idea that nothing's really unnatural, and I guess there was a kind of feeling of the tail of nature lashing back, and coming right round and taking humans out of the equation. I definitely put a bit of a sting into that; it was wishful thinking. But I don't really dare to hope that there would be that kind of poetic justice in the real world: I think the likelihood of anything good coming out of it would be very slim. It's difficult, you feel like some kind of conservative religious figure if you don't like the idea of cloned sheep or whatever. I find it disturbing.
TB: In both Lethe and Dreaming in Smoke, you put your characters into a terribly hostile environment at various points. In Lethe it's the Earth, ravaged by disease and climate change. In Dreaming in Smoke it's an alien planet, T’nane, which looked just fine when they surveyed it. When it was colonised, though, it turned out to be completely different to how the survey painted it. The big problem on T’nane is the Oxygen Problem – how can they make enough oxygen to survive? In both of those novels you're playing with the ecology: is that a big concern, the ecological interaction?
TS: It’s a simple result of when you try to think of an imaginary world. You have the reality as we know it and you want to play around with it, and as soon as you do that you've go to make some concessions: change one little thing and you've got to expect there to be big consequences. In research for Dreaming in Smoke, I read about the origins of life on Earth and how fragile the equation is to produce just exactly the right mix. When I was thinking about the ecology of another planet it seemed awfully unrealistic to expect that planet to be just like Earth. It seems to be bypassing one of the big questions. I was just trying to take the speculation a little bit seriously and not make it an alternate world, just like this world except in a galaxy far, far away. I have a little bit of trouble swallowing that. I had to be able to have people there, they had to be able to function: it couldn't be a complete pit of fire, but I had to do something to make it clear that it was another planet, where the rules are not going to be the same. There wasn't an overlying moral purpose there: it's just practical.
TB: There's an indication, no more, in both those novels, that there’s a sort of planetary intelligence or mind. There’s an ecology working on a larger level than just the cells – an interacting system. In Lethe it’s the lywyn – a kind of vast forest-mind – and in Dreaming in Smoke it’s the planet, right down to the unicellular lumae. In Someone to Watch over Me, which is in some ways the odd one out, there’s the Deep – an artificial collective unconscious.
TS: I was trying to nail down the idea of, if you had a mind that wasn't a human mind, what would it be like? And with the lywyn it was pretty airy-fairy: I didn't really have a grip of what I was doing. It was almost like a fantasy device, with the trees, and the race-memory idea. With Someone to Watch over Me I tried to nail it down a little bit more by pulling in the whole computer idea and the idea of artificial intelligence. Then, in Dreaming in Smoke, there were two elements: the AI Ganesh, and the planet itself, and the interface between them. I think that maybe I got a little bit more focussed with that as I went along. I wasn't comfortable in Lethe with the idea of the lywyn because I couldn't put my finger on it rationally. It was a nice image, but it wasn't grounded in anything. As I went along I was trying to come up with some connection between the rational demands that my mind was making, speculating and extrapolating about a mind that alien to mine, and the intuitive ideas that I had, which were unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable. But I feel a little more comfortable about the underpinnings of the intelligences in Dreaming in Smoke. In fact the whole point of Dreaming in Smoke, I think, was the idea that if you try to mesh these two kinds of mind, the human mind and this possible mind, this alien consciousness. As it gets filtered through the AI, maybe the consciousness gets invented by that AI. There's this uncomfortable friction between possibility and actuality. What happens in Dreaming in Smoke is that the characters are trying to transcend their physical form. There’s this one physical thing, which is this big pond of prokaryotes, and then there’s this artificial intelligence Ganesh, which can be programmed to do things that theoretically, maybe, the human mind can't do. Then you've got humans: we're rooted in a biological intelligence which is our brain and our body. So it’s this kind of consciousness kind of wending its way from the human body through the AI and into something completely strange, and that’s where you get this kind of extreme friction and extreme physical and psychological states. I just find it difficult to imagine how you could have a nice chat with an alien.
TB: But in some ways it's happening at a subconscious level?
TS: Absolutely, because again I don't believe that the conscious mind is really worth two shits.
TB: That's when things happen – when people are asleep or in a different state of mind for whatever reason. And yet you’re still throwing in the physical, especially in Dreaming in Smoke –there’s an episode that several of us had problems with, the 'farming'.
TS: What do you mean, 'had problems with'?
Claire Brialey: The way I would describe it was that it was possibly one of the most horrible things that I had ever read, and the only reason to carry on reading was that I wanted to know what happened so much. It was quite revoltingly compelling; perhaps because it was very clear and clinical rather than gory. It actually made me feel physically sick but I couldn’t stop reading. That’s meant to be a compliment!
TS: I'm sorry! But really, it's so strange to hear that, because it's like – what I was trying to say about Someone to Watch over Me – you write something and you really just don't know what it feels like to be on the other end of it. It wasn't that fun to write, for what it's worth.
TB: It was almost like the physical putting the boot into the whole mental, cerebral side of it. That was the way into the system. It had nothing to do with whether or not Kalypso Deed was a child genius or whatever.
TS: That's right, it was her cells in the end. I never really thought about it like that before, but she was in this culture which had everybody parcelled out as to what they were going to be, what their skills were going to be. You choose a team to go into space, you've got to make sure you've got everything covered. She didn't fit into that, she thought she was worthless, useless: and she ended up, not through any effort of her own, being the most important person on the planet. But not through any kind of genius whatsoever, just happening to be in the right place at the right time and getting herself sliced up.
TB: Kalypso’s a good example of one of your non-feminist heroines, like Jenae in Lethe and, to some extent, Sabena in Someone to Watch Over Me. They sit there: well, they don't sit there, they fight back and they have attitude problems, but quite often it's the fact that they are helpless in the face of adversity or worse, and something happens to them. They don't take a gun in one hand and a petri dish in the other and go out and save the world: something happens to them. They all come across to some extent as victims. It sounds terribly damning, but all of them have nice little lives ticking along – for differing values of 'nice' – and something awful happens to them. For Jenae in Lethe it's when the Heads find out what she's been thinking, and try to burn out her brain. In Someone to Watch Over Me, it's the mental rape of Sabene, and in Dreaming in Smoke, Kalypso gets kidnapped, gets farmed, becomes completely alienated from the rest of her team, and then she gets blamed for most of it as well!
TS: That’s really interesting, because I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction in which all the heroes were men and then I discovered Marion Zimmer Bradley and Amazons, and I thought that was really cool. I have a background in martial arts. I like to think I have quite an attitude about me: the idea that I would be unfeminist is kind of shocking to me because I've lived my life in a very assertive way. From the age I was 7 until the time I was 12 I did not wear a dress or a skirt of any kind, I had short hair, I was often mistaken for a boy. When you say that these are anti-feminist role models ...
TB: Not anti-feminist, just non-feminist.
TS: I think that maybe I just have a different concept of what heroism is. I don't know what's so heroic about taking a big gun and shooting people. Survival is what's heroic. All of those characters are survivors. Sabena actually subverts the implant that's in her head ... she gets sort of raped, but she's not defeated by it.
I don’t think they are victims: things happen to people. You can't control what happens to you, you can only control how you react to it. I think they all find strength in what happens to them.
TB: They all fight back, definitely. None of them sit back and say 'I must deserve it', or simply lament their fates. It was just something that struck me – especially about Kalypso, in Dreaming in Smoke: she was so powerless. There was nothing she could do at all, because the things that she was good at – apart from being a wizard cocktail mixer and so on – all seemed to be irrelevant once the AI went down. She was almost this parasite, this freeloader, because she wasn't using what she could do.
Let's move on from the non-feminist heroines to the romances, the relationships. In Lethe and in Dreaming in Smoke you have very young girls ... I’m thinking of Tsering, who is effectively an adolescent.
TS: But she's 72 years old
TB: She's 72 and she looks about 12, and the male protagonist finds her extremely attractive while thinking that he probably shouldn't – and he hastens her descent into adolescence. In Dreaming in Smoke, Kalypso Deed is in a relationship that starts off as terribly antagonistic with a much older person, and in the end he is the only person to whom she can actually relate. It seemed to me that she'd grown out of her peers, and that they seemed irrelevant, and rather juvenile, to her after what she'd been through.
TS: With Kalypso and Marcsson I was very careful not to make that a sexual relationship. It wasn't meant to be romantic, even though she was female and he was male. It was more having been through something together. On the one hand, I always say that nothing's calculated in any of my books, but if anything was calculated I definitely made sure that those two never got it on: I didn't want to confuse the message I was putting out. I never thought of it: it just didn't seem right.
TB: I'd say that in the book, if there was anything unspoken between them, it was more a case of hostage syndrome, that she was starting to have sympathy for his views, sitting there trying to single-handedly save the planet. There was never any indication to me that there was anything sexual or romantic during the course of the book, but it just seemed that that might be one of the logical progressions of what might happen next.
TS: I suppose that's possible: it never crossed my mind. With respect to Tsering, it never occurred to me that that was the case. I think she was so much more together than him, so much more mature than him. The fact of her puberty being triggered and then her transformation, with all its implications, being triggered – I don't want to say it counted morally, but it counted for something. The idea that he was sort of taking advantage of her never really crossed my mind. If it did, I wanted to make it clear that he wasn't; he was the one left holding the kid, let's put it that way. She was the one that went on to the next stage and he was the one left to deal with the nappies.
TB: Another theme that comes up in all three books is music – not just as background, but as something with meaning, with different levels of significance to the characters.
TS: Music is what I would be doing if I was any good at it. I studied it in college. I think music is the best intersection of the mind and body – I say I don't believe in the two but I can't find a better word for it. It's the best expression of the physical and all the other things about us that there is. When I was in school I had the opportunity to study music in a kind of very free and experimental way because I grew up with no talent whatsoever. I'm totally tone deaf, I have no rhythm, I have no perseverance when it comes to practising instruments: but I happen to have a degree in music because I was able to study it. I love the psychological, psychophysical spaces that you can get at through music. And then when I graduated life had to move on. I think some of the things that I was exploring musically – that were of musical interest to me – got channelled into fiction, because I could put words together no problem, whereas the tools of music were foreign to me because I didn't come to it from a young age. I didn't come to it with talent, and I was never going to really get it off the ground. So I turned to writing, but then there's always this kind of yearning about music, because music scratches the places you can't scratch with words, and words are really inadequate. So I keep referring to music in words, even though it's just a reference, it's not really the real thing. It's like talking about food: you can't actually taste it, but it gives you a little kick anyway.
TB: In Someone to Watch over Me, music becomes a kind of path into the Self.
TS: Actually, I was interested in encoding things in general in Someone to Watch over Me. I played with the idea of encoding meaning in moves from martial arts, kata, karate, dances – which, looking back on it, really wasn't suitable. I was just looking for some other way that you could encode yourself in an abstract way, that could then be translated back and experienced by somebody. ‘C’ is this woman who is in a sensorily-deprived state, and is experiencing life vicariously through other people. She's ultimately subsumed by the character of Sabena, who she mentally rapes – puts her entire consciousness into. And yet because Sabena is a musician, an artist, she ends up taking over the one that's taken over her. I was never really quite sure who had taken over whom. Sabena, no matter what happened to her, always had this musical expression. Even when C was downloading all of her memories into Sabena, and she felt compelled to compose and write all these things down. In a sense she was a conduit, but by being the conduit she took over C and instead of being raped (going back to the ‘passive heroine’ thing) she was eating something. She was subsuming it within herself. I think that the feminine side of nature, the passive side of nature, passivity is not always what it seems. It can be power.
TB: I've heard rumours that you have written a fantasy novel under a pseudonym: is that right?
TS: Yes, I've been writing under another name for the past couple of years: the name is Valery Leith and I'm doing a trilogy. Why I did it? Let me try to justify my shameless commercialism by saying that I really started out reading fantasy, which is true! I don't have a strong background in science fiction but I read Tolkien when I was eight years old, and I have read Lord of the Rings over and over again. That's where my speculative roots lie. I started writing this fantasy and my agent liked it and there was more money in it than in the science fiction: the science fiction didn't, at that time, seem to be going anywhere. The fantasy's turned into science fiction anyway! I had a complaint from my German editor that you can't have wormholes and time travel in fantasy because it gives everyone headaches. So, if I want to make any money I have to have another name and try to get a bit baser, because I obviously haven't hit it the first time round!
TB: Did you write the fantasy novels in the same way that you did your science fiction?
TS: No. It's more free ... I wrote it much faster, I wrote it much more casually, and because I was hiding behind this other name I didn't have to worry about whether or not it was clever, because nobody would know that it was me.
It's like putting on a mask: you get to free up other parts. The fantasy trilogy’s got a sword-wielding female protagonist, and – even though through the whole book she's soaked in blood and wearing rags – they put her on the cover in a little leather corset, and her sword was really pretty!
I had a conversation with the American art director about the cover of the second book. She said, 'We want to go with the female warrior for the cover because everyone liked it the first time. Well, what would she be wearing?' Essentially, they went to the Village and got an S&M costume for the model to wear – this little leather thing – and I think they wanted to use the costume again. But she was standing in this ice cave: it’s winter, she'd be wearing heavy furs. When I got the artwork back, it’s all cleavage: just a cloak with a little fur collar to give in to it being winter, and bare legs ...
TB: And the paperback of the first part – The Company of Glass– is just out?
TS: Yes, I've seen copies so it should be out soon
TB: Do you have plans for more science fiction?
TS: Yes, I'm working on something right now that I've been working on since 1992. It's a book about gender and – I think you'll quite like it, actually: it doesn't have any female victims in it, the victims are all male! It's examining what the world would be like if women really were in power ... I'm really terrified of it: it's really psychologically confrontational stuff. I haven’t managed to finish it: occasionally I have the courage to work on a little bit of it. I do want to get to it: I just have to finish off this fantasy thing. After people told me they liked the nastiness of Dreaming in Smoke, I've got a bit gutsier about going into the darker spaces.
TB: Questions from the audience?
Claire Brialey: I didn’t actually read Kalypso as a victim: I read her as someone who was victimised but nonetheless found ways to get by. Since she’s a teenager and the baby in her family unit, she spends quite a lot of time complaining that things aren’t fair, but she’s better at coping than she or anyone else expects.
Was there a wider theme you wanted to emphasis about the roles young people, young women, are expected to take in society?
TS: There was never a message or a consciously deliberated thing. At the time I was teaching ...well, I had come from a background of teaching, but I had studied education of the gifted, and had studied definitions of giftedness and intelligence. I probably had some stuff on my mind about what society values and what society rewards. I think that was reflected in this constructed society that had been made: the idea that everybody has a place and everybody has a function and that you're supposed to stick to that. Obviously I don't quite get on with that idea, or I wouldn’t have put Kalypso in, thrown her into the mix to mess everything up in a kind of obnoxious way. Also, there's something that was said earlier that struck me about Kalypso: she was essentially no use, but she ended up having a value in that society. I didn't intentionally set out to do that, but I suppose when you come from an academic background, education, you see everybody trying to structure everything and create frameworks to get people to behave the way that you think they should behave. There's this tremendous urge to see a 2-year-old come in and just knock everything down and mess it all up, and that's probably what I was succumbing to a little bit there. Yes, it's OK to have these theories, but it's much more interesting to see what really happens. I don't like too much contrived order, it's safe to say!
Roger Robinson: At the start, regarding the question about cyberpunk, you said you hadn't read that much. What were your influences, and how do you come from whatever they were to writing hard SF?
TS: The only thing I was reading at the time that affected me (and it probably only affected my style) was Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow. The idea for the story came from seeing a play in New York, called 'Someone Who'll Watch Over Me'. It had the Ella Fitzgerald song in it, and it was about these three guys who were in a prison in Beirut or Turkey or something. It's almost like a joke: an Irishman, an Englishman, and an American. They're all sitting there chained to the walls and they're all talking to each other. That's the whole play. At one point the American gets dragged off and presumably killed, but the rest of the play is just these guys talking. I had never seen a live play before, and it was brilliant. At the end of it I just remember how affected I had been by those performers and the playwright. The whole experience had been so physically and emotionally affecting that I felt that there was some kind of connection going on. With Someone to Watch over Me, all I was trying to do was figure out what happens when I experience something that you've done and you experience something that I've done. That was what was really on my mind, and everything else was trying to find a way to get to tell it that would be acceptable.
[Dr Andrew M Butler] Has winning the Clarke Award had any effect on the way you write, what you write?
TS: I think it was a tremendous shot in the arm, a tremendous boost. This time last year I had no plans to do any more science fiction for the foreseeable future, just because the sales were so bad and it's so much harder to write. Then, when I got that award, people came up to me that night and told me that they really liked my work … You know, I never had an idea that anybody's reading it, so it always comes as a shock when someone actually says something about your work. So yes: it was a tremendous boost, and I feel a sort of obligation to try to continue doing that, because when you win something so prestigious, suddenly you realise that maybe you might actually be onto something that you ought to stick to. So, yes, it has had an effect. It’s had no effect that I know of on my sales, or any of those obvious things: but it's definitely had an effect on me personally.