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Blue flames and sparks exploded loudly. I shrank back, frightened and not understanding what was happening. I should be at home, resting after the interview with Ekaterina Sedia, but I found myself surrounded by smoke, fire, sirens and cries of alarm. I had no initiative to act, I was in amazement.
Then, someone grabbed my arm and forcefully pulled me out of the niche I was in. I was dragged for some feet at the same time a group of men were using the fire extinguishers, in an attempt to overcome the fire that was gaining strength. I looked at the man who was dragging me and recognized Charles Stross.
I was even more amazed than before. Our interview was not supposed to happen before a break of a few days. I stood up dividing my attention between him and my quantic watch, wondering what was going on. It was probably a discrepancy that had thrown me on another altered reality right after the last one.
I was still poking the watch when Charlie called my attention, in exasperation.
“Are we going to keep playing cuckoo as the ship disintegrates?”
I sure felt like a fish out of water. I didn’t know what was going on or how I ended up there.
“No, of course not,” I said without knowing exactly how to proceed.
Charlie did not let me think for a long time. Once again, he grabbed my arm and led me for a short hallway to a door that opened immediately at our approach. Outside, the bustle was also great. An intense stampede of men and women, all wearing gray overalls, looks of surprise, expressions of fear.
“What is going on?” I asked.
“Apparently we were pulled, with no kindness at all, from hyperspace.”
I followed him hastily, while seeing others passing by, at times bumping into us. We walked up and down stairs, through several corridors, and were, sometimes, shaken by what sounded like nearby explosions.
“Hyperspace?” I asked again, trying to understand.
Charlie looked at me like someone looking at a complete stranger.
“Inaugural trip, remember? Pegasus first-class freighter. Level 2 on the Reymond & Clever scale. Bound to the system of Bellatrix. Coming from the industrial conglomerate of Io, at service of Amgen & Toyota Corporation. What have you been drinking?
“We were pulled out,” he continued, “of our trip by a solar flare of great magnitude. PULLED-OUT! Do you get that?”
I stopped following him for a few seconds. There was, in the middle of the hallway, a wide opening, seemingly apparently glazed. As I approached and touched the membrane separating us from the outer space, I remembered I had already seen that technology before, during the Calife interview.
I approached my face to the energy field and I saw something huge and winding. It was the cargo ship we were in. It stretched a long way, being formed by metal blocks arranged like a huge Lego toy. In many places the joints exploded, blocks separated from each other, spinning, bumping, opening the walls and pouring cargo and people into space. I saw several intense fires. They soon disappeared in the vacuum to be replaced by others. The blasts continued.
A cry from Charlie brought me back to reality. I ran to catch up with him. The ground beneath our feet shook with increasing strength. I started hearing not too far away screams, and to my horror, saw the segment of the ship I had just been in split open, ejecting people who were running around, throwing them into space. Charlie grabbed me and threw me into a room, tightly closing the door behind us.
I was terrified.
“There is an interview, but I don’t know what to ask. I’m not ready for it. I was not supposed to be here,” I babbled confused.
“Interview? What crap is that?
The room where we were had a number of cocoons that protruded from the walls. I watched them trying to guess their functions. I took a guess.
“Ejection bubbles. There are a few hundred in this gigantic floating city. But most of them are lost, destroyed by the disintegration of the ship.”
Then, Charles stopped and stared at me.
“You’re not kidding, right? I mean, you really don’t know what’s happening and where we are? You mentioned this interview and had a curious feeling that … Well, questions were asked, I remember them. I answered them, but not before refusing some. It seems to me this happened hundreds of years ago. As if that memory arose from the very bottom of my memory.”
“From Bar to Bar, dangerous interviews. Remember? I interviewed Ekaterina Sedia, and then it was your turn, but I should have had a break. This break never happened. I ended up here abruptly.”
“From Bar to Bar…” Charles muttered, while pushing me into a cocoon.
Magnetic straps clung to my body, holding me in place. An energy membrane, like the one I had seen at the wide openning, appeared and sealed me inside the cocoon. I gasped, feeling short of breath, a feeling more psychological than physical. I watched Charles get into another cocoon, I saw the membrane closing, isolating him. I saw the man poking a panel (which existed where I was) and then everything started shaking.
I thought the segment we were in was about to burst, but then our cocoons were sucked into a tube and soon after launched into outer space. We crossed some wreckage, almost hitting some of it. We got distant from the ship, enough for me to find out it was even bigger than I had originally thought. I was terrified by its incredible magnitude. It was humping, writhing like a snake. Rings were expelled, segments being removed, simultaneous explosions destroying a stunning work of human engineering.
So our cocoons spun in space, starting a sort of ignition, as if there were rockets on their tails. We were shot at breakneck speed, distancing from the vast Earth ship, bound for a destination which I totally ignored.
I was groggy when I awoke. I was sitting, with my back against a rock. Charles was near its cocoon, looking inside in search of something.
“Oh, you’re up. It was about time,” he said without turning to me.
“Where are we?”
“A small rocky planet a few million kilometers away from the Pegasus, or what’s left of it.”
“How did we get here?”
“This side of the galaxy is completely charted. I programmed the nearest destination and the life support systems of the cocoons did all the rest.”
“Do you think you would make it here with only 2 liters of oxygen available? It was a six-day trip! You were put to sleep and your metabolism was down to a minimum.
“Was the Pegasus run by a lobster?” I asked, still confused.
It was like a floodgate opened up inside my mind and all the questions that were necessary for the interview flowed freely.
“Do lobsters dream of wormhole travelling? And should we fear that they one day hold a book on how ‘to serve man’?”
Charles, who was hunched over his cocoon, rose. He had a small bag in one hand. On the other, he carried what looked like a pair of binoculars.
“Basic gadgets,” he said, noticing my curiosity, “these binoculars, pocket knife, can opener, first aid kit, dried food, mints.”
“Lobsters — right now — don’t dream, as far as we know; they’re crustaceans, large sea-dwelling insect-like creatures without much of a nervous system. I picked them for the first chunk of Accelerando after reading about an interesting lab experiment …”
Charles chose a flat stretch of land, put some gravel away and sat before me. He dropped the bag and the binoculars and leaned his chin on his free hands.
“For about the past four hundred years a debate has been raging between two factions, philosophically opposed: the proponents of mind/body dualism (the idea that our consciousness is separate from our physical existence, inhering in some sort of immaterial “soul”) and the materialists who think that consciousness is an emergent property of matter. Over the past sixty years, the current has been running towards the materialists. Two big developments in the sciences have helped them: the development of the theory of computation, which provides for the existence of a large class of computing structures that can emulate one another perfectly given enough storage and time, and the development of neurobiology, which has sketched in the mechanisms by which nerves work — showing that they are, in some sense, computational structures. Other scientific research has failed to support the dualist hypothesis; MRI scans of living brains leave precious little space for a soul to hide in.”
I remained quiet, listening to his speech. It was impossible to keep my curious eyes from wandering, lost in the alien topography, checking the surroundings out. There were rocks of various sizes, an almost Martian landscape. But I could see small intensely crimson blooms that grew at the feet of most of those rocks. They looked like open chunks of meat, strange flowers.
“Consequently,” he continued, “of late there’s been some consideration of the idea of mind uploading: if our minds are essentially patterns of activity supported by a neurocomputer, is it possible to transfer them intact (and with full continuity of consciousness) into a different substrate — possibly a faster and more powerful one?”
Charles paused while I felt a slight puff on my left ear. I looked to the side and jumped, startled. There was an open a crack on the rock, and tiny spores were expelled from it. I backed up two steps, staring the strange event in disbelief. Charles laughed at my amazement.
“What you see are not rocks. At least most of it. Botany here is exotic. Can’t you see the flowers flat on the floor next to those “rocks”? But they are all harmless. Unless you’re allergic to pollen.”
I gave a small laugh and I decided to stand.
“In the 1980s,” he kept talking, “CMU robotics professor Hans Moravec set out a thought experiment. His idea was this: you take a patient in an operating theatre and open up their skull under local anaesthesia, keeping them conscious. A marvellously precise robot surgeon then (a) identifies a single neurone on the surface of their neocortex, (b) maps out its connections to its neighbours, (c) develops a software model of its action potentials, (d) replaces its axon terminals and dendrites with electronic devices that couple the computer running the software model of the neurone to all the neurone’s neighbours, so that the computer takes over the job of emulating the neurone’s internal state and exchanging signals with its neighbours, then (e) removes the redundant neurone. Repeat a hundred billion times and at the end of the day you’ve got an empty cranium lined with electrodes innervating a body — and a mind that, despite having been continuously conscious, now exists entirely within the computer simulation. But we’re not going to get there by starting on humans, are we?”
I used his pause to take a closer look at the horizon, where there seemed to be some movement. Perhaps it was an optical illusion, perhaps not.
“Is it something that we should worry about?” I asked, pointing my finger to the north.
Charles stood up, approached the binocular to his eyes and uttered an exclamation.
“Not possible!”, he said in a tense voice. Then he pushed the binoculars towards me.
I looked at the horizon and saw what looked like a mass of humanity moving. They came on foot or carried by machinery which released clouds of steam. Men and women wearing strange, old clothes. Some of them seemed to be wearing bizarre armors. I saw two humanoid forms, certainly mechanical, moving heavily. Some of them also looked at us using binoculars. They pointed their fingers at us, excited. So Charles moved the binoculars that I had before my eyes, forcing me to point them higher up into the sky, high above the crowd. Two huge zeppelins pointed their noses at us.
“Steamers!” Charles exclaimed in utmost perplexity.
“Steamers? Here? Isn’t this a rocky planetoid, lost in limits of the universe?”
Charles looked at my watch as if blaming it for everything.
“I think we’d better get moving.”
“Why? They may be our salvation. We’re lost, aren’t we?”
“Move. If we stay, we’re going to be slaughtered.”
“A more likely candidate,” Charles returned to his speech with a much tenser voice, I must say, “for preliminary experiments in mind uploading is something like the Pacific Spiny Lobster, panulirus interruptus. This overgrown insect has a rather odd approach to eating; rather than biting its food into pieces, it swallows it whole, and chews it up using a toothy mill in its stomach. This mill is controlled by a clump of nerves called the stomatogastric ganglion — very big nerves, easy to experiment on, and very simple: the central pattern generator that drives the ganglion consists of just eleven (very big) neurons. The STG’s neural connections have been mapped out since the 1970s, and in the late 90s I stumbled across a paper in which some researchers had verified their map of the STG by, in effect, carrying out the Moravec thought experiment. And it worked. (On one neuron, admittedly, but it’s a start!)”
Then we heard a bang. We looked back and saw in the distance what looked like a small dark spot rising against the sky, and, in a parable, gradually increase in size. It came towards us.
“Run!” Charles shouted, pushing me.
We ran, dodging the smaller “rocks”, until we got near one that was large enough to hide us. We stopped for a split second and looked back. The projectile was approaching fast. A metal ball that fell about fifty yards from us rolled crashing into various obstacles (destroying some “plants” and provoking strong emanations of spores) and ended up no more than 10 yards from us. Small openings appeared on its surface and tens of small needles were released from them. Charles grabbed me, throwing both of us behind the stone. The darts were released and scattered in all directions, some punching several centimeters deep into the rock.
“They want to kill us!” I shouted scared.”And I was thinking they had come from Earth to save us.”
“Earth?” asked Charles. “Earth virtually no longer exists, it is plunged into a terrible war between the corporations that will no longer accept the political diplomacy as a means of dialogue.”
“But then, where do those Steamers come from?”
“From the insane fantasy by this quantic watch of yours. Me and my big mouth …”
“I don’t think my watch is working properly. I came here without a break, in an immediate quantum leap. Malfunction, probably.”
“Or someone is playing with you.”
“Someone with a watch just like yours. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
I frowned, trying to follow his reasoning. I soon discarded that possibility, it was absurd that someone else had a quantic watch just like mine.
“How long are we staying here?” I asked, concerned about the progress of the Steamers.
“I’ll take a quick look. The truth is that we don’t have much left to go. This is a desolate planet, there aren’t that many places that can provide us shelter.
Charles stood up and stuck his head out, spying on the enemy. He let out a scream of terror, took both hands to his face and staggered back in agony. Wrapping his head there was a … It looked like a … I would say it was a … Corselet full of lace and pleats?
“They are shooting at us with cliches!” he shouted loudly, angrily.
“Answer the questions. It is the only way to escape this mess.”
“Of course the question of what you might actually do with an uploaded lobster remains unanswered. But once you’ve got one, you could always hook it up to a bunch more neurons, teach it to talk, and ask it,” completed Charles, throwing the corselet to the ground. “Here is no longer safe, go ahead.”
I got up and I began to follow him. Ahead of us, there was a scenery with not many changes. We could hear screams and laughter not far away.
“If sentience isn’t a mandatory evolutionary goal (as implied by the German philosopher Thomas Metzinger and proposed by Peter Watts in Blindsight), and if intelligence can exist without the species being self-aware (as swarms, etc), could that imply that we’re in fact the Singurality (in each of our brains – matter turned into thought)?” I asked hastily.
“These days I don’t believe the singularity is a terribly useful concept; it carries too much eschatological baggage. Consciousness is indisputably an interesting phenomenon, as Richard Dawkins demonstrated in “The Extended Phenotype” — it gives us the ability to develop via horizontal transfer of desirable traits between individuals, short-circuiting the slow incremental filtering process of classical evolution. But whether it’s a stable or desirable phenomenon — who knows? As a species we’re less than 200,000 years old and we’ve already triggered the sixth great mass extinction in 600 million years. We’re also in danger of running into a resource depletion crisis followed by a population crash. This isn’t a typical sign of a survival trait!”
We looked up and the zeppelins were over our heads. To our amazement, they dumped hundreds of colorful umbrellas, open, like little parachutes coming down, spinning. Other shots were made by the crowd that followed us. This time, there were bowler hats, top hats, pince-nez (one of them hit me on the forehead, causing a small cut). Charles hastened, fearing he might be hit by other cliches. He certainly wouldn’t survive another violence such as that.
“Therefore, if we’re living on a Post-singularity universe, won’t the Post-Human stage (longevity, etc) – if it comes about – become an obstacle, since one of the main evolution drives of thought comes from short individual lives and the constant supply of blank slates (fresh baby brains)?” I asked.
“You’re mistaking the current high rate of change for “progress”. Progress implies teleology and a goal — but evolution is not goal-oriented; it’s a random drunkard’s walk through the phase-space of adaptation, with a phase barrier to one side (extinction). Nor is there any guarantee that there are no limits to science, no boundaries to the amount of knowledge of the universe that we can accumulate and make use of.”
Umbrellas kept falling around us. It was noticeable that Charles was making an effort to disregard them. As well as the spats, walking sticks with silver knobs, monoculars, suspenders and fake mustaches.
So we were brutally forced to stop. There was a huge cliff before us. A scary precipice thousands of meters high. Beads of sweat dripped from our foreheads. We saw no way out, having to face the Steamers face to face, with no chance of success.
“Any more questions?”
Hard slams on the ground made us turn around. Three robots full of gears, nearly three meters high, stalled some fifteen yards from us. Machine-gun barrels were visible on their sides. The crowd was approaching.
“Will Freya Nakamichi-47, or some of her offspring, be back for more adventures?”
A burst on the floor next to us, made us go back a few steps, getting dangerously closer to the cliff. A cloud of dust rose.
“Yup! There’s a short story, Bit Rot, coming out in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Engineering Infinity in January.
Then, I pressed the button.
Nothing happened. I pressed again. We look at each other anxiously. Again and again I hit the button, with no results. The interview didn’t end, the danger wasn’t over. I gulped, but had no time to express my concern. Another machine gun burst set us back even further. I missed the ground, I tried and did not find support. I let out a muffled cry of terror before I felt loose in the air, about to start a free fall . I saw Charles turning to me, I saw him stretching his arm, I saw his hand so close and yet so far.
When I thought it was over, I felt my arm being grabbed with strength, and my body stopped, still swinging, loose in the air. I took a deep breath, trying to scare the fear away, and looked at my savior. It scared the hell out of me. It wasn’t Charles Stross who was holding me firmly, it was Jeff VanderMeer instead. I wasn’t on an inhospitable planet any longer. It was like Earth, it was THE Earth, devastated by war.
Follow this incredible adventure in the next interview, with Jeff VanderMeer.
Luis Filipe Silva collaborated with this interview
We were surrounded by woods. Leafy trees, shrubs, grass. There were lots of butterflies. The blue sky was filtered by the high branches, letting interspersed rays of light in. And squirrels, lots of them. Climbing and coming down from trees, running around, twining in our legs. We were smiling. It was a lovely sight. The air smelled flowers. We saw wildlife, like deer and many birds, songbirds, watching us as we were watching them. No frights or unnecessary foolish fears.
I must stress I wasn’t expecting such a marvelous scene when I pushed the button on my quantic watch, ready for another interview. I knew of the worship Larry Nolen had for squirrels and even believed we would find them. I was only worried about how those rodents would present themselves. I was worried there would be zombie-like squirrels with long sharp teeth, hungry for brains.
I abandoned any expectations for peaceful, not risky interviews, quite some time ago.
We looked at each other in rapture. My interviewee was in a state of grace, almost living an epiphany. Squirrels are extremely lively little animals. He could never imagine lots of them climbing our legs, happily, as if we were equals.
And it was equal stupor that we saw one of them, as big as a grown cat risk himself a lot more. He went up Larry’s pants, held on to his shirt and roosted on his shoulders. The animal was smiling, with wide eyes and looked at us alternately. Then he opened his mouth and, to our surprise, he said:
“Don’t you think it’s time to wake up from this silly illusion and go back to reality?”
As in magic, we saw everything crumble and fall around us, in smaller and smaller parts, pixels falling apart until there was nothing but a room full of holographic projectors.
The squirrel on Larry’s shoulders was still there. He had an ironic expression. He waited until we were recovered from the shock and then came down, in a precise jump. He looked at us once again and signaled for us to follow him.
“Talking squirrels” I whispered, perplexed.
“Talking and technological squirrels,” Larry added with a scowl.
The squirrel ran towards a wall and disappeared through it right before our eyes. We moved forward and touched it. It was rigid, solid, metallic.
“What the hell…,” Larry started complaining.
Before he could finish, the squirrel came back with an angry face.
“I forgot you are as big as the tiny brains you have. It’s formless metal and we are small. If you used your mind a little more, you’d know you have to stoop down.”
I tried the wall with the tip of my toe wich, to my surprise, went through. Larry groped it, and found the exact height of the passage and in a fake smile, kneeled, crawling out of the room. I followed him.
We found ourselves in a corridor. Although the squirrels were small – but not as small as we could imagine – the places there were reasonably large.
“We were expecting you. We adapted some things,” said the rodent as if he could anticipate our concerns. “My name is Bel’n’tirk and this is the spaceship Derk’n’bork, category eight. Built to rescue and guide some chosen ones to a safe stoppage.”
Larry and I looked at each other in bewilderment.
“But where did this crazy watch bring us?”
“I haven’t got the slightest idea,” I answered while I saw the squirrel run down the corridor, leaving us behind.
“It’s an interview. Ask the first question.”
‘When you say – and rightfully so – that non-English audiences expect and possibly demand of their local authors that they follow more closely the unspoken standards of science fiction, would you then say that English science fiction – more able to subvert or challenge those same unspoken standards – has been evolving or has it just run its course to the end? In other terms, is it possible to be “evolving away” from itself?’ I put the paper I checked in search for the answers in my pocket back to where I had taken him from and increased my pace. We would soon lose track of Bel’n’tirk if we stayed there.
Other squirrels ran around the corridors. Many of them carrying notepads, communicators, pens and lots of stuff we couldn’t identify. They passed by us as if we weren’t even there.
“The problem, as I see it, with defining rigidly any term is that as soon as one does so, the usage changes. Science fiction today, whether it be that written in the United States, Great Britain, or Brazil, for example, differs as a whole in certain trends, technological advancements, both real and imagined, and in how people and their societies are portrayed. If I were pressed to define it at all, I would say that science fiction is a fluid narrative form that is very responsive to the conditions of its authors’ times and locales, mutating as necessary to reflect better the changing social, cultural, and technological landscapes.”
As soon as he finished answering, the spaceship was shaken. We heard a high crack as if the metal of the structures was breaking apart. The floor trembled and we had to lean on the walls. The squirrels around us startled and started to run even faster.
Bel’n’tirk went through another passage. We kneeled and went into what seemed to be an elevator. And it was. The controls were near the ground. The squirrel pressed two buttons and we were thrown against the ceiling due to the speed the vehicle went down. Bel’n’tirk laughed at our situation and pointed to his feet where magnetic little boots, which were recently activated, kept him firm on the ground.
“What’s going on?” Larry asked in dismay.
“We are a rescuing ship. Some blame us of kidnapping, but that’s not the case. We save people who are being followed. But we only do that when the cause interests us. And your cause is very interesting.”
“And what cause is that?” I asked, somewhere between curious and frightened.
Bel’n’tirk was about to answer when the elevator suddenly stopped. We were thrown against the ground and hit our bottoms groaning in constraint. The doors didn’t open because they just wouldn’t. We had to walk through them. We crawled out, already annoyed by this silly need (Doors which open and close are extremely comfortable). We stood up, but not entirely. Low ceiling. We were forced to bend. We found ourselves in the flagship. At least twelve squirrels were working in multi-colored panels from which indistinguishable holographic images were being projected. In the middle of the walkway, a squirrel which was quite bigger than the others, almost the size of a dog, looked at us in undisguiseable curiosity.
“My name’s Jorj’h’korg. You can’t imagine the great satisfaction I have in meeting you. And this magnificent quantic watch, which technology fascinates us deeply.”
“Fascinates us?” I asked, already protecting my watch.
The captain squirrel moved lazily on his rear legs, dragging his enormous belly towards us. He stopped in front of us, analyzing us entirely, as if he was analyzing products he was about to buy.
“Literary critics… Ah, it amazes me…” He suddenly said, lifting his hands theatrically. Then, he pointed his finger towards me and said: “…and also a writer…. Hmmmm… a critic with a glass roof… fascinating. They want to kill you,” he added, finally, while turning around and moving away.
“Kill us?” Larry Nolen asked, perplexed.
“They hate critics, all of them,” groaned the captain. “They hate anyone who lists their failures. They want compliments, just that, even if they’re not worthy of them.”
Larry Nolen looked at me. I looked back.
“I really kick asses, with no pity or mercy,” I joked.
“But I don’t criticize anyone… I mean… I don’t do that… I just comment or summarize the works I approve… I never…”
“And how do you think the others take your silence?” asked Jorj’h’korg, turning quickly and making his belly shake dangerously and frighteningly from one side to the other.
Larry Nolen gulped.
“But relax,” the captain continued. “You’re in a level eight rescue ship. The famous Derk’n’bork. Safe, you can trust that. Our followers can hit us as many times as they want and they won’t cause us much damage.”
As if trying to deny his words, the ship was shaken once again. We heard a nearby crack. Sparks and smoke flew from one of the panels. An electrical discharge made one of the squirrels in the bridge let a sharp scream and squeak while he floundered. He fell, apparently dead, with smoke coming out from his mouth. The captain came closer to him, kicked him casually and smiled, as if nothing had happened.
“You are in the middle of an interview, aren’t you? The questions and answers interest me greatly. Please, continue.”
Fearing our time in that ship would be short, I decided to do what the captain was asking. I gagged while I asked the second question. Larry Nolen gagged to answer.
“Would there be any real benefit from translating foreign works into English on a regular basis? I mean, apart from the odd, interesting author, and assuming for the sake of the argument that editors and the market would not be barriers to the translation and publishing of these stories, would SF really benefit from a constant flow of non-English SF that is, in its core, inspired in US/UK SF models?”
“Most certainly it would benefit. Anytime there is a free and open exchange of ideas, particularly ideas that reflect different cultural and social values, the chances of innovations in the writing between say a US writer and an Argentine one, or a UK author and a Japanese one – these are going to increase exponentially. Look at the current explosion in manga. It is no longer a Japanese literary form nor something that Americans just casually adopted. It is fast becoming a global literary form, one that seems to be spawning more and more hybrid literary stories.”
Larry Nolen took a deep breath, held on Jorj’h’korg’s seat and continued.
“The same holds true for SF. I just recently finished reading a short anthology of Singaporean SF, called Happiness at the End of the World. Although English, along with Mandarin Chinese, are the dominant languages in Singapore, the cultural values are very different and that has been an eye-opener, to say the least. Staying in this part of the world, look at the explosion in popularity of SF in China, Taiwan, and Japan. Although these markets have not yet produced many works that have been translated into English – although I should note that Haikasuru started up in 2009 and has produced several great translations of Japanese SF -, from what I have seen, these non-English markets are reimagining some of the core concepts of SF, including first contact – the Japanese seem to be at times even more xenophobic than Americans about this issue -, time travel – not much of a focus on paradoxes and altering the past in a negative fashion for the Japanese -, and technology – Americans seem to have more mixed feelings about technological advances, especially when it comes to modifying the human body, than do the Japanese or Chinese. SF readers exposed to this might in turn develop their own responses that are neither those of their prior generations’ SF nor that of the foreign nation whose SF they are reading. It is, in many respects, similar to the plethora of cooking styles and “fusion dishes” that have developed over the past few decades in response to the growing globalization in all facets of our lives.”
Jorj’h’korg, who seemed to be absorbed by my watch, wagged his hands smiling.
“Intelligent question, intelligent answer,” he turned to one of his comandeers then and told him to pass to warp eight.
“Warp eight?” Larry and I asked almost in unison.
‘Duh! While you were having fun at the holodeck, we were already doing warp seven. Evasive maneuvers and accelerated evasion. The Derk’n’bork can’t go beyond the eighth warp. The enemies are close, very close.
With a slight of hand, a pannel came down from the ceiling, unfolding in several faces, all of them forming a single monitor. Eight luminous spots that seem to dance fluttered.
“They are five million kilometers behind us. Their weapons can hit us with half the power. But they’re getting closer. And each meter closer, the power of their discharges increase considerably.”
“They told us this spaceship was the best in its category. (You’ve just said that,” I complained.
“Ah, hurtless little lies, although it’s good. But it’s not the fastest. We have comfort, the holodeck, an enviable provision warehouse and some naughty little squirrel girls, if you know what I mean,” he said with a blink.
“And how do you intend to save us this way?” I asked nervously.
The captain looked at my watch with a frank smile. He put his hands together and fiddled his fingers.
“We can leave this reality and head to another. A spectacular escape through the multiverses. Of course this would force this watch to leave this wrist, yours, and come to this one here, mine. But life is always the most precious thing, isn’t it?”
I thought about his words and soon came to the conclusion that it couldn’t be done. The property transfer would prevent us from coming back to our own reality. And there was no guarantee that the fat squirrel would give it back to me.
”How is fiction, not necessarily science fiction, made in latin countries as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico noticed in the big centers of fiction literature? Are there really language barriers? ” I suddenly asked Larry Nolen.
The captain of the ship soon transfered his attention to Larry, leaving my watch away for a moment. I was trying, obviously, to make time and accelerate the interview so that we could hit the road safely.
“There are barriers, of course, but celebrity seems to abolish most of them. Take for example Jorge Luis Borges. I have spent all of July writing daily posts about his books – reading most of them in Spanish rather than English translation – or comments he has made about other writers. It took fourteen years, from the appearance of his first story in English translation, in a mystery pulp magazine, in 1947 to a seemingly-sudden explosion of popularity in the US and elsewhere in 1961, on the heels of him sharing a major international fiction award with Samuel Beckett. Within seven years, Borges is crossing the United States on lecture tours that draw thousands, he is a visiting Professor at Harvard and several other prestigious universities, and his stories appear in premier publications like The New Yorker within months of being published in Argentina. Considering this was over forty years ago, it is a major accomplishment for a foreign writer.”
I glanced at Jorj’h’korg. He was hypnotized by the answer.
“But although the United States has had a long history of importing (and then “borrowing” ideas) fictions from Europe, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Latin American literature became popular in the US as it was throughout Mexico and South America in particular. There seemed to be this magical period, lasting through the mid-1980s before dipping until the rise of writers like Roberto Bolaño in the last half of the previous decade, where a flood of talented writers from all across Latin America were finding receptive audiences in the US: Juan Rulfo, Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Amado, Mario Vargas Llosa – each of these authors were translated into English between 1960 and 1975 and Latin America became viewed as a hotbed of literature.”
While Larry answered, I started moving backwards, trying not to raise suspicions. The captain wanted my watch and I was seriously distrusting his intention of escaping from persecutors. I could bet it was all a hoax. Larry, who was alert, followed my every move.
“There are still several critics who point to Latin America even today as being a place to find great books. Time magazine selected Chilean writer Alberto Fuguet as one of its “50 Most Influential Latinos” back in 1999, for example. The Mexican Crack Manifesto group, the Southern Cone McOndoist group, and the infrarealismo of Bolaño have each led to major translation projects in the US. Although Fuguet, Edmuno Paz Soldán, Jorge Volpi, and Ignacio Padilla – just to name a few of the more prominent members of these groups – have yet to achieve the superstar levels of “El Boom,” they are visible and their works are generally well-received in American literary circles today.”
We moved closer to the entrance of the elevator. All the squirrels in the flagship were looking at us. Some had already stood up. The captain was approaching as well, half distrustful.
“So to return to the original question of whether or not the same types of barriers exist for Latin American writers: for most genres, once a writer is perceived to have enough talent, his or her works generally do well here in the US. But genre fiction, such as SF or fantasy, that is a tricky issue, since outside of Borges, whose fictions frequently touched, as he said explicitly in the introduction to El Aleph on the “fantastic,” there really hasn’t been a very visible Latin American writer whose works are explicitly genre in nature. Note that I’m leaving aside the question of how to define “magic realism” for now, as the semantics behind that term has created some heated debates,” Larry finished with a hem.
There was a kind of tacit understanding. As if Larry and I could understand each other telepathically. Of course the fat captain and his crew weren’t there trying to save our poor, mortal lives. The interest in the watch was so intense, it was impossible not to see it.
In an instant we threw ourselves into the elevator. We dived into it and couldn’t avoid hitting our heads against the metal wall on the other side, as the internal space was not that big. Larry pressed the buttons not really knowing what he was doing. The elevator flew up and then to the side, making us shake inside it as if we were in a mixer.
“Where are we going?” he asked confusedly.
“Like I know,” I answered foolishly. “This box will have to drop us somewhere, sometime.”
“They want the watch, right?”
“It got too obvious.”
“Damn squirrels. There is another question, isn’t there?”
“Ask away. I know that only once they are all answered can we leave the alternate reality we ended up in.”
I was about to ask the last question when the elevator suddenly stopped. Stay or leave? Cruel doubt. But we preferred to leave and that’s what we did. We were in a corridor. Some confused squirrels saw us while bells rang very loudly announcing our escape. We pushed some rodents aside and ran down the corridors, destination anywhere. We could hear the yelling behind us. Orders asking for our arrest. Ordering our execution. “But the watch cannot be damaged”, they said.
“Who are these squirrels?” I asked after a curve, trying to catch my breath.
“These are not regular squirrels,” Larry answered, stopping by my side, with his hands over his spleen. “These are not our squirrels. They can’t be.”
I stretched my neck on the corner near us to see where the God dammed rodents were. They came in a bunch, advancing resolutely and seemed to carry weapons in their hands.
“There is a room ahead,” Larry Nolen said.
“How do you know?” I asked, not seeing anything but a solid wall.
“There is a small, almost unperceivable luminosity that lines off the limit of the entrance. Can’t you see it? Pay attention.”
Then I saw it. He was right.
“It won’t work. They’re too close. We can’t run this distance without being hit by their shots.”
“Aha!” Larry said then taking a handful of nuts from his pockets. “Squirrels are squirrels anywhere in the world, be they scientifically and technologically advanced or not!”
“Where did those nuts come from?”
“Didn’t you tell me, some days before the interview, to prepare some? Here they are!”
He then threw them towards the squirrels which immediately went berserk, abandoning the hunt and fighting against each other for the food bouncing among them. We ran with what we had left of our breaths to the door ahead. Larry Nolen quickly bent and slid to the other side. I wasn’t that fast. I hit my head on the wall over the door and fell on my back, dazzled. Larry Nolen grabbed me by the feet and pulled me inside the holodeck. We were back to the beginning of it all.
I was still trying to regain conscience while he dragged a heavy fitment towards the door, placing it in such a way the squirrels couldn’t come in. He sighed relieved at the end of the operation and sat down, his back against the cupboard, cleaning the sweat away from his forehead.
“The last question,” he insisted while nudging my leg.
I groaned something, put my hand in the pocket and took the paper with the questions. I had forgotten the last. I was going to read, but noticing my effort and my clumsy look, Larry Nolen took the paper and read it himself aloud.
”The life of a summarizer is not always very easy, specially when the authors of the summarized books are more and more alive and connected. What is your criteria – including of evaluation – in order to keep faithful to the readers that chose to follow your critics and summaries ? Have you ever had problems with any summary or any specific writer ? How do you manage to read over 500 books a year ?’
He was about to answer when the fitment was shaken. We could hear yells from the other side. I sat against the furnishing as well, putting my weight and strength against it. I pulled my legs and crossed my arms around my knees. The quantic watch was right in front of my nose. Amisdt the screaming, we heard the captain speak.
”Friends, friends. That’s silly! Move away, take this obstacle from the way and let’s drink! Look, we’ve got Nictinian beer here!”
“Well, I try not to read more than three or four books that are similar in focus or genre classification. That way, I do not burn out on the reading. When selecting a book to review – which may be only ¼ or so of the books I read, I first decide if the book has anything interesting to say. If it does, then I proceed to consider its context – when was it written? For whom was it written? Are there things that I might not know about that time/culture?. Then I look at the mechanics of the story.”
A stronger shake frightened us. We heard a kind of sharp, insistent buzz. We looked at each other not understanding what they were doing. Suddenly, right before our eyes, between our faces which were facing each other, an intense blue ray emerged from inside the fitment and started to cut it upside down. We choked in shock. Larry, flustered, continued with the answer.
“What point-of-view is the narrative? How strong is the prose? Are there any discernable themes? What type of characterization is displayed and does that characterization fit the story? Is there a plot and if so, how easy did I comprehend it? Do things move at a steady pace, or does it seem that the author has lost control of his or her story? After that, I consider how everything fit together and if the author appeared to accomplish what he or she set out to do. Only then would I consider an essay on a book a review.”
The fitment was cracking in two.
“Have I had problems with authors or others over my reviews? Not really. In part because I tend to review only those stories that made a strong impression on me, I don’t tend to have as many negative reviews (at least in comparison to those works that were so “meh” that I just couldn’t find the energy to say anything about them). I have had some email conversations with authors about stories, but oddly enough, it usually is not about their own works. So no, I’ve never really had any conflicts to speak of with authors. As for fans, only occasionally, but since I can be a bit acerbic with those who don’t provide intelligent counterpoints, I rarely have a problem with those as well.”
We put ourselves together, seeing the laser or whatever it was complete its precise cut. Soon the fitment would be cut in two.
“As for how I am able to read as many as 500 books in a year? Well, I did say on my blog a couple of months ago that I employ a team of specially-trained Serbian squirrels to do most of my reading, reviewing, as well as the cooking and any needed massages. But the more boring answer is that I’ve always been able to read multiple lines at once with full comprehension. I just process words like images and it seems I am able to process them about five to ten times faster than average. That’s about as close as I can come to explaining the reading speed. I should note that I rarely read more than three hours a day and that the majority of the books I read are under 350 pages. So no, no reading 2-3 Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, or Steven Erikson books a day for weeks on end from me!”
The fitment finally broke apart, even if it still had its parts together. The strength of dozens or hundreds of super strong squirrels against two tired humans… Well, the result couldn’t be different. We moved away from the rodents that were dragging the parts deftly and quickly.
Moments before I pressed the button on my watch, taking us back to our reality, I could still see the entrance of the rodents. Fierce squirrels, including that one we judged to be dead with the electrical discharge and the paunchy captain. No Nictinian beer in his hands.
It wouldn’t be this time the quantic watch would fall into enemies’ hands.
Delfim, Romeu Martins and Luis Filipe Silva collaborated with this interview
I walked down the corridor being very careful not to trip on any of the old junk left along the way. I was especially careful about some aliens lying on the floor. There were stretched arms and legs. Some with their throats cut, others totally drunk, still stuttering, twisted and tangled in many arms and legs, some undistinguishable from the others.
The surrounding walls were circular and should be approximately 4 meters in diameter. They had openings here and there, corridors that led to unknown places and which extension was difficult to calculate due to the obscurity they led to after a few meters.
Some unfriendly looks followed me, coming from beings still not totally numb. There were many of them, of all species, of all races and physical shapes.
After about ten meters dodging from obstacles, I found myself against a watertight door, hermetically closed. I analyzed it trying to find out how to open it, when, in an instant, it buzzed and detached from the metal wall, sliding noisily until it was totally open. On the other side, two aliens about two meters high held to each other, shaky, trying to leave.
I gave them passage.
I moved forward and the door closed in another metal buzz, embedding itself to the wall in such a way it seemed to be digging slowly through it. It was a mess. There were plexiglass tables, a round counter from which some of the waiters slid carrying multicolored bottles. Aliens walked around coming and going, some quarreled, others cursed each other, and one of them was openly displaying a long sword, of narrow and apparently very sharp blade. He shook it angrily; ready to cut parts of anyone daring to face him out.
The opposite side of that wide room caught my attention. There was no wall, but a wide opening from where the wilderness of the space could be seen. Sitting with a glass in front of him, totally alien to any disturbance, there was Luis Calife. He was immersed in contemplation. I came closer to him, dribbling some contenders and sat in front of him, equally fascinated by the view.
Besides a myriad of distant suns, one, a little closer left a tail behind it, as if it was a comet. Near it, a black hole sucked him with all strength, voraciously draining its energy.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Calife muttered, not taking his eyes away from the scene.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I like it. Love it. There couldn’t be a better place for this interview,” he said, turning to me and drinking a little of what he had in his glass.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“It’s an old orbital station. When it reached the end of its lifetime, it was considered junk and thrown away into space. It wandered away until it was found by space pirates. They took it and made some necessary repairs. It ended up as a big warehouse for stolen cargo and smuggling. Ah, and they set up this bar. A good bar. It has weird comers but also has a wonderful view.”
“And a yet shorter lifetime, I assume,” I said pointing to the black hole with my chin.
“It gravitates around the hole, very near to the event horizon. It’s a difficult place to board and not everyone has the guts for that. So, it’s an almost inexpugnable pirate coven. But one day… It shall dive. And along with everyone in here.
A helpful waiter left a glass on the table. I hadn’t ordered and wasn’t planning on drinking anything, but a single look from Calife was enough to make me understand I should accept the drink with no further questioning.
“Nictinian beer. A compound of ingredients you don’t want to know, that’s for sure. But it has a very pleasant taste and alcoholic strength of 60%.
I observed the bubbling liquid of rather reddish color. I tried a small sip and felt, besides the alcohol that made my papillae burn, a light raspberry flavor. My eyes went red almost immediately, what made Calife let a fun laugh out.
“Is that the famous quantic watch?” He asked, looking at the mechanism in my wrist.
“The one and only,” I answered, taking my hand instinctively to it.
“It brought us to a scenery I know like the back of my hand.”
“Better this way,” I replied “, it gives us the impression that someone is in charge of the situation”.
“What are the questions? This beer has the exceptional gift of knocking down the most resistant of the drunkards. If we take too long, soon, we won’t be even able to stand.”
“Your work is praised, but there are critics – not few – that accuse you of accommodate eternally in the adventures of your female heroes, when you could diversify your approaches and themes. What is your view on that?”
One more sip, another long look at the spectacle offered by the Black hole and then Calife sighed.
“Look, the only book I wanted to write is called Angela between two worlds that hasn’t yet been published. The others came as a consequence of this one to abide by the contracts with the publishers. As to exploring other themes, I have done that in a bunch of short-stories, that are being released in this collection The best of SF edited by Causo. Anyone can check it out there.
Screams broke out behind us. Someone drew a gun; there were threats and only one shot. A body fell violently on the floor. The shooter went down to it and kicked it a couple of times. Then he sat again. He put down his gun carelessly in a worn holster and silenced, immersed in some drink other than the nictinian beer.
“How has the reception for the Patterns of Contact Trilogy been in the market? What’s the perspective on the release of Angela?” I asked when I got my voice back. (tirei o acento circunflexo de Angela.
“I was against the re-publishing of Patterns of Contact. The public of this kind of book is so small that I preferred to invest everything in an unreleased book. But Causo, who organizes the editions by Devir, insisted on republishing Patterns, and the unpublished book only after it. As a result, there is almost one year the book has been released and it still didn’t bring me a minimum wage in copyrights. To have this insignificant result, I would have preferred to do only Angela between two worlds. Now let’s see, if Angela comes out this year, it will have been worthy. Things would be much better if the editors ever heard the author’s opinions. “
“Is Calife better known for being Arthur’s Clarke motivator, or for his literary production? How did the relation with Clarke help him as a writer?”
He even tried to answer, but someone drunk sat with us by the table. He looked at us with despise and released his tongue, making it vibrate between his lips. Then he pointed at me and signaled in order to make me stand. I didn’t understand anything. Calife, with no ceremony, stood up and gave him a vigorous biff in the face. He spun on the chair he was sitting on and fell inert. The event provoked half a second of silence and then the uproar was back to its normal.
“A cotlerish. They are bullies by nature,” Calife said.
“What did he want from me?” I asked, worriedly.
“Not from you. The challenge was for me. He just wanted you to beat it. Look, Tibor, things here are solved by the fist or worse, as you must have noticed. Then, if someone comes closer to you and you feel that there are second intentions, attack him with no second thoughts. The faster the better.”
“I will try to remember that,” I whispered.
“I think I still am the guy that inspired Clarke on writing 2010. Apart from friendship, I guess I learned how to write SF by reading Clarke’s books. I ended up understanding more of his universe than he himself. When 2010 was released I realized he had made a mistake on his description of the Discovery. I know that ship as the back of my hand. I talked to him and Clarke sent an urgent message to Peter Hyams, who was shooting the film in Hollywood, saying that Calife had found a mistake in the description of the ship. Hyams corrected it in the film. This correspondence of him with the director, mentioning me, was out in the book The Odyssey File by Ballantine Books. There’s one thing I can assure you of, if I was there, Bowman would have disarmed the cognitive ring that made Hal a psycho with half a dozen words. And Frank wouldn’t have died.’
We were silent for a while. It’s not like our silence would make any difference in the noise of the saloon. We looked out, through what seemed to be glass, but wasn’t. Calife seemed to understand my curiosity and put his finger closer to the void, creating several concentric waves which broadened lightly before they disappeared.
“Pure energy. It is an energy shield. It seems mellifluous, capable of being beat by a little more strength. But not even a shot of a quantic pulse weapon would be able to open a hole in this shield. On the other hand, it is undone impressively fast once its metal frame is destroyed. Paradoxical, isn’t it? Why such a strong energy shield if the metal structure of this station is as fragile as an egg?”
“Why keep a logistical center like this, storing swag and booties, if the end is so imminent?’ I asked, reinforcing Calife’s questioning and referring, obviously, to the black hole.
“How do you see the literary market at the moment? What are your thoughts on the fandom”’
“People keep saying that Brazilian SF is invisible; actually, all Brazilian literature is invisible. People only read religion and self-help books. Even the foreign SF books are only published if they turn into films. I translated Asimov’s I Robot for Ediouro, as fast as it can be done, because they made a film that only used Asimov’s book title. Brazilian culture nowadays is audiovisual. If it doesn’t become a game or a film, the book is ignored. The fandom is what maintains SF alive in Brazil. If there weren’t the fanzines, the conventions and meetings, everything would be lost. They do a priceless job.”
“Back to the first question, Calife, in these two recent selections – The best Brazilian Science Fiction short-stories -, are your stories recent? Because the criticism towards your work are not about your prior productions, but about the recent ones. They say you only write stories about Angela Duncan and other beauties and that you gave up venturing elsewhere, bringing new and surprising narratives to the readers. They complain about your passivity in establishing yourself in a single argument and not trying other slopes. “
Calife frowned. He looked at me irritably, grabbed his half full glass, drank the rest of the nictinian beer in one single gulp, stood up not taking his eyes away from me and in a fast and unexpected move, threw it over my head. It splintered into the face of an armed guy looming over me, in a promptly repelled trial of attack.
That was it. The skies fell down, the walls narrowed, hackles went up and everything happened in such a fast sequence I can barely describe what happened.
I was grabbed by the shoulder and thrown a few meters away. I fell on a table that, even firmly attached to the floor, had one of its legs broken and fell, dropping me onto the dirty greasy ground. Sticky aliens clang into a furious fight. I stood up under a pelt of blows, all given against me and those nearer. I saw Calife spin a two headed little man over his shoulders and throw him against a big guy, which although one headed, had four arms that were so thick they looked like sequoia trunks. I took a water blue bottle and brandished it frantically from one side to the other. It broke against the face of a waiter trying to get it back as if it was something sacred and precious. I was hit in my back, in the back of my neck and in my waist. Kicks or punches, I couldn’t be sure. I unleashed a cross punch and almost broke my hand in a bony shell that was the head of a nasty fellow that blasphemed and laughed at the same time he punched systematically the chest of another cotlerish.
The fight would have lasted much longer wasn’t it for the sudden appearance of a gorgeous perfectly built woman. Precise blows of a natural artist in martial arts and soon everyone was lying on the ground, except for me and Calife that flaunted some bruising, torn clothes and meaningless expressions.
The woman came closer to me and caressed my face softly.
“You’re an interesting man. But it’s not you we are looking for now. Perhaps another time.”
“Angela…” Calife muttered trying to put himself back together.
“Dear,” she replied, holding him in a more than affectionate hug, “Let’s leave this place. We’re throwing this carcass into the black hole and it’s better to be far.”
Calife turned to me. He had a vivid expression that showed both satisfaction and pride.
“I have no need of your watch to get out of here now. Angela Duncan will take care of me from now on.”
I saw them leaving. A little before the door closed, he turned to me and gave his last answer.
“The two tales released in The best Brazilian science fiction short stories are one from the 80’s and other from the 90’s. The one in the Gastronomia Phantástica (Fantastic Gastronomy – Draco – 2010) was written three years ago and I wrote the one in Imaginários (Imaginary – Draco – 2008). I have a series of novelettes Children of Medea about the colonization of a planet by tube babies raised by robots, that is still unpublished as well as other stories. I have a story about a terrorist attack in a Brazil of the future for a selection to be published by Devir. They asked me to improve it. One day, who knows. Then, don’t piss me off with this kind of demand. I write what I imagine; for people who don’t like it, read Causo, you, Gerson, Braulio. There are so many writers available, why do I have to write for all tastes? If only I made good money out of it for God sake!
Then, after disembosoming, he was smiling again. Angela Duncan held him on the waist, and carried him with her. I still could hear her say she would take good care of him.
All by myself, having a set of destruction around me and imagining that soon the orbital station would be finally diving into the black hole, I pushed the button on my quantic watch. I went back home to heal my wounds.
Uncertainty is one of the worst things when the time for pressing the button on the quantum watch and getting another interview started draws nearer. I have already been to the craziest scenarios, to extremely dangerous situations and have even had my own personality altered. Like Pilate, I wash my hands regarding my fate and theirs.
I pressed the button while taking a long breath. I closed my eyes a moment before that, as if a momentary blindness would protect me from any dangers. Mere illusion.
When I opened my eyes again, I was surrounded by a mist. I thought I might have been sent back to Whitechapel. I suspected I hadn’t when I saw trees and bushes. The floor, covered with earth and gravel, mud and scattered puddles. Nocturnal birds tore the night apart with their winches. It was cold. The sky was cut by still distant lightning. Treetops rustled, shaken by continuous winds. A heavy rain was being announced.
I walked down the slippery floor. Looking carefully, trying to beat the mist that covered the ground like a thick rug. I stopped when I heard what sounded like a long and moaning creak. A deep and harrowing rub. I located the direction it came from and hesitated to follow it down. I was after Jean-Claude Dunyach and not after trouble.
I overcame the natural obstacles that stood in my way with some difficulty coming upon a small clearing. In the middle of it, someone was kneeling before a rock. In his hands, a long knife was being sharpened continuously. The person, whom I immediately identified as being Jean-Claude himself, had a hard look, eyes fixed on the blade that he was scraping on the stone.
He turned his face to me and I stepped back, scared. He didn’t interrupt his work. He curved his lips in an almost unnoticeable smile and turned his attention back to the object he was holding. He smiled a little bit more and lifted the knife, moving it like a sword, slowly, cutting through the cold mist. He stood up and tried to get closer. He would have managed to if I, fearfully, hadn’t stepped back further.
“It’s Tibor, isn’t it? There’s nothing to be afraid of. My concern is over there,” he said, coming forth and opening the branches of a thick bush.
There was a mansion twenty or thirty meters ahead approximately. The dark silhouette was highlighted by the increasingly constant lightning. I could swear I had seen a chatoyant, devilish light, shining in both upper windows. I trembled, in cold and fear.
“What’s in that house?,” I asked in a whispering voice.
“The lie. The lie is in there,” he answered.
“What’s the knife for? Why all this? It’s just an interview. I ask the questions, you answer them. We leave and everything is fine. Let us stay here.”
“Impossible. If we stay, it will come to us. It’s waiting for us… look! The house seems to be breathing.”
Jean-Claude brought the blade close to his face. He blew over it, as if trying to move barbs away from the recently sharpened edge. He had a rapt look. I felt an intense shiver. I was afraid the quantum watch had changed his personality. Maybe it had encouraged some kind of suicidal feeling; a dementia instinct throwing him into a supernatural battle, driven not by a self-defense impulse, but by an insane desire of confrontation instead.
Then, he let the branches go, breathing deeply. He lowered the armed hand, looked at me with a strange glow in his eyes and smiled.
“Vive La Science Fiction!,” he shouted as he walked around the bush and moved towards the house with resolute steps. I had no choice but to follow him. I faced my own fears because of the Frenchman. In spite of him being aware of the risks involved in the interviews, I felt responsible for him and any other interviewee. I wouldn’t let him get into that jam by himself.
We reached the porch after going up three steps, the old and cracked wood cracking under our feet. Dim and unidentified noises got to us, coming from the house. They gave me the creeps. Jean-Claude reached for the knocker, an old piece of metal almost completely covered in rust. Right before he touched it, the door opened in a frightful creak, revealing a dark interior.
“Oh, God…,” I whined.
“Courage man! Life is made of continuous fighting,” pondered Jean-Claude.
Then, he pushed the door, opening it all the way. We were in a kind of a threshold. While still on the porch we could consider ourselves safe, in spite of being at the boundary between sanity and madness. Before I relucted once again and was completely overwhelmed by terror, which would certainly make me run away from there, Jean-Claude took me by the arm. He held the knife in a threatening way, as if he was about to stab the void ahead of us, and, bringing me along, hurled in. The door closed behind us with a rumble that made the windows tremble behind the thick curtains.
We entered the room, staggering, stumbling, blinded by the deep darkness. We stumbled on the furniture and sprawled on the floor, with muffled moans. We leant on what seemed to be a wall, close to each other, with our breathings hastened.
“Soon our eyes will get used to the darkness and we will be able to see better,” he whispered. “Until then, we’d better stay here, quietly.”
“What worries me is who or what is around, with eyes already used to the darkness,” I mentioned fearfully.
The air inside the house was colder than outside. A biting breeze was blowing from all directions. Cracks and creaks were everywhere. I fumbled my pocket and found a matchbox. I rejoiced intimately for the discovery. I struck a match and the flame was quickly extinguished. I struck another one and got the same result. I got annoyed at Jean-Claude. If he kept blowing the matches, we would never leave that spot. We would never get rid of the darkness.
“Stop blowing! Can’t you see I wanna get us out of this?,” I complained.
“I’m not blowing anything. Give me that box,” he struck a match, protecting it with one of his hands. Light seemed to explode, bringing to us much more than a room filled with dust and old furniture covered with long sheets. A huge figure, squatting, hidden by a black cloak that covered most of him except for his satanic eyes, was ahead of us. He was so close we could have felt his breath, was he alive and breathing.
We yelled together. The match doused. Jean-Claude brandished the knife and leapt forward in order to hit the wraith. I retracted in fear. I heard furniture tumbling, fabrics tearing, muffled screaming and metal hitting the dark floor.
“Putain de merde!,” grunted Jean-Claude after a moment.
“Did you get him?,” I asked.
“I heard his wavering steps. More bumping. A chair tumbling on the floor. After that, a dim light illuminated the hall.
“No, but I found a switch.”
I got up with my legs trembling. Jean-Claude was across the room, close to the door. Between us, a turmoil: chairs, sheets and lamps were all over. There was a dust cloud in suspension, caused by the recent fight. On the walls there were old paintings. Tapestry, lamps, shelves displaying decorative china. A circular stairway led to the upper floor. A side corridor would take us to the back of the house.
“Your short story Déchiffrer la Trame was published in Brazil in 2000 in the Megalon fanzine. It isn’t a professional publication, but still, it caused a strong positive repercussion in the Brazilian fandom at the time. Do you have your work published in other countries? Are there any perspectives of having a book published in Brazil?”
Jean-Claude looked at me, still blinking fast, trying to get used to the sudden light. He frowned, signaling he hadn’t understood anything. I cleared my throat and repeated the question, louder, so that he could hear me. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, looked for the knife that was lying between two armchairs, took a deep breath and answered seeming quite surprised.
“Wow, I didn’t know that – the strong repercussion, I mean! It is very difficult to evaluate how a story is received in a different country – sometimes you get amazing responses and sometimes it fails miserably and ends in the pit of forgotten stories. And more often than not, you can’t even translate the critics and reviews about your books! Which is terribly frustrating: you know that someone out there has read your story and you can’t even know what happened.
I should really come and see Brazil with my own eyes – it’s been a fantasy for years. I’ve never set a foot in South America, which is quite disturbing. I’m over 50 and I’ve missed an entire continent.
I’ve been published in various countries. Mostly short stories and collections, which are cheaper to translate but some of my novels are available in Italian and Hungarian. There is no perspective that I know of to be published in Brazil but if you know a local publisher that might be interested, I’d be glad to be in contact with him or her. I own the rights of all my novels and of several short stories, so I can arrange a deal myself – and I’m cheap, believe me!”
Jean-Claude motioned to the stairway, meaning to go upstairs. I remembered the lights I had seen in the upper windows and moaned quietly. That house was hiding mysteries and I had no plans to unravel them.
“What are you chasing, exactly?,” I asked trying to buy some time, before he got to the first step.
“Ghosts. The same ones that ravage your country, mine and all the countries where science fiction is regarded with prejudice.”
I narrowed my eyes, confused by his answer. A few moments later, my expression cleared. I considered the enterprise to be a waste of time, though.
“And do you think you can fix that by yourself?”
“Perhaps not. But at least I’m trying to do something. Others only argue. Useless gibberish. Besides, I’m not alone. You’re with me.”
I let myself be taken over by an unprecedented courage. I let the cowardice aside and decided to face the unknown with Jean-Claude. He was right. We had to do something. Staying there, just talking about the problem, wouldn’t solve it.
“We Brazilians know a lot of the science fiction practiced in English-speaking countries and little of what is written in continental Europe. Could you please give us a brief overview of the nowadays French editorial market for sci-fi books?, ” I asked as we went up the stairs.
“Well, the situation is quite contrasted, as usual. During the last decade, the French sci-fi market has been slowly eaten, or attacked, by Fantasy and Bit-Lit, just like anywhere else. It doesn’t mean that we stopped writing and publishing SF, mind you, but it was more and more difficult to be visible among huge piles of books with dragons and sorcerers and goddesses in plated mails bikinis. Well, I don’t really object to the bikini part, I must confess. So the SF books colonized the Young Adult market – many of our best new authors, like Johan Heliot, Xavier Mauméjean, Christophe Lambert, Jeanne-A Debats, Jérôme Noirez, Lionel Davoust, are doing great in that respect – and some books found their way in the mainstream collections.”
We stopped halfway thru the stairway. The lights in the hall turned off and we heard restrained laughs, which sounded as if they were passing through the bricks of the old mansion.
“You can actually sell pure SF books in France if you don’t mention anywhere that it is SF. And that is the ghost I’m chasing, if you know what I mean. However, I feel that the time they are a-changin’, as Bob D. said a long time ago. SF is back with a vengeance, with new tropes and a handful of new authors that are out for a kill. During one of the most important festivals devoted to our literature, the so-called Imaginales in the wonderful city of Epinal (see http://www.imaginales.fr/), I listened to a discussion between some of our main editors of Fantasy and SF – there are SF collections in most of the big French publishing houses like Bragelonne, Gallimard/Denoël, Laffont, Flammarion, Fleuve Noir/Pocket, etc… – and they were agreeing that Fantasy and Bit-lit was on their way down while SF was getting slightly better. Let’s add to that the fact that we have an excellent quarterly SF magazine called Bifrost (see http://www.belial.fr/pages/bifrost) published by a small but very professional editor called “le Belial”, another quarterly SF magazine called Galaxies (see http://monsite.orange.fr/galaxies-sf/), various fanzines and several forums devoted to SF, not to mention many small press initiatives (see for example ActuSF http://www.editions-actusf.com/ or Griffe d’Encre, http://www.griffedencre.fr/). We even have an editor of “difficult but truly rewarding” SF books that is actually selling them quite well and trusting the prizes. Its name is “La Volte” (see http://www.lavolte.net/ ), with must-read authors like Stéphane Beauverger, Jacques Barbéri or Alain Damasio.
Finally “Retour sur l’horizon”, a very big anthology of French SF, under the direction of Serge Lehman, was released last October by Denoël. It attracted a lot of media attention and we are surfing the wave at the moment.
I’m starting to feel optimistic about SF in France, really. I wouldn’t have said that three years ago. And I read local authors that are really, really, unbelievably good.”
I tried to strike another match, successfully this time. The little trembling flame revealed a switch a couple of inches away from Jean-Claude’s anxious hands. He turned it on and a decadent candelabrum cast a dim light over the wide and carpeted corridor. We ignored the darkness behind and focused on the chambers on both sides of the corridor. At the other end, a dirty window allowed us to see the sky, constantly scratched by lightning.
“Even being one of the biggest prizewinners of the French Science Fiction you apparently don’t make your living from literature, but from your job as an aeronautics engineer. I have one question based on that: Is it possible for someone to make a living out of literature in France?”
Jean-Claude got closer to one of the doors and approached his ear, trying to listen to something, while gestured, asking for silence. Soon after, he got away from it, signaling there was nothing there.
“I don’t make a living from literature, indeed, for two main reasons: I don’t have so many ideas, so I don’t write much – 15 books in 25 years – and I really enjoy my job as an engineer – even if I was making a killing in the literary market, I would spend some time doing scientific research because I love that. If you add to that the fact that I am married, with two daughters – 25 and 23 years old – that require vast amount of money to support their craving for new clothes, computers and toys, expensive holidays and so on, you’ll understand that I’m not really encouraged at home to become a poor full-time writer!”
He leaned on another door and focused on the noises inside the chamber. He looked at me with a wicked smile and pointed to the knob, grabbing the knife.
“More seriously, it is difficult in France to make a living out of literature because it is a small market and we’re really numerous. One can make a living doing translations, writing for magazines, touring in schools – when you’re a Young Adult writer – but it requires a lot of work. Of course, some authors are writing best sellers with many international translations, Bernard Werber or Henri Loevenbruck, in our genre and some are making a living out of it like Pierre Bordage and Ayerdhal, but most of our authors have a day job that put bread on the table.”
He didn’t even try to open the door. The force he used when throwing his shoulder against the wood was enough to tear it open. The light from the corridor was enough for us to see the black cloaked ghost sitting on an armchair, a book in his hands being ferociously read. We stood still for a moment, while trying to identify the reading. Jean-Claude was taken by an amazing rage and threw himself against the figure, daringly branding the knife.
“It’s science fiction!, ” he shouted at the top of his lungs as he struck blows at random.
I saw the ghost evanesce suddenly, disappearing from the armchair and reappearing by a wide bed with a canopy. His eyes were blinking furiously and his clawed hands moved menacingly towards Jean-Claude. I abandoned my passivity and, in an instant, jumped towards him, holding him strongly. We both fell on the floor.
Wasn’t the ghost an ectoplasmic being, the fight would have lasted longer. Although the surprise kept him stuck to my embrace, he soon recovered control of his actions and disappeared, leaving me on the floor, wrapped in fog. A hysterical Jean-Claude held up a piece of the cloak he was able to cut in one of his blows.
“He is faltering! He reads science fiction without realizing it, the bastard. That’s the worst ghost of prejudice ever.”
“Many don’t think of it as…”
“Fools. Of course they are. They won’t admit. Admitting is not interesting to them.”
I threw myself down on the armchair the ghost was sitting on. The book was on the floor, next to it. I took it and browsed through its pages.
“Does the existence of a French-speaking province as Quebec facilitates the entry of French SF authors into the American market or does Quebec, in fact, exist outside of this market?”
Jean-Claude sat on the edge of the bed. He proudly watched the piece of fabric in his hands and used it to wipe the sweat off his forehead.
“There is no entry of French SF authors into the American market. Full stop. I’m the most translated and published SF author in the USA and it is only because I’m wealthy enough to pay for my translations. The US market is structurally closed. Editors don’t read foreign languages – a few can read Spanish, I’m told – and they require you to translate your own book in English before submission. And they don’t pay you enough to cover the price of the translation. We’ve been facing this situation for decades and I don’t see any improvement. I had two of my main novels partially translated in English, 150 pages and a summary, and I got answers from US editors saying: OK, it looks promising; now we would like to read the rest of it before sending you a contract. Except that the translation of the rest was too expensive for me to launch without a contract. Blocked situation. Quebec exists outside of this market. The only advantage of Quebec is that you find excellent translators there. My own translator, Sheryl Curtis, is really among the best!”
“Are we chasing the bastard in the other rooms?, “ I asked, starting to have fun with the hunt.
“Of course we are. We mustn’t, at any time, stop fighting such a scoundrel.
Then, we had to keep searching. We left that room and went to the next one. Jean-Claude seemed unwilling to listen through doors. He opened the next one with a vigorous kick, revealing a library with almost empty shelves.
The room after that was full of roaches, spiders and centipedes. They twisted over the floor like a compact and moving carpet. We retreated in disgust, but Jean-Claude moved forward once again.
“If there’s a trick these bastards do use it’s this one. They try to fool us with revolting scenes. But they forget this is something we master. We are craftsmen of sceneries like that.”
“Are you going in there?”
“If he wants us away, that’s because this is his lair.”
“I looked at the nauseating mass of insects and hesitated.”
“What if they are pestilent? What if they are poisonous?”
“Pestilence and poison are in prejudice. Come on, man. Courage!”
I gulped, feeling my hand shake. I admit that roaches worry me. I don’t care about centipedes. But spiders freak me out. Before he got in, I asked him the last question.
“According to your experience as an editor, in Bragelonne, and author, do you agree that European SF as a whole seems to be more conservative in the use of traditional SF tropes, for instance: a story needs to use recognizable SF elements to be considered as SF, than the American and English writers, who now and then try to subvert the fundamentals?”
Jean-Claude, who seemed determined to enter the room, stopped at the question. I saw his eyes spark.
“No, sorry, I don’t agree at all! There is an important literary movement in France, and probably in the rest of Europe, to explore transgenre, transgressive fiction as we call it – see the essay “Bibliothèque de l’Entre-Mondes” by Francis Berthelot, one of our finest literary authors, that is the equivalent of slipstream in the Anglo-Saxon market.
Editors can be conservative, and they usually are, but for us authors the idea of subverting the codes and toying with the artificial frontiers of genres is extremely attractive. In the collection “Retour sur l’horizon” that I already mentioned, one third of the texts were considered as “really edgy” by the reviewers. After all, many French writers are inspired by surrealism or “nouveau roman” that are part of our literary landscape. So I don’t really think that we French are more conservative than the American writers. Of course, the US market is very large and you can have both a strong core of militaristic space-operas and franchise novels, such as Star wars and the like, as well as books that are really edgy. But in France, every year or so, there is a couple of books in print that try to push the limits a bit further. After all, that’s what SF is about, I think.”
He then turned to the room with a determined look, knife held firmly. He entered, stepping on the compact mass of insects, making them crack and spill an intense and bad smelling goo. I regurgitated my last meal and, trying to ignore the nausea, entered after him.
The ghost squashed, trapped, in a corner of the room. Next to him, a pile of books which worked as foundation to his distorted beliefs. Jean-Claude speared one of them with the knife and tossed it into my hands. Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut.
“Science Fiction!”shouted Jean-Claude, in a frenzy.
He speared another one, throwing it towards me. I almost missed it. It was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.
“Science Fiction!”Jean-Claude shouted once again, barely able to control himself.
The third one, speared and yanked from under the ghost’s arms, who was at that time moaning inconsolably, hurt by pain and hatred, was A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
“Science Fiction!” Jean-Claude exploded in an exultant cry of joy. “It’s all Science Fiction! Damn you! You read Science Fiction and don’t even realize it! You won’t admit it either to yourself or to others!
The ghost was getting smaller and smaller. I had really thought he would loom and attack us in a violent way. That he would want to smash us, shredding our bodies. But not at all! He was shrinking fearfully, uttering anguished moans of terror. The books next to him were turning their pages, as if blown by a tornado. Soon, the pages became loose and flew all over the room, inflaming right after that. We stood there, watching it in fascination, but soon we realized not only the pages and books were acting strange, but the whole house was! The floor and walls were breaking apart, cracking, letting pieces of plaster out. Everything was trembling as if shaken by an earthquake.
We looked at each other, aware of the danger we were facing. We tumbled out of the room. The carpeted corridor was rippling beneath our feet. We looked towards the stairway but the steps were getting loose and were hitting insanely as if they were being manipulated by a maniac pianist. Those were moments of panic until we realized that our only way out would be throwing ourselves out of the window at the other end of the corridor.
We didn’t think twice. The ceiling and the walls rippled as if a huge origami was under way. We ran and jumped, exploding the window in a million fragments. We landed on a muddy and smelly puddle of water. We rolled over the mud and then, feeling scared, crawled until we were far enough not to be engulfed by the enormous transformation the house was in.
We saw when it began to shrink, folding itself in cracks and small fire explosions. Getting smaller and smaller until it was swallowed by the earth and disappeared.
We were breathless, with our heartbeats quickened. Our eyes were fixed on the place where the haunted mansion had been a few moments ago. We got up cautiously and moved to the center of the recently formed clearing. Jean-Claude was still with the knife in his hands.
“We didn’t drink at all. There was no bar,” said Jean-Claude.
“It happens sometimes,” I replied.
“We weren’t in the mood for that anyway.”
“Did we beat the ghost of prejudice?” I asked with a weak voice, changing the subject.
“It’s a constant fight. This was just a battle.”
“With knives? Come on. We’re Science Fiction authors. Shouldn’t you have come with something more appropriate? Maybe a subatomic disintegrator?
Jean-Claude looked at me and then at the quantum watch.
“Made in Brazil, is it? If so, it explains the knife. Was it made in France, wonderful France, I would be holding a magnificent, a stupendous, a wonderful…”
I didn’t let him finish. Before that boastful speech got to intolerable levels and avoiding the thunderstorm that was starting, I pushed the button on the watch and got us out of there.
This interview had the collaboration of Luis Filipe Silva, Delfin and Marcello Branco.