love stories about the insane
Jon Courtenay Grimwood interviewed
Jon Courtenay Grimwood is an author and freelance journalist who is fast becoming one of the rising stars in UK SF. Critically acclaimed and shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award, he has been described as a ‘Raymond Chandler for the 21st century’ who writes with ‘dazzling panache and an acute satirical eye’.
He has five novels published to date and his latest, Pashazade, heralds the beginning of a very different three book series.
Do you consider yourself an exponent of the cyberpunk genre?
JCG: I have a problem with this question because cyberpunk is dead, and I get endless requests to write features or turn up as a talking head on something about cyberpunk. I think CP was a really interesting, very 80s phenomenon. It was basically a response to Reaganomics, personal computers and computer games.
When William Gibson wrote Neuromancer he was working on a manual typewriter and he got the idea by watching kids in an arcade and noticed the way that they became engrossed with what was going on behind the glass in those really old, primitive, heavyweight games machines. From that he extrapolated the whole falling within virtual reality thing — an 80s response to how we might mesh with the then current technology, which was based around very large, very expensive and blindingly simple PCs.
The idea was then copied massively, developed and eventually meshed into post-cyberpunk. Because ideas about genetic technology have replaced cybernetics, the future is going to be wetware rather than hardware.
So yes, the CP sensibility is there, but characters are no longer falling into virtual reality, they are no longer melding with machinery and becoming cyborgs. They no longer have chips in their heads because they don’t actually need them as humanity can be changed, amended and augmented at a basic level, genetically rather than with hard materials, with silicon.
Also, if you actually look back at cyberpunk, what you’re looking at is essentially hardboiled fiction — and this has been part of Science Fiction for a long time. As a genre itself it, of course, goes way back before Raymond Chandler. So, cyberpunk was a blip. A blip that I love and adore and have all the books, but it was a blip on the hardboiled fiction timeline that runs from pre-1920s to the present.
In addition to the technology, how much of 80s culture influenced the Science Fiction writing at that time?
JCG: Corporate culture influenced it. Music influenced it too, but what really influenced it was the rise of brand names. SF took global branding and recognised its cultural and political significance.
Essentially, cyberpunk was part of a process of reflecting this. You look at a cyberpunk novel — you look at Gibson’s writing — and in his way he’s doing what Ian Fleming did with the James Bond books where no-one opens a packet of cigarettes, takes one and lights it. They produce a packet of Marlboro and they produce their Ronson. They flick their gold Ronson, they put the cigarette down on a designer ashtray on an oak table.
It was about being specific, and that reflected a very, very 80s What can I earn? What can I possess? What gives me status? attitude.
If you follow this progression through to its obvious conclusion, do you end up with a vision similar to Jeff Noon’s Nymphomation, where you have gene manipulated flies acting as vehicles for advertising?
JCG: Yes. Well, if you look at Jeff Noon’s thing — he’s got the flies with the advertising — and what’s happening with mobile phones now? Mobile phones will now pick up signals from shops as you pass them that text you with their ‘special offers’. So we’re back to this idea about the transparency of the future. We’re actually getting there, we just don’t think we are.
What about language itself, the way it is changing? Spoken English is perpetually moving with the times. If you got a dictionary from the turn of the century, you would discover some amazing words that we just do not use anymore. Do these archaisms perhaps lack the immediacy and accessibility that is necessary for the average C21st century person?
JCG: I need to think about that one. It’s very difficult for written language to reflect spoken language, street language and when one writes dialogue, it becomes essentially stylised — so no matter how clubby you make it nor how current, it’s still a stylisation. It reflects how somebody else speaks, rather than actually being how someone else speaks.
I think we’re all influenced by film and I think that how we write — how we construct — is influenced by film, which in turn is influenced by advertising. So we instinctively use shorter sentences, we use more brand names. Maybe this will change, but at the moment it just seems to be the spirit of the age. That said, Pashazade has much longer sentences than I usually use, because I’m trying to reflect a difference and slowness in the North African culture.
Tell me about your novels. You favour the use of alternate historical timelines as a vehicle for your fiction. Does your latest novel Pashazade fit into your previously constructed world?
JCG: Okay. The first four books are set in the 22nd century in a world where the French won the Franco-Prussian War and the Napoleonic Empire still survives. They take place, on the whole in Europe. I don’t really write about anything happening in the UK. It’s mostly Paris, occasionally North Africa, occasionally New York. Each one is a standalone thriller. Characters walk in and out of different books. You don’t have to read one to read another of the novels, but a character in one may turn up fifteen years older in another book — just as a bit part — literally walking in and out of a room, or maybe in a position of power or significance.
The next three books, Pashazade, Effendi and Felaheen, happen in North Africa forty years from now, feature the same detective, are crime novels and are going to keep the overall design so that there’s a sense of recognition and continuity.
The hardback of Pashazade was out in May: next year Effendi will come out simultaneously with the paperback version of the previous novel. These books feature a private detective who may — or may well not be — a vampire. He doesn’t know . . . I mean he could just about be a vampire or he could just be seriously fucked up. He’s not at all sure. . .
All will be revealed if we just keep reading the series?
JCG: Yes! just keep reading! Actually, I don’t know. I have a vague idea where they’re going to go in terms of the characters, but what has been most fun is that the next three novels take place in an Ottoman North Africa with a liberal Islamic culture.
I was going to pick up on that, the Arabic / Islamic sounding names of Pashazade and the following novels.
JCG: Well, a pashazade is the son of a pasha — which is roughly the equivalent to a fairly junior duke. Ashraf Al Mansur, who is my hero in Pashazade, is the son of a pasha, but doesn’t know it. He thinks that his father was a Swedish hitchhiker who his mother had a weeklong fling with in Morocco when she was hitching around North Africa when she was young.
He then finds out that his father, far from being some Swedish hitchhiker from Gothenburg, was actually the Emir of Tunis.
All three books are about identity, and about identity as a construct. Both as the construct that we present to other people: you know — I get up in the morning, I put on these black clothes, I put in a peal earring, this becomes my public identity — but also the identities that we present to ourselves. So it is the self that you present to other people coupled with the fact that personality is a construct in which you are the audience as well as the actor.
So whereas to a certain extent the first four novels are basically love stories between people who are insane, the next three are essentially about what constitutes identity. They question whether creating an identity and trying to live up to it is any less real than assuming that because you were born in this place at this time to these people, that the identity you’ve got in those circumstances is somehow more real, more solid.
In Pashazade, the main character, Raf, has a fox in his head. It gives him advice, sometimes bad advice, and it tells him what to do. Sometimes Raf takes that advice, sometimes he doesn’t. There is absolutely no guarantee that the fox is really there. Raf thinks knows the exact specifications for the fox — which he believes to be housed in a small ceramic box in the side of his skull — but he also knows he only knows the exact specification because the fox gave it to him. But then the fox has also told Raf that it is actually an illusion, a bit of unprocessed childhood memory, so we have no real way of knowing whether the fox truly exists.
Character is certainly one factor that contributes to a novel’s outlook — how much influence and effect does the actual world they inhabit exert?
JCG: First off, I actually think there’s a lot of humour in the novels. Black humour sure, but I’ve had letter from readers saying that redRobe had them laughing aloud on trains. You see the thing is they’re all political novels. I mean obviously reMix and redRobe much more so than the first two and Pashazade is certainly political. The books are saying this is the condition, this is actually how people behave and this is what the world is — and actually it’s a really shitty place if you’re poor and if you’re rich, it’s not. And for some people getting through the day can be as heroic as climbing a mountain.
And the argument that technology is going to make our lives easier — well, yes it will, but it’s going to make life easier for those who already have the technology and not for those who don’t. So yes, the future may be fantastic in fifty years time — if you have access to water and the net and electricity. But if you’re living in bit of the Third World where the wars are going to be about access to water then it’s not. It is going to be like it is at the moment in the Sudan . . .
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