Interview with Ian McDonald

Q: Without giving anything away, what can you tell potential readers about Brasyl?

Oh, nothing except, that like the country, Brasyl sidles up to you, shakes its ass, gets you to buy it a drink and in the morning you wake up with an STD, your wallet gone and a kidney missing but the memory of a hell of a ride. A hell of a ride.

Q: India was the setting for River of Gods, and you used Brasil as a backdrop for your latest novel. What prompted you to set your story in that country?

Brasil is big, Brasil is sexy, Brasil is cool and scary and powerful and a major player and considers itself a superpower in waiting. Like India (which I used in River of Gods) it also fails to appear on the US mental radar, which endears it to me automatically. It has an alternative black culture to the US’s, one that is as vibrant and significant but expresses itself in a different cultural language. It has an appalling history, yet somehow has built the most ethnically diverse nation on earth. The Brasilian attitude to skin colour interests me, because it seems like the reverse of ours in the North –if you’re not white, you have to be black. In Brasil, if you’re not black, you’re white. ‘One drop of milk…’ as they say. I dislike the ‘BRIC’ expression (Brasil, Russia. India, China) because it sounds like econono-speak and I certainly don’t give it any credence –it’s already outdated and by and large I find popular economists lag pretty far behind the curve– it struck me as the least likely one of that quartet of fast-track nations and the most interesting from a writing point of view. China doesn’t interest me, it’s too obvious and too well known. India, when I was researching it, was the short sharp shock, it was all there, out on display, take it or leave it or make of it what you will. Brasil charms, Brasil seduces and it creeps under your skin so that months later, impressions and people are still unpacking. For God’s sake, it’s got airports with cinemas in them! What’s not to love?

Q: What extensive research did the writing of Brasyl entail?

A book seems to take me three years now. I’m filled with admiration at writers who can put out two books a year –I can’t work that way. I’m slow –damn slow– and lazy. I read a lot. I make my record collection tax deductible. I subscribe to online newspapers. I talk to people and try to learn a bit of the language and, in the course of this book, became a bit of an expert on Brasilian football (that’s the real football, not the one where you throw rather than kick: futebol). That’s two years or so. Then I start to write. Two pages a day. I’ve got a day job, (confession time: I’m a factual television developer and producer: I am Marcelina) that’s enough, that works for me. That’s another year or so, given human frailties. And of course, the being there…

Q: As was the case with River of Gods, how much of a challenge was it to get every little detail “right” in Brasyl?

No one gets every little detail right. In a sense, all knowledge is local, there are people five miles up the road know things I don’t about the place they live. I hope I can get the voice and the feel and the way of thinking right. Eighty percent of your research is never used , thrown away, gone. You only use twenty percent at the very most, but you have to do it to know which twenty.

Q: What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write Brasyl in the first place?

I didn’t want to do a River of Gods 2, and I wanted to steer clear of obvious places like China and Indonesia. And I’m a long-term Brasilophile. I liked the idea of SF in a country that thinks of itself as the Nation of the Future –Brasilia is one of the most SF-nal cities you can imagine –in the old-skool ’2001: Space odyssey’ sense: Sao Paulo is equally sfnal, in the Bladerunner sense. You can see how all this falls together in my head. The whole thing of shifting realities, which gave rise to the conceit of e-waste, the the next step in e-waste: q-waste: what spills over and gets put out in the trash when quantum computing becomes widely accessible. These things fall together.

SFFWorld reviews Brasyl HERE.

Q: What was the inspiration that compelled you to make a Jesuit missionary from the 18th century the central character of a science fiction novel?

I love 18th century stuff –I always think of it very much as the century that shaped the modern western world –intellectually and politically– the Victorians complete the technological and economic transformation. That we seem to be willing to hand back Enlightenment thinking hand over fist saddens me. Luis Quinn was one of the last characters I thought of –I was well into my research and had the 2006 and 2032 sections worked out before it struck me that the story needed a third cord in the rope, and it seemed a nice piece of chutzpah to make SF out of eithteenth century Brasil. This was a wild time –the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French were all battling for control of the Amazon basin and the coast. It’s impossible to write about that era without involving the Jesuits –in the Guarani Missions along the Parana river they created the only completely literate society on earth, before they were destroyed by Portugese slave entradas. These were fighting priests –a lot of them didn’t go as gently as Jeremy Irons in The Mission. Never pass up a chance to swash-buckle.

A lot of that section is factual –or perhaps, historically inspired. Dr Robert Falcon isn’t real, but his brother Jean-Baptiste was and he did invent the programmable loom years before Jacquard. There were rival expeditions to South America to measure the sphericity of the earth, and there was a floating basilica on the Rio Negro. Knowing all this, how could I not use it?

Q: How arduous was it to weave together the stories of Edson, Marcelina and Father Luis across time, space and reality? Making everything come together the way you did was an ambitious endeavor.

That’s the trick of being a writer. It also helps to have the whole thing outlined before I write a word. I also wrote each of the strands complete before starting another, then adjusted them so the beat-points matched up.

Q: You mentioned in our last interview that you always try to twist or break the conventions of the genre when you set out to write something new. So which perceived scifi conventions did you attempt to twist or break in Brasyl?

I wanted to play with the conventions of parallel worlds SF: much of the trick seems to come from the sense of estrangement of a parallel world that looks like ours but is very very different: Hitler wins, the South win, Rome never falls, Magick works… I liked the idea of parallel worlds where the differences are minute –minuscule, and that the reader may have to look outside the novel to find that much-vaunted ‘PoD’.

Q: How did you came up with the Q-blade concept? I have to say that this must be the first time a laser blade cannot be construed as a Star Wars rip-off.

Nicked the idea from Norman Spinrad in ‘The Men in the Jungle’ where they have what he calls ‘snip-guns’ –the perfect guerrilla weapon, which is totally silent and breaks atomic bonds. Like a giant invisible knife. A Brasilian take seemed to me to be much more up close and personal, hence the knife. Swords seemed a bit –well– poncey.

Q: With Brazil as the setting for this book, there was no way you could produce anything that didn’t include soccer/football, right!?!

Absolutely! One of the great joys of researching the book was visiting the Maracana in Rio, the sacred turf and the whole huge bowl –it doesn’t't hold anything like the 200,00 it used to– and the lobby where the footprints of all the greats are impressed in concrete: Pele, Socrates, Zizinho, Ronaldo: it was genuinely moving. And up the Amazon, miles from anywhere, our boat rounded a sandspit and there on the sand were two sets of goalposts… In Brasil, to quote the great Bill Shankley ‘football’s not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.’

Q: Some readers were a bit put off by the ending, which leaves a lot of things up in the air. And yet, in a novel in which storylines shift across time and reality itself, would it have been possible to come up with an ending that offered resolution for every plotline? I doubt it. . .

You’re right. It’s game-on at the end of the book. The team is assembled. I didn’t want to get into SFnal things like overthrowing the universal order and all that –after all, they’re a priest, a TV producer and a two-bit impressario –much less some ridiculous Bad Guy behind it all. What is important for them is that they’re on the side of the angels now.

Q: Brasyl marks your return with Gollancz in the UK. What prompted that decision? In the USA, you remain one of Pyr’s headliners. How satisfied are you with the way they’ve been marketing you in North America?

Good to be back with Gollancz again: I wasn’t goign to get the marketing push from S&S for this one that I had with River of Gods, so my agent suggested a move. In the US, Lou Anders is a marketing powerhouse and that’s pretty close to everything. You can have the greatest book since the Bible, but if people don’t know about it… Lou is in there slugging away for every book in his line. And it’s paying off: vis his Longform editor Hugo nomination.

Q: Your next book, The Dervish House, is set in 2027 Turkey. What can you tell us about this new project?

Istanbul about 2027, after Turkey joins the EU and Europe now runs from the Aramn Islands to Ararat. Takes place over five days, six main characters. Greater Istanbul already has ten million people…

Q: Like me, you appear to be an avid traveler. Do you believe that the old traveling adage “the journey is more important than the destination” applies to you when the time comes to write a new novel?

Much as I Love the act of journeying (I’ve never grown out of the thrill of flying, though budget airlines are doing their best to disabuse me): no destination, no book.

Q: In our last interview, you praised David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake. Are there any new titles you feel we should keep an eye on?

Er.. I’m not reading any SF at the moment, but I have a sneak preview of Chris Roberson’s next from Pyr and you will like it. You will like it a lot.

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