Lavie Tidhar wants to write a cookbook

Given time, he will

Three weeks until The Big Book of Cyberpunk lands - with an audible thud - at bookshops. The bad news is: this massive tome is going to be the ‘focus’ of this newsletter for a while. The good news is: I’m not all that focused of a person. Plus, if you see cyberpunk as the intersection of society and culture and technology and trends and media and crushing despair, well, that’s pretty much what this newsletter is ‘about’ anyway.

The other thing about The Big Book of Cyberpunk is, not only it is about all that stuff, it is done through the medium of other people’s stories. That’s what being an anthology editor is: putting a giants into a big pile, and then standing on their collective shoulders. I’m keen, therefore, that we hear from some not-me folks. And who better to kick it off than Lavie Tidhar?

I’ve in awe of, and occasionally aghast at, Lavie - ever since I read his genuinely ground-breaking Osama a decade ago. At a time where SF/F had been accused of going stagnant, his pulp / noir hybrid took me (and the awards) by storm. Lavie’s someone that’s freely wandered across genres, wreaking havoc as he goes - from sword & sorcery (Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God) to steampunk (The Bookman) to superheroic spy thrillers (The Violent Century) to filthy mythic deconstruction (By Force Alone) children’s books (Candy) to proper lit’rary stuff (Maror) to… some genres that shouldn’t or couldn’t be named. He doesn’t write within boundaries.

As an editor, Lavie’s been a ceaseless advocate for global SF; both personally and professionally championing voices that come from outside of traditional, Anglophone circles. He edited The Apex Book of World SF for years (and its associated blog), and has recently delivered the third volume of The Best of World SF. I drew on Lavie’s editorial legwork in a few cases (and wound up accidentally overlapping with him in a few more). It seemed fair that he gets the first spot.

Jared Shurin: What does cyberpunk mean to you? When did you first encounter the genre?

Lavie Tidhar: I think it’s a voice, more than anything. For me, like I imagine for most people, it was discovering Gibson’s Neuromancer and Burning Chrome. I didn’t quite appreciate at the time how much those, in turn, borrow from and build on an entire edifice of hardboiled and noir fiction, though I do now! Cyberpunk for me was bookended as a decade by Neuromancer on one side and Snow Crash on the other, both of which do very different things, as indeed most of the original cyberpunks did. I find Rudy Rucker’s Wares trilogy stuck with me a lot - so much so that I worked in a homage to his Boppers in my own Central Station universe - and of course, they were seeded (on Titan!) by “Mad” Rucker, a mythical figure in that fictional world… And “Choosing Faces”, being more firmly in the “gonzo SF” field, really, leans more towards that Ruckerian sense of the absurd, in a way.

I’m sorry, what was the question again? Ah, yes. Cyberpunk really seemed to speak to us early computer nerds - not just the sense of, hey, this stuff is actually cool (or we can at least pretend it is), but the understanding of what you might call “deep magic”, the marvellous - the Sublime, even, to borrow from the Romantic Poets - that can be found in the elegant complexity of code.

Ultimately, though, whenever I want to write something that feels cyberpunk-ish - which to me is fast-paced, hardboiled, fun, set to adventure mode - then I find just reading a few lines of “Johnny Mnemonic” puts me right back into it. The rest is just.. Having fun!

One of the aspects of cyberpunk that particularly intrigues me - and is on full display in “Choosing Faces” - is how proudly it engages with popular culture. Science fiction is heralded as the literature of ‘Big Ideas’, but those ideas are often more about FTL and Martian domes than Pamela Anderson.

“Choosing Faces” is really part of this tiny gonzo trilogy of stories I wrote (“Enter the Dragon. Later, Enter Another” and “2084 Satoshi A.D.” being the other two!), which is very firmly embedded in a commentary on hacker culture - anything from Wikileaks to Bitcoin - and the idea of copyright and piracy being extended to human beings, which I thought was fun! A black market in celebrity clones seems like an inevitable throughline from the fact one can (and people do) collect the genetic material of famous people. Eventually the question becomes, who owns your DNA? And what happens when it goes out of copyright? Ultimately, it’s the same question that gets asked by crime novelists or Marxists - who profits?

It is worth noting that you’ve written a lot about other significant figures… I would hesitate to call them the great figures of history… whether that’s Neil Armstrong or Osama Bin Laden, King Arthur or Robin Hood. What draws you to imagining or reimagining these figures?

Well, to be fair, I’ve written plenty of stuff that isn’t! But I guess there’s something fascinating about playing with historical figures (or fictional ones like Robin Hood and King Arthur) more for what they tell us about ourselves than what they actually are/were. It’s sort of like a hugely magnified image projected back at us, an act of mythmaking, and I always think it’s interesting to pull apart at myths.

For readers who enjoyed “Choosing Faces”, which of your other works should they read next?

Ha! I don’t know. Maybe try Neom, which is a recent SF novel. Or The Hood for the gonzo joy of it. On the other hand, if you absolutely hated the story, then maybe try Central Station? Which is slow and gentle and the opposite to this.

I think while I was editing this book, you managed to edit another two volumes of The Best of World SF. (Also publish three novels and a dozen short stories. You’re ridiculous.) You’ve long encouraged science fiction readers to look further than just the US and UK, ever since the early days of The World SF Blog. Have things improved over the past years? Is the genre becoming less Anglocentric, more global?

In short stories, yes. It’s great. There’s so much more global diversity, in terms of writers, in terms of translation, in terms of everything. That’s because short stories are a) low stakes and b) the only requirement is for the editor to like the story. In novels, on the other hand, we’re trapped into a monolithic publishing entity that, on my bad days, I think may as well be selling bananas rather than books. It’s a business in which most of your product doesn’t sell, and what does sell is, well, Star Wars. So while it’s marginally better than it was, I think you can still count the number of international authors on your fingers, and out of the ones who do manage to get published, how many will be allowed to maintain a long-term career? This is an industry, remember, built on an endless churn of debuts now, where maybe one in a hundred writers will have any kind of longevity. It seems pointless to complain about a system you have no hope of changing, but there’s a deep, cruel irony - which is very cyberpunk! - that our culture is entirely controlled by corporations now. It’s what I’d call a world of weaponised niceness.

Now where was the ladder to help me off my high horse?

As well as writing novels and short stories, and editing anthologies, you’ve also written comic books and designed games. And even done some short films. I hate to say it, but scampering across formats like that is pretty... cyberpunk. What makes you choose one medium or another? Do you start with ‘I want to write a game today’ or is it ‘I have this story about cloning Bruce Lee and the best way to tell it is...’?

I just get bored easily, Jared! I want to do everything. It’s more a question of - here’s an idea, what’s the best format to tell it? And as above, for every corporate gig, I feel the need to go in the opposite direction and do something just for the hell of it. I recently wrote the shortish animated movie Loontown, directed by Nir Yaniv. It’s an 18min…. Think “Blade Runner if everyone was a balloon”. There’s just a great joy in doing something just for the sake of doing something worthwhile that no one else is ever going to do.

There’s a constant cry that ‘cyberpunk is dead’ (or, for that matter, ‘[genre] is dead’). Do these grave prouncements overlook the fact that [genre] has often been alive, thriving, evolving and growing all over the world? Just no longer on the front shelves of Barnes & Noble?

I think it’s part of the language, of the lexicon of science fiction. Just as you might reach into the toybox for 1950s paranoia or 1970s eco-SF or 1960s New Wave experimentalism. Or the language of post-Potter YA, for that matter. It’s all part of the buffet at the 24/7 diner.

What’s next for World SF?

Well, I got to do three volumes of The Best of World SF, as huge hardcover anthologies of some really great stories. I think they’re sort of where the cutting edge of SF is right now. So that in itself is amazing. There are other things I hope to be able to do more, but as always when you’re not chasing the fashion, you’ve got to fight for it. Either that or fulfill another lifelong dream and do a cookbook…

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