One of my favourite recent stories, and another one from the world of the Continuity, this pays homage to one of my favourite works of literature, Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.
For Basho’s haiku I substituted Bislama poetry, which is something I’ve been interested in doing for a long time, and for Edo period Japan I substituted the far future world of the Continuity. This is available to read online and also in a podcast version.
From Bangkok he travelled into orbit, staying as a pilgrim in a Church of Robot mission, where facilities were basic but accommodation cheap. There he stayed for several days, in the orbital they call Gateway, the commercial hub of the system, observing traders and tourists, the meeting of Martian Chinese and Lunar kibbutznkis, of Orang Ulu and Man Tanna miners from the Belt, of tentacle junkies and flesh-surfing Others, of Louis Wu addicts and Guilds of Ashkelon games-world mercenaries. Always Earth dominated the view. In one of the observation decks he wrote:
Mi lukluk wol
From orbit, Earth is the centre of the universe, it is Aristotelian. Yet that is a mirage which the Others do not share. In orbit, I saw the world, turning and turning. I sat in a bar with a view of the planet rotating below, listening to conversations while drinking Lao-Lao, the smooth rice whiskey which tastes different here, distilled from hydroponics rice terraces deep in the bowels of Gateway. Conversations all around me, in Martian Chinese and Hebrew, in Thai and in French and Malay, and whenever strangers met who did not share a language they reverted to the old contact toktok, the beche-le-mar of Old Melanesia and the Belt.
My latest Central Station story, The Lord of Discarded Things, is now up at Strange Horizons. They are having their annual fund drive at the moment, so if you like what they do, maybe drop them some cash!
There were still alte-zachen men in Jaffa in those days. There had always been, junk-gypsies, part Jew, part Arab, part something else again. It was the time of the Messiah Murder, of which you must have heard, of which the historian Elezra (himself progenitor of Miriam Elezra, who with the Golda Meir automaton journeyed to Ancient-Mars-That-Never-Was, and changed the course of a planet) has written, “It was a time of fervour and uncertainty, a time of hate and peace, in which the messiah’s appearance and subsequent execution were almost incidental.”
There were still alte-zachen men in Jaffa and Central Station in those days, as there always were and always will be, and chief amongst them was Ibrahim, he who was sometimes called The Lord of Discarded Things.
You must have seen him approach a thousand times. He appears in the background, always in the background, of tourist-taken images, of numerous feeds. The cart, first: a flat top carried on the four wheels of a liberated, ancient car. In Jaffa’s junkyards, dead combustion-engine cars proliferated, towers of them making a city of junk in which hid the city’s unfortunates. The cart pulled by one or two horses, city-bred and born: mismatched grey and white, these Palestinian horses, an intermingling of breeds, distant cousins to the noble Arabian strains. Small, strong, and patient, they carried the cart overloaded with broken-down things, without complaint, on the weekends putting on bells and colourful garb and carrying small children along the promenade, for a price. – continue reading.
A few recent short story sales:
The feature article in this week’s Strange Horizons is Bridge Over Troubled Waters: The City of Haifa in Lavie Tidhar’s Stories, by Ehud Maimon. It discusses six of my short stories that take place in Haifa – including last year’s “The Projected Girl” from Naked City - and “Shira” from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. They are two of my favourite stories.
Anyway it’s a really interesting article – for me if no one else! – and raises up some themes I didn’t consider. I find Haifa absolutely fascinating, and one of the most marvellous places to set stories in. Here’s a snippet from the article that explains a little about the city and just why it’s so fascinating to a writer:
The city of Haifa is the venue of six stories by Lavie Tidhar. These stories were not written as a cycle, and only two of them are even directly linked through a shared character, but they all find an engaged setting in the ancient city of Haifa on the Eastern Mediterranean. This isn’t to say that they simply take place in a city called “Haifa,” a passive participant to the activity within it. Rather, Tidhar’s Haifa plays a role in all these stories, and through characteristics common across them, acts as a bridge between its local culture and the more universal enterprise of speculative fiction.
Four characteristics appear in one form or another in all of Lavie Tidhar’s Haifa stories: 1) the power of books and bookstores to shape the reality of the city and the way the protagonists perceive reality; 2) the city’s sanctity (especially with regard to sun and fire worship); 3) the eternal nature of the city, its harbor, and the mountain ridge on which it sits; and 4) the city’s ability to span the vast range of both history and mythology.
The city of Haifa as viewed from the port.
These characteristics are not unique to Tidhar. Speculative fiction is rife with books that expose reality as timeless and malleable. Michael Moorcock’s Tanelorn and Roger Zelazny’s Amber provide great points of reference with respect to cities the span space and time, acting as hubs for the world that exists around them. Yet these are definitively fictional cities, which raises an interesting question regarding Tidhar’s Haifa—do his stories merely apply fantastic conventions to Haifa, or are these fantastic features central to Haifa’s identity? We’ll see that whatever the answer to this question, this dynamic allows Tidhar to utilize Haifa to marry particular and local identity with concerns, themes, and conventions that are universal in scope.
As far as books and their power to affect reality, there is nothing special about Haifa besides a few locally iconic used bookstores. But the power of words is a vital trope in speculative fiction more generally, and it certainly a common theme in Tidhar’s work as a whole, highlighted by his recent Bookman trilogy.
As for Haifa’s nature as a meeting point and crossing point of times, places and realities, the answer may lie in the nature and history of Haifa itself. While it is the third largest city in Israel, Haifa was not one of the major towns of the region until the twentieth century. But it is an ancient port town, with evidence of settlement dating back to the late Bronze Age. It is situated along a stretch of coast that was one of the most important international trading centers in the Mediterranean for some 4,000 years. In recent history it gained importance as one of the largest deep-water ports in the eastern Mediterranean, and during the British rule of the Middle East as the gateway to the entire region. As such it has always been a nexus, a meeting place for people and cultures. Tidhar take this a few steps further. In his Haifa historical periods coexist side by side in the same city, timelines cross and meet and the city is a nexus not just for people from different places and cultures, but for the mundane and the mythical.
The Terraces of the Baha’i faith, located on Mount Carmel in Haifa.
The sanctity of the city can be traced back to the history of the region Haifa is located in. Haifa hosts the world center of the Baha’i religion and is sacred to this faith, but as far as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are concerned it had no major religious significance, especially compared to other cities in the Middle East. But the Carmel ridge on which it sits is a different matter. Mount Carmel is mentioned as a sacred place in the account of Thumose III’s occupation of Palestine in the fifteenth century BC; It is the site of Elijah’s famous showdown with the prophets of Ba’al and Ashera (1 Kings 18)—which implies that the site has an even older history as a sacred place; The city of Megiddo, made famous by the book of Revelation as “Armageddon” (Revelation 16), is along the ridge, less than forty kilometers from Haifa proper. – continue reading!
A few bits and bobs:
I will be participating in a panel at the SFX Weekender: “How do you put the punk into steampunk?” – Friday, 3rd February, 5PM
New review for The Great Game! Giving it 10/10 and saying “The plot is fast-paced, the book is action-packed, the cast of characters astounding … Every scene was vivid before my mind’s eye … an outstanding Steampunk novel. Gripping, multi-facetted, and fascinating.”
Remember we will be officially launching The Great Game at the SFX Weekender in only 2 weeks’ time!
Also a new review for Cloud Permutations, from Strange Horizons – a thoughtful examination of the novella, calling it “fascinating and infuriating” – works for me!
And my The Great Game related story, “The Stoker Memorandum” was sent out to subscribers of Daily Science Fiction this morning – it should be available free online in about a week’s time.
Very glad to say my 7000 word story “The Last Osama” will be published soon in Interzone. “The Last Osama” is my own personal postscript to the novel and the two short stories, “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” and “Wrong Number”.
In other Osama news, Strange Horizons has a long, in-depth review of the novel by Michael Levy, concluding that:
Moving seamlessly between intense realism and equally intense surrealism, Osama is a powerful and disturbing political fantasy by a talent who deserves the attention of all serious readers.
I’ve written a few stories that have LGBT characters or themes though not, when I look at it, an exceptionally large number. It just occured to me it could be interesting (for me, if no one else) to go over my short stories database and extract some common themes or group stories together, of which this is a first post.
A lot of the time, my reasoning is that, if there is a romance in the story, it might as well be a same-sex romance – girl-meets-girl or boy-meets-boy instead of boy-meets-girl, to reduce it to a plot component. Other times I’m interested in exploring sexual themes explicitly – most predominantly in the Gorel stories (of which more later). I’ve been particularly interested in Kathoey (Thai/Lao transgender, or “third sex”) as they’re very much a part of everyday life in Laos, with, it seems to me, far more acceptance than ever in the “enlightened” West, and they tend to crop up in stories.
I have no idea if I’m doing a particularly good job or not. My guiding principle is fairly simple though – people are people, and sexual identity is one part of a person. I can well imagine some characters who are consumed by sexual orientation/gender identity to the extent it overshadows everything else, but I’d imagine that’s quite rare, and can apply equally whether you’re gay or straight. Anyhow, here is a handful of stories with LGBT themes.
High Windows – Strange Horizons 2006 – an alienated teenage boy travels across the future solar system, trying to find his place in the world. One reader comment said it was “basically internet porn, given a veneer of respectability … thinly imagined, flaccidly written and altogether unstimulating. ” Another wrote: “This story is truly a work of sick self indulgent porn.”
“High Windows” obviously (I think) corresponds with some of Samuel Delany’s fiction as well as with Philip Larkin’s poem ”High Windows”. It also includes a line about transitioning that both I and the editors thought would be problematic, though it hadn’t been commented on.
It is interesting that the readers above equate “sexually explicit” with “porn”, though I have no problem with it. I did write a couple of stories that deal specifically with pornography and that you might want to check out – 304, Adolf Hitler Strasse on Clarkesworld and “The Love-Craft” in Postscripts (not online).
Covenant - Apex Digest 2008 (but reprinted online in Basement Stories) – a story about religion and aliens which features a lesbian couple. If “High Windows” was a story about alienation and sex, here the romance is simply another part of the story.
“How To Make Paper Airplanes” – published in the special Mundane SF issue of Interzone, 2008, edited by Geoff Ryman, and not online, alas – deals more explicitly with a gay relationship in a culture (Vanuatu) where it is both socially unacceptable and illegal, though again this is one aspect of the story, about four men stranded on a desert island and the meeting of alien (yet human) civilizations.
The Night Train – Strange Horizons, 2010 – well, this little beasty is somehow a Theodore Sturgeon Award nominee, has two reprints in Year’s Bests anthologies, and is available in audio at Escape Pod. I have to admit I mostly wrote the story because I love the night train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, and I love the Hua Lamphong train station. I found the various comments on how the story “exoticises” strange, as for me it was writing about everyday life (admittedly in a somewhat weird future). The main character is a kathoey, the story adopts and corresponds with American cyberpunk tropes and ends, I thought quite appropriately, with a cup of tea.
There are other stories, I think, but those are the more prominent ones. The other stories I wanted to mention are the Gorel of Goliris stories, of which the first one to be published is the novella Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (PS Publishing 2011).
Two more Gorel stories will be published in PS Publishing’s Postscripts anthology series – “Black Gods Kiss” and “Buried Eyes”, and a small collection of Gorel stories (probably titled Black Gods Kiss) will be published by PS next year.
The obvious inspiration for Gorel has been C.L. Moore, with her Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith stories, though with Gorel it was obvious to me from early on that it would be more explicit, almost to the point of the gratuitous. I did want to write something that had plenty of sex and violence – my guiding line for Gorel early on was that he’d “kill anything and sleep with anyone”, though in the course of Pot-Bellied God he enters a fairly stable menage a trois relationship (at least for a while!) and also, I suspect, falls in love. I’m looking forward to finding out what Gorel gets up to next!
Gardner Dozois reviews Cloud Permutations in the February issue of Locus:
Lavie Tidhar’s Cloud Permutations, also from PS Publishing [Dozois previously reviews another PS novella], is another Vance-flavoured almost novel-length novella (although the writer specifically referenced in the text, in what TV fans would call a “shout out”, is Cordwainer Smith) – this is also an entertaining picaresque adventure, across the face of a largely aquatic planet whose culture has been shaped by immigrants from the South Sea islands of old Earth, although this one is somewhat more serious in tone and deeper in ambition, full of mystic elements drawn from island mythology, and concerning a young outcast fighting through desperate trials and against all odds to fulfill a destiny larger than himself.
In the same column, Dozois comments on two further stories:
Lavie Tidhar shows up again with perhaps the best story in the last few months of e-zine Strange Horizons, Aphrodisia, a post-cyberpunk story about spacers who have been altered by high-tech modifications on a spree in Vientiane while on vacation on Old Earth. . . new website Daily Science Fiction has the ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – goal of publishing a new SF or fantasy story every single day of the year. . . the best story there so far is by the ubiquitous Lavie Tidhar, who contributed Butterfly and the Blight at the Heart of the World.
my short story, “The Night Train”, was published in June 2010 at Strange Horizons. It’s recently been picked up for two Year’s Bests anthologies: Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 5 (Nightshade Books) and Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty Eighth Annual Collection (St. Martin’s Press).
Gardner Dozois also picked a second story of mine, The Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String, from Fantasy Magazine, for his year’s best anthology.
In addition, “The Night Train” has been picked up by SF audio podcast Escape Pod, and will be available there in the new year.
So it’s been a good year for The Night Train – but I wanted to talk a little about where the story came from – with pictures!
The Night Train
I wrote this story while living in Vientiane, Laos (The Spontaneous Knotting of an Agitated String was both written and set in Vientiane). It’s a quiet town, though not without its charms, and so one of the highlights for us was an occasional trip abroad – to Thailand, which was just beyond the Mekong, on the other side of the river, but more specifically to Bangkok, which is quite a long distance away. To get to Bangkok, you could fly – or you could cross the border into Thailand, into the small town of Nong Khai, and catch the night train from there to Bangkok.
The thing is, I love trains. I travel by train whenever I can – whether it’s across the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, from Bucharest to Brasov (still one of the most beautiful train rides I’ve ever been on), or from Cape Town to Johannesburg (one of the most surreal train rides I ever had, for various reasons!), or, indeed, on the biggest ride of them all, the Trans-Siberian route from Moscow to Beijing (which took, on and off, about 2 months to complete).
And I loved the Nong Khai-Bangkok night train.
There are many things to love about that train ride. I sleep very well on trains, and this is a sleeper ride. There’s a proper dining car slash drinking car (as can be seen from the following picture!):
But, best of all, it starts and ends in Bangkok – specifically, in that wonderful old-world train station called Hua Lamphong, right by Bangkok’s China Town.
Couple of random backpackers there. Even better, for people flying into Bangkok, you get to see the hyper-modern airport and ride into town. But arriving by train, one goes through the tenements, the backs of houses, through mounds of garbage and rough sleepers and people waking up for the work day. And I can’t remember which trip it was but, as we were getting ready to go back, waiting for the train to pull out of the station, back to Nong Khai, I looked around at the station, a monk cadging a smoke from a passerby, the belch of steam and people milling about and the attendants getting ready to heat up food and open up beers, and I knew I had to write a story about it.
What I ended up with was The Night Train – a story of a special sort of body guard, an underworld boss, and an assassin – as well as artificial intelligence, bio-engineering, gender-reassignment surgery and a nice cup of tea. It’s a story that corresponds explicitly with American SF, while taking place in the same near-future South East Asia of some of my other stories (such as Spider’s Moon at Futurismic, The Shangri-La Affair and Aphrodisia at Strange Horizons). I’m glad it was well-received, so far – and glad I took that night ride…
Well, it’s official – my Strange Horizons story The Night Train will appear in Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Five, from Nightshade Books. Here is the cover, and the full table of contents.
Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
“Elegy for a Young Elk,” Hannu Rajaniemi
“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” Neil Gaiman
“Seven Sexy Cowboy Robots,” Sandra McDonald
“The Spy Who Never Grew Up,” Sarah Rees Brennan
“The Aarne-Thompson Classification Revue,” Holly Black
“Under the Moons of Venus,” Damien Broderick
“The Fool Jobs,” Joe Abercrombie
“Alone,” Robert Reed
“Names for Water,” Kij Johnson
“Fair Ladies,” Theodora Goss
“Plus or Minus,” James P. Kelly
“The Man With the Knives,” Ellen Kushner
“The Jammie Dodgers and the Adventure of the Leicester Square Screening,” Cory Doctorow
“The Maiden Flight of McAuley’s Bellerophon,” Elizabeth Hand
“The Miracle Aquilina,” Margo Lanagan
“The Taste of Night,” Pat Cadigan
“The Exterminator’s Want-Ad,” Bruce Sterling
“Map of Seventeen,” Christopher Barzak
“The Naturalist,” Maureen McHugh
“Sins of the Father,” Sara Genge
“The Sultan of the Clouds,” Geoffrey A. Landis
“Iteration,” John Kessel
“The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn,” Diana Peterfreund
“The Night Train,” Lavie Tidhar
“Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale),” Ian Tregillis
“Amor Vincit Omnia,” K.J. Parker
“The Things,” Peter Watts
“The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball,” Genevieve Valentine
“The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window,” Rachel Swirsky