Cristina Jurado, who reviewed Broken Symmetries (Simetrías rotas) last week for us, interviews Steve Redwood. You can also read the Spanish translation of this interview on her blog Más ficción que ciencia (which I strongly recommend if you read Spanish).
Steve Redwood explains that he left the UK at twenty-five because it did not stop raining since he was born in 1943. I´m sure it wasn´t because of the weather but of the lack of decent food. It is well established that British colonizing ambitions are not due to their entrepreneurial spirit but to their empty stomachs. Urban legends about him reveal that he didn´t established properly until he arrived in Spain. After living in Turkey (think about the country several decades ago) and Saudi Arabia (doesn´t matter when you think about it) we are not surprise that our country seemed to him a dream island. No job is listed in his profile… even though rumors say that he worked as an English teacher, but those allegations have yet to be confirm. He did not start to write until reaching his fifties, probably because his globetrotting bottom could not sit still until then, but that is a hypothesis waiting to be tested.
His first humorous and fantasy work Fisher of Devils was nominated in 2003 as best novel by the British Fantasy Society. A couple of years later he published Who Needs Cleopatra? and in 2010 the anthology Broken Symmetries came out. In our country is Simetrías Rotas, published by Sportula. His short stories had been included in collections and magazines like Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases (finalists of the Hugo and the World Fantasy awards) and The Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy. A wicked spirit decided that Spain deserves to enjoy his novels and El pescador de demonios (published by El Tercer Nombre) and ¿Quién necesita a Cleopatra? (published by Ajec) are now available in the language of Cervantes. There is also an anthology of short stories by Redwood under the title (surely purely metaphoric) Los pingüinos también se ahogan (published by Torre de Marfil).
Here you have my conversation with Redwood, who revealed to be a good sportsman by getting into it without any anesthetic substances.
Cristina Jurado: I want to start with, I´m afraid, an obvious question: Why the title Broken Symmetries? (I had a theory about it but I´m sure it´s just the product of my sick mind)
Steve Redwood: Oh my Gosh, I wish I could remember! I would like to impress you by saying it refers to a basic idea in quantum theory, but then you might ask me, “Could you be more precise, please?”, and I would be exposed as a fraud, and my vengeful ex-wife Carmen Moreno, a harpy in her spare time, would gloatingly reveal my shame on Facebook or Twitter. It was probably because I like to thwart reader expectations, or at least ‘bend’ the tropes, distort the expected symmetries, while maintaining internal logic and consistency and even (I hope) inevitability. I remember a reader of Off the Shelf (María 8) phoning me, furious, complaining that from being an exciting science fiction story it had suddenly turned into meaningless waffle. (Don’t you dare…!) A more obvious example would be Circe’s Choice, in which, without changing the myth in the slightest, I aimed to completely overthrow the idea that Scylla was just a pitiless monster, and Circe an equally pitiless goddess. Or Sanctuary, where the word ‘sanctuary’, as well as the concept of euthanasia, takes on a rather ... err, unusual meaning.
Besides, Broken Symmetries sounds more impressive than the more accurate Disjointed and Disordered Digressions of a Dislocated Mind. Err… what was your theory? Sounds rather exciting…
CJ: Many of your short stories in this anthology are comical. You employ humor as a scalpel to dissect everyday life, always finding something disturbing, melancholic, or provoking. I think that being truly funny in any genre, but especially in science fiction, is quite an accomplishment those days. Do you feel that humor suits your style because it reflects the way you see the world or because it´s a powerful device to bring out the truth, or both?
SR: The first option: I tend to stand a bit outside life and (like many other people, of course) ‘see the funny side’ of things (including my own thoughts and imperfections (I repeat: Don’t you dare…!). I now never go ‘seeking the truth’ because that road leads you to either intense depression, or to ridiculous escapist fantasies, like religions, constructed on something much less solid than a bubble of air. I agree that it’s difficult to be funny in SF (unless you’re aiming at satire), and most humorous ‘science fiction’ is usually so exaggerated as to be really fantasy: the wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, or Lem’s Cyberiad. There aren’t many Robert Sheckleys around. I read a bit of the best-selling Robert Rankin, and found him childish. None of my humorous stories are really SF (not even Two Legs, Good…), even if they do employ common elements like time travel or cloning or aliens. If I think about those aspects seriously, then, yes, they become SF stories. I’d say there are only five genuinely SF stories in the book.
CJ: Some say that recurrent themes in literature can reveal the real nature of a person. Does that means that you are a voyeur, atheist and lefty kind of guy?
Atheist, me? I direct you to my ground-breaking Vatican-funded theological study, Fisher of Devils, which fills in the gaps the Bible left out, or my discovery of the solution to the enigma of Cain’s wife (since there were no other women around, except his dear old Mum) in Who Needs Cleopatra?
‘Lefty’? Just because I reveal what the PP ministers really get up to in the basement of party headquarters when they claim they are working on solving the country’s problems?
But I am not a ’thinker’ in any real sense of the word, I have no vital message to impart, except: “And God said, ‘Let there be Ginger’; and there was Ginger. And God saw the Ginger, that it was good: and God divided the Ginger from the goddamn Garlic and Onions.” Indeed, I now notice, there are not a great variety of themes as such in this particular collection. Many of the stories, for example Nose Trek, began as a simple flight of fancy, such as considering the fundamental physics behind the antics of Pinocchio’s nose, or from examining clichéd expressions like ‘family values’, or ‘he’s made of money’ (The Heisenberg Mutation), or a woman left ‘on the shelf’. Whether the resulting stories turned out to be humorous or quite the opposite was in itself a Schrodinger’s Cat question, and most probably depended on whether I had, or had not, run out of ginger biscuits at the time.
Indeed, I suspect that, as much as the themes themselves, it is the way those themes are treated which might reveal a lot about the writer.
CJ: I was surprise to detect many references to Borges in your stories, not just at a theme level but also at a structural one. I tend to think that the Argentinian is not well known in the rest of the world as it is in Spain and Latin America. There are many others references, like Nabokov (in “El nido”) or Kafka (“La Mutación de Heisenberg”) or Terry Pratchett (with the cultural references in all the stories). Besides the already mentioned authors, what kind of literature mix is your source of inspiration?
SR: Often, they’re just passing references, to deceive people into thinking I’m cultured. I studied literature at university (ah, those wonderful early sixties, when ‘university’ in the UK meant that one (if impoverished, like me) was given free tuition, accommodation, food, and beer money by the state, as well as instant acquaintanceship with hundreds of intelligent young women, just for lying down on a bed and reading a few books!). I, like most of my friends, also read quite a variety of books outside the ‘canon’ (my God, we believed then ‘literature’ was a definitive list of a couple of hundred books, full-stop!), as the advent of paperback books meant we could read the other Europeans (and, yes, Borges) too. SF was an early love, and I’ve probably read something by almost ‘everybody who was anybody’ in Anglo-Saxon SF up to the eighties, but in the last couple of decades I’ve read far less, for various reasons I won’t go into. (One reason is the time I’ve devoted to reading Spanish authors; I have the bad bad bad habit of studying the language as I read, so although I can in fact read almost as fast in Spanish as in English, I tend to take at least five-ten times as long, as I pause to ponder the reason for that subjunctive, for the choice of that particular word, the history of that expression, etc.)
But I didn’t write anything until I was nearly fifty, and I’ve always had a terrible memory, which is now even worse, so it’s hard to cite any direct influences. I guess a few writers who must have influenced me, at least indirectly, would include Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, Graham Greene, Mervyn Peake, Evelyn Waugh, Stanislaw Lem, the French absurdists, Arrabal, Calvino… I’m not saying I know (or knew) their works well, but that their attitude to life seems to chime in with mine. In SF, of course, I must have read hundreds of Asimovs, Simaks, Dicks, Herberts, Silverbergs, Bradburys, Orson Scott Cards, Watsons, Moorcocks, John Varleys, etc. but I don’t really think they’ve influenced my writing. Even books that had an instant KO effect on me, such as the Strugatski brothers’ Roadside Picnic, Dan Simmons Hyperion, Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, James Tiptree Jr.’s short stories, Orwell’s 1984, probably haven’t had a great influence on what I write. But who knows? I don’t.
Ah, probably my love of creating a range of different idiosyncratic and/or insane narrators comes from Edgar Allen Poe and the Victorian poet Robert Browning, whose Dramatic Monologues are a wonderful tour de force.
CJ: The common denominator in all the stories is a sense of the weird being just in front of our eyes. It seems that all it´s needed is a little push to unveil it, regardless of the reader’s nation. What are the differences between the stories in the English and the Spanish version? Why did you feel it was important to make changes in the Spanish one?
SR: I would guess that the ‘sense of the weird being just in front of our eyes’ comes from having lived abroad most of my life. This means you are constantly looking in through a window at the lives on the other side – or maybe you are looking out. Your living in Dubai must also affect you the same way.
But, as regards the stories, the reason Simetrías rotas isn’t exactly the same as Broken Symmetries is simply that some of the stories (in general, the more realistic ones) in the original book have already been published in Los Pingüinos también se ahogan, some are untranslatable, and new ones, including the two longest, were written for this collection.
In the stories themselves there aren’t really many differences at all, except those necessary to make something intelligible. For example, my titles (often puns, quotations, or themselves part of the story) often cause problems. An intractable example is Hot Cross Son (La venganza es Su perdón), which contains about five puns or verbal echoes in the title alone, the main one being impossible for a foreigner to detect, unless you happen to eat ‘hot cross buns’ at Easter – yum yum! Such verbal echoes, word play, hidden allusions, alliteration, inversions, and so on, nearly all get lost in translation, although sometimes they can be replaced by a Spanish cultural equivalent. In the same story, the clever Cristina Macia, without whom George RR Martin would not exist in Spain, dealt with my ‘sins of the flesh, not sins of the meat’, by substituting ‘filete’ for my ‘meat’, since ‘carne’ doesn’t show the distinction. And, in almost the next line, my ‘Well, you couldn’t put it much straighter than that!’ became, perfectly, ‘¡Más claro, agua! In other words, the real differences between the English and the Spanish usually come from the requirements of translation. A story like Fowl Play in Broken Symmetries is, unfortunately, completely untranslatable, due to the deliberate twisting of normal language. (Although, oddly, it was translated into Russian, but a Russian speaker said it was completely incomprehensible – I repeat my repetition: Don’t you dare!)
In a more general sense, due to my living abroad, in content (but not tone or style) my stories have very little ‘Englishness’ in them: there’s almost no direct reference to British culture or traditions. In this book, only three have an English setting, and in only one (Going Back) is the specifically English setting and booze ‘culture’ of any importance. (This, of course, would be true of almost all SF and fantasy.)
Stories like De Madrid al Infierno I of course wrote specifically for Spain, and thinking in Spanish. Luckily, Spanish humour seems to be much closer to English humour than, say, French or Italian. We all love Monty Python and Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams (don’t we ?!!!)
CJ: Do you think that there is a name for your condition or would you rather state that it´s the rest of us who are mentally compromised?
SR: Whatever this condition is, I believe I share it (on a more modest scale) with El Jueves magazine in Spain, and, in the Universe, with the Greatest Heroes of all time, mentioned above, Monty Python (and Rowan Atkinson)!
About the interviewer
Cristina Jurado Marcos writes the sci-fi blog Más ficción que ciencia on Libros.com. Having a degree in Advertising and Public Relations by Universidad de Seville and a Masters in Rhetoric by Northwestern University (USA), she currently studies Philosophy for fun. She considers herself a globetrotter after living in Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris or Dubai. Her short stories have appeared in several sci-fi online magazines and anthologies. Her first novel From Orange to Blue was published in 2012.