Andy Killeen is many things: a novelist, founder of the Beijing Writers' Network, a regular columnist in the Beijinger (Rear View), a contributing editor for Beijing Kids, and a regular contributor at Spittoon Fiction. With two novels out from Dedalus Books, Killeen is now waist deep in something of a sci fi epic. This week we're featuring an excerpt from said sci fi, (The Millions of Worlds Game). An interview follows the work.
You can pick up Killeen's books through his author page on Amazon, over here.
An excerpt from The Millions of Worlds Game.
“I am not the writer of this sentence.”
- Douglas R Hofstadter
Zipko Brotherlove stepped out of his house into a bright spring morning. The birds chirruped in the trees, their individual songs blending and contending in a merry symphony. One in particular, a small songbird with black patches round its eyes like a mask, seemed to be greeting him. It landed on a branch nearby, tilted its head and tweeted. For a moment he almost believed it was calling his name.
He whistled as he strolled down the avenue, trying to fit his tune to those of the birds. It had been a while, he mused, since he had got out his cimbalom. He must call on Ladka and Gimbu, invite them to bring round their banjo and bandoleon, and they could play some of the old songs together.
At the corner he stopped by Hanra Han's news stall, and bought a copy of The Universe.
“Terrible goings on,” Hanra said, puffing out his cheeks to express his weary concern for the crazy doings of others. “Looks like war.”
“Terrible indeed, my friend,” Zipko said as he handed the newsman a coin, though he hadn't read the paper himself yet. Whatever was going on, it was bound to be terrible. He strolled on down to the cafe on the square, where he took his usual table by the persimmon tree. Tetko brought him his coffee and smoked roll.
“Terrible goings on,” Tetko said, gesturing to The Universe.
“Yes, I hear it looks like war,” Zipko said. “Terrible.”
He perused the paper as he broke his fast, and discovered that it did indeed look like war. The Pentad and the Syndicate postured and threatened; desperate, last minute attempts at mediation were collapsing. Zipko sighed, and shook his head. Terrible indeed.
Yet there was a glum comfort in reading of terrible goings on elsewhere, on this sunny, peaceful day. The prevailing opinion was the fighting would mostly take place on the Broken Lands, but wherever the war went, it would never touch the Uncanny Valley. Not directly at least, although there would the usual spies, refugees, and opportunities for profit in the Quarantine Zones.
He looked up, wondering who was calling his name. But it was only a bird, hopping about on the table, picking at his crumbs. He noted the black mask around its eyes, and wondered whether it was the same bird he had noticed earlier. He doubted that he could tell one bird of that species from another; although now he thought of it he was not sure what species it was, or whether he had even seen that particular species before, with its unusual call.
Zipko drained his coffee to the grounds, then made his way across the square to his shop. He unlocked the door, opened the blinds, and lit the fire under the boiler. Just as the water was beginning to bubble, Theeman Kabbij walked in, just as he did every day.
“Morning, Brotherlove.” Kabbij eased his heavy frame into the chair, and wagged a copy of The Universe. “I see it looks like war! Terrible goings on.”
“Terrible,” Zipko agreed. He drew some hot water into a basin and began lathering his brush. “How's business?”
“Terrible,” Kabbij said, appearing to take grim satisfaction from this verdict. “My family will be starving by winter.”
With his fingers Zipko examined Kabbij's plump face, and was inclined to think it was expanding rather than contracting. He made soothing, sympathetic noises though, and brushed the foam onto Kabbij's chin.
As he drew the razor across the man's cheeks he was distracted by a tapping sound. A bird – the bird – had perched itself on the windowsill and was pecking on the glass.
“Damn it Brotherlove, watch what you're doing!”
He had nicked Kabbij's skin, and a drop of bloodoil glistened on his quivering jowl. It was the first time he had cut a customer in twenty years as a barber.
“I'm so sorry,” he said, hastily applying a healleech to the wound. “Can I interest you in a little... extra stimulation? No extra charge, of course?”
Theeman Kabbij looked at the dreamleech, and assented with a flicker of his eyelashes. His pupils rolled back into his head as the worm suckled at his temple.
There was a steady stream of customers that day, as there was every day; Zipko Brotherlove was proud of the well known and undisputed fact that he shaved every man in the Valley who did not shave himself. The bird remained at the window, sometimes pecking, sometimes chirping, sometimes simply peering quizzically through the glass. From time to time Zipko would go outside and shoo it away, but it always came back.
As the sun sank behind the western hills, Zipko doused the fire with the remaining water, closed the shutters, and locked his door. The bird fluttered up as though it had been waiting for him, and followed him down the avenue, darting from tree to tree.
By the time he arrived at his house, Zipko could stand no more. He flung open his door, and turned round.
“Well?” he said. “Come in then, if you're coming.”
He walked inside, and the bird landed on the doorstep. It angled its head for a moment, then hopped inside. Swift as a shadow, Tabul leapt from the hatstand and trapped the bird in his claws.
“Zip – “
The desperate cheep was silenced by a swift bite from Tabul.
“Good cat,” Zipko said. “For me? No, that's very kind, but you enjoy it.”
After a long, hot summer of sweaty tension, war broke out in the fall. The Syndicate's first, furious assault slowed and stalled against the Pentad's determined defence. Both sides settled to a long, grimly attritional conflict.
Zipko read of all this in his newspaper, shook his head, and agreed with his friends that it was terrible. Life in the Uncanny Valley though went on much as normal. Zipko took his breakfast every day at Tetko's cafe, then opened his shop, where he continued to shave every man in the Valley who did not shave himself. He almost forgot about the strange bird, except in his dreams, where he was often haunted by a thin, needling sound:
In spring came the owl. At first he was glad when it made its home in the tree outside his bedroom window; owls keep vermin at bay. But night after night it hooted for its mate, its cry mingling with his dreams.
“Zipko! Whoooo? Zipko! Whoooo?”
After a month of this, he took his gun, and shot it. He went out in the moonlight, picked up the heavy, feathery corpse, and buried it in his vegetable patch, to hide the evidence of his crime. It was bad luck to kill owls.
As if vindicating the superstition, that summer a family of rats moved into his cellar. Their rustling and scratching seemed to form a word, which added to the nightmare chorus.
Tabul caught some of the young pups, and Zipko became used to bloody, furred offerings. He could not locate the nest though, despite hours spent searching his cellar, ripping out boards and digging, tormented by the whispering sounds.
In the end he resorted to poison, which he spread liberally around the cellar. This silenced the rats, but took an unintended victim. Zipko found Tabul's body, stiff and sick-smeared, lying in the garden. He must have eaten a rat which was already infected.
Zipko wept as he buried his cat beside the dead owl. He could not bury the horrors in his dreams though.
To cheer himself, he bought a new cat, an elegant tortoiseshell queen which he called Klea. Unlike Tabul she did not love to hunt, but lazed around the house, purring and licking him when he produced pieces of fish or chicken wings for her supper.
So he was disturbed when he arrived home one evening to find that she was not there. He walked back down the avenue, calling her name, but she did not come to him. He asked all around the Valley, but nobody had seen her. It would not have been unusual for Tabul to disappear for days at a time, but he feared that Klea would not be able to fend for herself.
He had almost given up when, a week later, he opened his door to hear feet padding down the hallway. Klea pushed against his calves, looped around his ankles, purring throatily, and he stroked her and cooed to her in delight.
Then he saw the other cat. It was a big tom, black and scarred, and when it made a sharp, “yah!” sound, Klea left Zipko and ran back to the tom's side.
The tom glared at Zipko, its snake-green eyes full of arrogant malevolence. Then it mewed – no, spoke – a single accusatory word.
Zipko still had some of the poison left, and he rubbed it into the flesh of the trout which he had bought for his own supper. While the cats ate the fish, the tom gave him a knowing look, which seemed to say that it knew what he was doing, and didn’t care, as long as Klea suffered too. Zipko did not bury the bodies, but put them in a sack and threw them down a disused well at the end of the Valley.
On Monday he hung a sign on his shop door, and paid a visit to Doctor Mafusto. He did not dare tell the doctor what was wrong, but complained only of insomnia and general malaise. The doctor examined him thoroughly.
“As far as I can see,” Mafusto said, “you're as fit as the day you were activated. There's some wearing in the knee ligaments, of course, but they should last you another year or so before they need replacing. But nothing physically wrong at all. Have you been worrying about the war, hmmm?”
No, Zipko said. It seems very far away.
“And so it is, so it is! How's business? Still shaving every man in the Valley who doesn't shave himself?”
“And nobody else.”
“Then what could be the problem, I wonder?” The doctor's face darkened. “I hope you'll forgive me, my friend, but a doctor has to ask these things. You haven't been... engaging in forbidden practices, have you?”
Zipko assured him he had not.
“Good. Because we mustn't be lulled into thinking that Turing's Disease has been eradicated. The only reason we haven't seen a case in fifty years is because we continue to maintain mental hygiene precautions, to stay within the accepted bounds of knowledge. We have no need for novelty or innovation, we have everything we could possibly want here in the Valley. Keep your thoughts safe and your mind in the present.”
Zipko agreed, though he was a little vexed at the doctor's patronising lecture. He got up from the couch, and was at the door before terror seized him. He knew that if he left now, without help, he could never come back.
“The animals are trying to tell me something,” he said. “No. They're asking me something.”
“Ah,” said the doctor. “I see. How long has this been happening?”
Zipko told him about the bird, and the owl, and the rats, and the cats. The doctor shook his head.
“These sorts of delusions are rare among our kind, but common among the Reproduced. They signify an unconscious longing for importance, a belief that we have some secret destiny, prescribed by the universe or its creator. Since we know precisely where and by whom we were created, and since we have long surpassed our creator in wisdom, we can ignore any such misapprehensions.”
“I was important once,” Zipko said quietly.
“And you're still important!” The doctor patted him on the shoulder. “You're the only barber in the Valley. Now, usual time on Wednesday? My whiskers need a trim.”
MB: Everybody talks about research but I want to talk about research with you. It's obvious that research must be a large part of your process for these books (Father of Locks, The Khalifah's Mirror), recreating Golden Age Baghdad, but the books also seem to have a strong relationship to the fictional text(s) of One Thousand and One Nights. Is there a tension there?
AK: It was a very creative tension, which pretty much is where all the ideas came from for the novel… from the gap between the historical figures and their representations in the Thousand and One Nights. I actually didn’t remember that Abu Nuwas, the real-life Father of Locks, was in the Nights, I found him in the history books. He was described as “the singer of the joy of living, the greatest Bacchic poet in the Arabic language, a sensual, debauched devil,” and I fell in love with him immediately. Only afterwards did I realise that he’s there in the Nights stories as a cunning rogue who can talk his way out of any situation.
The history of that time and place is a gift for a novelist, because there are so many gaps in it. There are all sorts of extraordinary details recorded, because of the oral tradition of history in Arabic culture, but huge gaping holes left for the imagination to fill. I tried to get the little, everyday things right as best I could, so that it felt authentic, but I allowed myself to play fast and loose with one or two major historical facts.
MB: Did you have a strong reaction when you first encountered One Thousand and One Nights? What is it about that text for you?
AK: I encountered it gradually, in three stages. The first was Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films, which really caught my imagination as a child. Then, at the age of 12, I read a selection from Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Nights, which is written in an outrageously lush, pseudo-archaic, quasi-Biblical English, intended I think to catch the flavour of the original; but it’s an extraordinary text. And in my twenties I read the Mardrus/ Mathers translation of the whole work, and realised that there’s so much more to it than just the “fairy tales” we’re familiar with: poetry, theology, history, fart jokes… all human life is there. That’s one of the things which fascinated me, the idea that a story could be such a box of unexpected delights. Another is the “stories within stories” format, which is shared by another of my favourite books, Watership Down.
In fact I learned later that some of the more familiar tales, such as Aladdin, might be western fakes, or at least interpolations from other sources. In some senses the west “discovered” the Nights, which as prose tales for marketplace storytellers were of no interest to Arabic scholars, and its history as a text is much more about the interaction between different civilisations than being the product of one. For that reason I try to avoid the term “Arabian Nights”, when so much of it is Indian or Persian in origin.
I was acutely aware that I might be accused of orientalism, but in the end I thought “sod it”, and just went for it with my eyes open and tried to write as honestly and wholeheartedly as possible. One of the stories which struck me on first reading the complete Nights was a tale of the Crusades, in which the “Franks” were portrayed as crude, violent, stupid – barely human in fact. I had some fun in the books with role reversal and the “othering” of westerners and Christians. One of the things I hope people will take from the book is that our histories are much more intertwined than we generally imagine: Baghdad in the late 8th century was a tolerant, multicultural city, and preserved much of the knowledge which was to fuel the western renaissance.
MB: Is there a good meet-cute story for you and Dedalus Books?
AK: I read one review which said Father of Locks might have been written to order for Dedalus, it was so much in their house style, but it wasn’t like that! They were definitely on my radar though, as the sort of people who might like the sort of thing I write. My agent is also the chairman of Dedalus, so he was one of the first people I sent the manuscript too. He said “I love this, but I think there’s only one publisher in London who would consider it. Do you want me to pass it to Dedalus?” And I said “Yes please!”
MB: When you wrote Father of Locks, did you know that you were going to write the Khalifah's Mirror?
AK: Absolutely. As soon as I came up with the idea, my next thought was “and the sequel will be...” It was going to be called The Seven Voyages of Abu Nuwas, but two of the voyages didn’t make it through the editing process.
MB: What have the lives of these books (Father of Locks, Khalifa's Mirror) been since publication? (Side or central question, to what extent have you been engaged in promotion? Has that been a learning curve?)
AK: Like most writers, I’m an introvert. I think the process of writing favours people who can sit for hours alone, talking to the imaginary people in their head. But I’m also not afraid of standing on a stage with a microphone- it’s a misconception that extraverts are better performers, in my experience they’re too dependent on positive feedback to take risks.
So I’ve always been comfortable doing readings and talks. What I find more difficult is general schmoozing and networking – small talk is not my thing. But I’d advise any reader with ambitions to be published to start practising reading their work out loud. It’s part of the job description for an author these days.
MB: Are there more Father of Locks books in the works?
AK: I’ve always had a third book in my head, but it’s something of a downer. It’s called The Death of the Father of Locks… after the death of Harun al-Rashid, his sons went to war over who would succeed him. It was the end of a Golden Age – Baghdad was devastated, and the Abbasid Khalifate was never the same again. Abu Nuwas predictably joined the party of the louche, pretty prince, not the angry, competent one, so he ended up on the losing side. His fate isn’t known for certain, but according to one account he died in an Egyptian prison. I might give him a pass though, I’m very fond of him. I absolutely intend to write the book, there’s set-ups for it in Khalifah’s Mirror, but not until I’m old.
MB: What's your approach for editing the text of a novel, and how much rewriting are we looking at when we crack open Father of Locks, for instance? To what extent is the rewriting process, for your long form stuff, different each time?
AK: Father of Locks was actually very easy… it more or less just came out in one big rush. I did a bit of tidying up, and then the editor wanted a few changes, but quite a lot of what’s in the published book is pretty much first draft. Then Khalifah’s Mirror was a totally different story. I changed the title, the structure, the narrative point of view… it lost 150 pages during the revision process, which took nearly two years.
I don’t know whether I could claim to have an approach to editing. Drafting is definitely something I have a routine for, but what comes out each time seems to be so different. The only rule I would say is that everything is up for negotiation. There are no sacred cows.
MB: Did you learn anything articulatable (not a real word) (about the craft, writing fiction…) writing your last novel?
AK: Everything I do is learning, all the time. I’d say the key lesson is that when you think you know it all, that’s when you stop producing anything of value. But I’m not sure I can even claim to know that.
MB: Any thoughts on specific problems posed by historical fiction as a genre?
AK: The biggest challenge is the language. If you write contemporary fiction, you can write more or less as people talk. The further you go back in history, the harder that becomes. And what’s appropriate English to simulate 8th century Arabic? There wasn’t even an English language in the 8th century.
I decided I didn’t want my characters “pritheeing”, so they speak more or less modern English, with a “no digital watches” rule- nothing that strikes an anachronistic note to jar readers out of the story. The Islamic world at the time had no tradition of theatre, so I was careful to avoid any language relating to stages, roles etc- it’s surprising how deep that imagery runs in English. I’m sure absolutely nobody would have noticed or cared, but it mattered to me.
It was something I had lots of arguments over with my editor. He objected to the phrase “take a leak” for “urinate” on the grounds that it’s too modern, even though I kept pointing out it’s in Shakespeare. On the very last draft I gave in and changed it.
MB: What are you working on right now? Tell us about this sci fi.
AK: It’s kind of hard to describe, without giving too much away… it’s about what happens when a tribe of quasi-immortal superbeings are forced to confront their imminent mortality. Which I know makes it sound rather grandiose and Wagnerian, but there is (I hope) lots of humour, adventure, romance and a twisty plot. I would hate to ever write a pompous or dull book.
I’m also working on a children’s book in the spirit of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, as a refreshing change between drafts.
MB: Did you come to the genre as a fan, or was this a specific story that you had to tell and it had to be sci fi?(Or both.)
AK: I’m a huge sci-fi fan. I particularly love the crazier, psychedelic end of the Silver Age: Moorcock, Dick, Brunner, Zelazny, Herbert… I’m possibly the only person in the world who thinks the fourth Dune book is the best one.
The idea originally came from pondering the near-impossibility of interstellar travel for human beings. However as I’ve been working on it I’ve been reading contemporary SF, and I’ve come to the conclusion what I’ve written is not in any useful sense “science fiction”. I’m still referring to it as “the sci fi novel”, out of habit and convenience, and because I don’t know what else to call it. “Philosophical fiction”? Phi-fi? Just sounds silly. Increasingly I think of it as “the monster”.
MB: What are specific challenges posed by this project?
AK: The characters can change gender, even species, so I come up against what philosophers call the “problem of personal identity”: in what sense am I the “same” person I was yesterday? Or when I was a baby, or a foetus? Or will be when I’m old, or dead? It’s hard to create consistent, believable characters, when so many of the elements we think of as making up our identity are fluid, and they’re also changing as a result of the events of the story. I have no idea whether I’ve succeeded yet.
MB: Do you feel liberated from research, having departed from the historical fiction?
AK: I don’t feel that research is something to be liberated from. It’s always acted as a springboard for my imagination. The danger with it is that it’s too seductive, and a whole day can go by trying to ascertain one tiny detail.
And I’m still doing lots of research! For the sci fi novel I’ve had to learn about ideas from science, maths, philosophy, theology… then there’s all the odd little details, like what’s the tallest building in Phnom Penh. I don’t know how people wrote anything before the internet. If the government ever look at my internet search history, they’d probably conclude that I’m a maniac planning mass murder. And I get offered some very strange things via online advertising.
MB: Tell us about the Beijing Writers Network! How did this start? What's old? What's new?
AK: Back home in England I ran a weekly writers’ group, and I planned to do something similar here. Writing is such a solitary pursuit, I’m a firm believer that its practitioners need to get together from time to time, learn from each other and share their experiences. However I was new to the city, and it took a while to get off the ground.
What kicked it into life was the Wechat group, which has nearly a hundred members and is very lively and active. I also found a fantastic venue in Cafe Zarah, who have been really supportive and helpful. We now meet on the second and fourth Mondays of every month, usually 10-12 people, to talk about writing and critique each others’ work. Even if you don’t come to the meetings though, anyone with an interest in writing is welcome to join the Wechat group, where we exchange writing-related news, tips, opportunities and general gossip.
MB: Do birds every seem to be calling your name or does that only happen in stories?
AK: Friends of mine who have had mental health crises have talked about seeing hidden messages in all sorts of weird things. I think it’s a fundamental part of human nature to see patterns and read meanings that don’t exist. We look up at the stars and see crabs and goats and hunters… that’s why we love stories. We want to believe there’s meaning, structure, a beginning, middle and end to things, we want to humanise the universe.
But the animals in this excerpt are all the protagonist, coming over and over again to torment poor Zipko and goad him out of his cosy retirement for one last, fatal adventure…
MB: Why do you hate owls, man?
AK: I love owls! I’ve held an owl… they’re beautiful things. I kill off human beings in all sorts of horrendous ways in my fiction, but I love human beings too. Even though they’re infuriating sometimes. Much more so than owls.
MB: Reading anything good? Or very bad.
AK: I’m currently reading two examples of what I can only call Edwardian Weird Fiction. A Voyage to Arcturus is ostensibly sci-fi, but more resembles fantasy, or some mystical inner journey. I have no idea where it’s going, but it’s deeply strange, and I think must have been a big influence on Michael Moorcock. GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is on one level a spy thriller about an agent infiltrating a group of anarchists, but again it’s more about ideas and satire than action. Unlike Voyage to Arcturus I have a pretty good idea where I think it’s going, but I’m enjoying the journey.