interview by Joe Vaz

From Issue 11 (July 2011)

How did Alpha & Omega come about?

I was interested in the idea of making a murder mystery that crossed the boundary between physical reality and virtual reality, and came up with the plot of “Alpha & Omega”. The title, I hope, works in a number of different ways. McHaffey being a priest as well as a policeman, there are some obvious religious connotations. There are also beginnings and endings – of a new world, and of a life, etc. And individually the words can refer to the alpha stage of software development, and to the character Omega. In ancient Greek arithmetic, Omega represented the number 800, which is also significant. Lastly, you might imagine McHaffey and Tail as a very small pack with McHaffey the alpha and Tail, necessarily, at the other end of the spectrum of pack hierarchy…

 

Your work tends to focus on Steampunk and alternate history, is this the first time you?ve explored near-future SF?

No – my first published story was science-fiction, something about GM food. I’ve also written a couple about colonization of the Moon and Venus. “Alpha & Omega” is part of a series of short stories following the character McHaffey in a near-future world. There are short stories, for example, about a previous encounter with transferring consciousness to an electronic form (referred to in “Alpha & Omega” as the Almatis Technique) and about McHaffey’s military past, during which he was in Taiwan at the time of its invasion by the PRC.

 

How did you come up with the tech used for the game?

I wanted to have something a bit different from a purely computer-generated world transmitted via the senses – something where the user’s brain is an integral part of the system. That blurs the line between the player and the game in an interesting way. Nanomachines seemed like the only practical way to accomplish that without opening up a person’s head to plug it into a machine.

I may have been influenced by things like Shiro Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell, and distributed computing projects like

[email protected], but I don’t recall if there was any specific inspiration for the story.

 

What made you decide to convey the Alpha Zone in the way you have?

The common features of the Alpha Zone and the real world help make it a sort of bridge between the two (for the reader, I mean – the technology doesn’t require that). And it lends a certain dreamlike quality to the scenery to have it both familiar and unfamiliar. It seemed natural, too, that a world-designer would start with something from her own experience, before moving on to more fantastical things.

 

What inspired the tree?

I’ll assume you’re referring to the one in the Alpha Zone, rather than the one Tail’s imagination conjured up… This image of the bleeding tree is a very old one, and certainly not original to me. In antiquity, people seem to have been getting turned into trees all the time. It occurs in the Roman Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Ariosto’s great Renaissance fantasy romp Orlando Furioso, a sorceress –sister of King Arthur– lures men with enticements such as “To my abode I’ll take you and beguile / you with my fish menagerie…”,  (Barbara Reynolds’ translation) but inevitably she gets bored of them and turns the men into myrtle trees, laurels, palms, cedars, or whatever else takes her fancy. The image also turns up in Spencer’s Fairie Queen:

And thinking of those braunches greene to frame
A girlond for her dainty forehead fit,
He pluckt a bough; out of whose rift there came
Small drops of gory bloud, that trickled downe the same.

But my tree was most directly descended from the ones in The Divine Comedy, Circle VII of Hell (where there are also Harpies, a bit like the peacock):

I put forth my hand a little way,
And broke a branchlet from a thorn-tree tall;
And the trunk cried out “why tear my limbs away?”

So from that broken splint came words and blood
At once: I dropped the twig, and like to one
Rooted to the ground with horror, there I stood.
(From Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation)

The peacock, on the other hand, is suggestive of pride. Amongst the Yezidis, it is also the symbol of Malak Ta’us, the “peacock angel”, who is worshipped as a demiurge (an angel to whom God delegated the fashioning and management of the world – a little like the way the maker of the virtual world Transparadisium is not a god herself because Transparadisium is a sub-creation, dependent upon the outside real world). By others, this “peacock angel” is often associated with Satan.

Another place the bleeding tree image appears is in The Aeneid by Virgil, who of course is the guide in the first part of The Divine Comedy. Omega is McHaffey’s guide in Transparadisium, and in some ways Omega is also like a redeemer, harrowing the Hell of the Alpha Zone, casting out the peacock and absorbing the suffering soul (taking on that suffering, as symbolized by the thorns in Omega’s hair). Of course, all of that requires an act of will on McHaffey’s part, as an individual, since the collective creature Omega is acting as a passive Paraclete or helper, not acting of its own initiative.

 

Are you working on anything right now?

Yes, my current project is a foretale to these McHaffey stories. It’s a novel about his misspent youth, and the comic Faustian apocalypse he gets caught up in. It’s set in the nearer near-future, at the end of this decade.

 

Where might we be able to read more of your work?

In a couple of months, Something Wicked will be running another of my stories, entitled “Cotton Avicenna B iv”. Coincidentally, it’s also connected to Dante (originally I was planning to subtitled it “The Alighieri Gloss”, but decided that that might be carrying cryptic titles a bit too far). “Cotton Avicenna B iv” is set in the 19th century, though, at the time of Jack the Ripper, so it’s not related to “Alpha & Omega”.

Something Wicked has produced a radio play of my story “The Resident Member” (to which “Cotton Avicenna B iv” is connected, both being Etheric Explorers Club stories). You can listen to that on the Something Wicked website (or on mine www.paulmarlowe.com).

I’ve got a couple of novels too — parts one and two of a series — called Sporeville and Knights of the Sea, both steampunky. Sporeville is more on the Gothic side, being about a sort of mad scientist / American Civil War-criminal taking over a town using mushroom spores. Knights of the Sea is more lighthearted – “The drily hilarious tone continues throughout the novel…reminiscent of Neil Gaiman?s lighter works…”, according to Fantasyliterature.com – about some characters trying to have a summer holiday during Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, getting mixed up instead with suffragists, submarines, assassins, vegetarians, and lemon smugglers.

Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in December 2011.

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