Collin Piprell Interview
Collin Piprell is a Canadian writer, a former journalist and editor, resident in Thailand. He has also lived in England, where he did graduate work as a Canada Council Doctoral Fellow in politics and philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford, and in Kuwait, where he learned to sail, water-ski and make a credible red wine in plastic garbage bins.
In earlier years, he worked at a wide variety of occupations, including four jobs as a driller and stope leader in mines and tunnels in Ontario and Quebec. In later years he taught writing courses at a university in Thailand, freelanced as a writer and editor, and has published hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics. Piprell is also the author of short stories that appeared in Asian anthologies and magazines, several published novels; a collection of short stories; a collection of occasional pieces, a diving guide to Thailand, another book on diving, and a book on Thailand’s coral reefs. He has also co-authored a book on Thailand’s national parks.
MOM is very much a story about the end of the world as humans know it due to the sterilization of our species. Can you tell me where the idea of sterilizing humans came from? Referring to the anti-Madonna virus.
For one, I think that I didn’t have a place for children in the story. I have this vague period of troubles that preceded the plague bot that I didn’t want to specify too much, just make vague allusions here and there, to horrible things that had happened globally before the plague bots. Of course there are rising sea levels that are part of it. But there were all sorts of things including biological viruses and other kinds of virus. And it just kind of occurred to me that it seemed like a droll sort of thing that some terroristically minded person or somebody with a great sense of humour would release, first of all it was the Madonna virus, so everybody was turning up spontaneously pregnant. Everybody was having immaculate conceptions and it would be really embarrassing. The next thing that came along was the anti-Madonna virus, which just sterilized the whole species. I wanted the sense of there being a whole bunch of very horrible things—political, social, biological, climatological—so the world was very thoroughly in a mess. So if they virtually removed biological life—not all of it, but most of it—and everything that man built, except two malls. So, the sterilization was sort of an incidental part. I wanted a sense of, this really put me under the wire and there was really no way back. As it turns out, in the series as a whole, there are ways back, but they aren’t what anybody would guess. So, it is the apocalypse. My villain has a saying, but I don’t think it comes out until the second book, but he refers to opportunistic life. Life doesn’t retreat that easily, it tends to be opportunistic and persistent whether it’s human or otherwise.
Tell me more about the Madonna Virus. The Glossary at the back of the book explains that it was developed by those who feared extinction of European races and cultures, but how, in your mind, did that result in sterilization of our species?
There typically are far-right nationalists who also tend to be racists and Islamophobes if they’re European. They’ve been writing books and articles about this for a decade at least, that immigrant populations have far more children than what these people think of as the indigenous populations, which of course are migrants already from all over the place. But, say Germany or England, the mainstream population, the birthrates are falling off to the point that in some countries they’re not going to be sustainable. Already that’s happened in countries other than Asia. At the same time, some immigrant populations are producing large families. So, you get, in particular, right-wing racist nationalists, that’s how I characterize it and statistically that’s who they are, going ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no. We’re going to be living in utterly foreign populations with foreign ideologies and religions very soon.’ It may be true, but so what, history shows that happens a lot. These people that are doing the complaining, they don’t really have any special privileges, not historically speaking. I suppose I’m spinning this encyclopaedia from the future, who would have any kind of interest in releasing that kind of virus. I suppose that must have occurred to me.
Can you explain a little further how Worldsdays and Mondays work in MOM?
The malls, and I doubt many readers are going to recognize this—I think it’s spelled out, but I don’t think many readers will notice it—outside just about everything you see is nanobots. They’re molecular sized little machines. They’re just the size of dust and you’re in a desert. The malls themselves are built of what some technologist called a fallobot. They’re also a nanobot construction. They’re built of nanobot particles. They’re not the assemblers or disassemblers and form this threat outside, but everything, virtually, is built of nanobots that still survives. At some point, I have either Cisco or Leary in their particular cell in the mall reflecting on the fact that everything around them that are not nanobots are themselves, whoever that was, and these are actually pre-blocked or pre-nanobot artefacts. So, it’s a very odd world. And these few people who survived are not only residing in these things that are defending them along with force fields against the plague bot, but they are inhabited themselves by medibots, which turns out can reassemble in enigmatic ways that people are not really aware of. So, in a way, it’s a thoroughly claustrophobic experience if you stop to think about it. Just maintaining one of these malls and keeping these people alive and protected, it’s a very complicated business. And of course it’s long since been turned over to machine intelligence, to MOM. But MOM has come to self-awareness and, at the same time, has had a nervous breakdown or at least the machine’s personality fragments. So, it’s a classic case of multiple personality disorder. I speculate, too, in her case it might be thousands of personalities, but there are three that have any significance to our story. And they’re entirely different. I read books and articles quite a bit on MPD.
So, the typical structure of weekdays and weekends has long since ceased to be significant. You don’t need Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays. But, what has happened, effectively, is you’ve got Mondays, which are essentially mondo-mondo days and the dismal days where you have to stay in the mall in your biological wet persona. Then your prospects are a little limited. You can look out the window, but you can’t even trust that if you think about it. You can socialize with other mallsters in your holding tanks, which doesn’t turn out to be a whole lot of fun. On Worldsdays, you can enter into these generated realities, which are brilliantly more interesting than mondo-land because the conventional reality is far less interesting than the generated realities. So, people have come to live for Worldsdays. They want to be in these things having a blast, whatever they think a blast might be. But there are only a few people left anyway, and they don’t really know what’s going on with any part of this. The Mondays, the periods of time where you’re not allowed to go into the worlds, are getting more frequent and are just extending longer and longer and depressing the hell out of people. They’re terrified, but they don’t know why. I gave Brian’s best theory, he’s the only one who’s smart enough and well informed enough to have that kind of theory.
So, these generated realities that they enter into on Worldsdays, would you relate that in any way to forms of digital entertainment that we have, such as video games and movies?
Certainly. These are virtual realities. When I was writing MOM I was writing notes to myself ‘Finish this thing and find a publisher because it’s going to be history, it’s not going to be science fiction. Get a move on!’ I was right. Now it’s published, but I see a lot of stuff that I thought, I was pretty sure was going to come in one way or another. It’s coming, it’s here. The adverse realities, certainly it’s on a spectrum. These generated realities, I’m pre-supposing that capable computing has become mainstream. People are reeling about the plays like ‘Look what we’ve done with digital technology’ and it is a ‘Holy cow’ situation because technology and cultural change is moving at a pace people are not equipped to deal with. Virtual realities are going to become so utterly, utterly addictive, that I think it’s going to be one of the biggest social problems we’ll have for a while. Things are going to be moving very fast beyond that. People aren’t going to want to come out. You’re going to have to plug them into nutrition intravenously. Our digital technology is advancing very quickly, and qubital technology will, very quickly, make the digital age look like the stone age. And I’m assuming it will happen. And, at that point, I think it’s going to spiral so quickly out of control that we’re going to be left kind of obsolete. Now, I don’t mean to sound like a doomsayer or a lunatic, but if something doesn’t intervene, our technology and the way our culture changes, quite quickly, we can’t even predict what the next novel emergence will be, evolutionary, technological, or cultural. We can’t predict that. We don’t have enough to do that.
I’m curious about the character of Leary. He was a young character in your first novel, Bangkok Knights, and then reappears as a century old ebee in MOM. What draws you to this character, specifically, to reuse him?
Leary has appeared in a few books now. What there is about him, I guess, is Bangkok Knights was my first actual book. It was a collection of stories that evolved into a novel, according to one of its publishers. Leary was the first character who ever came to life for me and I remember how pleased I was. I’m still pleased. He seems like a real person to me. But he’s based on nobody that I know. To some extent, of course, he’s a composite, including a guy I met on a deep-sea fishing boat a long time ago. He was foul mouthed, he had a Chinese-Singaporean girlfriend, and Leary’s first wife was Chinese-Singaporean. And Leary is a reformed foul-mouth because now he says “gosh” and “heck” instead of all these other things. So, this guy was a little bit of an influence, but there were other influences. So Leary is a composite character, but he came alive to me. So he started talking and doing things. I can think and speak as Leary does without having to try because he’s real. That was nice to be able to keep him and use him in other books, which I’ve done.
What inspired MOM?
I’ve written other books, but I’ve never thought of myself as a science fiction writer. When I got into MOM, I still didn’t think of myself as a science fiction writer. I resisted the idea that it was science fiction. I would say ‘No, it’s futurism’ or something like that. But, what it was, what inspired the whole thing to start with, was—and this was quite a few years ago—I read a story in a science and technology magazine about something that I think now is relatively commonplace, but it wasn’t then. This idea of the grey goo scenario where people invent a self-replicating nanobot, and when it gets out of control, well that would be a disaster that scales right up with major asteroid impacts and things because, well I spell this out later in the series as well, but there’s a very old story from Egypt or somewhere in that part of the world where a farmer, I think he saved the emperor’s daughter from death or a fate worse than death and the emperor says ‘You can name your reward. Anything in my kingdom, anything you want, it’s yours.’ The farmer says, chest out, ‘I want this amount of wheat. You put a grain on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains…’ and you keep doubling per square and there were 64 squares. Intuitively, I think everybody thinks ‘Well, that’s not very much grain. It might get me through to next week.’ That’s more grain than there is in the universe. It’s an absolute impossibility, the mathematics of it. So, the king goes ‘Oh, that’s a good deal.’ But it was more than he could possibly imagine, even if he sold everything in his kingdom he couldn’t cover it. But the same mathematics applies to even one self-replicating nanobot that’s capable of just stripping the material to its atoms and whatever and building more of itself. I think it would take something like two and a half days to turn the entire world into nanobots. So, I’m reading that article, and it wasn’t expressed in those terms, but thinking there’s a reasonably good chance that in the near future they will have the technology to build that kind of thing. Since that, nanobot technology has advanced amazingly. I knew it would and I knew the military would be into it for one thing. I thought how on Earth, once that got into operation, when it dawned on everybody what was happening, it would already be over. How could somebody survive something like that. I found myself amusing about how that would happened. The next thing I knew, I had a setting and I had some characters, and the next thing, against my will almost, I was writing this damn story. One, I’m not a science fiction writer. Two, it’s a stupid story. Three, it can’t go anywhere. But I persisted one way or the other. So, I didn’t set out to write a genred novel. I didn’t set out to do anything. I was playing with an idea and wondering how on Earth anybody could survive something like that and I tried to imagine certain circumstances. So, that’s how silly it is.
Ellen is a freelance fiction editor, book reviewer, research assistant for Simon Fraser University, marketing coordinator for WCSFA, and member volunteer for Editors’ Association of Canada. As of September 2017, she will also be a master’s student of publishing at SFU. You can contact her via ellenmichelle.com for any editing queries and at email@example.com for book review queries.