Later this month, Jo Fletcher Books will publish celebrated poet and playwright Naomi Foyle’s daring debut cyberchiller Seoul Survivors. It’s a novel that manages to transcend the boundaries of sci-fi, noir, erotica and horror – often to dizzying, vertiginous, terrifyingly transgressive effect – while remaining faithful to both its cyberpunk roots and alt-cult literary heritage.
In the neon-soaked, ultra-violent, sexually charged and technologically advanced near-future cityscape of Seoul, a trio of characters – Canadian good-time girl turned model Sydney, British drug-smuggling drifter Damien and North Korean village girl Mee Hee – are about to discover the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. With an asteroid strike imminent, London decimated by nuclear terrorism and nowhere left to run, bioengineer Dr. Kim – a Tarantino-worthy glamour cat of a villain – extends an invitation to Sydney and Damien: become the King and Queen of her gaming park Virtuworld and help her create a new breed of human beings, a community that will rebuild in the aftermath of Lucifer’s Comet.
Foyle’s feverish imagination was triggered by her time spent in Seoul. Foyle’s darkly sensual story can trace its lineage back to the architect of literary erotica, Anaïs Nin, with kinetic, psychosexual allusions to controversial word-terrorist Kathy Acker’s cult novel Blood and Guts in High School. With a tale that is equal parts technocratic conspiracy, Cronenbergian body horror and ultra-violent parable, the author casts her net wide; Seoul Survivors’s plot incorporates augmented reality, genetic manipulation, Korean fairy tales, necrophilia, flesh fetishism, killer robots, breeding farms and the end of the world.
The outspoken novelist recently talked with Rue Morgue about her edgy, futuristic horror tale.
Seoul Survivors reads like a [Japanese crime writer] Natsuo Kirino novel retooled by William Gibson with a lashing of Cronenbergian body horror. I’m surprised it took the novel fifteen years to make it into print; what did publishers take issue with – the sex, or was it the violence?
Thanks so much for the high praise, Alan. Seeing Seoul Survivors compared to those three dark luminaries, I feel my fifteen years’ hard graft was not in vain!
Writing the book took so long partly because I got distracted by poetry, partly because it was a real learner-wheels novel. I revised it many times, with the help of some excellent writers including hidden SF gem David Swann (The Last Days of Johnny North) and literary crime novelist Bethan Roberts (The Pools; My Policeman). In 2008 a round of agents rejected it, most not giving reasons, though one wrote, “I just didn’t love it enough,” which I begrudgingly acknowledged was an acceptable reason. Finally, in 2010, Zeno Agency took it on. We had a range of reasons for initial passes from publishers: “too sci-fi,” too literary” and, my favourite, “I can’t sell this in America.” I don’t know if that was because of the sex, the violence or both, but considering the country runs on porn and war, I am hopeful that America will in fact take Seoul Survivors to her hardboiled bosom. It was disappointing to get more rejections of course, but I took heart from the fact that the reasons were all so different, and before I got too discouraged, the phenomenal Jo Fletcher came up trumps.
You cleverly exploit traditional SF concepts and trappings, often giving them a deconstructive tweak while delivering a thought-provoking story full of big ideas. Did you consciously set out to pay homage to the book’s literary predecessors?
I definitely wanted to hold a mirror up to some classic literary SF, in particular the work of my fellow Canadians William Gibson and Margaret Atwood. But though Seoul Survivors clearly reflects many of these two writers’ political concerns, I wouldn’t have written the novel if I didn’t think I had something of my own to say. I love Gibson’s seductive noir prose style and admire his persistent analysis of the close relationship between shiny new technologies and the global military-industrial complex. I also like his magpie scrutiny of fashion as a socio-political barometer, and the surface texture of Seoul Survivors obviously owes him a great debt. But while I also approve of Gibson’s smart, capable young heroines, their adventures seemed to lack the messy emotional dimension that intrigues me in both life and literature. So one of my initial ambitions was to inject some sexual psychodrama into the classic cyberpunk template.
Atwood’s feminism was also an unavoidable influence. The Handmaid’s Tale was certainly in my mind when I conceived the role of the North Korean refugee women in Seoul Survivors. Atwood fans will also note that the gentle Children of Crake resemble my Peonies, though Oryx and Crake was published in 2003, and when I read the book I was a little alarmed to realise the similarity.
Probably I have an Electra complex, but I increasingly find Atwood a problematic influence. Like cyborgs, clones and genetically engineered human beings are conventional SF nova [As defined by Adam Roberts, a novum is a point of difference between our world and the world of the book], and unlike Atwood I don’t seek to distance myself from the genre. I also admire Atwood far less since she accepted the $500,000 Dan David Prize from Tel Aviv University, in defiance of the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli cultural and academic institutions. In my view, a writer who takes honours and huge profits from an apartheid state has indelibly tarnished her political reputation.
I also gave a nod to [Japanese writer] Haruki Murakami, embedding a little Alice in Wonderland imagery into one of Da Mi and Sydney’s chapters. And though I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go much later on, I want to mention it because it wins the accolade of being the most disturbing novel I’ve ever read. Perhaps I should get out on Rue Morgue more often and toughen up, but the memory of the invasive exploitation Ishiguro’s human clones endure gave me a stomach ache for a week. (I told him so when I met him at a reading and the poor man looked stricken with guilt.) I didn’t deliberately aim to upset my own readers so badly, but if I do, I feel your pain!
You’ve said that provocateur Kathy Acker’s subversive novel Blood and Guts in High School underwrites Seoul Survivors’ vision. Could you elaborate on this?
Acker’s worldview was utterly uncompromising. In harrowing acts of seeming self-excoriation, her writing strips away all the illusions we foster about the civilising or consoling roles of literature; her books expose the endemic abuses global capitalism inflicts on both bodies and psyches: incest, sex slavery, perpetual war. With a compelling combination of sly wit and raw grief, she also exposed – even revelled in – the perverse female masochism that feeds the whole morbid machine. A scholar of literary decadence, Acker was also a political prophet: in the ’80s she was studying Persian and Arabic, and it would have been fascinating to see her response to the War on Terror [Acker died in 1997]. I find her hard to read at length now, because though she can still make me laugh, her relentless focus on psychic pain can also overwhelm and frustrate me; in my twenties, though, I took her stark gestalt as a kind of moral high water mark. Acker’s work challenged me to graphically depict the damaging impact of corrupt, invasive new technologies on human sexuality and human intimacy.
Perhaps Seoul Survivors ultimately suggests that, as in Acker’s universe, there is nowhere to run. But at the same time, my own revolutionary impulses have always been tempered by a need to believe in kindness and friendship. More than homage to particular writers, I wanted the novel to pay respect to the many warm and generous people I knew in Seoul, the ex-pats and Koreans who took care of me and taught me so much about a rich and complex culture I know I’ve only just begun to understand.
There are so many ideas in Seoul Survivors – eugenics, cloning, necrophilia, rape, trafficking, augmented reality, robotics, grief, control, the eco-apocalypse – all of which are tied together beautifully. Did it prove difficult to rein it in and meld all these ideas into one cohesive whole?
Technically speaking, writing the novel was hugely difficult, but I didn’t ever realise exactly the extent of that difficulty because – thanks to a blinkered combination of ignorance and arrogance – I only ever recognised one serious flaw in the novel at a time. To be less cute about it, I didn’t find blending the themes as difficult as learning the basic craft of fiction writing. Dialogue, pacing, a consistent prose style, all took a long time to learn. The themes, though, seemed to belong together. They all relate in some way to prostitution or rape: the commercialisation of human sexuality extended to our genetic material; the rape culture that fuels hardcore porn as well as the everyday acts of sexual aggression that punish and undermine powerful women; and, humming away in the background, the technocratic mindset of the corporations and governments that plunder the earth for the pleasure of a privileged few (myself included). I did find writing the sexually violent scenes difficult. I thought it was important to frankly depict the ugliness of the acts, but as I kept having to return and revise them I got increasingly disturbed by them. What I hope the book does is place those acts in the context of a broader culture of endemic violence against women, the vulnerable, the poor and marginalised, and the earth itself.
That’s a good question. I don’t know or remember where Dr. Kim came from. She’s not based on any of the Korean or kyopo women I knew in Seoul, none of whom could afford her wardrobe! She emerged from the world of the novel, I think: it needed her and she arrived. Johnny’s origins were not so mysterious. He basically began as a crude representation of the American military and cultural presence in Korea. He remained crude in many respects, of course, and for quite a while I held to my original vision of him as a semi-satirical character. I gave him personality quirks – though I haven’t read American Psycho, I did embellish Johnny’s battles with bureaucracy after I saw the film. Eventually, though, my conscience troubled me. I realised I was in danger of implying that some people are born bad, which I don’t believe. Instead of simply portraying Johnny as an angry man, I gave him a relationship with his anger. As he nursed his grudges, or was forced to confront them in therapy, I found a way to let some of his past surface, in particular his relationship with Veronica and his family.
My conception of both villains was also informed by my desire to present them too as survivors: Johnny of his army tours of duty, Da Mi of the Korean War, which separated her from her family. Both are also in a sense aspects of myself. I can relate to Dr Kim’s over-identification with her intellectual ideologies, and to Johnny’s struggles with anger and jealousy.
Three of Seoul Survivors’ characters – prostitute-turned-model Sydney, drug smuggler Damien and the North Korean girl Mee Hee – are people who’ve spent their lives teetering on a dangerous precipice, barely dodging the killing blow. I know none of your characters are outright biographical projections, but how much of them are informed by your own experiences?
I guess I didn’t get out of that corner so quickly, did I? I did do a lot of clubbing in Korea, and teach small children English, but for the record, I’ve never sold my body, smuggled drugs, been arrested, suffered hunger or been a cult member. At the same time, I don’t think I could write a character I didn’t identify with in some way. In my own nature, I recognise Damien’s desire to escape responsibility through travel, Sydney’s emotional risk-taking, Mee Hee’s shyness and desire for security. A contradictory nature perhaps, which is probably why I am drawn to the extreme scenarios both SF and transgressive literature permit.
You did a lot of research for the book, into everything from Korean fairy tales to bioengineering. Was it a challenge to incorporate that research into the narrative?
It happened gradually, over years, so felt an organic process. I am very lucky to have two good friends with the scientific expertise I lack, biologist John Atkinson and physics graduate/IT expert James Burt, whom I plied with questions whenever I felt I was in danger of bluffing my way off a cliff. James is also a fiction writer, and gave me ample notes on the manuscript, picking up on little errors of fact along the way. In a threatening remark to Johnny, Da Mi referred to the Doppler Effect, which James pointed out I had slightly misunderstood. Coming back to him having discovered the Venturi effect on Wikipedia was probably my finest research hour.
As well as writing novels, you’re a celebrated poet and playwright. Which medium do you prefer toiling away in and why?
Love the one you’re with, is my literary philosophy! Though I always miss the one I’ve cruelly abandoned. I started a poem on the train yesterday and it felt like a poignant homecoming. I love the obliqueness, music and ambiguity of poetry, but something in me craves the large canvas, the galloping narrative drive of long fiction. My theatre work has been in verse, combining these two impulses. I love the collaborative nature of theatre, partly because the director, actors and designers alleviate the writer’s loneliness, partly because it’s so magical to see one’s words brought to life on stage. I have a draft of a libretto for The Snow Queen I would like to find a composer for. I am also interested in theatre as ritual. But I feel that I’m just getting warmed up as a novelist, and am very keen to see where this new aspect of my career takes me. For the sheer, er, novelty value, I would have to say long fiction pips it for now.
You signed a two-book contract with Jo Fletcher Books and had a year to write the second one. What was it like, writing to such a time-sensitive deadline?
Actually, after a brief spasm of terror, it was great. I had no time to panic. I had to get started, slap the words down on the page, and let the characters and setting take over. Technically speaking, the writing flowed surprisingly smoothly, and I realised how much I’d learned during that fifteen-year apprenticeship. I didn’t fully plot the book first, but about six months in I came across an EL Doctorow quote: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I took that as my mantra, and on the day that the characters themselves determined the book’s ending, I felt an uplifting surge of belief in the creative process.
Will you ever return to the glitzy, neon-soaked, sexually-charged, near-future cityscape of Seoul for another story/novel?
I haven’t got plans to do so at the moment. If I did, I’d visit the city first to get re-acquainted. If they’ll have me, that is, after Seoul Survivors!
Rue Morgue and Jo Fletcher Books are giving away three copies of Seoul Survivors. To enter, all you have to do is create a Hell’s Shelves five-song soundtrack to the horror novel of your choice. Post your entry in the comments section below, and we’ll choose three winners on Friday, Feb. 22. Good luck!