Saturday, 26 November 2016

Interview with Simon Chun Kwan Chui.

My guest today is the author of  Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy, and armchair philosopher, Simon Chun Kwan Chui.

Hi Simon, Welcome to Just Books.
Would you like to start by telling us a little about yourself and your background?
Ever since I was little, I have disliked specialising or being pigeonholed, preferring instead to learn widely, drawn to new knowledge and different experiences. My parents and teachers told me to specialise, to pick a subject and hone it into a profession, but when I read my history books, I was most drawn to examples like Leonardo da Vinci, polymaths who studied many things.
I studied architecture up to a completed Ph.D to give myself the opportunity to explore the intersection between places, people, technology, society and art. Where many of my classmates aspired to be architects, I used my education as an excuse to learn as many things as I could. But my parents and teachers were right, of course, in that I would have been easier to employ had I specialised into a profession - what to do with someone who refuses to fit into a niche?
So, now, I have decided to write, to share with readers my perspective of a world where everything is interrelated and interconnected, a world that makes more sense if we learn widely so we can see how the pieces fit into the whole.

So, when did you realise you wanted to be a writer...?
Embarrassingly, I only realised I wanted to be a writer just before I started writing Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy, a little over a year ago. I’ve always liked reading and writing from when I was very young, and found it the most effective way for me to learn and to express my ideas. Much of the PhD was reading and writing, and that went smoothly for me. But in all those years, I hadn’t really thought to try writing actual books. It seems implausible that it took me so long to figure out I should just do what I’m most comfortable with, but I guess that’s the consequence of always wanting to try different things.

...And, what motivates you to write?
I feel like I have all these ideas that I have to share with people. Have you ever had this great idea (or at least you think it’s great) and you just want to tell somebody? That motivates me.
For most of my ideas, I don’t have the ability to make them a reality. So I write them down and try to share them with people, in the hope that someone else can figure out how to make them real.

What inspired Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy?
I had been thinking about an idea for a short story for some time, a story that eventually became the first chapter of the book. The idea for that story came from one particular scene in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series, The Sandman, in which some supernatural beings were discussing how the realm of the faeries required a certain quality of light, an eternal midsummer’s twilight, that could not be achieved by a planet orbiting a star, and therefore that realm would not be a planet. I love Neil Gaiman’s work, but on this one I thought he was wrong, so I came up with a way for there to be an eternal midsummer’s twilight on a planet, without magic, only with astrophysics.
If you want to know how I manage that, you should read my book to find out. But this was only the first chapter of my book. The rest of the book came some time later, as I was listening to an audiobook of The Travels of Marco Polo, when I was inspired to expand that first story to include many more locations, linked together into a fictional traveller’s diary, and each location would be some kind of fantasy made scientific, like how I made the land of the faeries into a plausible planet.
By the way, the original title of The Travels of Marco Polo was Livre des Merveilles du Monde, or “Book of the Marvels of the World”. I’m not very subtle.

Did you work to an outline or just see where the idea took you?
Somehow, I did a bit of both.
Because each chapter in the Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy describes a different location or idea, the chapters are mostly self-contained. So, within each chapter, I can go wherever the idea takes me. When I’m done with one idea, we conveniently fly to the next planet for the next idea. But I also kept an outline of the whole book, to make sure I didn’t repeat my ideas, and to make sure I didn’t talk about things before I provided the supporting background for them.

Which, if any, of your personality traits did you write into your characters?
The unnamed traveller, who is the narrator, is someone who is inexorably drawn to seeing and learning new things, even to things that may be confusing or uncomfortable, and that’s basically me. But the book isn’t really about the traveller, or even me - it’s about settings, ideas, and societies. It’s the places that really have character.

For those of us who are thinking of reading your book, could you tell us what to expect?
I would recommend Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy to readers who enjoy imagining different worlds, different societies, different possibilities, readers who enjoy new places and new ideas, and who want to finish a book a bit more knowledgeable than when they started. To really get the most out of the book, you might have to look up unfamiliar names and ideas - you don’t have to, but just a little research can unlock so much more.
I want to exercise the reader’s imagination, and like all exercise, you’ll get more out of it if you’re willing to put a bit of effort in. I’ve tried to write a book that will continue to surprise you even after you’ve read it several times, and I hope I have succeeded in that. And for those who really like a challenge, go ahead and decipher all the references and sources of inspiration.

Could you give us a little taste?

Then, the holographic model began to move. I found myself standing in a multi-coloured, slow-motion maelstrom of stars, planets, black holes, gas clouds, forces, waves, numbers, symbols, equations, splines, and a billion other things so complex I could barely follow any of it. New-born stars ignited in clusters, and old stars burst in supernovae. Black holes danced in pairs and threes, and all eventually fell into Sagittarius A. But more than these, there were other threads and contours, ripples and waves of things that I could not understand, but which I could see were the unifying patterns that tied together all the little points of light. The AI, for its part, seemed to take all of this in its stride, annotating the model seemingly effortlessly. As I watched, the AI continued to highlight and label things for me wherever my attention turned.

In truth, I had no idea what I was seeing, because I did not understand most of what the AI described. Yet, I couldn’t stop looking, because it made so much sense, or so I felt. It was like a song sung in an unknown language, incomprehensible, yet clearly meaningful and beautiful, except the song is also a symphony with a billion instruments - you cannot see the conductor of this symphony, but you assume there must be one, because the billion instruments are all playing in time, and they’re all playing different parts of the same music. I was utterly transfixed.

When you consider your future, what would you like to make happen for you?
I want people to find my book, so I can share my ideas with them. I want this more than anything I’ve ever wanted. In my mind I see our world as beautiful and wondrous, simultaneously miraculous and logical. I want to share this with the world.

It’s time to relax! What do you do?
I actually play a lot of video games. I know “gamers” have a certain stereotype, but video games are at least as diverse as any other art form. The ones I like most have great stories, great artwork, great music, and say things that are relevant and challenging.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Be a superhero. Or a robot. Or someone with psychic powers. Or an adventurer who explores the galaxy. Nothing sensible.

I think, with your book, you've become that adventurer who explores the galaxy!

What is the most important thing in your life and why?
I think having the time to keep learning is the most important thing, not just in my life, but in the whole world. If we want to make anything better, we have to make changes. If we want to make changes, we need new ideas. If we want new ideas, we have to look at things we don’t already know. If we look at things we don’t already know, we’re learning. Without learning, nothing can ever get better. For me, the worst possible fate is never being able to make anything any better.

Which novelists do you admire?
I’ve already mentioned Neil Gaiman. When I was younger, I grew up with the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I like hard science fiction, not necessarily for the technical stuff, but for the notion that the incredibly imaginative worlds can be real, that beauty and wonder need not contradict the laws of physics.
I know the question says “novelists”, but I’m also drawn to books like The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Sometimes the most imaginative stories are non-fiction, and talk about the wonder of reality.

What is your favourite book and why?
Tao Te Ching, by Laozi, but maybe I don’t recommend that for everyone. It’s ancient Chinese philosophy, difficult to understand even in Chinese, and much more obscure when translated into English.
For something more accessible, I’d say the Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. These books demonstrate how to be thoughtful, and how to be wise. It’s not easy to use words to pin down such an elusive thing.

If you could travel to any time in history, when would you visit?
Am I allowed to say the future? Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy is science fiction, so I guess it’s pretty obvious I’m interested in the future. But if it has to be historical, I would go to those times and places when philosophy, science and the arts flourished - Classical Greece, Tang Dynasty China, the Islamic Golden Age, the European Enlightenment.
But really, things are flourishing now more than ever - inventions and discoveries are being made faster than ever before, and it seems like every year we find solutions to previously intractable problems. Soon, cars will be driving themselves - some of them already do. But my thoughts are turning towards the future again, and that’s a cheating answer to this question.

When did you last cry in front of another person?
This wasn’t in front of another person, but I think this is more meaningful. 
We know that elephants live in family groups, with the juveniles and females following the eldest female, and that adult male elephants live outside of these groups, roaming alone. I remember reading one time that this social structure is apparently a relatively recent phenomenon, that male elephants used to be observed to live with the family groups as well.
It is hypothesised that the male elephants separated from their families as a response to poaching. The male elephants have the bigger tusks, so the hunters track them the most. Knowing this, the male elephants separate themselves from their families so that, if the poachers find them, they don’t also find and kill the female elephants and baby elephants.
Is this not the most tragic thing? And it is a tragedy inflicted on these gentle creatures by our human greed for ivory, these creatures who care so much for their families, and who are aware enough of their situation that they choose to separate themselves from each other to protect one another from us.
I am crying right now just thinking about this, so maybe this counts as me crying in front of you.

I think that counts, Simon... I've just shed a few tears too!

Who is your favourite actor of your own gender?
I would say Bruce Lee, but he was a philosopher and a martial artist before he was an actor. I wonder if he really acted much, or if he mostly presented himself to the camera. He spoke across cultures, and in a time of discrimination against him, he built for himself a life, a family, and a legacy. Well ahead of his time, and one of the greats, in my opinion.

What is your favourite holiday?
My favourite holiday is Christmas. I know it’s all commercialised, and people pay too much attention to opening presents, but at its heart, Christmas is still about giving, about doing something for other people. Consideration for others is the core of society - the structure of society only exists because we hold each other up. If we forget this, everything we know and love will fall apart.

And finally, if you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?

So, imagine what it would be like if everyone in the world were 30 IQ points smarter than they are now. I know that IQ is defined from the average “intelligence” of people, so if everyone is smarter, the new average will still be defined as 100 IQ points. Cut me some slack here, just imagine if everyone was smarter.
To try to understand what that means, you might consider someone or something less intelligent than you, perhaps a baby, or a cat or a dog. Sometimes, a baby or a cat or a dog will become confused by something that you can understand, and often this is quite cute and adorable, but the essence of it is that they’re stuck on something they can’t do, but you can do it because you understand it. Now think about yourself, and some of the things you get stuck on, and imagine if you can just do those things because you’re smarter. Think of all the problems in the world that would disappear because people can just figure them out with their increased intelligence.
The ability I want is not to be 30 IQ points smarter, but to be able to make other people 30 IQ points smarter. This is what I try to do when I write.

Thank you for joining us, Simon and for the interesting answers.

You can catch up with Simon on Facebook and Twitter, and find 
 Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy on Amazon.

Book of the Wonders of the Galaxy is a fictional travel diary of a person who goes on a grand tour around the inhabited galaxy, in a future where humanity has developed interstellar travel and are rapidly expanding out to the stars. Inspired by The Travels of Marco Polo, each chapter of the book is a portrait of the character and essence of one planet or place, illustrating the interconnectedness of geography, astronomy, biology, economy, technology and society. While the science fiction is speculative, it is woven from threads drawn from our own diverse history and cultures, so everywhere you look in this future galaxy, you will find echoes and fragments of us.

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