Letter from Jakarta & Cloud Permutations
Iâ€™m late to the guest-blogging season this time around, but I have an excuse â€“ Iâ€™m currently writing two novels and a novella back-to-back, which gives you an idea of how absent my social life is at the moment. Of course, it doesnâ€™t help that Iâ€™m spending a couple of months in Jakarta â€“ if you havenâ€™t been, donâ€™t. Someone should probably write a paper on The City as One Giant Traffic Jam, or maybe thatâ€™s Chinaâ€™s sequel to The City and the City. In any case, here I am. The question is, will I ever be able to get out?
Itâ€™s kind of a depressing city, book-wise. The few bookstores have a remarkable lack of novels, in either English or Bahasa. There are books â€“ technical manuals, self-help guides, that sort of thing. Young adult fantasy seems to be the only type of novel widely available, though that appears to be mainly translations from English.
To find real Indonesian books one has to go to one of the second hand book markets â€“ the bursa buku â€“ where youâ€™d find some wonderful Indonesian pulp novels (at least, they have wonderful pulp covers) and a lot of comics, but where the English novels seem to be composed entirely of ex-pat reading material, which is in turn made up pretty much by Jackie Collinsâ€™ back-catalogue.
I knew I should have bought that e-book reader before I left.
I did bring some paperbacks with me, but Iâ€™ve run out quickly. Still, if you havenâ€™t already, do pick up a copy of Jedediah Berryâ€™s quite wonderful The Manual of Detection. I think my next purchase will be an e-book reader, as much as I think the technology isnâ€™t quite there yet, nor are the prices. Thereâ€™s nothing like carrying a load of paperbacks around with you to remind you just how heavy paper is. And what do you do with them once youâ€™ve read them?
So I canâ€™t find books to read. Which is a little depressing.
Whatâ€™s cheering me up at the moment is that my latest book has just come back from the printers. Cloud Permutations is a novella published, in a limited edition hardcover edition, by PS Publishing in the UK. Itâ€™s a planetary romance, sort of â€“ the story of a planet inhabited by Melanesian settlers, and about a boy who wants to fly. I get to make all kinds of bilingual jokes in it, which I always enjoy. In Vanuatu, the shared language (in an archipelago of over one hundred distinct languages) is Bislama, a form of pidgin English also common, with some differences, to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. I was trying to come up with a word for alien in Bislama while writing this, for instance, and a friend suggested wan smolfala grinfala man I no blong ples ia.
Which translates as a small green man whoâ€™s not from here.
Part of the problem of defining alien, or the other, if you prefer, in Bislama, is that pretty much anyone not from your village or, possibly, island, is from somewhere else. The term I had a problem getting to grips with at first was man ples. I wasnâ€™t sure what it meant. Was it the place of man? I tried to use it once in context and got very confused looks.
What man ples actually means is, literally, a man of this place. So youâ€™re either Man ples or youâ€™re not Man ples, in which case youâ€™re a waetman. Waetman â€“ from, well, white man, obviously â€“ can refer to most people not from Vanuatu. So that you get a waetman blong Japan, for instance.
So you have Man ples, waetman, and blakman, all used as markers for peopleâ€™s identity, but this is compounded by the fact each island is a stronger identity within the larger context â€“ Man Tanna is not Man Bankis (that is, a person from the island of Tanna most certainly does not identify himself as a person from the Banks islands), a blakman blong Afrika is most certainly not Man Ples, and a waetman blong Bankis is not at all a European: heâ€™s an albino from the Banks.
So Cloud Permutations is about a world settled by a generation starship that had carried Ni-Vanuatu people into space. It is a world of islands and ocean, of a mysterious, vanished alien race called the Narawan, a world dominated by clouds and still run on kastom, the old ways. Narawan, literally, means another one, not-this-one-but-the-other-one â€“ more simply, the other.
Itâ€™s the story of Kal, a boy from a remote island who simply wants to fly â€“ the one thing forbidden on Heven, a world where the clouds may be sentient â€“ and his journey to fulfil his dream, across a world filled with mysteries and secret knowledge and danger.
I began writing Cloud Permutations shortly after I arrived in Vanuatu, in the comforts of Port Villa, the main town on the large island of Efate. I finished it, much later, in my little bamboo hut on the shore of Vanua Lava, one of the most isolated and remote islands on Earth, when I could snatch moments of battery life from the single solar power unit on the island, the volcano in my sight, wreathed in clouds.
It has, I hope, magic and danger, chases and excitement, long lost secrets and a vanished alien race, monsters and friendship, romance and adventure. It begins, the way such stories should always begin: Long Epi Ailan I bin stap wan man blong majik â€“
That is, On the island of Epi there lived a magician.
Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman (Angry Robot Books) and follow-ups Camera Obscura and Night Music, both forthcoming from the same publisher. His latest book, novella Cloud Permutations, is just out from PS Publishing in the UK.