Author John Chu Talks Cybernetics, Short Fiction, and Sci-Fi
As "a microprocessor architect by day, a writer, translator, and podcast narrator by night," John Chu's already a quadruple threat. He's one of the rising stars of sci-fi, and his translation work gives him a unique perspective on the genre. His work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Tor.com, among others, and his story "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" won the 2014 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
We sat down with John to talk about his stories, cybernetics, and what sci-fi means to him—read on!
Outer Places: Tell me a bit about your hobbies, passions, and/or obsessions (rock climbing, cosplay, corporate espionage, etc.). The geekier the better.
OP: You've said in the past that libraries were a big part of your childhood and your love of sci-fi. What were some of the other things that shaped your writing?
Chu: What comes to mind, right now, is the writing of Douglas Hofstadter as well as the work of some of the Oulipo writers (in translation). I love noir (except for the toxic masculinity and the misogyny). I was exposed to the myths and legends of a whole bunch of different cultures as a child and they've definitely had an effect on my work. There are any number of Chinese dramas that my parents watched that have to have influenced me in ways that I'm not consciously aware of because I was in the room at the time while they were watching them. For that matter, not knowing any English at all until I was 6 has probably had an effect.
Chu: Not really. I pretty much always wanted to, although started then gave up a lot over the years. Part of what finally got me to stick with it was Ted Chiang's brilliant collection Stories of Your Life and Others and Elizabeth Bear's novel Carnival. I would not be writing now if it weren't for both of those works.
OP: What kinds of ideas and formats are you drawn to in your fiction?
Chu: A dictum Stephen Sondheim mentions again and again when he writes about his work is "Content determines form." Combine that with an interest in improv and a penchant for stealing shamelessly from the improv playbook and the result is that I will pretty much use whatever form I can invent in order to tell the story in the most effective way. (Or, alternatively, it can go the other way, If I run into a neat structure, I'll find a story to tell where that structure is the most effective way to tell it. The Oulipo authors have a point when they talk about constraint spurring your creativity.)
OP: Are there themes or elements you find yourself returning to again and again in your work?
Chu: At a LonCon 3 panel, I joked that all the parents in my stories make unreasonable expectations of their children. That may be truer than I'd like. Certainly, I like to explore the notion of family in its many forms, i.e., family does not have to mean blood relation. The most interesting characters in my stories are likely either navigating relationships with their blood relatives, searching for their family, or both.
Chu: OK, this is a little embarrassing. I didn't actually do a whole lot of research for either story. There's was some spot checking-for example, going to the Alewife T stop to make sure I got the wording of the PA announcement right for "Hold-Time Violations"-but that's about it. Most of the detail in those stories are inventions that are analogous to real life.
I have a penchant for collecting useless bits of knowledge. Sometimes, I notice interesting relationships among the stuff I've picked up and I can build a story out of that. Both of those stories were products of a lot of inadvertent research.
Chu: Generally when I do this, it's because that's the language the characters would actually speak at that time and place. In "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere," given that set of characters, for everyone to speak English would have been highly unrealistic. Just because they could doesn't necessarily mean they would. Without the bilingual character, it would have been much harder to develop the relationships I wanted to depict.
OP: As someone who translates between Chinese and English, what aspects of sci-fi cross those cultural boundaries? Are there ideas or concepts that just don't translate from one to the other?
Chu: The main problem in any translation is cultural. You are trying to affect the readers in the target culture like how the original writer affected the readers in the original culture. If you can nail that, the words more or less fall into place.
Even disregarding puns and wordplay (which are notoriously difficult to translate), humor and profanity may not be directly translatable. What a culture finds funny or profane can be highly specific to that culture. There was this great article at Atlas Obscura a while back about swearing in Montreal French. Their swear words were also words for the implements of the Catholic Mass. Obviously, a direct translation into English wouldn't have the same impact on an American reader without some additional explanation...Too often, the translator has to write something equivalently funny or profane in its place (I've had some rather weird internal monologues where I debate whether an English profanity is equivalently offensive to some Chinese profanity that I'm supposed to translate).
Chu: You'd think that based on those two stories, I would be against human enhancement. It doesn't go particularly well in either story. I'm for it, though, with caveats. I mean, who doesn't want to be smarter and stronger, for example? And certainly, in the abstract, what we would learn on the way to making human augmentation practical would be incredible.
The dangers, of course, are all in the unintended consequences on society. Any time we inch towards something that sounds like eugenics, we have to be careful. Any time we come up with advances that may be well nigh unaffordable, we have to make sure that it isn't the case that only the rich and powerful will ever have control over these advantages.
OP: Science fiction is often credited for expanding our imaginations about what the future may hold or exploring current political, technological, and social issues. What are your thoughts on the value and role of sci-fi?
There has been a lot of talk of late along the lines of "why can't SF be just fun stories?" As far as I know, no one ever argues that spec fic stories should not be fun except as a straw man. Spec fic can totally be fun. Like I said, we read spec fic because we enjoy it, not necessarily because it's Good For You. For me, though, "just fun" either smacks of empty calories or a refusal to engage with the issues that makes the best spec fic so compelling. And my life is just too short to strive for anything but the best spec fic when I write.
You can follow John Chu on Twitter @john_chu and visit his website here.