Writers sometimes say they got the idea for their new novel by thinking about a character. Which is what T.R. Napper says about his new cyberpunk sci-fi / speculative fiction novel, 36 Streets (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). But what he also says about it in the following email interview is that this story was also inspired by a place that person might be.
To start, what is 36 Streets about, and when and where is it set?
I’d describe it as speculative fiction. That is, a plausible extrapolation of the present, to use the definition of Margaret Atwood. It’s set in Vietnam around the year 2090. America has collapsed, China is the sole superpower.
As the blurb begins: “Lin ‘The Silent One’ Vu is a gangster and sometime private investigator. Born in Vietnam, raised in Australia, everywhere an outsider. She lives in Chinese-occupied Hanoi, in the steaming, paranoid alleyways of the Old Quarter — known as the Thirty-Six Streets.”
An Englishman comes to Hanoi, wanting answers over one friend who is missing, and a second who is dead. Lin investigates, and, well, the wild ride begins. What is it about? Well, identity and belonging, collective memory and suffering, the cruelty of great powers, and the nature of violence. Just the little things.
But more than anything it is about Lin. Who she is and who she becomes.
Where did you get the idea for 36 Streets, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
I suppose the twin inspirations were the city of Hanoi and the character of Lin. I lived in the Old Quarter in Hanoi for three years, and worked through Southeast Asia for a decade as a humanitarian aid worker. Without question, the city left an indelible impression on me. Its sights, sounds, secrets, its history and culture, and more than anything, its people.
Another important inspiration — and one which I directly reference in the book — is a novel called The Sorrow Of War by Bao Ninh. It was a ground-breaking novel at the time, so much so it was banned, briefly, and is considered the first to tell the story of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese side.
As for Lin: she has returned to me time and again over the years, troubling my creative mind. She’s appeared in short stories, and then was a minor character in a previous novel that failed to find a publisher. That novel takes place five years after the events of 36 Streets. I found myself thinking about Lin, and wanting to write the story of how she became the woman she is.
Is the fact that you lived in Hanoi why you set 36 Streets there as opposed to Hong Kong or Singapore or Los Angeles or West Orange, New Jersey…?
I prefer writing about places that I have lived, and therefore know more deeply. But it’s also a unique setting. I suspect you could find a cyberpunk novel that takes place in the cities you list, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one set in Hanoi.
Speaking of cyberpunk, it seemed to me that 36 Streets is a cyberpunk sci-fi story, but you called it “speculative fiction” earlier. Is it both?
Cyberpunk is an accurate title. Publishers Weekly called it a “gripping cyberthriller,” and obviously I’m fine with that. Some (though not all) cyberpunk is influenced by hardboiled fiction, and this is certainly true of my stories. Dashiell Hammett, in particular. For that reason, I’m partial the older term for cyberpunk coined by James Cameron in The Terminator: tech-noir. It has a dash of military science fiction, it’s a thriller, but look, deep down this is a hard-edged cyberpunk novel.
While 36 Streets is your first novel, you previously released a short story collection called Neon Leviathan. Are any of the stories in Neon Leviathan connected to 36 Streets?
Yes, all 12 — or, at the least, 11 of the 12 — of the stories in the collection are set in the same world as 36 Streets. Where 36 Streets takes place circa 2090, in Neon Leviathan they range from 2038 to 2193, though are generally concentrated around the same time period as the novel.
Neon Leviathan samples vignettes of the people living all over this world. Short stories have helped me to add layers to the setting I’ve imagined, to test ideas, and to innovate. Which, in turn, meant that by the time the novel arrived, it’s in a world that feels (I hope) lived-in and immersive. But even in the short stories, I want the human element to be central.
So are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on 36 Streets but not on any of the stories in Neon Leviathan? You mentioned Dashiell Hammett…
I think there is a lot of crossover in terms of influences. Which is to say, a monster mash of Dashiell Hammett and Philip K. Dick, and to a lesser extent, Richard Morgan, George Orwell, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Like most authors, I was influenced by a range of non-fiction writers, and here I’d cite China academic Louisa Lim, and neuroscientist Eric Kandel as being among the most important.
The only exception in terms of being a sole influence is The Sorrow Of War, which I mentioned before.
How about non-literary influences; was 36 Streets influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Yes. Blade Runner and the original Ghost In The Shell are two movies I watch time and again. There are many more, of course, but for me these two are seminal events in cyberpunk, and created an aesthetic and thematic template for the subgenre.
Ghost In The Shell has a particular story-telling model I admire. It has kick-arse action scenes, interspersed with profound ruminations on the human condition, and it is a work of art. And it’s 82 minutes long. That is what I want to replicate in my work (even if I fall short): that hyperkinetic action, that elegance of narrative, and that art.
Now, as you know, cyberpunk sci-fi stories are sometimes standalone novels and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is 36 Streets? And I mean beyond the stories in Neon Leviathan.
36 Streets is standalone. I’m not much interested in massive series, in part because I’m a pessimist (if I can’t sell the first book, I’ll have wasted my time on outlining and perhaps even writing the sequels), and in part because I don’t want to be restricted to one story. One of the aspects of being a writer I truly enjoy is the absolute creative freedom it brings. I don’t want to be tied down, nor do I want a multi-book deal for one series with a publisher (my fellow writers think me a fool for this, and they have something of a point).
Now, having said all of that, I have two more novels set in the same world as 36 Streets and Neon Leviathan. The first (working title: The Escher Man) has a completed draft and is looking good; the second (not even a working title) also has a completed draft, but is looking fucking terrible. These two are stand-alone, although some minor characters do cross over.
Earlier I asked if 36 Streets had been influenced by any specific movies, TV shows, or games. But I’d like to flip things around and ask if you think 36 Streets could work as a movie, show, or game?
I never thought about this aspect while writing, but I suspect it would work on the screen for a couple of reasons. One is that readers and reviewers keep telling me so. Some have suggested it would make a great anime, others a Netflix series. Two is that cyberpunk is an aesthetically sublime subgenre. Many of the visual cues of cyberpunk are taken from Blade Runner, consciously or subconsciously, by a whole generation of film makers and writers. And it is a beautiful film: every frame is a painting.
As such, I imagine the neon-drenched, cool sleek visuals, and high-octane action, would make for something eminently watchable.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Lin and the other main characters?
I would love Lin to be played by a Vietnamese-Australian, for obvious reasons. It could be a completely unknown actor, so long as she had the physicality and charisma to pull off the role. The one actor that does spring to mind is the excellent Jillian Nguyen [Hungry Ghosts], though I have never seen her in a fight scene.
I’d also want Dave Bautista as Passaic Powell, in part because Bautista showed some acting chops in Blade Runner 2049, and in part because he is almost as big as Powell (Bautista is 6FT 3, Powell is 6FT 6). Also, Russell Crowe as Herbert Molayson. A big name on the production is no bad thing, and that role needs some versatility. I’m not sure who I’d cast as Bao, but Cung Le would be great as Bull Neck Bui.
And the legendary Ken Watanabe [Godzilla] as Shifu.
So, is there anything else that people interested in 36 Streets should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
Let me give you opinions of the novel from two authors I admire. Richard K. Morgan [Altered Carbon] said, “Raw and raging and passionate, this is cyberpunk literature with a capital fucken L,” while Yudhanjaya Wijeratne [Salvage Crew] said it’s, “Brutal, brooding, brilliant…an angry vision of violence wrapped around a complex meditation of memory, trauma and hegemony. This is cyberpunk with soul.”
If those quotes get the blood pumping, then do yourself a favor.
Finally, if someone enjoys 36 Streets, what cyberpunk sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one? And to keep things interesting, let’s take Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and everything by Philip K. Dick, Neil Stephenson, and William Gibson off the table.
Good question. In truth I don’t read much contemporary cyberpunk (though I have read nearly everything by the authors you list above, with the exception of Stephenson). Sometimes it feels like I read everything these days but cyberpunk. In part, I think, this is because I fear I might be “polluted” by another cyberpunk writer’s ideas (or perhaps, even, that my ideas are not as original as I believe: shit, this guy thought of all this five years ago).
As such, I’ll suggest two hardboiled writers, as that subgenre has had a seminal influence on cyberpunk. The first is the original and the best, Dashiell Hammett and his novels, Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Thin Man. The second is one of the best modern hardboiled writers, Megan Abbott. In particular Queenpin and The Song Is You.
I’ve spoken about The Sorrow of War, so it would be remiss of me not to mention that again, as one of the great Vietnamese novels. The western counterpart to this is Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Both are about trauma, and both use the concept of becoming unstuck in time as a means to express that trauma.
Finally, Numbercaste by Sri Lankan science fiction author, Yudhanjaya Wijeratne.