As we all (unfortunately) know, some people can be really superficial. But in the world of Joma West’s dystopian cyberpunk sci-fi novel Face (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), people take it to such extremes that even touching someone else is taboo. Thankfully, West isn’t so precious when it comes to touching things; otherwise, the following email interview about her novel would’ve been rather one-sided.
Photo Credit: Maya West
To start, what is Face about, and when and where does it take place?
Face is set in a sort of alternative world to ours, where everyone is hyper-fixated on their image and how they present themselves to others. In such a sanitized environment, touching is taboo, and people monitor themselves and others somewhat obsessively. The story presents this world through the eyes of several characters, almost all of whom are of the privileged upper class. And that’s basically it…it’s not really a story about something that happens but more a story about how people live in a very specifically designed place.
It sounds like this story may have social and / or political ramifications. Did you set out to write something like that, and this is the story you came up with, or did you come up with this story and then realize it work better if it has some social / political aspects?
I started this story wanting to explore what could happen if I took away physical contact as an option for communication. When you take away physical touch and intimacy then what might replace that? What might become important to these people instead? As I started exploring this, I realized there was a whole mess of other things to dig into in this world, so the social and political elements arose as I wrote.
So where did you get the idea for this story?
The idea came from a conversation I had with a friend. They were telling me how they felt like sex was everywhere; in everything they watched and read and in adverts, etc., and it was starting to put them off physical intimacy. That gave me a sort of “what if” moment. What if that’s the way we went as a society? If even holding hands is unthinkable, how would we function? How would we have children? That was my starting point.
It sounds like Face is a dystopian cyberpunk sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’m not too fussed about genre. I feel like genre is useful more for selling books than it is for me as a writer. I don’t really think about genre when I’m writing, I just write the story I want to write. Usually someone else will tell me what genre they think the story falls under. In the case of Face, I think it’s being marketed as a sci-fi domestic drama. I’ve been told it’s “kitchen sink science fiction.” There is a dystopian element in the book but unlike most dystopian novels there isn’t a concerted effort to change the system.
Face is your first novel, but you’ve written a number of short stories as well as a novella called Wild. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a particularly big influence on Face but not on anything else you’ve written?
I started writing Face quite a long time ago, and I think the influences on me, when I began it, were the kind of writers you very much expect an impressionable baby writer to be reading. [Ursula K. Le Guin’s] Left Hand Of Darkness was a big influence. I remember reading in either an essay or an interview with Le Guin that when she wrote Left Hand she wanted to explore what might happen if you took gender away from people — what might be left over? I am paraphrasing a lot there, but that kind of investigative question as a starting point to a story. I think I tried to do something like that with Face.
In terms of structure, I once read a book called Chinese Whispers by Robert Sproat. The story is about Genghis Khan, and it’s told through the perspectives of everyone around him. Each chapter you hear the same story from someone new, but the chapter takes you a little further along. I read it as a teenager, so I don’t remember it all that clearly but that strange structure really excited me. I think I wanted to try something a little like that here.
How about non-literary influences; was Face influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
As you know, dystopian, cyberpunk, and sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories, and sometimes part of larger sagas? What is Face?
Face is a stand-alone story, though I’ve thought about doing some bonus chapters for it. There are a lot of places in that world that could do with exploring. I’d like to look at the breeding system more closely, look at the kinds of people who volunteer to carry babies, maybe look at the system of dry nurses, explore menial training, look at lower level workers and what they do to present their best face forward. I think this is a story that will frustrate a lot of people because all you see is a snapshot of a place, a time, and a very small group of privileged people, so I’m tempted to write more chapters to explain the world further.
That said, I’m also quite happy to leave the place alone and not look at it again.
Earlier I asked if Face had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to turn things around, do you think Face could work as a movie, show, or game?
I always thought Face could work quite well as a TV show. People have made links between it and Black Mirror, and if there is still an appetite for that kind of show then I think Face might stand up to adaptation really well.
I never even thought about it as a game, but now that you’ve raised the question I think it could be an interesting role-playing game. I’m not much of a gamer, so I bet any gamers will look at my idea and roll their eyes, but I like the idea of a game where you have to climb the social ladder by playing face as well as possible. And perhaps there would be an option to play as a rebel. Of course, a successful rebellion would be impossible…
So, if someone wanted to make Face into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as Schuyler, Madeleine, and the other main characters, and why them?
The characters in Face are pretty carefully designed to look a certain way, so I think choosing actors would hinge on how closely they resemble the characters superficially, as well as if they’re good for the role. [Misfits‘] Nathan Stewart-Jarrett might be a good fit for Schuyler; he has the looks, is the right age, and he’s a really interesting actor. I’d love to see Priyanka Bose [The Wheel Of Time] as Vidya, she’s very magnetic. Helena Howard [Madeline’s Madeline] would make a wonderful Naomi. It would be great to have a cast of really unfamiliar faces.
Finally, if someone enjoys Face, what sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out and why that one?
If you like Face then you absolutely should buy Glitterati by Oliver K. Langmead. It plays with a lot of the same themes and questions but it does it in a completely different way. It’s bonkers and beautiful, I feel like it’s Face but on acid.