Despite what the title may suggest, Alex Thompson’s new novel Spidertouch (paperback, Kindle) is not about an arachnid who works as a massage therapist, or a bug who is a bit grabby. It’s a fantasy novel in which some people communicate by touching. Probably best to let Thomson explain for himself in the following email interview.
To begin, what is Spidertouch about, and what kind of world is it set in?
Spidertouch is the story of an interpreter, trapped in a city under siege, working for the mutants who have enslaved his people. The fantastical element is the touch language used by the mutants, which the interpreter has learned to “speak.” He wants a quiet life, but is caught up in the intrigues of the revolutionary cult who want to overthrow the mutants.
It’s set in a dusty, pre-industrial world of warlords and city-states, but the majority of the story is set inside the city of Val Kedić, during the siege.
Where did you get the idea for Spidertouch?
I’m a languages teacher, and have always enjoyed reading about unusual or ingenious language systems. When reading about various non-spoken languages, it got me thinking about the idea of a touch language — it’s one of the senses that is grossly underused.
Is that why you went with a touch-based language as opposed to sign language or telepathy or texting?
I just found it a more interesting idea to write about. Telepathy can be perfect for sci-fi — I love how Alastair Reynolds uses it with his Ultras in the Revelation Space series — but to me it would feel like the wrong fit for a pre-industrial fantasy story. And although sign language itself is a complex language, having a tactile language seems more intense and claustrophobic somehow — this idea of two people gripping each others’ arms, squeezing and tapping away at each other to communicate.
I also used to play the bongos, and all the different ways you can hit them with your fingers (taps, slaps, finger trills), helped me with the mechanics of the languages. From there, it was a case of working out the best scenario for this language, and I ended up with an interpreter as the narrator, trapped in a city with the rulers he hates.
It sounds like Spidertouch is an epic fantasy tale. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’m wary of pigeon-holing books too much — mine or anyone’s — with genre labels. It’s certainly set in a fantasy universe, but it’s also a story of power and politics, about parenthood and loss, about language, with the siege element thrown in as well. The writers I respect most are the ones who can’t be labelled with a genre, but are proudly sui generis — so in recent times, Michel Faber and David Mitchell spring to mind.
Spidertouch is your second novel after Death Of A Clone. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Spidertouch but not on Clone?
Absolutely. Death Of A Clone was a science fiction murder mystery, and was influenced by golden-age crime writing as well as modern sci-fi; whereas the tone of Spidertouch has had a lot of influence from grimdark authors such as Joe Abercrombie and Kameron Hurley. In terms of the way the language drives the plot, that took a lot of inspiration by a superb short story by Jack Vance, “The Moon Moth” [available in his collection The Moon Moth And Other Stories] where the inhabitants use different musical instruments to express their mood and social standing.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on Spidertouch?
Mainly on the siege aspect. I did a lot of research on siege warfare, but the hardest thing to do was get in the mindset of someone who is trapped in a city under siege. Obviously there are the classics like Lord Of The Rings, but funnily enough, the films I found most useful were the “non-castle” sieges, and how humans react and start to panic when they’re trapped and surrounded. Cujo is the ultimate in small-scale siege (stuck in a car), and I also enjoyed rewatching the underrated Panic Room — turns out Kristen Stewart was the little girl, who knew? (Probably everyone except me).
Yeah, I totally knew that. Anyway, as you are probably well aware, epic fantasy novels like Spidertouch are sometimes self-contained stories and sometimes they’re the first steps into a larger world. What is Spidertouch?
Spidertouch is a stand-alone novel, though the door is not closed on other stories in that universe. I always find the “wait-for-the-whole-series” brigade perplexing. It’s almost like people are treating books series like Netflix series, using the same language of “character arcs,” and the “journey” they go on. To me, the idea of waiting for a complete trilogy is baffling — if I like the premise, I’ll give it a try, then wait until the next one is out. I do find some fantasy trilogies follow the same template, and can be rather predictable. So I’m a fan of stand-alones myself, I love immersing myself in a universe that has no eye on the sequel or prequel.
Earlier I asked if Spidertouch had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But on the flipside, do you think Spidertouch could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
When the publisher was discussing an audiobook, I was initially a bit dubious — it’s a touch language, how would that translate to audio? But in fact, recording has gone ahead and they have had some great ideas on how to represent the language. I think in a similar way, it could work as a film. As anyone who remembers the Battle Of Helm’s Deep or Game Of Thrones will know, sieges make for excellent visual entertainment.
So, if someone was going to make a Spidertouch movie, who would you want them to cast as Razvan and the other main characters?
Oooh, I’d love to see Martin Compston [Line Of Duty] as Razvan, is that too much to ask? He plays the “grumpy-bastard-who’s-a-bit-of-a-teddy-bear” spot on. Ira is tricky as I had a friend in mind when I wrote her, but let’s go for Nathalie Emmanuel, Missandei in Game Of Thrones, because she played the poised, neutral interpreter perfectly. And I thought Weruche Opia was brilliant in I May Destroy You, I can see her as the feisty revolutionary Naima.
Finally, if someone enjoys Spidertouch, what stand-alone epic fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
If the linguistic side of things appealed to you, I’d recommend the recent Andy Weir’s Operation Hail Mary, which features a musical alien language and reflects intelligently on interspecies translation. And for a character-driven siege fantasy where it’s not all about the fighting and the siege warfare, check out K.J. Parker’s excellent Sixteen Ways To Defend A Walled City.