There’s a joke about people on drugs saying spacy things like, “Oooooooooh, look at the colors.” But imagine if, instead, colors were weaponized; “Aaaaaaaaa! Look at the colors!” It’s how Argentina won the Falklands War in Paz Pardo’s alt-history sci-fi allegory / police procedural novel The Shamshine Blind (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following interview, Pardo explains how being under the weather inspired this multilayered mash-up.
Photo Credit: Enrique Lozano
To begin, what is The Shamshine Blind about, and when and where does it take place?
The Shamshine Blind is set in a world in which Argentina has become the world’s sole superpower after winning the Falklands War in the ’80s using psychoweapons. These “psychopigments” are colorful weaponized emotions; basically, paintball but for feelings.
Thirty years after the war, psychopigments have been integrated into life in a run-down United States, as everything from weapons to pharmaceutical treatments to party drugs. Agent Curtida works a small-town beat in the Psychopigment Enforcement Agency. When an old friend brings her a career-changing case, she stumbles on a conspiracy to destroy what’s left of American democracy.
Where did you get the idea for The Shamshine Blind? What inspired this story?
I had a fever in 2014. Honestly, that’s the only explanation I can come up with. I was sick for like a week in 2014, and I was mainlining Jasper Fforde, N.K. Jemisin, Diane Setterfield, Douglas Adams…and the day the fever broke I woke up with this image in my head of a woman sleeping on top of the covers in a cheap motel in a trashy wedding dress. I knew she was there because she had a cache of illicit emotion. So, yeah, I blame whatever virus I had, the Dreamblood duology, Thursday Next, The Thirteenth Tale, and Dirk Gently.
How did you come up with the idea of drugs that induce certain emotions?
I’d been thinking a lot about how we describe emotions through color — feeling blue, green with envy, seeing the world through rose-colored glasses — and I had this ah-hah moment where I was like “what if the colors caused the emotions, instead of describing them?” I kept toying with it, wondering about what a world where your doctor could prescribe you literal happy pills might be like. And that eventually grew into psychopigments.
I get why you’d have Sunshine Yellow induce happiness, but why does Blackberry Purple induce terror? Are you still mad about that time I spilled grape juice on your new rug?
AAAAH DON’T TALK ABOUT THAT PAUL.
I think of deep purple as being a color that shows up in a certain kind of horror a lot, especially around like religious cults. You know, dark hoods, caves, eerie purple fire. I knew one of the emotions the book was going to grapple with was faith, and I was thinking about “gibbering terror” in the face of the supernatural as sort of the far, dark end of that spectrum.
I’m also curious about the setting. Is there a reason you set The Shamshine Blind in an alternate timeline in which the U.S. lost the Falklands War and, as a result, has become a second-rate nation? What was it about the real world of 2009 that didn’t work for your story?
To answer that question, I have to tell you that Argentina has the highest concentration of psychoanalysts per capita of anywhere in the world. So when I came up with the idea of weaponized emotions, I was like “well, obviously Argentina developed them.” From there it was a short step to imagining them winning the Falklands war, which would mean beating NATO, which meant it was a world war…pretty soon I knew the U.S. had to have taken a tumble. So it all started from the idea of psychopigments.
In a similar vein, is there a reason why you set it in 2009, which is 27 years after the Falklands War ended, as opposed to 1999 or 2023?
I wanted Curtida, my main character, to have lived through the war as a teenager, and I knew that she was about to be retired from field agent work because she was almost 40 (stakes, you know?) So that gave me 2009 as the year everything took place.
Now, The Shamshine Blind is your first novel, though you’ve written some plays, which we’ll get to in a moment. Are there any writers, or stories, that you think had a big influence on The Shamshine Blind but not on anything else you’ve written?
Absolutely. The sci-fi I love always has fast plots, intricate worlds, and tends toward the well-built thriller. My plays are more, like, meditations on loneliness. So there’s not really room there for me to draw on my obsession with Jasper Fforde or N.K. Jemisin, or my love of William Gibson’s language. And there’s a way that, with a book, you can be joyfully silly but also plumb the depths of the characters because you have more time with the reader than with an audience member. The way that Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb books balance humor with the characters’ deep experiences of grief, love, hopes, and fears was really inspiring for the book, but I wouldn’t have looked to for a stage play.
What about your plays? How do you think writing plays — and, I assume, reading them and seeing them performed — may have influenced how you wrote The Shamshine Blind?
The fancy answer: There’s a certain attention to the musicality of language in the theater that I found key to how I wrote The Shamshine Blind. The book has a noir narrator, and noir as a genre is built on how the language sounds. Dashell Hammett was making bank writing Sam Spade radio plays even as he wrote The Maltese Falcon. So I definitely brought that attention to language to the book.
The slightly embarrassing answer: In seventh grade our class play was Lucky Dollar: Private Eye, and I memorized it and would recite it to myself before I fell asleep because, uh, that was my idea of fun? So when I was going to start writing a novel, the noir narrator felt old hat.
And then how about non-literary influences; was The Shamshine Blind influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
I mean, the noir classics (serious and less-so) were a big part of it: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man — they’re definitely in there.
The Shamshine Blind has been called everything from a sci-fi allegory to an alt-history story to a police procedural. But it seems like it might be all of those things. What do you think it is? And what do you think it isn’t?
I think it’s all of those things. I joke that my ideal reader is the kind of person who’s like “it takes seven words to describe the genre? SIGN ME UP!” Because that’s how I am.
I was drawing on my love of all three genres the whole time I was writing. I grew up reading sci-fi, salivating over the latest Iain M. Banks or C.J. Cherryh; and always knowing, as Ursula Le Guin puts it, that sci-fi writers are truly “realists of a larger reality.” I think sci-fi is always a bit allegorical.
The tropes of the police procedural were too much to resist as a writer. I just love them: “You’re off the case!” Like you can just smell the old coffee and dusty piles of folders when you read that. You can pack so much into the world when you’ve got those bones supporting it.
And alt-history has always fascinated me because of how it makes me think about actual history; I’m always going back and forth and checking: Did this happen this way? What’s the same, what’s different? I also like how it helps me remember that history could have gone another way. That always reminds me that the future is unwritten, and there’s time to fight for the changes the world needs.
It also sounds like The Shamshine Blind is a stand-alone novel…
Ok, I think it’s a stand-alone, my editor thinks it’s a stand-alone, my publisher thinks it’s a stand-alone…but I’ve already had readers come up to me and be like “where’s the next one?” To which I have to say, “What next one?” But the response is making me wonder whether there’s more to explore in the world someday.
Earlier I asked if The Shamshine Blind had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Shamshine Blind could work as a movie, show, or game?
I mean, I’ve always imagined that it would make a great movie or TV show — all those colors. But also, I’m a big weenie when it comes to games (when I try to play first-person shooters I usually can’t even make it out into the world because I forget I have a gun and try to run away from the bad guys), so my brain doesn’t go there. But if somebody came to me and said “I think paintball-but-for-feelings would make a fantastic MMORPG” or whatever, I would be like “go for it!”
So, if someone wanted to adapt The Shamshine Blind into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Kay and the other main characters, and why them?
For Curtida: Aubrey Plaza [White Lotus], for her ability to convey stone faced disdain while still looking alive. For Doug: [The Good Place‘s] William Jackson Harper, for his enthusiasm. For Tommy: Lance Lim [Magnum P.I.], for his fresh-faced energy. And for The Chief: Dame Judy Dench [Belfast] because she should be in every movie.
While we’re on the subject of adaptations, do you think The Shamshine Blind could work as a play?
I think it could work as a play, but it’s a better fit for a movie or a novel. World building can be really fast in movies: like you just need that establishing shot and you’re off. In the theater you either need a lot of money or time to establish the world, and those are both in short supply in the theater.
But, you know, if someone came to me and was like “I want to turn The Shamshine Blind into a play,” I’d be into that…as long as I don’t have to figure out how to make it work.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Shamshine Blind?
The San Francisco Chronicle called it “appealingly strange,” which is just my favorite description ever.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Shamshine Blind, which pharmacologically-based sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
If you’re into William Gibson but wish he’d dropped more acid, The Body Scout by Lincoln Michel. If you want to read about psychiatrists on a hostile planet using drugs to alter the structure of people’s minds, Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh. And if you want to go through the weirdest thought experiment about morality and drugs, Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.