Q&A with Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is back in Asimov’s pages with his touching story “Neom,” on sale now in our current issue. Don’t miss this poignant story about the passage of time. Read on below for a peek behind the curtain with Lavie’s insights and inspirations.


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “Neom”?

LT: I’ve been visiting the Red Sea for twenty years now (on the Egyptian side), and I was always struck by looking just across the water to the Arabian Peninsula, and that huge stretch of desert along the Red Sea coast is, of course, Saudi Arabia. Then I came across crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS)’s plan to build this sort of cyberpunk utopia called Neom there! I mean it has a promotional Youtube video and everything . . . And I’ve been recently very interested in the idea of future cities, and I knew I had to write about it. If only because I find the idea of a cyberpunk utopia so very terrifying . . .


AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

LT: So it came from my interest, I think, in the new Chinese Silk Road, which goes all the way to the Red Sea (and is partly featured in my Tor.com story “Yiwu”), and from the portrayal of Neom in the promotional material put out by the Saudis. And then, I’ve been interested in robots again recently. I did a conference on AI in Cambridge in England, and I was struck by how AI researchers are still talking about Asimov’s three laws! And also, of course, by the famous act of Saudi Arabia granting citizenship to a robot recently, Sophia (you really can’t make this stuff up!). So all of this kind of came together for me.


AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

LT: It’s nominally a part of the wider Central Station universe, where the majority of my straight SF stories are set. And it’s also thematically linked to “Yiwu.” I was kind of hoping to explore more future urban settings in forthcoming stories, but that hasn’t happened yet. I have a few planned . . .


AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

LT: I suppose the answer is both, not much and too much! For example I had no idea MBS and Saudi Arabia would be so prominently in the news just as “Neom” is coming out! Nor that it would be so gruesome . . . And of course my interest came from reading about the New Silk Road, which is very much a thing happening now. But you try and write stories that stand on their own anyway, and set far enough in the future that they exist in their own reality.


AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

LT: I suppose I’m interested in the idea of consciousness, what it is and how and why it works, and the question of reality, and how that’s constructed. But I don’t necessarily know why! My next novel, which I think might be out in 2020 from Tachyon, is about God and science fiction. That idea of, what if some pulp science fiction writer came up with this wholly bizarre theory about the nature of the world—but it might just be true? There is certainly an interesting link that runs from SF to religion (naming no names).

I like that SF allows you to talk about the big questions—what is life? Why are we here? Is there a God?—whereas in the rest of fiction, a lot of the time we pretend that Earth and humans are all there is, and this huge, strange, mysterious universe isn’t out there. But it is out there! <points dramatically to night skies> It’s right there! How can you not write about it?


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

LT: I think when that happens it’s because I’m stuck on something. And you can’t force it—your brain needs time to work its way through the knot of the story. So it’s frustrating, but I’ve come to accept it now. I just have to keep distracted, and watch bad TV, or whatever, while the back of my brain’s busy processing it and (hopefully!) eventually coming up with a solution.


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

LT: Too many, really! I stupidly decided, after writing a series of fairly short novels, to attempt a giant historical fantasy type thing. No one tells you this, but it takes forever! Lots of fun though. In between, I’m trying to work on another hard SF story cycle / mosaic novel, a short animated web series with a friend of mine, and another children’s book (after my first one, Candy, was published this year by Scholastic). Plus the usual other stuff. I like to keep busy!


AE: What are you reading right now?

LT: Mostly research stuff, but I got to read Singaporean writer Ng Yi-Sheng’s new collection, Lion City, which is really great, with some wonderfully original fantasy, and Chen Qiufan’s forthcoming Waste Tide, which is a near-future SF novel published in translation by Tor in 2019. And I’m looking forward to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s new book.


AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

LT: Yes. Patience. And it’s the hardest one to take! I just got asked this the other day and you could tell they just wanted me to say there’s some sort of magic key and if you only apply it . . . And I really, really wish there was!


AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

LT: I did work with early Internet Service Providers, so I got to see the whole beginning from the pre-Internet, BBS-era days to issues of, say, Pacific islands connectivity to the arrival of high-speed Internet for the first time in Europe, all of that stuff. I think that’s helped a lot in terms of writing about communication for me, like I did in Central Station, because I do have that grounding in how that stuff actually works!


AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

LT: My website’s on http://lavietidhar.wordpress.com, but I’m mostly on Twitter @lavietidhar, where I tweet too much.


Lavie Tidhar is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning and Premio Roma nominee A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), the World Fantasy Award winning Osama (2011) and of the Campbell Award and Neukom Prize winning Central Station (2016). His latest novels are Unholy Land (2018) and first children’s novel Candy (2018). He is the author of many other novels, novellas and short stories.

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