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October 19, 2014

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Richard Woolley: Future UK intrigue

Program Code: 0909346141005005

CALLED a “literature of ideas,” science fiction has long been used as a framework to explore politics, identity, desire, morality, social structure and other literary themes in a futuristic setting.

So is British writer Richard Woolley’s recent novel “Sekabo,” a science fiction thriller located in an England of the not-too distant future (2097) and recent past (1990).

Sekabo in 2097 is an egalitarian, high-tech republic ruled by China as part of an English government debt repayment deal in 2047. Life there seems idyllic as people are busy preparing for the 100th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death as well as Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 — the latter on July 1 and the former on August 31. A rumor spreads that a member of the royal family appeared in a pornographic movie in 1990.

Thwaites Su-yin, who has a Chinese given name and an English family name and lives in Sekabo, is commissioned by the English and Chinese governments to rehabilitate a young man, deep-frozen in 1990, who may have some answers to this royal rumor.

“For such a situation to be credible, I realized I would have to set my story in the future when the political realities of today had changed,” Woolley said in an e-mail interview with Shanghai Daily. “So Sekabo was born.”

Unlike many other dystopian fictions, scientific innovation in Sekabo hasn’t killed off social interaction or alienated people from each other, but somehow managed to integrate the virtual and real worlds as well as solve the energy problem and increase life spans.

Thwaites, the heroine of the book, displays characteristics of both countries — humor, hard work, loyalty, and a desire to both advance herself and help others. She’s also a mean martial artist!

Woolley, born in 1948, is the author of three other novels: “Back in 1984” (2010), “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (2009) and “Friends & Enemies” (2009).

Q: Where did you come up with the idea of writing such a science-fiction drama?

I lived in Hong Kong between 1997 and 2005. While there I became intrigued by the idea of the situation being reversed: Instead of an English-governed enclave in China with a predominantly Chinese population, what if there was a Chinese-governed enclave in England with a predominantly English population (the Sekabo city of my book)!  

Q: What inspiration/observations did you have to create the Chinese characters?

My time living in Hong Kong and traveling to the Chinese mainland, especially Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, allowed me to observe Chinese friends and colleagues, people on the street and in restaurants, as well as my Chinese female partner of several years. I admired the perseverance and hardworking nature of many Chinese people, as well as their ability to relate to the larger group, such as family, town, or the bigger society in general.

Q: How do you think today’s science will change the way we live in the near future?

Sekabo in 2097 is a society where scientific innovation has changed the way that people live in a mostly benevolent manner. A life span of 130 years is normal because of the advent of nano surgery, better diet and no poverty. The transport and energy infrastructure is 100 percent ecologically sound. Solar highways carry super high-speed trains, and speed-limited solar cars are locked into a central grid on the highway and use batteries on smaller roads. Energy is tidal or solar with a tidal barrier stretching around the northeast coast of England. Over and underground pedestralators carry pedestrians on belts — a sophisticated version of the current airport moving walkway, E-spex allow wearers to see and hear virtual worlds in 3D hologram and wrap around sound.

Q: Do you believe leasing a piece of land to a booming country is a way to pay off international debt?

It seemed a feasible, practical solution if one country was in a bad way financially and another had money to spare. And, indeed, during Greece’s recent troubles the government there played with the idea of selling off some islands to Qatar. China has bought up part of the American national debt, and, in a recent poll in the United Kingdom, 25 percent of respondents said they’d rather lease sovereign territory to a foreign power than be forced to emigrate abroad! So yes, long-leasing land might, in reality, be a way of paying off creditors.

Q: With females in the main family in your book all gene-implant lesbians, will babies in the future be nothing more than a series of well-chosen genes from the lab?  

I read a number of books on genetic manipulation and genetic programming before writing Sekabo and decided that, however much genes were manipulated, nurture rather than nature would win out in the end. In other words, you could put in a gene to predispose someone to musicality or academic brilliance, but in the end the events of life, and the environment in which a child was brought up, would play a bigger part than the genes he or she had been given. The ‘lesbian’ gene that the Thwaites family women use when undergoing IVF conception is a humorous take on this issue, but also a way of highlighting both the absurdity and mundane reality of gene manipulation.

Q: What is your message with regards to the royal family’s reputation? Do you think the royal family/celebrity families should take up the responsibility as a standard morality in society?

In Sekabo, in 2097, a rumor spreads that a royal family member appeared in a pornographic movie in 1990. If you read the book you will find out whether the rumor is true or not.

I wanted to deal with this controversial area for two reasons. On the one hand, the privilege and wealth associated with the British monarchy brings with it certain responsibilities. The feeling that this family should behave in an exemplary manner is there, hence the problems the queen got into in the 1990s when all three of her children separated from their spouses and Fergie was caught having her toe sucked by a boyfriend. On the other hand there is a voyeuristic fascination when royals are found with their pants down, or misbehave in some other way. A large part of the public revel in the dubious escapades of royal family members, as they did with Princess Diana in the 1990s, and as they have done more recently when Prince Harry was photographed playing strip snooker in Las Vegas. This potential for royal misdemeanors (real or imagined) to be exploited for money is a key subplot in the book.


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