Interview with Tim Corballis

Photo by Fiona Amundsen

Your new novel Our Future Is in the Air is a political novel where the protaganists travel between 1975 Wellington and contemporary Wellington. How did the idea for a time travel story begin?

I vaguely remember coming across the call for submissions to the Random Static collection of New Zealand speculative fiction ‘A Foreign Country’. The provocation was something to do with the phrase ‘The future is a foreign country’. I didn’t pay it much attention at the time. I didn’t make a submission and confess I forgot all about the collection.

But although the phrase was a little obvious in itself, something about it got me thinking about time travel. If the future’s another country, how would you get there after all? But more importantly I guess it got me thinking about the future, and the problem of imagining it. It’s the kind of problem that I think a few people are talking about now. It’s the problem that, in some sense, it’s very difficult to imagine a non-dystopian future for ourselves. So many of our images of the future are apocalyptic, or just versions of the present, with or without spaceships. The idea of any other kind of future is sort of dated—a modernist idea, an idea of progress maybe that we don’t really subscribe to any more. So the future itself is an idea that belongs in the past...

I don’t really remember how all this developed in my head actually, since it’s a book I’ve wanted to write for a while. But that’s the way I began thinking. It did seem to me as if one way to think about the future—about how we relate to the future or fail to relate to the future—would be to think about a time when the future was more of an active part of the culture. Go to the past to think about the future. It kind of seemed as if time travel was in order.

Did you read time travel books as child reader? Were there any you were thinking of when you wrote your book?

Yes I did. I’m sure I did. I’m sure they were terrible, terrible books and I haven’t retained any memory of any of them. Dreadful. My reading habits as a child! No I was thinking more of other spec-fic books and criticism I started reading in more recent years. When I was working on my doctorate, four or five years ago, I had this need for some light entertainment in my reading—some guilty pleasure reading in amongst all the academic stuff. I basically thought that sci-fi might offer some of that, since I remembered liking it as a kid. I read a bit of a range, but the standouts were Kim Stanley Robinson and the mad sci-fi experiments (written and film) of Alexander Kluge. They’re very different from each other, and both very different from my own writing. Alexander Kluge has been a bit of an inspiration for a while though. His writing is very particular, and alongside sci-fi also includes realist and historical pieces. I was also, for my study, reading quite a lot of the critic Fredric Jameson, who writes quite a bit, very beautifully, about sci-fi.

One thing that’s nice about sci-fi, spec-fic or whatever you call it (I’m really not big on labels) is that it can offer a kind of social thought experiment. If something changed about the world—some bit of technology—then what? This is obvious about sci-fi, and it’s obviously not limited to thinking about the future. All the alternative history books do something similar in terms of the past, though they tend to be very geopolitical in focus (what if so-and-so won such-and-such a war...).

The less obvious thing thing about these thought experiments is that they can be both literary and literal. I mean they can be a way to think about a society literally different in the relevant respects from ours (and so to think about ours by comparison) and—at the same time—the changed element, the technological thing, can be a literary metaphor for something in our own society. So the other society—the future world or whatever—is both ours and not ours. I was very conscious of that double potential when I was writing Our Future is in the Air, trying to create a world that was both the real historical world and at the same time an altered one. Time travel in the book is both its own thing, a ‘messing with history’, a laboratory apparatus for creating a different past, and a metaphor for all kinds of things.

Confession time here—I was also inspired by True Blood. The way the vampires in it could, depending on the particular scriptwriter and their whims and the needs of the episode, be a metaphor for queer people, immigrants, terrorists, drugs (and not just ‘drugs’ but hallucinogens AND opiates at the same time, since the vampire blood is both ‘trippy’ and highy addictive), sexual desire and perversion... There’s a something for everyone aspect to it. Anything you want to think about, the vampires offer a way to do it. I wanted time travel in my book to be as promiscuous a metaphor as that, a kind of vehicle for thinking about a whole range of things (I’ll leave it to the reader to see what they are). At the same time it’s also very much a thing of its own, a strange object that inspires thought through its difference from anything we know.

The ‘government reports and interviews’ which tell their own version of science, history and politics in the book sit alongside the main narrative. Can you talk about what part what these ‘reports’ play in the story?

The problem with sci-fi—which is really only a version of a problem with any fiction I guess—is how to get the world, the background, the history etc explained. In a way I didn’t want to bother. I didn’t want to have to drop pregnant details into dialogue, say. I didn’t want to think about all the novelistic information management tricks that build worlds. The boxed sections are a way around that—a trick that avoids all the tricks. Just lay the information out. Give the reader a dossier of background info.

They’re also intended to give the book a sort of documentary feel. There’s all kinds of real historical information and reflection in them as well as the made-up information about the altered history. I think having it all presented just straight, as if it were documentary evidence, heightens that sense that I’ve mentioned, the sense that this is about our own actual history while being different from it. It heightens, I hope, that readerly tension.

It’s also a way to just throw whatever I wanted into the book, without having to justify it through the finer constructions of plot. That’s an attitude to material you find in contemporary art: put this or that in the gallery and say to people, just look at this! It allows people to make up their own minds about it, without it having to be freighted with plot meanings. Maybe this is just a slightly blunt form of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag’ theory of fiction: the story is a bag you use to carry a whole range of stuff around in. It all rattles around in there. The boxed sections were a lovely device for that.

The novel is also concerned about the impact of intelligence gathering and privacy in the domestic sphere, the lives of the families and characters in the novel – can you talk about how this operates in the story?

Weirdly, given that it plays a significant part in the book, I’m not that interested in spying per se. I’ve included very little detail about spying itself. It is more of a plot and character function, and a carrier for wider ideas.

One of the spies is really a comic character—he’s partly there for laughs. The spies are also there to hold some of the plot’s secrets and its motivations. If it wasn’t spies, it would be, I don’t know, gangsters, or conspiracists (I guess there’s some of them too) or corrupt businessmen or something. They’re antagonists, they drive the plot, often in their absence.

The other thing they do is allow another kind of social group and another set of ideas to be represented. The milieu of the book is very left, activist and countercultural. For the book to reach outside that milieu it needs a collision with another milieu—and the intelligence community seemed a good foil. This is why there’s comedy, since comedy can be about the clash of mores. So they’re there to play out another whole social world and its associated ideas and attitudes. Actually those attitudes are much more interesting to me than surveillance itself: conservatism, fear and obsession with threats and security. That’s a whole, ordinary culture in itself, probably one we all participate in. That’s a big part of what the spies are doing there—representing the spies, the security apparatus, in ourselves and in our culture.

Our Future is in the Air, by Tim Corballis.

$30, p/b.