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Brave new world

Science fiction in Maltese remains a not-so-very popular genre. Melisande Aquilina interviews Mark Anthony Fenech, author of It-Tawmaturgu, about the inspiration behind his dystopian narrative

In a perhaps not-so-distant future, humanity is not relegated to one planet. It has, in fact, colonised a number of planets within the solar system, has developed a new technological lifestyle and has evolved into a liberal and decadent, yet structured, civilisation.

Humans are bored. They will try out anything to feel something – violence as sport, casual sex, carefully-administered hallucinogens, highlighting the fact that, perhaps, the future is not so different from today’s present.

This dystopian premise is the reality presented by 29-year old Maltese writer Mark Anthony Fenech. Mark Anthony tells the story of a nameless mercenary whose enhanced mind and body gives him a cutting edge over the rest of the military, and whose single-minded ruthlessness belies a love of poetry, literature, and philosophy; all concepts which have been forgotten and lost by his society.

Although he has previously published two short stories locally, It-Tawmaturgu is his first published novel, with a planned sequel as part of a duology. I caught up with him to find out more.

While reading It-Tawmaturgu, it was fascinating to encounter various descriptions of laser weapons, interstellar spacecrafts, bionic body-parts and other imagined technological advancements, which you always managed to perfectly relate in Maltese.  Was it hard to adapt the Maltese language in order to find the correct wording?

The trick was to let the context explain the new word to the reader without going out of the way to describe it and hamper the flow of the text. The Maltese language itself is malleable enough to be used for anything.

Sure, it was difficult at first, but at the same time it was fun creating neologisms, delving into the clockwork of the language and using archaic Maltese words to describe futuristic technology. The presence of Semitic and Romance vocabulary, not to mention the influx of English words, also provided me with the necessary clay to mould the register I came up with.

Your book is full of scientific data, yet main characters constantly refer to ancient mythology, philosophical concepts, romantic poems and forgotten religions. There is a contrast between the stark emotionless reality of the present, where all religions are banned and against the law, and the cultured inspiring dream of the past. Do you really think society is moving towards such a future?

The thing with religion is that while it is absent, its influence – mainly through a littering of words in everyday language – is not forgotten. It’s like finding archaeological remains without knowing their origin or using words whilst being totally unaware of their provenance.

Our society might be moving towards such a future, although the way I see it religion still has a powerful hold upon the world. When I say religion,  I do not mean traditional religions but even simply the dogmatic way we still think and debate.

Which authors or works of literature most inspired you while writing It-Tawmaturgu?

There are three authors who spurred me on to write in Maltese. When I was younger I was a fan of Trevor Zahra’s books especially the mystery books such as Il-Qamar ll-Aħdar, Meta Jaqa’ ċ-Ċpar, and L-Għar tax-Xelter.

Another author whose work prompted me to write in Maltese is Ġużè Stagno and his novel Ramon u ż-Żerbinotti. John Bonello – whose help editing It-Tawmaturgu was invaluable – is the author of the sci-fi duology Unus Mundus and the fantasy trilogy Il-Logħba tal-Allat, and I consider his books to be the torchbearers which shone a little light in the big lacuna within Maltese literature, that is the lack of science fiction novels in Maltese.

A number of other iconic authors, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Walter M. Miller Jr, Robert A Heinlein, and Jonathan Swift, among many others, were also instrumental, as well as other artists from the Warhammer 40,000 corpus of authors, namely Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill and Aaron Dembski-Bowden.

What kind of research did you do before writing this book, and how long did it take?

I had to do a lot of research. I remember trying to grasp the finer points of general relativity and astrophysics, nanotechnology and biology – especially the way the human brain works – not to mention the concept of thaumaturgy in religion, during the early hours of the night.  I can honestly say that I learned a lot. The decision behind the use of a particular word or scene would entail hours of research, sometimes.

I actually started writing the novel in August 2012 and was researching all the while. I had already finished the novel when an age-old conundrum was laid to rest and it was definitely proven that there was liquid water on Mars on September 28, 2015. I couldn’t pass that up and reworked a scene towards the end of the novel, which is a nod to this monumental discovery.

Research helps, especially when it comes to scientific accuracy. Sure, this is science fiction and it’s set in the distant future, however any flight of fancy should originate from concepts grounded in scientific facts.

The novel tackles the search for the self, the importance of religious beliefs, the loss of family unity, childhood, humanity’s penchant to violence, friendship, self-esteem and many other issues. Which one do you deem to be the  focal point of the narrative and why?

There isn’t a particular focal point. The themes crept up as I went along but I did not write with a particular message in mind – at least not a conscious level.

That said, if I could sift through and extract those themes which were foremost in my mind while writing the novel, they would be my hope that humanity will eventually take to the stars and migrate in a great expansion, establishing colonies in space, and humanity mastering technology to such an extent that the distinction between what is human and what is artifice would be blurred.

Although the cynic in me decries such a dream, there is this kernel of hope at the fact that the greatest discoveries of our time when it comes to space were the result of international cooperation.

This brings me to another theme, the phenomenon of contradiction which characterises humanity. The protagonist of It-Tawmaturgu is testament to this quirk of the human condition. The character has a penchant for cruelty and kindness in equal measure and does not conform to a fixed set of traits, exactly like each and every one of us.

It-Tawmaturgu: Il-Ħmura ta’ Filgħaxija is published by Horizons. Mark Anthony Fenech is currently working on translating the novel into English, while planning its sequel, which will be called It-Tawmaturgu: Il-Ħmura ta’ Filgħodu.

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