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Peter Such

September 16th, 2012

After a 25-year hiatus, novelist Peter Such has returned to the future with his dystopic view of terrorism and technology run amuck.

Peter Such’s energetic novel, Earthbaby (Ekstasis), envisions a future devastated by global warming. Technology’s cure is a deep space habitat to be tested by scientists aboard a prototype called Earthbaby.

The astronauts soon discover that General Foreman, the President of the American Protectorates (formerly North America), has hijacked their research mission by secretly hiding nuclear weapons on board.

The novel is narrated from the ground by NASA chief Andrew Tremain, who escapes assassination by Foreman’s Lifeist forces, and from Earthbaby by crew member Lillith Shawnadithit, a feminist “psychosimulacra” researcher.

As Andrew and Lillith struggle on behalf of humanity, a bizarre sect called The Regulators is gaining influence in the highly technologized society of 2039.

“This is a dystopia,.” says Such. “I don’t want this to happen. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be really, really happy. Ten years from now, I’d like people to say, ‘Peter, you didn’t know what the hell you were talking about.’”

Peter Such studied at the University of Toronto in the 1960s under Northrup Frye and Marshall McLuhan, and alongside Margaret Atwood and Dennis Lee. Atwood, Lee and Such left the university in protest when they weren’t allowed to do a Ph.D. on a Canadian subject.

His best-known novel, Riverrun (1973), concerns the last days of the indigenous Beothuk people of Newfoundland who were exterminated with the coming of Europeans by 1829.

Such’s first novel Fallout (1968) arose from experiences as a uranium miner near Elliot Lake. His history of the Dorset Inuit and Beothuk is Vanished Peoples (1978). His Dolphin’s Wake (1979) is a thriller about an archaeologist and his wife who get drawn into opposing the ruling junta in Greece.

Such’s first chapbook of poetry from (m)other Tongue Press on Saltspring Island, Their Breath Is The Sky (2003), was his first title to be published outside of Ontario.

Interviewer Sara Cassidy met Peter Such at his home in Victoria, where he and his wife, the artist Joyce Kline, formerly ran an award-winning bed ’n’ breakfast operation. He now works as a renovations consultant and contractor.

BCBW: Of all the dates a futurist novelist can choose, why 2039?

SUCH: Because I’ll be a hundred years old. And I’m going to see how much of it comes true.

BCBW: You plan to live to a hundred years old?

SUCH: A hundred and four, actually. But it’s important to tell you that I wrote this book seven years ago. The literary presses didn’t want it and it was too literary for the science fiction people. It’s this crazy cross genre thing.

There’s a professor of literature at Lethbridge University named Robert Runte, and he looked at an early copy of the manuscript and said, “Oh this just fits in with the book I’m writing about the difference between science fiction in Canada to that in the United States and the rest of the world.”

BCBW: Did he tell you what typifies Canadian science fiction?

SUCH: Well, number one, it is much more socially conscious and less fantasy and, number two, the heroes are not Rambo-like. They may succeed but they screw up a number of times before they get there. And they are not inviolable. Also, women are very leading characters.

BCBW: Sounds like Earthbaby. Why is it important to know that you wrote the book seven years ago?

SUCH: Because it’s all been coming true!

BCBW: You’ve got global warming turned up high. You’ve got political oppression in the name of anti-terrorism…

SUCH: Yes, I wrote Earthbaby before the terrorist stuff happened. This is the original manuscript, except for two pages at the end, when they’re flying over New York. In the original [manuscript], the twin towers still existed.

BCBW: When the space shuttle reaches Earthbaby, Lillith notes how its magnetic arms reached out toward them like “something both loving and deadly.” How does technology enter your life?

SUCH: Actually, I’m very good at technology and always have been. In this construction work I’m doing, I use explosive bolts and blast them into the floor. But I think I have an essential difference in my approach to technology. To me, it’s just fun. It’s games. And I think that is McLuhan’s posture as well.

The Europeans, particularly the Eastern Europeans, tend to see technology as something playful. In North America, we see technology as a sacrosanct kind of entity, as a religion. But if you take the posture of the clown, then you are in much better shape. You don’t invest in the nightmare…

BCBW: In Earthbaby, the heroes are the ones who raise themselves out of the technology morass, to act for themselves. Are you alarmed by how much technology is in our lives today?

SUCH: Yes. We’re going down a terrible road, actually. But I’m really against ideology. I’ve been accused in some of my writing as being a Marxist but that is the last thing I am, because any ideology to me is anathema. I think to circumscribe the world, to define pattern, is very, very uncreative.

If I am in any way an ideologist, I’m an anarchist. I read Peter Kropotkin when I was young, but that’s because he studied Siberian tribes, and I was very interested in tribal dynamics.
BCBW: Why are you so interested in tribal dynamics?

SUCH: My background was fairly traumatic. I grew up in an orphanage essentially, so I could see the tribal dynamics operating. When you grow up with 800 boys, age seven to 18, in England, at the end of the war, when all the people who are the teachers and the administrators are shell-shocked crazies…

But it goes further than that. In cultural anthropology—and I am a cultural anthropologist—there are two main perspectives:

One is that there is no common human nature, because we are all just purely a product of culture and circumstance. It’s a Skinnerian behaviourist-based notion. The other notion is that there is a common human nature and that we are hard-wired to be a certain way.

My experience, having grown up with 800 boys—where people got beat up and killed—was that if you weren’t totally psycho, there was a tendency for cooperation and a real dynamic of compassion.

So I believe in the common human nature. I believe that basically human beings will love each other and be just with each other.

BCBW: You raise the issue in Earthbaby that we always give over power to psychologically disturbed, tyrant psychopaths. Why do we do that?

SUCH: Because somehow we don’t believe it’s going to happen. I remember my grandfather saying, “You know, we used to laugh at Hitler. We used to go to the movies and they had the news-reels and when we’d see them all marching in goose step we’d roar with laughter.” And apparently when (the SS) first marched down the main street of Copenhagen, when they took over Denmark, the Danes screamed with laughter.

BCBW: That’s also the reaction to the Lifeists in Earthbaby. No one took them seriously. I thought of right-wing, fundamentalist Christians in the States when I read that.

SUCH: Well, yeah. I mean, everybody laughed at Bush. A sort of, you know, D-minus student in a fraternity, drunk, never been out of the country. Screwed up the only job he ever had, which was in the oil industry. What a laughable character. I really don’t believe Bush is the power, of course—there are all these people who (prop) him up.

BCBW: Andrew Tremaine muses that because General Foreman is so vacant, it allows people to project all sorts of things onto him—whether it’s a patriarch or some kind of saviour. It’s almost slike we’re more likely to have a vapid leader than to have a leader who is really truly complex and thoughtful.

SUCH: But being fundamentally an anarchist, I don’t believe in leadership. It is really frightening for me to see all these leadership courses in the schools— people are getting degrees in it, that is really, really frightening. No, I mean, leaders spontaneously arise, but in tribal society they arise not out of anything except situational context.

BCBW: Earthbaby is also very interested in interpreting reality. There is virtual reality modeling and even projected picture windows to make the Earthbaby feel larger. And there is no independent media left.

SUCH: Yeah, so you can’t figure out what’s real. That results in a tremendous sense of paranoia, which we have in our society. We are over-reacting to all the information we get. We know that a lot of it isn’t true and yet we want to believe some of it is true. Our friends believe some of it’s true, so we get convinced it’s true and it turns out it isn’t true.

The language is bastardised, words don’t mean what they should. If you want to keep our lives and language honest you go to the poets. Poetry is really guerilla warfare and I try to read young people’s poetry as much as I can because it’s always more authentic than anything you’ll read in the newspaper.

BCBW: Can you say something about the Regulators?

SUCH: (Laughter) I leave it up to the reader to decide whether the Regulators really exist or whether they are just a model that has been created by a very highly evolved computer generation. I don’t want people to know whether they are real or not. I just wanted to leave this edge of mystery about it all.

I guess at this stage of my life, I’ve nearly died several times and every time I’ve woken up after being half-dead, I’ve had ten seconds of feeling really peaceful and fulfilled before I get back into the real rush of the world. I’m not a great believer in any kind of religion… [but] I still had this feeling that there’s this enormous mystery about existence, which everybody can’t really just… accept.

I feel there is such an intensely huge mystery around the fact we are existing and that you and I are talking right now and relating as human beings over very fundamental questions. I think every age interprets and re-examines these questions and comes up with some kind of model around which they can somehow approach it.

BCBW: The book jacket mentions sex just once—but there is a lot of sex in Earthbaby. Are you imagining a more sexualized future?

SUCH: I write from my life’s experience. All the people I know are very, very erotic and sexual. I am not held back about throwing it on the page. I think we’re living through a Puritan age because of AIDS and all that.

BCBW: Do you think we need more sex in fiction?

SUCH: Absolutely. Yeah, I really do. But what we’ve been lacking really seriously is a socially and politically conscious novel. I haven’t been published for a long time, and I’ll tell you why—I have three novels in there [points toward his house] and they are all socially and politically significant. We have all these incredible people in this country, but what we get out of the publishing companies is a slightly exotic read for what I call the WASP market.

Essay Date: 2005

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