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Science Fiction Not All About Aliens

SEA Write winning writer Win Lyovarin on what inspires his prodigious imagination.


Published: 6/04/2009 at 12:00 AM

Newspaper section: Outlook

When two-time SEA Write winner Win Lyovarin penned Tour Siam 4001, which is being published today in 'Outlook', concepts like "global warming", "ozone hole" and "desertification" were considered rather faraway issues. At the time, in the mid-1990s, the world was basking in the comfort of unlimited capitalist growth, mass consumption hailed as a sign of prosperity, and Win himself was working as a full-time creative director at an advertisement agency.

In Tour Siam 4001, Win paints Thailand in the next two millennia as an ecological catastrophe. By then the pristine forest of Huay Kha Kaeng, one of the country's largest, will have become a wasteland. The Chao Phraya River no longer exists, almost a quarter of once-arable land has been totally submerged under the sea, including the idyllic rock caves in the Andaman Sea that have already been blasted away to supply the cement-producing hub in Phangnga. The former capital, Bangkok, has turned into a chemical industry hub where residents have to wear anti-toxic-gas protection masks round the clock.

Win admitted he was way over the top in his imagination. "But anything can happen if all development goes unchecked as it does now," said Win, adding he wrote the story just to warn the public about possible environmental calamity. "Look at the effects of global warming, the dangerously high tidal movements, etc. These things are no longer derided as impossible," he said.

Call it a mockery of futuristic consumerism or even a precautionary tale of environmental destruction, but for Win, Tour Siam 4001 is first and foremost a piece of "sci-fi".

The labelling is eye-opening. But where are the laser-bleeping gadgets, translucent blob Martians or Darth Vader? Where are Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise with pointy-eared crew?

To the question whether he considers himself a Trekkie (ardent fan of Star Trek, the popular sci-fi series), Win quips, "Actually I must confess I can't tolerate sci-fi stories that show aliens with two legs and a human face." According to Win, science fiction need not be solely about futuristic spaceships and galactic battles. His home/office is proof of that: There is not a single spaceship model or extraterrestrial alien figure to adorn the shelves. The pale yellow apartment walls are mostly decorated with drawings by Win himself - after graduation from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Architecture, he once worked as an interior designer.

But as a sci-fi writer, Win said he has sparks of inspiration from reading heavy academic tomes on medical progress, neurology, biotechnology, astrology and the environment. He also delves into the fields of philosophy and theology, seeing the interconnection between science and religious beliefs.

"Science fiction does not have to look futuristic. It could be about farming villages in the outback of Thailand. It could even address philosophical issues like in 2001: A Space Odyssey (by Arthur C. Clark), where you don't see a single alien. It could be about social or religious problems. Regardless of form, one essential aspect of every work of sci-fi is that the story must have some rational elements in it,"said Win, who as a youth fell in love with science fiction after reading Jantree Siriboonrod's stories in the now-defunct sci-fi magazine Wittaysart Mahadsajan (Magical Science).

Admitting his bent for defying rules, especially literary-wise (Tour Siam 4001, for example, reads more like a tourism brochure, albeit a sarcastic one), Win said his choice of narrative style could stem from his experiences in the advertisement industry where he worked for over a decade.

"Advertising is the art of telling the same old story but with a new way to say it. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun, so you have to find new ways to present the same message,"he said.

Indeed, Win seems to be playful not only in his narrative styles but also in matters often taken for granted, like, say, the choice of paper and materials. Some of his books - published by his own publishing house - sometimes use a white font printed on black paper to highlight topsy-turvy ideas, or see-through paper for a story about political transparency. He even toyed with the idea of emulating the porous texture of bathroom tissue for a satirical story on Thai politicians (that would certainly be welcome!).

In almost two decades in the literary jungle, Win has earned several literary awards and has cultivated a sizeable group of fans, especially among the younger generation. His first SEA Write award, in 1997, came for a political-history novel entitled Prachatipatai Bon Sen Khanarn (Democracy, Shaken & Stirred). A collection of short stories, Sing Mee Cheewit Tee Riek War Khon (A Living Thing Called Human), won him the second SEA Write award two years later. He has experimented with a vast range of genres - besides sci-fi are mystery/detectives stories, travel documentaries, manuals on writing, inspirational self-help books, pictorial books and even screenplays (including the recent adventure film Puen Yai Jorm Salad, a fantasy account of the history of the southern Pattani state in the 16th century).

Currently, Win, 53, plans to work on another screenplay - this time a biopic of a certain well-known figure in Thai literary circles. Next, he will go back to writing science fiction, the genre he probably feels most comfortable with. Win said he does not yet have any particular plot in his head, just flashes of ideas, adding that he might do something about the phenomenon of the red versus yellow political polarisation.

Hmm... That just lets our imagination run wild. Sci-fi about Thai politics? Will there be aliens in the red and yellow camps? Hopefully, Win might do justice to both "tribes" by using special paper - the bathroom tissue type - to print the story.