[GUEST POST] Lavie Tidhar on ‘Cloud Permutations’

[Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman and the forthcoming sequel Camera Obscura. Other books include the linked-story collection HebrewPunk, the novel The Tel Aviv Dossier (with Nir Yaniv), the novella An Occupation of Angels and several forthcoming novels and novellas including Cloud Permutations, Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God and Martian Sands. He also edited The Apex Book of World SF and runs the World SF News Blog.]


I wrote Cloud Permutations on the island of Vanua Lava, in Vanuatu, in view of the volcano, wreathed in clouds. There are always clouds. They are attracted to islands, the land formations jutting out of the surface of the ocean help them coalesce and form.

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Cloud Permutations is a story of islands, and clouds, and in a way, I think, it’s a story not just of escapism, but of escape.


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You cannot get off an island. There is nowhere else to go.

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I wrote the book in a bamboo hut on the shore of the South Pacific ocean. I could see the volcano from my window. I had no electricity and no clean water. At night rats broke into the food cupboard and ate everything. Fire ants dropped through the tiny holes of the mosquito net and bit us in our sleep. The mosquitoes carried malaria, but that was ok – I had malaria several times before.

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Always shake your underwear before putting them on, because a fire ant often offends.

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At night, sometimes, I would go out for kava. Kava is a drink made from the roots of a plant native to the islands of Vanuatu. The roots are chopped up and mixed with water and produce a dark, dank brown drink that produces relaxation. It makes your sight and hearing sensitive, so the nakamals – the kava-bars – are dark and quiet places, illuminated by a single candle or hurricane lamp, and the stars.

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What if the people I lived with and drank with and laughed with and had fights with were to go into space?

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I fought with my neighbours, who were followers of a church called Assemblies of God. They had a generator and would use it every Sunday to blast out sermons. In Bislama, the common language of the islands of Vanuatu, it sounds something like this:

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Tank yu Jizas blong sevem yumi! Jizaz I sevem yumi!

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Thank you Jesus for saving us. Jesus has saved us!

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I also fought with my other neighbour because his cockerel would crow outside my window at dawn. I threatened to kill it with my bush knife and he threatened to take me to the kot klak – the court clerk. I said go ahead. I must have looked demented, bare-chested, with dreadlocks streaming down my back and a giant bush knife in my hand. I think I was a little demented.

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It happens that way.

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Island madness.

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While the missionaries had done their work in Vanuatu, Christianity in its various forms is only a thin layer on top. What lies beneath it is kastom – the old customs, the old ways.

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Cloud Permutations is about kastom, and about change, too. What if my friends and my neighbours and the kids I was watching growing up around me went into space? What if they settled another planet? How would they preserve kastom?

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What if they found a world that was all ocean, the only land being small islands?

It would look a lot like the world I was living in. The world we were living in.

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The idea of Melanesians going into space makes sense to me. The islands had been depleted massively by the encounter with Europeans. Blackbirders would abduct people under false pretences and carry them away, to Fiji and Australia, to work in the sugar cane fields. Today, Melanesians go to work in the apple orchards of New Zealand. If we ever have a commercial exploitation of space, a mining industry in the asteroid belt, say, it makes sense the companies who do it would hire the same workers they always did.

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I grew my own tomatoes and bartered fishing hooks for fish and published a newspaper, The Torba Times, with headlines such as Ol Jif Blong Torba Oli Diskasem Domestik Vaelens (The Chiefs of Torba Discuss Domestic Violence) and Komuniti Sevis long tufala hu I mekem trabel wetem gel blong tufala (Community Service for Couple who Abused their Daughter) and, possibly my favourite, Sola: Evri Samting I lus (which also run under the headline Supply shortage in Sola: I no gat raes, kerosin mo evri samting).

I ran notices such as Sisen blong Bigbol I open (Coconut Crab Season Opens), Choir Prepares for Solomon Adventure, Traditional Canoe Race to Take Place on Ra Island and, another favourite, Scientists Keep Legs (“Two young scientists who had a serious accident involving a dinghy, a 45HP engine, and the beach in Sola, are reportedly recovering from their injuries”).

I ran adverts for nakamals which didn’t need advertising, guest-houses that had no visitors, and the Market House (Fine Dining in a Relaxed Environment) which had no food. I published eight issues and sold them for 50 Vatu a copy and made enough to buy kava.

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I was going to write the Big Vanuatu Novel, but in the meantime I wrote Cloud Permutations. I doubt the BVN will ever see the light of day (it’s sitting on my hard drive even as I type) but Cloud Permutations was fun. It had adventure and an impossible quest, friendship and cliff-hangers, mysterious aliens and Bislama, that beach language with its Melanesian structure and mostly-English vocabulary which had evolved into the national language of an archipelago where every village and island spoke a different language of their own.

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I still miss speaking Bislama. Taem mi no toktok Bislama mi harem nogud.

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And meanwhile when I wasn’t writing it I was travelling in speed boats and in small planes, from island to island. With my friend Reginald Tarilaka I climbed up to the Gaua volcano (a year or so later it erupted, and half the island had to be evacuated). I felt the ground shake in the night and saw my neighbours go out and shine torches into the sea, to see if a tsunami was coming. I saw a cave where old human skulls were still being kept. I saw the snake-dances of Vanua Lava and Gaua and the giant coconut crabs of the Torres Islands. I visited Ureparapara and Hu.

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Cloud Permutations is a story of islands, and clouds, and adventure. It’s a “South Pacific planetary romance”. It’s a novella. It’s the story of the boy Kal and his quest to find a dark tower. Mostly, I think, it’s a love letter to Vanuatu, as much as it is to old pulp science fiction.

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When the hurricane finally destroyed my hut and carried away my tomatoes, I was already off the island. I never did get to eat them anyway – the neighbours’ kids got to them before I did.

2 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Lavie Tidhar on ‘Cloud Permutations’”

  1. Great! I just got the book and I was already eager to dive into the story – now, after reading this post, more than ever! If you’ll excuse me, I’ll drink a nice, scalding cuppa coffee (it’s DAMN COLD in São Paulo today) and start to read it immediately!!!

  2. It’s a great novella.  You will see my review on Tangent online soon.  Lavie Tidhar is a good sf writer.  Read him any chance you get.

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