TOC interviews Cheah Kit Sun, Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award nominated writer

As a child, he wanted to be an astronaut, a magician, and an inventor. But a while back, he settled for being a writer; and not just any writer, but a sci-fi and fantasy author.

(Benjamin) Cheah Kit Sun is Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award-nominated science fiction and fantasy author. As Cheah Kai Wai, he publishes his work through independent presses, most notably the Covenant Chronicles and Song of Karma. Meanwhile, as Cheah Kit Sun, he writes self-published fiction to be posted on Steemit and other platforms.

Recently, Mr Cheah kick-started a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to have his latest project Babylon Blues Remastered funded. This project is basically the definitive edition of his earlier big hit Babylon Blues, which was originally conceived and written as a series of interconnected web-serials.

According to Mr Cheah, “The concepts [of Babylon Blues] were sound, the characters were intriguing, the tech and world resonated with me and my readers, the stories were compelling – but they suffered from a lack of continuity. And, alas, deep proofreading.”

“Hence, I’m poring through the old stories and cleaning up the canon. Old terms like ‘argees’ have been phased out, character descriptions have been cleaned up, terminology and jargon made consistent. Most significantly, I have rewritten key scenes for additional punch and characterisation. Some action scenes have been re-choreographed for greater authenticity, some dialogue cleaned up to make more sense, and in some cases entire scenes have been significantly rewritten,” he added.

Earlier today (8 November), TOC reached out to Mr Cheah to find out more about his current work and what’s next for him – while getting to know some tidbits of his personal life and experience as a writer in Singapore.

Waves of nostalgia washed over us as the interview got started. If you’re wondering why, well, Mr Cheah is actually a former writer and contributor for TOC before he went off with his writing career.

TOC: What prompted you to come up with a Remastered edition of the Babylon Blues series?

Cheah: The original plan for Babylon Blues was to release each story as a free web-serial, then compile them in a single collection. Since I was going to compile the stories anyway, I decided I might as well revise the stories to clean up errors, correct the canon revise critical scenes, and take elevate the overall standard of the collection.

TOC: What makes this particular genre you are involved in unique and special (to you and to your readers)?

Cheah: Babylon Blues doesn’t fit into any one genre. It’s multiple genres mashed together, in the grand tradition of the pulp era.

As a cyberpunk work, it is a dark reflection of the present, extrapolated into the future, showing the intersection of politics, technology, and greed.

As a horror story, it probes at the reader’s fundamental beliefs in reality, society, and humanity.

As an action thriller, it offers intense firefights, authentic combat scenes, and believable tactics.

Babylon Blues takes the best of these three genres and combines them in an explosive mix. Come for the firefights and the tech, stay for the intrigue and the moments of transcendence.

TOC: Where do you draw ideas from when you write up the stories and characters in the series? Also, how much time do you invest in research to bring out the sense of realism in your writing?

Cheah: The title of Babylon Blues came from the Babylon of the Bible. The greatest, richest, and most powerful city in the world – and the ultimate symbol of rebellion against God. A fitting name for a city ruled by demons in the guise of Gods.

But the original genesis of the Babylon Blues concept came from music. The songs Tokio Funka, YoiYoi Kokon and Oedu Ranvu presented vision of decadent cities and corrupt societies juxtaposed with scenes of lush beauty and historical references; of the old and the new seamlessly entwined to create something original; and of ukiyo: the floating world of high art, commerce and pleasure; and simultaneously the sorrowful world Buddhists sought to escape.

Babylon is an unholy union of the Christian Babylon and the Japanese Ukiyo. A city of lust and wealth, power and corruption; a city ruled by false gods that rejects the past but can’t completely escape it; a city that worships materialism and hedonism, and in so doing, creates the conditions for prolonged suffering.

The main characters belong to the Special Tasks Section. The STS is a mix of two real-world police tactical units, BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais) and the Hostage Rescue Team. Like BOPE, they penetrate no-go zones and hunt the most dangerous lawbreakers in Babylon, bringing heavy armour and firepower to bear. The STS may technically be law enforcement agents, but they are on par with military special operations forces, and operate with military rules of engagement instead of police. As with the HRT, the STS is the premier Federal law enforcement tactical unit, capable of conducting hostage rescue, counterterrorism, and other special operations.

In contrast, the antagonists of the series, the New Gods, are based on world myths and religions. Each of the New Gods represents a religious heresy, in keeping with their true nature as demons and false gods. The more technologically-oriented factions are also inspired by real-world transhuman and post-human philosophies, presented in a dark mirror. They may offer you the world, and all they ask of you is your immortal soul.

I invest as much time into research as I need to. I strive for accuracy and authenticity with every story I write, in keeping with the thriller tradition. I’ve spent dozens of hours trawling forums to study the merits of various calibres, scrutinizing online videos to see for myself how gunfighters and samurai would move and think, reading white papers and news articles to get the science right, and more. I’m probably much more obsessive about research than your average writer, but when writing thrillers, it’s an asset.

TOC: Are there any local elements (anything Singapore-related) in your works? Does the political climate or culture in Singapore influences the content of your writing?

Cheah: When planning Babylon Blues, I wanted to create the quintessential cyberpunk city. Humongous skyscrapers, nights drowning in neon, crowds of people everywhere, an emphasis on verticality, the rejection and erasure of the past. While cyberpunk might have been popularized in America, this aesthetic more accurately represents life in an Asian mega-city, including Singapore. Some of the design elements and street scenes in Babylon Blues were inspired, directly or otherwise, by life in Singapore. The sharp-eyed reader would also notice other references to Singapore in place names and locations.

I also wanted to capture a sense of a modern cosmopolitan mega-city. Babylon, like Singapore, has a highly diverse population, hailing from a multitude of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Technology is integral to daily life, from wearables to augmented reality to autopiloted vehicles. This combination of technology and diversity is an everyday experience, both in Singapore and in Babylon.

The erasure of the past also features prominently in Babylon Blues. In Singapore, the government is constantly remaking the country, in the process eroding our cultural heritage. I took that concept and amplified it for Babylon: the old faiths are all but forgotten, scriptures are unknown, the names of pre-Babylon countries and peoples excised from history.

Speaking for my other works in general, some Singaporean elements do show up here and there. My previous series, Dungeon Samurai, has a Singaporean as a secondary character. My superhero vigilante thriller story Hollow City features a protagonist who is the son of a Singaporean, and spent time in Singapore before migrating to the United States. He might have assimilated and convinced himself he is an American, but he still retains some of Singapore in him (especially respect for authority), and he still remembers how to speak Singlish.

As for the Covenant Chronicles series, the decision to create a complex tapestry of gods, angels and demons was inspired by Singapore’s own multi-religious background, with various faiths co-existing side-by-side. And Book 3, which is coming soon, features a mission in Singapore.

TOC: Is there an underlying message or theme that Babylon Blues Remastered seeks to highlight?

Cheah: Stand fast in the face of overwhelming evil. Live your life by the great virtues of truth, beauty and goodness. There is much more to life than the pursuit of mere wealth and pleasure.

These themes run through all of my works, in some fashion or other.

TOC: When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer? Also, what inspires you to write? And how often do you write?

Cheah: When I was 12 years old, I sat down on a lark and banged out a page of fiction. I liked it so much I decided to make career out of it.

Inspiration comes from everywhere. Music, movies, myths, martial arts, books, games, current affairs, religion, philosophy. Through life, I find a cornucopia of ideas for stories, characters, settings, and concepts.

When I’m working on a story, I write every day. Morning, afternoon and evening. I strive to write at least 3000 fiction words a day, every day, until the story is done.

TOC: Can you tell us about your prior achievements as well as being Singapore’s first Hugo and Dragon Award nominated writer?

Cheah: Flashpoint: Titan was my first big break. I submitted it during the submissions period for There Will Be War Vol. X, edited by military science fiction grandmaster Jerry Pournelle, back in 2015. It was a hard military science fiction story, featuring a Japanese space warship and its mission to prevent the capture of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, by Chinese forces. The following year, the story was nominated for the Hugo Awards.

In 2017, I wrote No Gods, Only Daimons. It was a very unusual work, one part spy thriller, one part alternate history, one part science fantasy. Riding high on the Hugo Award nomination, it was quickly nominated for the Dragon Award.

With these nominations in hand, I attracted the attention of Silver Empire, a small indie press. They wanted to recruit authors to participate in their Heroes Unleashed shared superhero universe. I accepted their offer, and produced Hollow City. Sure, it is a superhero story. But it is also a story of how a dedicated police officer would become a vigilante, an examination of a third culture kid from Hong Kong and Singapore who tries to live in an America that seems to reject his very existence with each passing day, and an exploration of the Buddhist concept of karma.

I think the real achievement here is somehow convincing my publisher to pick up stories that are extremely unusual (by modern standards).

TOC: What are your plans for the future? Taking into account this Kickstarter campaign ends up a success.

Cheah: After publishing Babylon Blues, I’m going to finish work on my next series, Singularity Sunrise. It is a straight-up cyberpunk story, featuring a psychic contractor trying to remain human in a world that is leaving humanity behind, and an artificial super-intelligence seeking to coexist with humans, in the backdrop of an undeclared war with a dystopian totalitarian China. I’ve written four novels so far, and there’s just one more novel to go before I can move on to post-production.

After that, depending on timelines, I might work on Book 3 of my Heroes Unleashed series, and possibly Book 4 of the Covenant Chronicles as well.

And then, work on will begin on the mainline Babylon series proper.

That’s right: Babylon Blues is just the opening act of a massive series.