The Big Idea: Paz Pardo
Posted on February 14, 2023 Posted by John Scalzi 2 Comments
Writer Robert Benchley once noted that you can do anything, as long as it’s not the thing you’re supposed to be doing. Paz Pardo knows a little bit about that – in fact, it’s one reason why her colorful new novel The Shamshine Blind is now out in the world.
What if emotions were weaponized—literally. What if someone could shoot you full of envy, or ennui, or joy? What if you could feel giddy, teenage obsession just by taking a tab at a party? Would you ever trust your own feelings?
The Shamshine Blind happened because I ran out of books in an internet-less house in the Argentine Andes. I was a Playwright, who Wrote Theater. I’d just been accepted into playwriting grad school! But I’d discovered that I wrote best with a constant input of fun books with smart protagonists, weird worlds, and intricate plots. And here I was, working on a grim play about my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and the Argentine dictatorship (great fodder for grant applications! Very hard to write!) and I’d run out of everything to read.
So I did the only thing I could think of—I started writing my own book. I had this idea for colorful weaponized emotions: psychopigments. Like paintball, but with feelings. I couldn’t shake the thought of chaos caused by jealous couples dosing each other with Envy Green. And once I started, the world kept growing. The main character, Kay Curtida, grew on me too.
Worldbuilding started out as a hoot. Who would’ve discovered the tech that turned emotions into weapons? Argentina, with the highest rate of psychoanalysts per capita in the real world, was the obvious choice to me (and I was immensely tickled by the idea of Argentina as a superpower). They would’ve used psychopigments to win the Falklands War in the ‘80s. Most of my friends in the States didn’t even know that Britain and Argentina had once faced off over a bunch of rocky, sheep-covered islands; setting that as a turning point in world history sounded excellent to me.
But as I kept writing, the repercussions of these choices made the world I was imagining a disconcertingly serious place. The brutal Argentine dictatorship, with its neo-fascistic willingness to murder civilians to enforce “traditional values,” would’ve stayed in power—would even have provided a model of government others would seek to emulate. It started out almost as an escapist joke, but in an era of creeping fascism I found myself writing about a world that felt uncomfortably familiar.
At the heart of the book was Curtida, a know-it-all with a keen eye for the absurd and a blind spot the size of the Argentine Pampa when it came to her feelings. Curtida works a small-town beat as a member of the Psychopigment Enforcement Agency, just south of the ruins of San Francisco. She’s extremely competent—a mixed blessing for someone without the interest or tools for politicking that could nab her a transfer to a bigger city.
Curtida’s snarky commentary grabbed me from the get-go, but it was her emotional blind-spot that really kept my going. Growing up, I was always afraid of being too emotional. I was often one of the few girls in the nerdy boys’ spaces—whether that was a Magic: The Gathering tournament in middle school, the robotics competition in high school or the computer science classroom in college. I saw my male friends trying to decide if their own feelings were rational, if they were “objectively” worth paying attention to; and I knew that, as a girl, I was doubly likely to get dismissed if I got too touchy-feely.
So I watched my emotions carefully, analyzing each reaction I had to see if it was reasonable, dismissing the ones that didn’t make the cut—oh, I’m sad because I’ve been listening to depressing music; oh, I’m angry because it’s raining again. Usually if I didn’t like a feeling, I could find some tortured logic to explain it as coming from outside of me. Squash it down and ignore it, pretend it wasn’t really mine. This was not conducive to robust mental health, but it got me through college and my early twenties. Most months, I was a pretty functional depressed person.
Curtida’s got those same tendencies, but she lives in a world in which feelings literally do come from outside of you, thanks to the psychopigments she spends her life chasing through the streets of Daly City. It’s a world in which that depressive ability to squash down feelings can come in really handy: being good at ignoring your emotions is important when you’re trying to do something like arrest a crook who’s been contaminating the emotional landscape of the whole neighborhood with runoff from their illegal Cyan Sadness lab. But of course, Curtida’s human, and those feelings she can’t—or won’t—see continually make messes in her personal life. Without knowing what’s going on inside her, how could she navigate loss? Love? Her mother? I found myself writing a person I could relate to on a much deeper level than just the wise-cracking gumshoe I’d started out with—someone who struggled with the same things I’ve struggled with throughout my adult life.
My big idea of paintball-but-for-feelings started as a fun escape, but like my favorite great escapes it turned out to have something deeper going on as well. I think it’s still fun—if not, I really screwed up!—but eight years later, I finally feel like I’ve written the book I was hoping to read back when I started.
I guess this means I should get back to working on that play about Alzheimer’s…
The Samshine Blind: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Interesting idea, and hard to back up convincingly, I imagine.