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That’s Shanghai Magazine – October 2005 Issue

Cybercity – Sahr Johnny’s Shanghai Dream

At night, driving along Shanghai’s elevated freeway, surrounded by a swathe of skyscrapers, neon lights and an unhealthy patina of urban smog, you’d be forgiven for thinking you took a wrong turn and entered the set of Blade Runner. Which is exactly why Hong Kong-based author Sahr Johnny chose the city as the setting of his first novel, the sci-fi thriller Shanghai Dream. “Shanghai is cutting edge,” he says. “Nothing else compares. Traditionally, cyberpunk novels set in Asia have been Japan-centric, but for anyone who has witnessed the changes in the last decade, it’s easy to imagine China as a world technology leader in the next ten years, let alone thirty.”

Indeed, China’s first English-language cyberpunk technology thriller is set thirty years in the future. The plot follows a burnt out computer hacker, Cad Caldwell, on the verge of nanobot-induced suicide in a cramped Union capsule hotel when a mysterious package arrives from Japan. Inside is a sleek black computer console, a lifeline from someone high up in the yakuza food chain. Before long, Caldwell finds out that his Japanese client is dead and that he has become a moving target running from the long arm of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza faction. Help comes in the form of a Faustian bargain from the surgically-enhanced head of a secret Union electronic warfare unit, which claims to hold the key to Caldwell’s blocked memories. To get his memories back, Caldwell must use the console to hack into the core of a secretive new network deep in the heart of New China.

Complicating matters, Cadwell is up against an unknown artificial intelligence, which plans to send shockwaves through the world’s computerized networks.

A fast-paced thriller laced with dark humor, the book is informed equally by Raymond Chandler’s detective noir, and Cyberpunk classics from the likes of William Gibson and Neale Stephenson.

Granted, sci-fi is often perceived as a genre for young males and computer geeks; indeed, the mere mention of nanotechnology or quantum computing is enough to send readers scurrying back to their copy of Harry Potter or Bridget Jones. Yet Johnny feels Shanghai Dream has a much broader appeal: “Here the technology is accessible and serves as a background rather than a central theme of the story. The main theme is a bunch of ordinary people struggling against the odds to realize their dreams – something that people who wouldn’t usually read sci-fi can relate to and enjoy.”

A resident of Hong Kong since 1993, Johnny has witnessed much of this change first-hand. He previously worked as a technology journalist, and founded an Internet company in the late 90s. Despite his computing background, he refutes any claim that his hero Cad Caldwell bears any autobiographical resemblance. “For a start, says Johnny, “he’s quite a good-looking guy!”

Rather, the author says the novel was inspired by his experiences working as an assistant to a Chinese billionaire, a role that introduced him to any number of dubious officials and businessmen. More than enough to supply material for two sequels; Johnny plans a trilogy with subsequent novels set in Beijing and Hong Kong.

“As IT becomes a major part of Chinese society, the genre’s popularity will inevitably grow,” says Johnny. “However, I’ll only feel successful if I crack America.” Or as Alphonse Karr once said: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Shanghai Dream is available in paperback from Amazon.com

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