Victor Robert Lee’s literary espionage novel Performance Anomalies, largely set in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan, introduces a unique spy hero, partly of Chinese origin, who might give Jason Bourne and James Bond a run for their money. The Japan Times called Performance Anomalies “a thoroughly original work of fiction.”
Stories From Asia recently interviewed Victor Robert Lee about his new novel:
SFA: First off, give us a brief take on what Performance Anomalies is about.
VRL: Performance Anomalies is about an unusual freelance spy who gets called to Kazakhstan to rescue a former lover from a brutal agent of the Chinese government. The lover has become a pawn in Beijing’s attempt to take over Kazakhstan, an oil-rich country as big as Western Europe.
The spy is an orphaned young man born in Brazil. His nervous system operates about ten times faster than normal, which gives him certain capabilities beyond neuro-typical humans, and many organizations are keen to employ his special skills.
That’s the surface story. Underneath, I’d say it’s really about a young man grappling with what is right and what is wrong, and discovering how to use his talents for good in a dangerous world.
SFA: Your protagonist, named Cono, seems like a modernized James Bond or Jason Bourne, but he’s multi-ethnic, part Chinese, and has this accelerated neurological system you mentioned. Describe that a bit more.
VRL: Scientists at Stanford determined that Cono has a genetic variation that results in his brain clock running much faster than normal. It means that he perceives very fast events as if they occur in slow motion, and he can respond to events with a swiftness that is beyond normal—more like the speed of a frog’s tongue when it snatches a fly. A neuro-typical human can’t see that. His brain also processes information faster. The genetic alteration the scientists found is on his chromosome number seven, where many brain-related genes reside. The scientists even nicknamed him “Cono 7q,” “7q” meaning the long arm of chromosome seven.
SFA: Where did you get the idea for such a character, in particular this different neurological system?
VRL: I was flying a hang-glider and I crashed. As the ground rushed up at me, time seemed to slow down. What must have been a few seconds seemed like a strangely long time, and what I saw with my eyes seemed like stuttering still frames, not the normal flow of vision. That stayed with me. In fact, I can see it even now as I think about it. Later I wondered, what if someone saw the world in slow motion like that every day, all the time? And what if this timing distortion extended to the way he moved and thought and reacted?
I was flying a hang-glider and I crashed. As the ground rushed up at me, time slowed down.
SFA: Apparently you survived the crash. Were you badly injured?
VRL: Fortunately I was very lucky and I hit the ground where there was a sort of natural pit, so the hang-glider took most of the impact. I came away mostly OK, but the hang-glider was totaled.
SFA: Tell us exactly what you mean by “performance anomalies,” and do they exist in the real world?
VRL: Performance anomalies are highly unusual abilities that arise in a tiny number of individuals, due to rare genetic mutations. In real life, several performance anomalies have recently been identified. Some rare individuals, for example, do not register pain. A Finnish cross-country skiing champion has a mutated receptor that results in his body cranking out extra red blood cells, which helps tremendously in aerobic sports. A baby was born in Germany a few years ago with bulging muscles, later traced to a mutation in his myostatin gene. There are more examples, and it’s likely that others will be discovered.
Performance anomalies are highly unusual abilities that arise in a tiny number of individuals, due to rare genetic mutations.
SFA: What about the accelerated nervous system that sets Cono apart? Is this science fact or science fiction?
VRL: Cono’s hyper-fast neurological processing sounds way out there, right? But a few years ago researchers reported in the journal Science that during sleep, memories of real-time experiences are processed by the brain at a higher speed than while awake—six to seven times faster. Here’s what they conclude: “When behavioral constraints are removed, the brain’s intrinsic processing speed may be much faster than it is in real time.” So maybe we’re all as fast as Cono—when we are sleeping.
Maybe we’re all as fast as Cono—when we are sleeping.
SFA: The plot of the book includes an attempt by the government of China, through people like its fictional agent, Mr. Zheng, to take over the huge country of Kazakhstan. Is that realistic, or does it go too far beyond plausibility?
VRL: Performance Anomalies is fiction, of course. But keep in mind that some historians refer to China as the last empire. In a modern age where former colonial empires like England, the U.S., France, Japan, Holland, Russia, etc. (it’s a long list) largely gave up their colonial rule of vast territories, Beijing is still holding on tightly to Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, and demanding that Taiwan come back under its rule.
In the past year and a half, Beijing has also announced that the whole South China Sea is its territory as well. The area involved is the size of the Mediterranean. Other countries around the same sea—the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, for example, object. Their governments are alarmed by what can only be described as a wholesale annexation by China of the South China Sea and its extensive natural resources. It’s not so different from a takeover by China of the neighboring oil-rich country of Kazakhstan—which is at the heart of Performance Anomalies.
SFA: In your novel, the Beijing agent Mr. Zheng is a sort of enforcer and the vehicle for Beijing’s takeover ambitions, but he also has a terrible family history. How does that figure into the story?
VRL: Agent Zheng’s family suffered horribly during the Cultural Revolution, as did tens of millions of families in real-life China. His parents were well-educated elites who were humiliated and then beaten to death by the Red Guards—an unfortunately common occurrence in that era. In a way, the trauma that young Zheng suffered, and which damaged his psyche, is a reflection of the trauma endured by the larger society.
Imagine if all of the highly educated people of a whole country, a civilization thousands of years old, were expunged over the course of a decade. What is left? How long does it take to recover? What wounds continue to gape open? It wasn’t that long ago—the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s. I’ve spoken with many Chinese citizens who have similar family histories. But it is a forbidden, unhealed history. The Chinese Communist Party blocks all Internet searches on the topic; it is banned from textbooks. Agent Zheng in Performance Anomalies embodies the wound of the Cultural Revolution that festers to this day in China.
Agent Zheng in Performance Anomalies embodies the wound of the Cultural Revolution that festers to this day in China.
SFA: Your novel is not very complementary about the government in Beijing, at least the fictional version. Where do you think China is headed?
VRL: First, I ask you to please remember that the Chinese people and the government in Beijing are two different things. Often the press uses the phrase “the Chinese” when they really mean the current government of China. I think that mixing up the two does a mean disservice to the people of China, who, like people everywhere, desire prosperous, fulfilling lives and freedom.
Second, remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The single party in control of China has absolute power. The communist party’s corruption is pervasive and a source of anger for millions of Chinese citizens.
Third, and perhaps the biggest wildcard in terms of future direction, is whether the rapidly expanding military in China will usurp the party and establish absolute control itself. President Xi Jinping appears for now to have tightened a firm grip on it, but what if he acquires so much power that he becomes another Mao? Imagine a Mao-type dictator with the massive and high-tech military of New China rather than the crude forces the country had decades ago.
Imagine a Mao-type dictator with the massive and high-tech military of New China rather than the crude forces the country had decades ago.
Another signal regarding China today is that thousands of Chinese citizens who have enough money to travel are voting with their feet, trying to leave the country and taking their capital with them.
SFA: You set most of the novel in Kazakhstan; tell us how and why you chose this location, which probably is not well known to many readers.
VRL: Where to start when talking about this extraordinary country? I’ve had the good fortune to spend a lot of time in Kazakhstan, which has a rich mixture of ethnicities, partly due to Stalin forcing whole populations to relocate in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Russians, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Koreans, Pakistanis, Chinese, and others. The country is corrupt, endearing, maddening, full of turmoil, and enormous; it’s a fulcrum between China and the West. It has lots of oil, gas, uranium, jihadis, and leftover nuclear material and bioweapons. Many poisons are concentrated there. So, Cono—I have the perfect destination for you. Fortunately you will also find some good and strong people in Kazakhstan. One old lady I met there told me: “In my country, when we think about the future, we shake.” Kazakhstan—I am still bewildered by it.
One old lady I met there told me: “In my country, when we think about the future, we shake.” Kazakhstan—I am still bewildered by it.
SFA: Getting back to the novel, there are several female characters who are integral to the story, more than in most spy novels. How did that come about?
VRL: Performance Anomalies is unusual for a spy story in that the women overshadow the men in many ways. There are several strong women in the novel— fierce and prickly Xiao Li, whom Cono adores, Katerina the shrewd CIA operative, Dimira the brave schoolteacher who has been dealt tragedy by life. Even the lead jihadist is a woman. They all reflect women I have known, who were utterly fearless and strong beyond words. I wanted their kind of spirit to live in the story.
SFA: In addition to his unusual nervous system, Cono has a very different personality, almost Zorba-esque in some ways. How did that arise?
VRL: Cono was orphaned at an early age and fended for himself in the forests and on the streets, so he’s a blank slate as far as society is concerned. He builds his identity by a combination of his own will and the meandering travels he makes, many of them through China, the origin of his father’s family. His self-education about life allows him to ask the most basic questions—questions that most of us have glossed over or buried away. I hope that through Cono’s eyes, the reader can see the world with an exuberance and an innocence and a clarity. That’s a bit paradoxical, considering Cono must also use his strange talents to kill people in order to save his friends.
I hope that through Cono’s eyes, the reader can see the world with an exuberance and an innocence and a clarity.
SFA: Cono is an unusual protagonist, to say the least. He’s a good guy, the guy we’re supposed to root for, but his morals and allegiances are not always —well, sometimes they seem questionable or extreme. In one scene he deals with a man in a way some readers might find overly punitive. What can you say about Cono’s morals? Is he a moral man, even though he lies, steals, and kills for his missions? Is there some question or boundary you’re trying to explore here?
VRL: Yes, there is. Please keep in mind the raw, un-socialized nature of Cono. The question posed in the episode you refer to is this: “If a group of miscreants are about to assault your lover, do you run or do you send a message back to them?” In this case, Cono does both, escaping with Xiao Li, who has been traumatized, and leaving a badly (and you might say creatively) damaged assailant behind.
Is Cono a good man? He doesn’t even know what that means at first. But he begins to ask the question, in different ways and with varied conclusions. This is a central element of the journey for Cono, and I hope for the reader. On one level I am modestly hoping to recapitulate the trajectory of human moral development. Hard to do in 300 pages, in a spy novel!
SFA: What else is in store for Cono?
VRL: Cono is a young man, with his whole future ahead of him. He is still hungry, hungry to be needed, to be pivotal, no matter the risk. For him, the world has no boundaries. There are plenty of tyrannical forces that will attract his attention. And his talents are very much in demand.
SFA: The Author’s Note at the back of the novel says you live on the road in Asia and write under a pen name. Why the pseudonym?
VRL: It’s a practical matter. In countries run by authoritarian regimes, I have to apply for government-issued travel visas. You’d be surprised how sensitive some authoritarian regimes can be if they’re not flattered by your writing. Just ask Chinese citizens whose internet is constantly censored. And journalists across Central Asia, where what you write can get you killed. I don’t want to be denied entry to some of these countries because my real name is on a black list.
SFA: Do you have any final thoughts to take away regarding Performance Anomalies?
VRL: I hope Cono’s personality will get under people’s skin, and help them to look at the big wide world a little differently, with a little more clarity and wonder.
Stories From Asia presents fiction and non-fiction literature with an Asia focus.
Victor Robert Lee reports from the Asia-Pacific region and is the author of Performance Anomalies, a literary espionage novel set in Asia. His non-fiction articles on the South China Sea, the East China Sea, China, Indonesia, and other Asian territories can be found in The Diplomat and elsewhere.