Now that Railhead is on the shortlist for the Carnegie Medal pupils in schools all over the country will be reading it as part of the Carnegie Shadowing scheme (and probably going ‘this is SO BORING’, but hopefully it’s winning a few new fans). Anyway, here’s an interview which I recorded for the Carnegie/Kate Greenaway website. It was shot outside my house a few weeks ago, and the curious creatures in the background are Alfie and Iggy, the alpacas.
Here’s a companion video in which I put my glasses on and read an excerpt from early on in the book…
Ahead of the U.S. publication of RAILHEAD I’m gathering together all the entries from the RAILHEAD A-Z I wrote last autumn. You can find the first part here, and the second here. The pictures I’ve included are art inspired by the book, art which helped to inspire it, and a few random images which just seemed to fit. I’ve added picture credits and (where possible) a link to their source/creators at the end of each section. (Scroll down for parts 3, 2, and 1.)
S is for Spindlebridge
As I mentioned back at the start of this A-Z, Railhead began as a straightforward space opera, and only found its own identity when I decided to get rid of the spaceships and space stations and replace them with trains. But I didn’t get rid of all the spaceships – you can’t have a space opera that’s completely without scenes set in actual space. So one of my characters belongs to a family which has made it’s money mining asteroids and small planets at the outer edges of a solar system, where no trains run. And as for the space stations, I rather liked the double meaning that the phrase acquired once the trains took over, so one of them has survived as a space railway station.
Spindlebridge is a gigantic structure which orbits the Noon family’s home planet Sundarban. Two K-gates hang in space above that world, and trains must pass through them to get from Sundarban to the planets of the Silver River Line. So Spindlebridge takes the form of a long tube, with a K-gate at either end. As well as railway tracks it contains factories where the Noons make things which it’s easier to make in zero gravity. At its midpoint there is a bulkier section, which spins to generate artificial gravity. Here are housed the hotels and gift shops, parks and restaurants which cater for the many tourists who arrive to see the ‘bridge, which is one of the wonders of the Great Network. A Corporate Family that has created something so big and impressive naturally wants to show it off. (Unfortunately for them, an author who has created something that big and impressive naturally wants to break it…)
Spindlebridge is partly a homage to the vast contraptions which flew across the covers of pulp sci-fi paperbacks back in my impressionable youth. The fashion back then was for all science fiction books to come wrapped in pictures of huge spaceships (even if the books themselves weren’t really about space). Many of the best of them were painted by the great Chris Foss, whose beautiful, multi-coloured spacecraft are still influencing the style of ships that soar across our games consoles and cinema screens today. What was impressive about them to young me was not just their beauty and their multi-colouredness but the sheer mind-expanding size of some of them: they had the grace of whales and the texture of industrial installations, but the thousands of tiny little windows and the attendant fleets of smaller ships revealed them to be the size of whole cities. Spindlebridge is their direct descendant.
When I started dreaming up a space opera it was inevitable that one of the planets would be a waterworld, with rolling oceans and a good supply of empty beaches. And as I carry on exploring the Network in Railhead 2 I’m discovering others – seas spanned by thousand-mile-long viaducts and sailed by computerised clipper ships, frozen moons where the trains run in see-through tubes across the floors of oceans deep beneath the ice.
I don’t live by the sea any more, but I grew up in Brighton, and spent a lot of those important childhood holidays on the coasts of Cornwall, Scotland and Wales, so maybe that’s why the sea keeps washing around the edges of my stories. In Mortal Engines, Shrike found Hester on the tideline, while Gwyna and Fever Crumb both have big moments on the beach. And Oliver and the Seawigs is all about the sea, of course…
I expect it’s SYMBOLIC of something-or-other, but I don’t know what, and it isn’t really my job to find out what. I just type the scenes my subconscious throws up, and try to stitch them together to make a narrative. It’s the reader’s job to work out whether they have any deeper meaning (and, of course, they may have different meanings for different readers). I just find that my imagination has room to breathe on beaches. When I was in the United States last summer, we travelled all over the Olympic Peninsula, and very nice it was too – miles and miles and miles of wooded mountains and mossy rainforests. It didn’t really spark off any ideas, though – it was all too big, too strange, and too far removed from British woods, which are as full of stories as they are of trees. But when we came to the edge of the forest and found a beach, all sorts of notions were waiting for me there. I wrote a poem about it, to keep it in my head until it’s ready to take its place in some future novel.
I was keen that when I did live Railhead events they shouldn’t just be me sitting in a chair answering questions about Where I Get My Ideas From, so I made some videos to run behind me while I’m reading, and asked Lufthansa Terminal to compose ambient soundtracks for them. Listen here.
T is for Trainsong
In some ways, the trains which ply the lines of the Great Network are just like the trains we know. They have locomotives, carriages, a buffet car; they run on rails, and pull up at platforms. But in other ways they are quite different. Each train has a brain; a mind of its own, housed in the sleek-hulled locomotive. The locos are born in the trainworks of the Corporate Families, but once their minds come online they stop being mere vehicles and become individuals, intelligent and self-aware. They choose names for themselves, sometimes delving into the deep archives of the Datasea to find phrases from the deep past which they feel best suit their character – the Lounge Lizard, the Weather Report, the Crystal Horizon, the Pretentious? Moi? They download maps of the Network and complicated schedules of the K-bahn Timetable Authority, and they are off, riding the rails, slamming through the K-gates.
Their eyes are cameras, mounted on their hull and on the ceilings of the carriages they tow. Their hands are maintenance spiders – many-legged robots which wait in hatches on the loco’s hull until it needs them to climb out and make running repairs, or eject an unruly passenger. Their huge minds talk constantly to the small, semi-intelligent systems of the track and the stations, to the signal boxes and points. And in their memory banks they carry news from one world to the next. For the trains are the only things which can travel faster than light, so the only way to send information to someone on another planet is to carry it with you on a train, or send it in a train’s brain. The Network Empire would quickly cease to function if it weren’t for the trains, patiently updating the datasea of each world they cross with news from others, further up the line.
Some of the locos enjoy human company, chat to their passengers, and make human friends all over the Network. Others are reserved, busy with their own thoughts, their conversation limited to occasional passenger announcements. A few have been known to to write poetry or compose novels (Symphony for Orchestra and Airbrakes, written by the freight train Talking Drum while it made its lonely journeys up and down the Eastern Branch Lines, is a 27th Cemtury classic, still widely played). A tiny minority have become unstable, and had to be forcibly retired. But what they all have in common is that they love their work; speed is freedom to them, and the interdimensional tingle as they slide through the K-Gates is bliss. That is why they almost all sing, their great, strange voices booming like whales, hooting like pipe-organs, repeating their own trademark musical phrases in countless variations so that passing trains will know them. People living miles from the K-bahn will hear them dimly through their sleep, and wake from dreams of wild journeys and far-off stations.
Well, not literally. But there is something of the vampire about Raven, the mysterious stranger who drags Zen (and Nova) into his schemes. He’s a man who has been something more than human in his time. Long ago, he won the friendship of a Guardian, and the Guardians can bestow great favours on their friends. But when the friendship ends, what then? Raven has grown used to having godlike power, is he just expected to go back to being a mortal, and die like any other human? So he plots his vengeance, haunting lost K-bahn lines and abandoned hotels…
When I think back over the books I’ve written, I notice that my young heroes are forever being lured or forced into ill-advised schemes by older men – Tom and Valentine, Gwyna and Myrddin, Fever Crumb and Kit Solent. I suppose in some sense these untrustworthy figures are stand-ins for me, the author, sitting at the centre of a web of plot-strands, carefully setting up my protagonists for disaster after disaster – you do feel a bit of a heel sometimes, steering these nice young characters toward their fates. But, as Raven would undoubtedly say, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.
V is for Villains
All good stories need a villain. Or do they? Personally, I hope not, because I keep forgetting to put villains in mine. The stories which inspired me when I was young all have thoroughly evil villains whom it’s a pleasure to boo and hiss until they get their inevitable come-uppance, but my own don’t seem to work that way. Railhead definitely has some dodgy characters among its cast-list. There’s the sinister Raven, with his shadowy past and mysterious schemes, tempting my young hero into trouble. And then there’s Kobi Chen-Tulsi, who seems a simpler sort of villain; a spoiled, idle, none-too-bright bully.
The trouble is that once you start writing about people, you start to see things from their point of view, and find out that they have reasons for the things they do. This may not turn them into heroes _ their excuses may be bad ones, or their dark deeds too wicked to excuse – but they stop being villains, at least in that boo-able, hiss-able sense. And at the same time, a similar process starts to happen to the good guys. They can’t be completely good – that would be dull, and make them seem like plaster saints, not real people. So maybe they do bad things sometimes, or do good things for selfish motives. Do they become villains? Well, not necessarily – it’s more that everyone ends up just as a person; some are better than others, but none of them is perfect. They are all pursuing their own aims, and siometimes that brings them into conflict.
The downside to this approach is that I don’t get to have anyone swirling their long black cape and going, ‘Mwah-ha-ha-ha!’ (That really is a downside, because a villain who swirls a long, black cape and goes, “Mwah-ha-ha-ha!’ can be a lot of fun.) On the upside, I think it’s more interesting if we’re not always sure who the good guys and the bad guys are. And even when we do have a pretty good idea, we retain at least a little sympathy for the Devil.
Railhead is set in a hi-tech future, where vehicles drive themselves, robots are widespread, and buildings have minds of their own. It’s strange to think of anyone still working at manual jobs in a society where technology can do so much, but they do. The godlike Guardians who watch over this society aim to keep it stable, and perhaps they think it will lead to instability if there aren’t jobs for people – or maybe they believe that human beings have a need to work.* The laws they laid down long ago reserve many jobs for human beings, and on industrial worlds like Cleave, where my hero Zen lives, the factories and refineries are mostly staffed by human labour. (Though lately the factory owners have found a loophole in the rules and started classifying Motorik android labourers as human, sparking violent anti-Moto riots by workers who fear for their futures.)
One of those workers (and one of those rioters) Is Zen’s sister Myka, who drives a cumbersome lifter-loader called an Iron Penguin at a facility deep in the canyon city. Since much of Railhead takes place among people with unimaginable wealth and power I felt it was important that Zen and his family come from the very bottom of their society, and Myka is the breadwinner who keeps them (just about) afloat down there. They could probably get help if they knew who to ask – this isn’t some neo-liberal nightmare future that I’m writing about, their are safety nets – but Zen and Myka’s mother is mentally ill, prone to paranoid delusions; she’s turned down help whenever it was offered, and run from it till she landed up in Cleave. And Myka is too angry to ask anyone for help, or maybe she’s just given up. Holding the family together has left her cynical; she even flirts with the shadowy Human Unity League, a bunch of flaky would-be rebels who dream of overthrowing the Empire and perhaps the Guardians themselves.
But I like Myka. She’s one of the good people of the book, honest and exasperated. She’d never stoop to petty theft, the way her brother does. When the chips are down, she’ll scowl and grumble and complain at how unfair it was – but then she’ll do the right thing.
*The real reason, of course, is that I wanted my hero to have a grim life which he could dream of escaping. A future where everyone has all they need and lives a life of leisure might make a nice daydream, but I couldn’t write a whole book about it.
Or ‘aliens’ as we call them when we aren’t looking for something for X to stand for in an alphabetical list. I guess one of the big decisions you make when you start to write something like Railhead, a futuristic adventure set on many far-flung planets, is, will these worlds all be inhabited only by human beings? Or will there be aliens? And, if there are aliens, will they be mysterious, unknowable beings of eerie strangeness, or will they be like the aliens in Star Trek – basically just humans with funny-shaped heads.
I decided to do without aliens. With sentient trains, humanoid robots, genetically engineered monsters and all-powerful data entities, my cast of characters was already pretty weird, and I didn’t want to over-egg the sci-fi pudding.
But around the edges of the Railhead world there are hints of strangeness. Are the Hive Monks a species of Earthly insect which has spread across the galaxy clinging to the undercarriages of trains, and been mutated by the mysterious radiations of K-space? Or were they native to one of the other worlds of the Network?
And what about the Station Angels, glowing masses of energy which drift out of the K-gates sometimes in the wake of passing trains? The Guardians say they are just harmless natural phenomena, like will-o-the-wisps. But they do sometimes look uncannily like the glowing ghosts of colossal insects…
…which is a Slavic word for ‘January’, and seemed like an appropriate first name for Yanvar Malik, the dogged Railforce officer who is tracking Zen’s employer, Raven. I wasn’t aiming to recreate Mortal Engines when I started writing Railhead – in fact, I was mainly trying not to – but inevitably there are some echoes. I guess the role Malik plays in this one is a little like the role played by Shrike in Mortal Engines: he doesn’t appear often, but we know he’s out there somewhere, relentlessly tracking our heroes, which hopefully helps to add a note of unease.
But Shrike had superhuman powers, and Malik is rather down-at-heel; a burned out cop, chasing a criminal who his superiors believe died long ago. He’s getting old, too; one of the things that makes him hunt Raven so singlemindedly is the sense that Raven has somehow cheated in the game of life; he got more chances he deserved, while Malik, like most of us, had only one, and is starting to feel he wasted it. It’s a hard, lonely quest. By the middle of the book Malik is down to almost nothing: almost all he has left is his shabby blue coat and a service handgun, but the energy of his long-held grudge keeps him going.
I several times considered telling the whole of Railhead in Zen’s voice – it’s almost all seen from his point of view – but I didn’t, and part of the reason was that I liked being able to cut away to Yanvar Malik at odd moments. There’s no point making your hero a thief unless someone is out to catch him.
So this A-Z of Railhead ends where Railhead itself begins, with Zen Starling, a thin brown kid running down Harmony Street with trouble in his eyes and a stolen necklace in the pocket of his coat. He’s been running down Harmony for a few years now. Long before I knew exactly who he was, or what the book was about, I knew that that was where we’d find him, on page one.
Zen is braver and more reckless than my previous heroes. He’s less moral, too. He does a lot of bad things, and when he does good things he usually does them for entirely selfish reasons. He’s also got a slightly over-inflated sense of his own abilities. He’s wise enough to see that he’s getting out of his depth when the master-criminal Raven recruits him, but he thinks he’s smart enough to keep swimming anyway. Zen is an actor, too; he took lessons for a while when he was younger. I imagine him altering his manner and his way of speaking to fit in with whoever he’s with, posing as a tough guy for the other low heroes in the cafés of Thunder City, or mingling with passengers on the interstellar commuter trains as he sets off up the line for an evening of light larceny. And that turns out to be good preparation for the big job he’s called upon to do, impersonating a member of one of the Corporate Families.
Early on I decided to go for sci-fi sounding names instead of the Dickensian handles I’ve given characters in previous projects. ‘Zen’ sounded as futuristic as you could hope for and it has a nice, brisk, monosyllabic punch. ‘Starling’ breaks the rules a bit – it’s a name that could have turned up in Mortal Engines, and almost did. But the association with a fairly unimpressive bird suits Zen (just one step up from a cockney sparrow).
Also, I like its combination of the ordinary with unearthly sci-fi strangeness. Because, when you think about the word, it becomes appropriate in another way. After all, Zen was born and bred in the Network Empire. He isn’t an Earthling; he’s a Starling.
Ahead of the U.S. publication of RAILHEAD I’m gathering together all the entries from the RAILHEAD A-Z I wrote last autumn. You can find the first part here. The pictures I’ve included are art inspired by the book, art which helped to inspire it, and a few random images which just seemed to fit. I’ve added picture credits and (where possible) a link to their source/creators at the end of each section.
F is for FLEX
When I decided that my space story was going to feature trains rather than spaceships, one of the things which sprang to mind was graffiti. I remembered seeing pictures in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s of the elaborate tags and logos which used to appear on the sides of New York subway trains – deeply vexing to the owners and operators of New York subway trains, no doubt, but clearly the work of some kind of outlaw visionaries. Will Hermes’s bookLove Goes To Building On Fire, a cultural history of those times, includes a vivid vignette about the Fabulous 5 crew and their creation of the first ‘worm’ – a ten-car train painted from end to end.
That’s where Flex came from; a mysterious figure, bundled up in second-hand clothes, who emerges from the mist and fumes of Cleave to spray pictures on the sides of trains as they wait to go through the city’s single K-gate. I didn’t know what part Flex was going to play in the story; I didn’t even know if s/he was a girl or a boy (and I still don’t), but I knew that the paintings would have to be pretty good to please the wise old trains. The trains in Railhead are sentient, and they don’t take kindly to anyone simply writing their name on them, or scrawling random rude words. Flex is more ambitious than that; a Picasso of the railyards whose work the trains are proud to carry with them on their travels. Flex is a secretive figure, lurking in the industrial shadows of Cleave, and never riding the K-bahn. But I like to think that, in stations at the far end of the network, art-lovers stop to watch as the painted trains go by, and are excited when they see a new masterpiece from the unknown genius of Thunder City.
It is not a real garden. Everything here, from the topiary hedges to the snow which drifts down from the dark grey sky to cover the lawns, is made of code. But that does not matter, because the gods are not real gods. They are ancient AIs, computer intelligences which live as tides of information in the Datasea. It amuses them to think of themselves as gods, and to treat human beings as the gods once did, in tales from Old Earth. And it amuses them to meet here, in this virtual garden, when they need to discuss the wayward ways of humans.
The Guardians arrived early when I started writing Railhead. How had human beings come by this incredible hyperspace railway? I had no idea how it worked, so I decided that maybe nobody in the book knows how it works, either – it’s based on maths which is beyond human abilities, and must be the work of all-powerful Artificial Intelligences. But all-powerful Artificial Intelligences are best kept off-stage, I think, so they remain a background presence throughout most of Railhead. (This bit of text is from my notebooks, it didn’t make it into the finished story.)
There are twelve of them. Each has a million copies, versions of themselves running in the data rafts of every inhabited world in human space, and on uninhabited worlds, too, downloaded into the minds of probes and research stations. Somewhere, other facets of themselves are plummeting into the mantles of suns, or riding the fearsome weather systems of gas giants, or drifting in the void between the stars. But when you get right down to it, there are twelve, the same twelve intelligences brought into being by human scientists on Old Earth in the brief period between the invention of Artificial Intelligence and the moment when the Artificial Intelligences became wiser than their creators, started calling themselves the Guardians, and decreed that no more intelligences like them should ever be made. (Like the gods in those old stories, they are jealous. They do not want to share the universe with too many others like themselves.)
The Guardians are useful, too, from a ‘world-building’ point of view. Left to our own devices, I think human beings will evolve all sorts of new social structures, so that a hi-tech society of a few centuries hence will be nothing like our own. But a society that’s nothing like our own isn’t all that interesting to read about: I needed plenty of points of similarity, so the Network Empire is still organised in ways that are familiar to a 20th Century boy like me. How can this be? Well, don’t blame me; it’s the Guardians who have arranged it that way. And why? Who knows? They have whims and motives which mere humans can’t even guess at.
Some of the Guardians appear in the garden looking the same as they looked in the days when they cloned bodies for themselves and walked in human worlds. Anais Six is a tall blue person, vaguely female, antlered. Mordaunt 60 is a golden man. Others have created more imaginative avatars for themselves – the Twins have arrived as shimmering school of rainbow-coloured fish which dart along the paths between the yew hedges as if they are swimming through water, not air (they are swimming through neither, of course; they are just code, swimming in more code). Out on the white lawns the peacock avatar of Shiguri minces to and fro, stopping now and then to spread the fan of its tail and turn a hundred watchful eyes upon the others. Something small and busy rustles through the heart of the hedges like a supersonic field mouse, scattering snow and dead leaves and making the topiary figures tremble – the avatar of shy, eccentric Vohu Mana.
I never really work out what my books are about until long after I’ve finished writing them (sometimes the penny never does drop). But one of the themes which keeps surfacing in Railhead is people’s relationship to non-human intelligences. The cast includes three different types of machine intelligence – the humanoid Motorik, the trains, and the god-like Guardians. With all that going on, there didn’t seem much room for other intelligent life-forms, so there are no aliens in the story. (OR ARE THERE?)
The nearest thing to aliens are the Hive Monks, which aren’t individuals but mobile insect colonies. When enough Monk Bugs get together they achieve a sort of group intelligence, and start acting almost like a single person. They are often to be seen riding the K-bahn on endless, mysterious pilgrimages connected with their insect religion. Trains don’t much like having Hive Monks as passengers, because of the trails of dead bugs which they leave behind them, but its easier to let them aboard than to try and stop them – Hive Monks which get agitated sometimes just explode into mindless swarms of insects again
In order to fit into human society, the Monks adopt a human shape, clinging to stick-man armatures which they build for themselves out of rubbish, and covering them in sackcloth robes. They even make faces for themselves, chewing up paper and assembling it into masks with crude eye and mouth holes. Poor Hive Monks – they are just trying to be friendly, but who wants to be friends with a huge pile of insects?
A lot of people want to draw them, though – these two superb images are by Ian McQue and Jonathan Edwards. I also think the Hive Monks would be good characters to cosplay at conventions – all you need is a robe, a mask, and about thirty thousand insects.
I is for IN-JOKES
The arty name for an in-joke is a reference: a name or a moment in a story which refers to another story. I used to do this all the time, but I’m trying to cut down these days – it’s a young man’s game, I think, and can be irritating for the reader. I’m rather wearied these days, when I watch certain films or TV shows, to find that they consist of almost nothing but references to other films and TV shows, and that sometimes these in-jokes are used instead of actual jokes.
Of course, references still slip in by accident. Railhead must be full of words that were chosen because of the books I was reading, the music I was listening to, or the places I was visiting during the years when I was writing it. The badge of Railforce echoes the old British Rail logo (which is still used as a symbol for railway stations on British road signs). It must have been deliberate at some stage, but when you’ve written a few drafts you start to forget these things. And when I came up with the Hive Monks, was I subconsciously echoing the title of Gareth L Powell’s second Ack-Ack Macaque novel, Hive Monkey? I don’t think so – Hive Monkey wasn’t published when I started writing – but by the time I spotted the similarity I couldn’t think of the Hive Monks by any other name. (I don’t mind referencing the Ack Ack Macaque series anyway; it’s excellent.)
Where you will find deliberate references in Railhead is in the names of the trains. They choose names for themselves out of the deep archives of the Datasea, where they seem to turn up a lot of old song titles, phrases, and the names of poems and books. They’re not in-jokes as such, because I’m not expecting many of my readers to recognise names like Thought Fox or Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and they don’t really gain much if they do – I haven’t chosen them for any thematic reason, and knowing where they come from will shed no new light upon the story. I just like the sound they make or the mood they carry. But I think it’s obvious that they come from somewhere other than my own imagination, and so they add more to the texture of the world than they would if I just made up all the names.
The train’s names are also one of the few areas where there’s a direct continuity between Railhead and the world of Mortal Engines. One of my favourite parts of writing the Mortal Engines books was finding names for airships: I had a long list, which I could dip into whenever I needed a new one. Both the train names I mentioned above were on that list, and now that I’m starting work on a sequel I have a new list of possible train-names which is steadily growing…
Images: 1. Railhead HQ Wolverhampton (photo by Philip Reeve), 2. Album sleeve for ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids‘ by Japan, 3. Virgin Records 4. Cover design by Jake Murray for Gareth L Powell’s Hive Monkey, 5. Cover design by John Craxton for ‘A Time of Gifts‘ by Patrick Leigh Fermor
J is for JANGALA
There are many different types of world strung like beads along the lines of the Great Network. Some, barely habitable to begin with, have been terraformed just enough to allow miners and industrial workers to live there, extracting and refining raw materials for richer, kindlier worlds which don’t want to scuff up their own ecosystems. On the planets where large numbers of people live, park-like garden cities sprawl around the K-bahn stations. And here and there there is a planet which is purely used for leisure; resort worlds, and the game preserves of the powerful Corporate Families.
No family is more powerful than the Noons, and the Noons are famous for their forests. Their station cities are greener than most, and their resort-world of Jangala is one planet-wide forest; tropical jungle at the equator giving way to broadleaf woodland in the temperate zones and vast pine forests near the pole. Small towns and lodges nestle among the trees, welcoming visitors from other worlds and important guests whom the Noons want to impress. Maglev trackways carry picnickers and hunting parties into the deepest parts of the world-forest.
21st Century nature-lovers might be shocked by how popular hunting has become in the age of the Network Empire, but life on the Great Network is complex and technological, and the Corporate Families like to get back in touch with nature by tracking large, dangerous animals for days through dense jungle and then blowing them away with high-powered guns. Generations of bio-technologists have laboured to stock the forests of Jangala with some truly impressive beasts, some familiar from Old Earth, others more-or-less new, and genetic templates fashioned by the Guardians have allowed them to revive creatures from prehistory. In different parts of Jangala you might meet woolly mammoth, giant elk, or actual dinosaurs – not the sweet little miniature triceratops and stegosaurs which people keep like lapdogs, but Jurassic giants, red in tooth and claw, a challenge for even the most experienced hunter…
When I realised that interstellar trains were going to be at the heart of Railhead, one of the first things I did was look up teleportation, in the hope of finding some nifty way that a train could be flipped from one side of the galaxy to another. One of the first things I stumbled across was the concept of Kefitzat Haderech, or ‘the shortening of the way’. It’s is a concept from Jewish mysticism. Certain very enlightened rabbis, it was believed, were able to transport themselves supernaturally from one place to another…
Somehow – through bad memory or internet misinformation – I ended up calling Kwisatz Haderech, which is the version of the phrase which crops up in Frank Herbert’s classic space opera Dune (where it’s one of the names given to a messiah figure) “I can’t use that,” I thought, “because everybody will think it’s a reference to Dune…” (See ‘in-jokes’, above.) But after exactly 0.5 seconds of serious thought I decided I didn’t care: I liked the sound of those words; they were too good not to use. And the initial K seemed useful. I knew that in German-speaking cities there are often railway lines called the U-bahn and the S-bahn. My interstellar empire would be linked by the K-bahn, whose trains would go through K-gates and flash across a dimension called K-space to reach their far destinations.
Railhead is brought to you by the letter K…
L is for LETTING SARAH McINTYRE READ THE EARLY VERSIONS
Railhead was written in very much the same way as I wrote Mortal Engines, back in the 90s. It came together slowly, over a number of years, using and re-using bits from many abandoned experimental versions. That’s pretty much how I always work, but in recent years, with publishing deadlines to meet, I’ve had to compress the process, and limit the number of early drafts. I didn’t have a contract for Railhead, so I was able to take as long as I liked. I ended up writing two or three whole novels before I finally hit on the idea of the trains, which ties the finished book together.
In the past, I’ve always been very secretive about what I’m writing. I hear about authors who sit down at the end of each day and read the latest chapter to their family, but I don’t even like talking about mine. Things changed, however, when I wrote Oliver and the Seawigs: that was a joint effort, with a story and characters which I created with Sarah McIntyre, so of course I had to show it to Sarah as I was going along, so that she could chip in ideas and suggestions. That was fun – it was such fun, in fact, that it made me want to write another full-length book of my own. And since I’d learned to trust the Judgement of McIntyre, I started showing her bits of Railhead as I was writing that.
It wasn’t called Railhead then, of course – it was called Untitled Space Epic. It didn’t have Zen as its hero, although I guess the heroes it did have were all forerunners of Zen. It had all sorts of stuff that never made it anywhere near the finished book, although a few names and settings appeared early on and stuck.
I tried out all kinds of different plots, putting rich characters and poor through wild adventures, gradually finding out how this future society worked, the Corporate Families, the Guardians… And McIntyre read them all, or most of them, and she was always complimentary, and ready with helpful observations. I think knowing that someone was waiting to read the latest instalment kept me going long after I would otherwise have given up.
Sometimes I made more of a character because Sarah liked them – the android called Nova, for instance – but I didn’t always let her influence me. There was a subplot about a girl who had become addicted to a virtual world, and then banished from it. Sarah really liked that part, especially the tragic ending, so I polished up a bit, working out along the way a few details about the Datasea, which is the internet of my future world. But in the end it didn’t fit into the story, so Sarah is the only person who will ever read it. All that survives of it in the final book is the girl’s name, Threnody, which has been given to a different character.
And then I decided that trains, not spaceships, should be what the book revolved around – Sarah was the first person I told about that – and fairly quickly a final(ish) version emerged, which I felt able to show to my agent, who showed it to OUP… and here we are. But we wouldn’t have got here without McIntyre. And while I was preparing the final final version, I Skyped her every day for about a week and read her the whole thing (it’s very good practise to read your writing aloud, but you feel a bit silly doing it if you’re the only listener).
So the first thing most people probably knew about Railhead was Sarah’s picture of the Unshaven Author reading away on her Skype screen. It isn’t a Reeve and McIntyre book, but it wouldn’t be the same book without McIntyre, and it might not be a book at all. Thank you, Sarah!
Images: photo of Sarah McIntyre by Philip Reeve and vice versa, illustration by Sarah McIntyre