Official publication day is 6th October, but copies of Black Light Express are already being sighted in the wild here in the UK. Here’s the cover, designed by Jo Cameron and Holly Fulbrook at Oxford University Press, using some of the artwork Ian McQue did to mark the publication of the first book.
Black Light Express is the sequel to Railhead, and it picks up pretty much where the first book left off, with Zen and Nova discovering that the interstellar railway known as the Great Network, which has allowed human civilisation to expand across hundreds of different worlds, is actually far bigger and stranger than they had been led to believe. It follows them on their journeys to strange alien stations, and also focuses on some of the characters they left behind, as the events of the first book lead to a power struggle in the Network Empire. There are new characters, too. Chandni Hansa, who was only a name in Railhead (she helped Raven with his plans and was deep-frozen in a cryogenic prison for her troubles) surprised me by being defrosted and becoming one of the protagonists in this story. There are also new trains, new planets, fresh trouble with the almost all-powerful Guardians, and some very heavily armed dinosaurs. I’ll be writing more about it here over the next few weeks, but here’s an early review from Reading Zone.
And if you haven’t read Railhead yet, the paperback is out now too, and also wrapped in lovely Ian McQue-ness…
I’m just back from a World Tour of Suffolk and Norfolk, in which I talked about Railhead to pupils at Culford School in Bury St Edmunds, the City of Norwich School, and Reepham High School. I was also part of the Norfolk Children’s Book Festival, organised by the Norwich School and held in Norwich’s beautiful cathedral. Here are me and fellow author Ruth Eastham signing books in a windy cloister. (We had so many to sign that I didn’t have time to say more than a quick hello to the great Jonathan Stroud, who took this photo).
The books I’m signing are the new UK paperback edition of RAILHEAD, which Oxford University Press made sure was available for these gigs. It should be in the shops by now, too. It’s one of those rare occasions where the paperback looks just as good as the hardback, if not better. It still has the title printed on the page-edges, and designer Jo Cameron and her colleagues at OUP have used Ian McQue’s artwork on the front, while his pictures of Zen and a Hive Monk are featured on the insides of the front and back covers.
So if you haven’t read RAILHEAD yet and you’d like to, hurry to your nearest bookshop! (Or just buy it online.) Recommended price is £6.99.
Finally, HUGE thanks to Lynn, Tom, Marilyn, Matt, and Minty from the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, who drove me around, organised book sales, and provided tea and cake. If you find yourself in Norfolk, you should seek out their fascinating shop.
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.