Larklight Revisited

I often mention Mortal Engines on these pages, but I keep forgetting about Larklight.  Mortal Engines got a new lease of life when I started work on the prequels, so it’s all still quite fresh in my mind, but I have no plans for any more Larklight books, and I tend not to think much about that world anymore; I’ve spent so much time since thinking up and writing other things that it’s starting to feel like something someone else wrote.  But with the recent announcement that director Tomas Alfredson is going to be turning it into a movie (I’ve heard nothing official, but it’s on the internets, so it must be true) I thought it might be nice to take another look at it, and see if I can remember what I was thinking when I wrote it.

 

The book began as a vague idea which I dreamed up in conversations with Val Brathwaite, the brilliant art editor at Bloomsbury.  I had no story, and no idea of what the setting or the style would be; I just knew that I wanted to do an illustrated adventure story, with a picture every few pages and a full-page one in every chapter.  At first I planned a fantasy – I had a particular illustrator in mind, and thought I could come up with a tale of magic and monsters which would suit his style.  But I thought and thought, and no story appeared.  Magic just didn’t seem to be my thing.  Monsters, however, I definitely wanted to do.  One of the few rules I stuck to while writing the Mortal Engines quartet was that there were no monsters; there are no weird unearthly creatures in that future world, and certainly no non-human intelligences (unless you count the Stalkers, but even they were human once).  I rather fancied a chance to fill a book with fabulous beings, and over the years I’d even doodled a few, like this Friendly Crab.

‘Nipper’, by me.  All other images in this
post are by David Wyatt.

Anyway, I’d sort of promised Val a book, and my fantasy idea was going nowhere, so I went out one morning and walked along the River Dart to Dartmeet and back.  Along the way I turned over ideas in my mind, and decided that fantasy just wasn’t for me.  Instead, I started to think about Victorian sci-fi.  When I was at school I had read Jules Verne, and I had loved HG Wells, particularly The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.  In my early teens I’d been impressed by Christopher Priest’s 1970s novel The Space Machine, which is a very witty and well-written mash-up of those two books.  It had inspired me to write some scientific romances of my own, including one in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson had to save the day when the Crystal Palace revealed itself to be a giant alien machine… (Yes, I know that Sherlock Holmes and the Great Exhibition come from opposite ends of the Victorian era, but I didn’t know it then…).

 

 

I’d also tried my hand at the same genre more recently, because the earliest versions of Mortal Engines were pseudo-Victorian affairs, but I’d quickly found that an alternate 19th Century was far too arch a setting for the sort of book I wanted to write.  Why should anyone care about characters inhabiting a pastiche past?  The Future was the place for them.  But retro-Victoriana might work, I thought, for a comedy; something light and larky…  Groping in my memory for a few of the familiar building blocks of scientific romance, I quickly assembled the framework for a jokey Alt.Victorian space opera in which there would be room for friendly crabs and flying pigs and as many other odd creatures as my imagination could come up with.

 

Walking home along the banks of the Dart I started to picture a solar system which differed from our own in several important ways.  For one thing, life was everywhere; all the planets and moons and many of the asteroids were inhabited, and there were even fish-like creatures swimming in the vast seas of ‘aether’ which lie between the worlds.  For another, Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments in alchemy had paid off big time back in the 1600s, allowing the Brits to develop space travel.  By the 1850s, when my story would be set, the British Empire would stretch from Venus to the moons of Jupiter.  And I began to imagine Larklight, a name which had been kicking around in my head for years, and which I now realised should belong to an ancient stately home hanging in space somewhere on the far side of the moon.

 

From there, my hero and heroine would set off on their adventures.  I didn’t yet know who they were, but I knew that my hero would also be the narrator, since all good Nineteenth Century adventure yarns are told in the first person*, and as the world of Mortal Engines was filled to bursting with tough, brave, resourceful girls I decided that the heroine of this new book would be a complete contrast; a prim Victorian miss who would have fits of the vapours and need rescuing whenever danger threatened.  Myrtle seemed a good name for her; her brother, in a nod to King Arthur, became Art.   And their adventure must involve pirates, because everybody likes space pirates.  But because the tone was to be comic these couldn’t be violent, dangerous, nasty, realistic pirates – in fact nothing need be realistic at all; this was a tale about Victorian space-travel, after all – so they must be not as black as they’d been painted; a rather harmless crew, in fact, led by a lad I initially called Jack Havelock, until a happy typing accident re-Christened him Jack Havock.  And while I didn’t want to fill the story with eminent real-life Victorians (it seems pretty obvious to me that in a world where history had taken even a slightly different turn most of the people we have heard of would probably never have been born, let alone ended up in the same positions which they held in our world) Queen Victoria had to be on the throne, and I hoped to find a role for Sir Richard Burton, the most fascinating of all the great Victorian explorers and wearer of one of the weirdest beards in an era of weird beards.  (I’d already used him as inspiration for Valentine in Mortal Engines, but Valentine turned out to be not quite the ticket, so I thought I’d make Sir Richard a hero in this one, by way of an apology).

 

By the time I reached home again I had the world of Larklight more-or-less complete in my mind, and I wrote the first chapter that same afternoon.  After that it all flowed fairly easily: hoverhogs were introduced (my gift to the plush toy industry, I remember thinking at the time); Art and Myrtle were turfed out of Larklight by giant spiders who kidnapped their vague father; the pirates rescued them from the Potter Moth (a particularly ghastly monster, based on some horrific wasp whose life-cycle I’d once seen described on telly by That David Attenborough).  In keeping with the light-hearted tone I was careful not to kill any characters off, and halfway through I realised that even Art and Myrtle’s late, lamented mother might not be quite as late as I’d thought when I began.  Finding her again, and discovering who and what she was, delivered the impetus that carried me on to the end of the story, where the Crystal Palace war machine I’d written of at school  got another outing at last.

 

So that was Larklight; a slight book, but fun to write, and just the project I needed as a sort of literary sorbet between the darker worlds of A Darkling Plain and Here Lies Arthur.   Looking back, I think it achieves what I set out to pretty well.  I’m told some people complain that it offers no critique of imperialism (stories set in the British Empire are expected to, it seems) but I think it actually does, albeit in an oblique way.  It’s true that Art’s faith in British pluck and justice is unshakeable, but I’d written one book about a lad coming to question the whole idea that underpins his society and I didn’t want to write another.  (Besides, when I want to write seriously about the evils and follies of empire I will write about the actual Nineteenth Century, not a fantasy version.)  I still find Art and Myrtle funny, and I hope other readers do, too.

 

But it’s clear that what really makes Larklight stand out is the fantastic artwork of David Wyatt, the illustrator whom Val Brathwaite suggested for the project.  From the start I’d been keen that the book should look like an artifact which has tumbled through some wormhole from the universe in which it’s set, and I think David achieved that brief beautifully, filling every available space with his intricate, humorous, hugely detailed pen-and-ink drawings, and covering the endpapers with adverts for the things a Victorian space-farer might need, some ideas supplied by me, but many entirely his own.**  He also, along with Bloomsbury’s web designers, created the beautiful and oft-imitated  Larklight website, which is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the internet (I can say that without blushing, ‘cos it was nothing to do with me.  Go and look at it, do: it has steam and piano music and such: do make sure you click on all the little switches, wheels and levers, and on the image of Myrtle to the left of the control panel).   It was an enormous pleasure to watch David’s images of the Larklight world take shape.  In the two sequels, Starcross and Mothstorm I was able to work more closely with him, and in both those books there are whole scenes and characters which developed out of drawings I saw in his sketchbooks.

A page from David’s sketchbook, featuring the first sighting of Professor Ferny, the ‘Emancipated Shrub’.
Sadly ‘The Speculative Clams’ have yet to make it into print.

It would be nice to think that we might work in this way on future projects too, but I don’t believe any of them will take us back to Larklight.  In the end the things that I built into that world right back at the start – the jokiness, the way that nobody ages or dies or really changes much – mean that there would be little point in setting a long-running series there: if I carried on I’d have to start breaking the rules; touching on more serious themes,  maybe killing people off: I think the Larklight world is far too whimsical to bear such emotional weight.  Also, I’m heartily sick now of steam engines and stovepipe hats: the over-used imagery of scientific romance doesn’t speak to me in 2010 as it did in 1980.  Perhaps writing Larklight got it out of my system, or perhaps it was already fading by the time I took that stroll beside the Dart.  So Larklight is a kind of monument to a lost obsession; a cairn built out fragments of my childhood reading; my little parting salute to Mr. Wells and M. Verne: thank you, gentlemen, and goodnight.***

 

Larklight is available from All Good Booksellers, and also from Honest Jed Sidebotham’s Used Penny Dreadful Emporium, Port Charlotte, Mars.

*I had originally intended Art’s narration to sound as Victorian as possible, but even I could see that children might not want to fight their way through the labyrinths of Victorian sentences, and I doubt I’m clever enough to pastiche them properly anyway, so I settled for something chattier and more PG Wodehouse-y, figuring that in a world where our ancestors had space flight they might have developed simpler sentence-structure too.

**Sadly, the current paperback editions have ditched the original covers in favour of something much more modern.  The illustrations are still by David, and as beautiful as you would expect, but the tone has been lost; they are trying to look like Anthony Horowitz-style spy stories, which I suspect sell rather better than tales of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space.

***Needless to say, if there is a Larklight movie and it makes a billion trillion dollars, I shall delete this post and get straight to work on volumes 4 through 12.

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