‘What I need,’ I thought, when I’d been struggling on and off for a few years with my space epic (working title, ‘Space Epic’) ‘is an alternative to spaceships…’
I’ve always enjoyed space stories. I first started reading science fiction back in 1977, when the original Star Wars film made me realise that outer space could be just as good a backdrop for fantasy as Tolkien-esque worlds of myth and legend. (Actually, I didn’t see Star Wars until 1978, but its bow-wave of publicity hit these shores the previous autumn, and I surfed it all the way to the sci-fi section of my local library.) For the next few years I read nothing much but SF, while watching Blake’s Seven and Star Trek and poring over the space art of illustrators like Chris Foss.
So, almost as soon as I had finished writing my Mortal Engines books, I started toying with the idea of a space epic. I’d enjoyed creating the world of Mortal Engines. Surely the next logical step was to build a whole bunch of worlds, and have new characters travel between them?
As it turned out, building the worlds was the easy bit. It was the travelling between them which was difficult. I’d assumed that it would be fun to write about spaceships, but somehow I just couldn’t make them work. How could I make mine different from all the other spaceships in books and films?
My first idea was to have my story obey the laws of physics. In films, the heroes can often zip between planets which orbit far distant stars. In real life this would take hundreds of thousands of years, because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light and a spacecraft would have to go quite a lot slower. For Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk this isn’t a problem, because their ships can dip through ‘hyperspace’ or use ‘warp drive’ to make the trip in a few hours, but I set myself the challenge of doing without such things. The planets I had invented were all going to be in one solar system, and although my spaceships were fast and futuristic, they didn’t have any way round the speed-of-light barrier. This made me feel as if I was writing Proper Science Fiction.
Unfortunately, it also made me feel as if I was flogging a dead horse. My characters took months to get anywhere, and as soon as they fired up their engines anybody with a telescope on the neighbouring planets could work out their trajectory and know where they were going. This made storytelling tricky, unless I told the sort of story which is entirely set aboard a spaceship – and that wasn’t the sort of story I had in mind.
So my space epic was abandoned, and I wrote other books instead. But every now and then I would remember it, and try a different approach. It had some characters I liked, some strong scenes. I wanted to finish it. I wondered if perhaps I should let my spaceships nip through hyperspace after all? Or maybe they could fly through wormholes in the space-time continuum (which is the other handy Science Fiction way of getting from A to B without schlepping across a hundred thousand light years of empty space)? But no, what I really needed was a complete alternative to spaceships…
And then I thought, ‘if you had wormholes to travel through, you wouldn’t need spaceships – you could go through them in a train.’
Suddenly I knew what the book was going to be about. I imagined a galactic empire linked by an ancient railway, whose trains can pass from world to world in the blink of an eye on tracks which run through mysterious portals. Suddenly the story had an anchor in reality, which I think all good fantasy needs. Almost none of us has travelled on a spaceship, but almost all of us have travelled on a train. And when I get on a train in Devon and get off in Manchester, or get on a train in South London and get off in Richmond or Hampstead, it really does feel like travelling from world to world.
I threw away almost everything from the earlier versions, and settled down to start writing. It even came with a readymade title. It wasn’t called ‘Space Epic’ any more. It was called RAILHEAD…