Railhead will be published in the USA by Switch Press on 1st April, 2016. To mark the occasion I’m gathering together all the entries from the Railhead A-Z which were published on various blogs when the UK edition was released last autumn. I’ve tried to supply credits and links for the images I’ve used, which are at the bottom of each section. Here’s the first instalment…
A is for Alternative Forms of Transport
‘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, since, annoyingly, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. For Han Solo 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 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 (although some of the ideas found their way into Cakes In Space, one of my books for younger readers, written with Sarah McIntyre).
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 just 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. The story now 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 one world to another.
So 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…
B is for Building Worlds….
…or ‘worldbuilding’, as we writers call it when we’re not trying to find something beginning with B for an alphabetical list. If you follow writers of science fiction and fantasy it’s a phrase you’ll come across quite often, and on the rare occasions when someone persuades me to do a workshop for a school I usually base it around worldbuilding, but I think it’s sometimes given more importance than it deserves. ‘Worldbuilding’ suggests a world which is thought out in advance. I think world growing is a better idea, where you just sprinkle a few seeds at the start of the story and see what sprouts as you write. You may end up with a world which is a bit less consistent, a bit less thought-through, but it will probably be more interesting. (The most interesting world of all is the real one, and that often feels very inconsistent and not thought-through at all.)
Of course, it’s important that the world you end up with is full of things which interest you, otherwise writing about it will be No Fun At All. So you need to carefully select the seeds which you sew at the start. Here are some of the seeds which grew into the world (or worlds) in which Railhead takes place.
One of the fun things about writing a story set in a technological future, rather in the sort of ramshackle retro-world I’ve explored before, is being able to make use of the strange new technologies which are starting to emerge in our own world. Since I’m more of a fantasy than a science fiction writer, I don’t use them in very realistic ways, but imagining what they might lead to can spark off ideas.
Often in stories, technology leads us to very bad places – writers love worst case scenarios, so there are lots of books and films about computers deciding to wipe out humans, or genetic engineering producing plagues and monsters. But there have been so many bleak, dystopian visions of the future in recent years that I wanted to imagine a future that could be quite a nice place to live.
Graphene, ceramic, carbon nano-tubes, diamond glass, bio-engineered living wood… There’s not much in Railhead that’s made of plastic or metal, and keeping that in mind helped me to imagine the texture of the places I was writing about.
Getting the names right is half the battle – you can do a lot of worldbuilding simply by deciding what people and places are called. In my Mortal Engines books I went for slightly whimsical, Dickensian-sounding names. When I started writing the story which became Railhead I tried to make sure the names sounded different. I called my central characters Zen and Nova because those were the sorts of names I remember from futuristic stories and TV shows that were around when I was a child – they’re sci-fi names. And originally I used a lot of Asian names because I’m guessing that, demographically and economically, the future will belong more to Asia (and Africa,) than to the weary old West. Along the way a lot of other names started creeping in; German, English and made-up ones.
When I decided that trains would be at the heart of the book I was suddenly blindsided by a lot of memories of my own first solo train journeys, going to London or Lewes by rail, or walking home beside the tracks from Sixth Form parties, watching the sparks from train wheels light up the sky behind Brighton station. And those memories brought with them a freight of other stuff from my teenage years, which started to influence the growing book – cheap sci-fi and first love, music from Berlin.
It’s always good to put in some things you don’t like to season the stuff you do. I have a deep dislike of most creepy-crawlies and an outright phobia of some, so in Railhead there are LOADS. (If it gets made into a movie, I won’t be able to watch those scenes.)
When you’re writing a book, it tends to soak up everything that you’re interested in at the time. I’ve been working on this one on and off for at least five years, and whatever happened to me in that time, wherever I went, whatever odd facts caught my attention, I would think, how would this fit into Railhead? How would Zen react to this? So a lot of those things have found their way into the book. They’re tiny details mostly, buried far beneath the main plot, and I’ve probably forgotten many of the things which sparked them off, but they are there.
B is also for Biotech
Although the world of Railhead has its problems, the technology mostly works, and for most people it mostly makes life better and more interesting. There are artificial intelligences, self-repairing machines, and vehicles and buildings have minds of their own, but alongside all the electronics there is a lot of biotechnology.It’s not really part of the story, but it is woven through the background.
I’m assuming human beings in this future era have been improved in various ways to help them resist diseases and deal with the differing environments they encounter as they ride the K-bahn from world to world. Some of the artificial intelligences clone bodies for themselves if they want to mingle with human beings – to go to a party, for instance. Rich people stock their hunting preserves and wildlife parks with genetically engineered dinosaurs and other animals from Old Earth. And even less wealthy people can buy a miniature stegosaurus or triceratops as a pet. It’s quite an old civilization, and I like to think that there have been many changes in fashion, so that the architects of one era might have built everything out of glass and ceramic while those of the next generation preferred to grow their buildings from modified plant DNA. But by the time my story begins, the fashion must have changed again: my hero lives in a sadly neglected old bio-building which has run hopelessly to seed.
Image: Railhead artwork by Jonathan Edwards – Zen in Cleave.
C is for Cleave
When I began writing Railhead, I wanted to write about a future that was worth living in – a positive vision to set against all the dystopias and apocalypses of recent fiction. So how did I end up starting in a dump like Cleave?
Zen’s hometown was a sheer-sided ditch of a place. Cleave’s houses and factories were packed like shelved crates up each wall of a mile-deep canyon on a one-gate world called Angkat whose surface was scoured by constant storms. Space was scarce, so the buildings huddled into every available scrap of terracing, and clung to cliff faces, and crowded on the bridges which stretched across the gulf between the canyon walls – a gulf which was filled with sagging cables, dangling neon signage, smog, dirty rain, and the fluttering rotors of air taxis, ferries and corporate transports.
Well, maybe a hero needs to start out in some place where he’s not content. Otherwise, why would he go looking for adventure?
Between the steep-stacked buildings a thousand waterfalls went foaming down to join the river far below, adding their own roar to the various dins from the industrial zone. The local name for Cleave was Thunder City.
A few years ago, on my wife’s birthday, we went to Lydford Gorge, on the far side of Dartmoor. It’s a place about as unlike a futuristic industrial city as you could imagine. The river Lyd flows through the deep gorge. There is a famous waterfall called The White Lady, and a beautiful, mossy path leading up through the oak woods, beside the rapids. There’s also a spot called the Devil’s Cauldron where the river plunges down into a deep chasm. Some previous landowner bolted metal walkways to the rock-faces so that sightseers could venture closer. The walkways are rusted now and maybe unsafe; they were certainly closed off the day that we were there. But looking at them from the higher path made me think about a whole city built in that way, jutting from vertical cliff faces, half drowned in waterfall spray. Ideas lie in wait for us in the landscape, and they’re not always the ideas that we expect.
Images: 1. Density by Maciej Drabik 2. Lydford Gorge, by me.
D is for Desdemor and Datasea
There’s something beautiful about an abandoned seaside resort. I noticed it as a child, wandering along the seafronts of Brighton in the off season. The gaudy signs outside amusement arcades look sad and lost in winter weather; paint peels from shuttered cafes painted the colours of neapolitan ice-cream and the waves bash at the shingle. Sometimes at secondary school I’d slip out for a walk at lunchtime, down to the front at Black Rock, which was like a JG Ballard theme park in those days; the grey sea rolled against the grey concrete buttresses of the new marina, and a few feet of dirty rainwater gathered in a drained and fenced-off open-air swimming pool.
It all gave me a feeling that I couldn’t put my finger on, and still can’t – they best way to explain it is just to create an out-of -season resort of my own. In Desdemor, the off-season has lasted for a long time – it lies on the water-moon Tristesse, a world abandoned fifty years before Railhead begins. (I imagined a low-gravity, futurist Venice crossed with with the photographs of my old friend Justin Hill, who was with me on some of those winter seafront walks and who now specialises in photographs of an eerily abandoned Brighton.) Offshore, dimly visible through the mist that hangs on the horizon, the rings of a huge gas-planet reach up the sky. The ocean which booms against the crumbling promenades is called the Sea of Sadness.
But there is another sea in Railhead; the Datasea, which laps around all the different worlds of the Network Empire. One of the things which was noticeably absent from all the science fiction stories I read in my teens was the internet. The authors of the ‘50s and ‘60s had been able to imagine spaceships and aliens, satellites and supercomputers, but as far as I know, none of them saw the World Wide Web coming. Nowadays, it’s very hard to imagine an advanced future which doesn’t do most of its business and socialising online.
The Datasea is composed of the interlinked internets of every planet in the empire. It’s not just used by people; it’s home to all sorts of artificial intelligences, ranging from the godlike Guardians to all kinds of bots, data entities and semi-intelligent viruses, which make it a fairly dangerous sea to surf: people can get lost in there, like mortals straying into Fairyland. So most people make sure their browsing never goes beyond the firewalled Data Rafts, where businesses and media outlets have their sites, and where friends can interact in chatrooms and virtual environments, while the trains which travel from world to world constantly update each planet’s local Datasea with information which they carry in their minds. (Some people believe that the Guardians only built the K-bahn so that information could travel quickly across their huge virtual realm, and the freight and passenger cars the trains haul are simply a sideline.)
Images: Brighton photographs by Justin Hill
E is for Empire
The idea of a galactic empire is an old one in science fiction. I suppose I first came across it in Star Wars, but Star Wars got it from the old Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, or from one of the many pulp fiction writers who built their own imperiums in the sci-fi magazines of the ‘30s, ’40s, and ’50s.
I’ve always found it intriguing. That combination of unimaginably advanced technology – starships! robots! – with an archaic society has always had a kind of goofy charm, and when I started writing my own space story that was one of the first things I put in. The idea of ancient space stations which have been the home of some powerful family for generations seemed tantalising, and so did the question of how you could run an empire when great gulfs of space separated its different provinces.
But I wanted the world of Railhead to be a relatively untroubled one, so I didn’t need a cruel or evil or aggressive empire, more an old, slow, sleepy one, set in its ways and pretty stable. I remembered Stefan Zweig’s description of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire – ‘neither politically ambitious nor particularly successful in its military ventures’ – at the start of his great memoir The World of Yesterday:
Everything in our Austrian Monarchy, then almost a thousand years old, seemed built to last… Everything in this wide domain was firmly established, immovably in its place, with the old Emperor at the top of the pyramid, and if he were to die the Austrians all knew (or thought they knew) that another emperor would take his place, and nothing in the well-calculated order of things would change. Anything radical or violent seemed impossible in such an age of reason.
(from Anthea Bell’s translation, pub. Pushkin Press)
So my vague fragments of knowledge about the Austro-Hungarian Empire became a sort of touchstone for the Network Empire in Railhead. It’s not a particularly fair or equal society, but its unfairness is so time-honoured that nobody thinks about it much, and the occasional rebellions and dynastic conflicts which break out are quickly settled. The Hapsburg emperors thought they had been appointed by God, but the emperors who rule the Network Emperor really are watched over by gods – or at least by god-like Artificial Intelligences, who can be expected to step in if the human rulers try doing anything too cruel or stupid.
Of course, for all its grandeur and long history, the Austro-Hungarian Empire didn’t last. By 1914 it was really just a dried out husk, with all sorts of hidden flaws and stress-points of which the young Stefan Zweig was mostly unaware. One gunshot in Sarajevo was enough to start it crumbling. Four years later, it was gone. I suspect the Network Empire might turn out to be just as fragile. In Railhead all seems well: peace reigns, and the avuncular Emperor Mahalaxmi XXIII tours the stations of his realm aboard his miles-long train. But perhaps one day it will all disintegrate, and people will look back upon those times as a lost golden age…