RAILHEAD A-Z. Part Three: M – R

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.


M is for Motorik

Androids were a feature of this story from the start, but I didn’t want to call them androids, which is too familiar a word, and seemed too sci-fi, even in a text full of space trains and hyperspace portals. So they became the Motorik, which I thought  looked intriguing and exotic on the page. (It’s also the name of a particular type of German electronic music with an insistent, driving, train-like beat – the secret soundtrack of Railhead.)  The Motorik are part of a long tradition of artificial people in SF, and of course they will remind readers of Battlestar Galactica or AI or Blade Runner or a host of other works, going back through Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Carel Kapek’s R.U.R. all the way to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But that doesn’t bother me. Science fiction and fantasy have these familiar touchstones, the stock characters and situations to which each writer tries to add his or her own spin. One of the things such stories give us is a way of thinking about humans by looking through the eyes of people who are not human; the robots, the aliens, the always-outsiders.

Motorik are built to serve; polite, reserved, their synthetic faces deliberately bland (because nobody really wants a servant who is prettier or more interesting than themselves). You find them working at the reception desks in offices and hotels, and as labourers on airless asteroid mines or barely-habitable industrial worlds. They are supposed to have the same average intelligence as humans, but most people think them less than human; they don’t have feelings and emotions like a human does.

Or do they? Who knows what they are thinking, or how they feel? Some of the Motorik in Railhead are only just beginning to work out what they are capable of…

Image: the robot Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

N is for Nova

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The Motorik called Nova is one of them, a servant to the character named Raven who employs my hero at the story’s start and draws him into danger. I originally had another heroine in mind; Nova was just there to open doors and dump some exposition. But when I started writing about her I found that she had a sense of humour, and a story of her own, and she quickly started to take over. She seems more curious than other Motorik, or maybe just more open about her feelings (and about the fact that she has feelings). She doesn’t mind being a machine – she knows that she’s a very superior model – but she’s fascinated by humans. In the abandoned beach resort of Desdemor she whiles away her time watching ancient movies from Old Earth, and wondering what it would be like to be human. She’s trying out facial expressions, and she has worked out how to alter the pigmentation settings of her artificial skin to give herself freckles, of which she is very proud. She isn’t trying to pass herself off as human. She isn’t some Pinocchio character, yearning to be a real girl. She just wonders what it would feel like…

Image: Sketches of Nova and Cleave by Ian McQue.


O is for Old Money


Back in the beginning, long before my story starts, the companies which built my interstellar railway found themselves facing all sorts of difficulties. Laws and customs might differ widely between different stations, and often changed during the centuries-long time periods which were needed for massive long-term projects. So it gradually became the norm for business agreements to be sealed by marriage between the families of company directors, since bonds of blood were more enduring than ordinary contracts. In this way, over many centuries, the great companies and corporations of the Network became Corporate Families, in which power was handed down from parent to child.

These vast and powerful families have armies and territories of their own and the kind of resources which only nations wield in our world. They were one of the first ideas to arrive when I began writing this book; they offered an opportunity for dynastic intrigue and depictions of absurd luxury, and they were born of that goofy-yet-thrilling collision between past and future which is at the heart of so many space operas – feudal hi-tech.



It took a while to find out where they fitted in the story. In early drafts, the Families and their ambitions and betrayals were right up front. I thought it might be fun to take a spoilt merchant prince or princess and put them through hell, learning something along the way. It wasn’t though, or, at least, it didn’t produce the book that I’d been after. So I looked for a hero at the other end of society, and the Corporate Families moved into the background. But they didn’t go away. When I decided that the story was going to to be about trains, they became the people who owned the lines and locomotives. When I decided it was going to be about a thief, they became his prey.

Because in their ancestral space stations, or aboard their gorgeous private trains, the Families keep plenty of things which are worth stealing. And on the Noon Train, which belongs to the richest of them all, in a private museum, there is a little, dull-looking, square, grey artefact, almost invisible amid all the splendour. And someone wants it very badly indeed…

Images: 1. A train decorated in the style of Versailles on the RER line in Paris – from an article at pdk, but can’t find photographer’s name. 2 Taganskaya Metro Station by David Burdeny (more in this article)


P is for Predators



In my entry on Jangala I mentioned how the Noons had stocked their jungle world with bio-engineered wildlife for visitors to hunt. The abandoned city of Desdemor was once a hunting resort too, and on the offshore reefs there are still huge colonies of rays. In fact, with no hunters to keep the population down, the rays are becoming a bit of a problem. They are based on manta rays from the oceans of Old Earth, but they have been adapted to breathe air, and in the low gravity of the water-moon Tristesse they have no trouble flying. (I’ve seen footage of rays breaching the waves and flapping through air on lots of wildlife documentaries down the years, and always thought, ‘you wouldn’t want one of those coming at you’.)

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The rays of Desdemor have been ‘improved’ in other ways to make them worthy trophies for hunting parties. They are carnivorous and aggressive, and have barbed tails which they use to harpoon their prey. But as a safety feature, they’ve been designed to strike only at moving things, so if you are attacked by rays you can usually save yourself by staying COMPLETELY STILL.

Why rays and not birds of prey or pterosaurs? Well, partly because rays are cool, but also because they are hunted with special guns, which are kept in the gunrooms of Desdemor’s hotels. My main character, Zen, is given one of these to take on his adventures. Every sci-fi hero needs a ray gun.

Images: 1.Flying rays by Artem Chebokha 2. Photo by Roland Seitre,


Q is for Questions

When I started this A-Z I knew that there would be some letters which would give me trouble, and Q is one of them. As far as I recall there is NOTHING in the universe of Railhead which begins with Q. (I expect they have quiche, but nobody eats any in the course of the book – I wouldn’t want to mislead any quiche fans about its quiche content, which is 0.)

So I decided Q will stand for Questions, and I’ve roped in famous illustrator, author and self-styled superstar Sarah McIntyre to ask me some. I’ve written three books with Sarah, and she also writes her own comics and picture books including Vern and Lettuce and Dinosaur Police, as well as being a tireless blogger. Here are her questions…

SM: Has a ray ever managed to fly on board a train and go through a K-Gate? (Has there been any inter-world migration of species, other than humans?)

7AlOGzp4qF2G5KJkb0-i6QAUV4h1E6aVWyqaapBCIh0fs0SjVk35lw1gIHNRKXZ95KSVKOfuYZl0m7Hg4qhvzY-707x1024PR: One of the good things about having intelligent trains is that they know if some critter is trying to sneak aboard, and deal with it before they set off. So no, nothing big has ever managed to stow away. Apart from a few insects, species only spread from world to world if people want them to (most of the residential planets like to have a pretty broad range of wildlife to keep their eco-systems ticking over). There’s some dispute about the Monk Bugs, which clump together to form Hive Monks. Some people say they’re an alien species, but others believe they’re descended from ordinary beetles which clung to the underside of trains and mutated after passing through the K-gates…

SM: What happened to Nova’s red coat? Can I borrow it or did she leave it somewhere?

These are the sort of continuity issues which plague authors. As far as I know, it’s still hanging in her room at the hotel in Desdemor, on the water-moon Tristesse. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you having a borrow of it, if you can get there.

SM: Can clothes really change colour, like Zen’s jacket does? Is this a real thing already?

I don’t think so – not commercially-available clothes, at least. But it can’t be far off. Clothes that change colour, clothes that change shape, clothes which clean themselves or act as screens showing videos of your pets or favourite pop-stars… all these things are such old hat in the Network Empire that no one even thinks about them. I think that’s one of the most interesting things about technology – the way it becomes omnipresent, and cheap, and people take it for granted.

SM: Does Nova regularly eat real food to fuel her batteries or does she only do it every once in awhile, just for kicks? Can she taste anything? 

She doesn’t have to eat food – she can recharge herself in a variety of hand-wavy ways, mainly via the free wireless power units which are a feature of most buildings and public places. But she can eat if she wants to, and draws energy from the food much like a human would. (She can breathe if she wants to, too. There’s really no need, but people find it a bit creepy to be around someone who obviously isn’t breathing.) She likes cinnamon pastries best.


SM: I love your bioformed buildings in Cleave. Is this a real thing anywhere? Did you base the idea on any images you’ve seen?

PR: I’m pretty sure biobuildings aren’t real, although modern architects use a lot of biological forms in new buildings, so that’s probably where the idea came from. Quite a lot of the cities in Railhead feature these living buildings, based on modified plant DNA. But I think they’re a bit out-of-fashion by the time the story starts – the one where Zen lives has turned into a slum, and run to seed, and started growing random balconies and things.

In one of the very, very early versions of the story the hero was going to be the assistant to a bio-architect. He spent his days driving round to all these houses to prune them or top up their nutrient feeds, or deal with greenfly infestations or outbreaks of roof-wilt.  I’d forgotten about that, but it’s quite a funny idea, and I should probably use it one day.  Thank you, McIntyre!

Images: Hive Monk by Jonathan Edwards, Nova in Cleave by Ian McQue

Sarah McIntyre’s blog can be found at http://jabberworks.livejournal.com)


R is for Railways


Visiting some relative in Brighton when I was very small, I remember putting my ear against the floor and hearing a strange, deep, spooky rumbling sound come up through the linoleum. ‘That’s a train’, they told me, and I thought about it rushing through the dark down there, far beneath the house.

I’m not sure where that can have been, as the bit of Brighton I grew up in wasn’t near the railway – but the memory may be old enough that I was hearing a freight train on its way through the tunnel to Kemptown station, which was closed in 1971. Probably, brainwashed by children’s books and toys, I imagined it was a steam train I was hearing, and wondered where all the smoke would go. Anyway, the railway was already part of my world. We didn’t use trains very often, but on winter nights the flashes from their wheels would jump up the sky above the town like sheet lightning, and sometimes, on special occasions, we’d go to the station, board one of the carriages with their heavy doors and scratchy upholstery, and go speeding off to London for a day at the museums or the zoo.

I was never really train-struck as a child. I had toy trains, and later a Hornby electric set, occupying a beautiful layout which my dad constructed around the edges of my bedroom, with papier-maché hills, and bushes made from bits of old bath sponge dipped in green paint. I remember Terence Cuneo’s railway paintings, too, each with his trademark mouse hidden among the trackside foliage, waiting to be found. But the machinery of it all never quite grabbed my imagination – I never felt any desire to be a train driver. I was happy just being a passenger, carried through an ever-changing view.

There is something very peculiar about trains, and it’s all the more peculiar for being so familiar and everyday: we sit down in a long, narrow room full of strangers and it rushes away with us, carrying us through the odd between-time of travel to wherever we are going. I think that’s a feeling that I had very early on – certainly that I was aware of by the time I was a teenager, making my first solo train journeys. That’s the kernel of real experience which is at the heart of all the fantastical goings-on in Railhead.


Image: Waterloo Station 1963 by Terence Cuneo. (More about him here.) 2. Night Train by Vladislav Nikitin

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