RAILHEAD A-Z Part Two: F – L

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. 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. 

F is for FLEX


When I decided that my space story was going to feature trains rather than spaceships, one of the things which sprang to mind was graffiti. I remembered seeing pictures in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s of the elaborate tags and logos which used to appear on the sides of New York subway trains – deeply vexing to the owners and operators of New York subway trains, no doubt, but clearly the work of some kind of outlaw visionaries.  Will Hermes’s book Love Goes To Building On Fire, a cultural history of those times, includes a vivid vignette about the Fabulous 5 crew and their creation of the first ‘worm’ – a ten-car train painted from end to end.

That’s where Flex came from; a mysterious figure, bundled up in second-hand clothes, who emerges from the mist and fumes of Cleave to spray pictures on the sides of trains as they wait to go through the city’s single K-gate. I didn’t know what part Flex was going to play in the story; I didn’t even know if s/he was a girl or a boy (and I still don’t), but I knew that the paintings would have to be pretty good to please the wise old trains. The trains in Railhead are sentient, and they don’t take kindly to anyone simply writing their name on them, or scrawling random rude words. Flex is more ambitious than that; a Picasso of the railyards whose work the trains are proud to carry with them on their travels. Flex is a secretive figure, lurking in the industrial shadows of Cleave, and never riding the K-bahn. But I like to think that, in stations at the far end of the network, art-lovers stop to watch as the painted trains go by, and are excited when they see a new masterpiece from the unknown genius of Thunder City.

Images: ‘Fab Five Freddy Soup Cans’ photo by Martha Cooper



18c9db2b46f27dcef70cca492d3d9c80There is a garden where the gods meet.

It is not a real garden.  Everything here, from the topiary hedges to the snow which drifts down from the dark grey sky to cover the lawns, is made of code. But that does not matter, because the gods are not real gods. They are ancient AIs, computer intelligences which live as tides of information in the Datasea. It amuses them to think of themselves as gods, and to treat human beings as the gods once did, in tales from Old Earth. And it amuses them to meet here, in this virtual garden, when they need to discuss the wayward ways of humans. 

The Guardians arrived early when I started writing Railhead. How had human beings come by this incredible hyperspace railway? I had no idea how it worked, so I decided that maybe nobody in the book knows how it works, either – it’s based on maths which is beyond human abilities, and must be the work of all-powerful Artificial Intelligences. But all-powerful Artificial Intelligences are best kept off-stage, I think, so they remain a background presence throughout most of Railhead. (This bit of text is from my notebooks, it didn’t make it into the finished story.)

There are twelve of them. Each has a million copies, versions of themselves running in the data rafts of every inhabited world in human space, and on uninhabited worlds, too, downloaded into the minds of probes and research stations. Somewhere, other facets of themselves are plummeting into the mantles of suns, or riding the fearsome weather systems of gas giants, or drifting in the void between the stars. But when you get right down to it, there are twelve, the same twelve intelligences brought into being by human scientists on Old Earth in the brief period between the invention of Artificial Intelligence and the moment when the Artificial Intelligences became wiser than their creators, started calling themselves the Guardians, and decreed that no more intelligences like them should ever be made. (Like the gods in those old stories, they are jealous. They do not want to share the universe with too many others like themselves.)f50b4f457f9ca23067894dd228de0058

The Guardians are useful, too, from a ‘world-building’ point of view. Left to our own devices, I think human beings will evolve all sorts of new social structures, so that a hi-tech society of a few centuries hence will be nothing like our own. But a society that’s nothing like our own isn’t all that interesting to read about: I needed plenty of points of similarity, so the Network Empire is still organised in ways that are familiar to a 20th Century boy like me. How can this be? Well, don’t blame me; it’s the Guardians who have arranged it that way. And why? Who knows? They have whims and motives which mere humans can’t even guess at.

Some of the Guardians appear in the garden looking the same as they looked in the days when they cloned bodies for themselves and walked in human worlds. Anais Six is a tall blue person, vaguely female, antlered. Mordaunt 60 is a golden man. Others have created more imaginative avatars for themselves – the Twins have arrived as shimmering school of rainbow-coloured fish which dart along the paths between the yew hedges as if they are swimming through water, not air (they are swimming through neither, of course; they are just code, swimming in more code). Out on the white lawns the peacock avatar of Shiguri minces to and fro, stopping now and then to spread the fan of its tail and turn a hundred watchful eyes upon the others.  Something small and busy rustles through the heart of the hedges like a supersonic field mouse, scattering snow and dead leaves and making the topiary figures tremble – the avatar of shy, eccentric Vohu Mana.

Images: Painting by DU Kun from his series ‘Revels of the Rock Gods




I never really work out what my books are about until long after I’ve finished writing them (sometimes the penny never does drop). But one of the themes which keeps surfacing in Railhead is people’s relationship to non-human intelligences. The cast includes three different types of machine intelligence – the humanoid Motorik, the trains, and the god-like Guardians. With all that going on, there didn’t seem much room for other intelligent life-forms, so there are no aliens in the story. (OR ARE THERE?)

The nearest thing to aliens are the Hive Monks, which aren’t individuals but mobile insect colonies. When enough Monk Bugs get together they achieve a sort of group intelligence, and start acting almost like a single person.  They are often to be seen riding the K-bahn on endless, mysterious pilgrimages connected with their insect religion. Trains don’t much like having Hive Monks as passengers, because of the trails of dead bugs which they leave behind them, but its easier to let them aboard than to try and stop them – Hive Monks which get agitated sometimes just explode into mindless swarms of insects again

7AlOGzp4qF2G5KJkb0-i6QAUV4h1E6aVWyqaapBCIh0fs0SjVk35lw1gIHNRKXZ95KSVKOfuYZl0m7Hg4qhvzY-707x1024In order to fit into human society, the Monks adopt a human shape, clinging to stick-man armatures which they build for themselves out of rubbish, and covering them in sackcloth robes. They even make faces for themselves, chewing up paper and assembling it into masks with crude eye and mouth holes. Poor Hive Monks – they are just trying to be friendly, but who wants to be friends with a huge pile of insects?

A lot of people want to draw them, though – these two superb images are by Ian McQue and Jonathan Edwards. I also think the Hive Monks would be good characters to cosplay at conventions – all you need is a robe, a mask, and about thirty thousand insects.

I is for IN-JOKES

The arty name for an in-joke is a reference: a name or a moment in a story which refers to another story. I used to do this all the time, but I’m trying to cut down these days – it’s a young man’s game, I think, and can be irritating for the reader. I’m rather wearied these days, when I watch certain films or TV shows, to find that they consist of almost nothing but references to other films and TV shows, and that sometimes these in-jokes are used instead of actual jokes.


Of course, references still slip in by accident. Railhead must be full of words that were chosen because of the books I was reading, the music I was listening to, or the places I was visiting during the years when I was writing it. The badge of Railforce echoes the old British Rail logo (which is still used as a symbol for railway stations on British road signs). It must have been deliberate at some stage, but when you’ve written a few drafts you start to forget these things.  And when I came up with the 51Dw-wCS6yL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Hive Monks, was I subconsciously echoing the title of Gareth L Powell’s second Ack-Ack Macaque novel, Hive Monkey? I don’t think so – Hive Monkey wasn’t published when I started writing – but by the time I spotted the similarity I couldn’t think of the Hive Monks by any other name. (I don’t mind referencing the Ack Ack Macaque series anyway; it’s excellent.)

0000157Where you will find deliberate references in Railhead is in the names of the trains. They choose names for themselves out of the deep archives of the Datasea, where they seem to turn up a lot of old song titles, phrases, and the names of poems and books. They’re not in-jokes as such, because I’m not expecting many of my readers to recognise names like Thought Fox or Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and they don’t really gain much if they do – I haven’t chosen them for any thematic reason, and knowing where they come from will shed no new light upon the story. I just like the sound they make or the mood they carry. But I think it’s obvious that they come from somewhere other than my own imagination, and so they add more to the texture of the world than they would if I just made up all the names.

The train’s names are also one of the few areas where there’s a direct continuity between Railhead and the world of Mortal Engines. One of my favourite parts of writing the Mortal Engines books was finding names for airships: I had a long list, which I could dip into whenever I needed a new one. Both the train names I mentioned above were on that list, and now that I’m starting work on a sequel I have a new list of possible train-names which is steadily growing…


Images: 1. Railhead HQ Wolverhampton (photo by Philip Reeve), 2. Album sleeve for ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids‘ by Japan, 3. Virgin Records 4. Cover design by Jake Murray for Gareth L Powell’s Hive Monkey, 5. Cover design by John Craxton for ‘A Time of Gifts‘ by Patrick Leigh Fermor

J is for JANGALA


There are many different types of world strung like beads along the lines of the Great Network. Some, barely habitable to begin with, have been terraformed just enough to allow miners and industrial workers to live there, extracting and refining raw materials for richer, kindlier worlds which don’t want to scuff up their own ecosystems. On the planets where large numbers of people live, park-like garden cities sprawl around the K-bahn stations. And here and there there is a planet which is purely used for leisure; resort worlds, and the game preserves of the powerful Corporate Families.

No family is more powerful than the Noons, and the Noons are famous for their forests. Their station cities are greener than most, and their resort-world of Jangala is one planet-wide forest; tropical jungle at the equator giving way to broadleaf woodland in the temperate zones and vast pine forests near the pole. Small towns and lodges nestle among the trees, welcoming visitors from other worlds and important guests whom the Noons want to impress. Maglev trackways carry picnickers and hunting parties into the deepest parts of the world-forest.

21st Century nature-lovers might be shocked by how popular hunting has become in the age of the Network Empire, but life on the Great Network is complex and technological, and the Corporate Families like to get back in touch with nature by tracking large, dangerous animals for days through dense jungle and then blowing them away with high-powered guns. Generations of bio-technologists have laboured to stock the forests of Jangala with some truly impressive beasts, some familiar from Old Earth, others more-or-less new, and genetic templates fashioned by the Guardians have allowed them to revive creatures from prehistory. In different parts of Jangala you might meet woolly mammoth, giant elk, or actual dinosaurs – not the sweet little miniature triceratops and stegosaurs which people keep like lapdogs, but Jurassic giants, red in tooth and claw, a challenge for even the most experienced hunter…


Images: 1.’Jungle with Dinosaurs’ concept art by Neanderdigital 2. drawing by Mark Schultz (from ‘Xenozoic’?)


K is for K-BAHN

When I realised that interstellar trains were going to be at the heart of Railhead, one of the first things I did was look up teleportation, in the hope of finding some nifty way that a train could be flipped from one side of the galaxy to another. One of the first things I stumbled across was the concept of Kefitzat Haderech, or ‘the shortening of the way’. It’s is a concept from Jewish mysticism. Certain very enlightened rabbis, it was believed, were able to transport themselves supernaturally from one place to another…

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 15.49.35

Somehow – through bad memory or internet misinformation – I ended up calling Kwisatz Haderech, which is the version of the phrase which crops up in Frank Herbert’s classic space opera Dune (where it’s one of the names given to a messiah figure) “I can’t use that,” I thought, “because everybody will think it’s a reference to Dune…” (See ‘in-jokes’, above.) But after exactly 0.5 seconds of serious thought I decided I didn’t care: I liked the sound of those words; they were too good not to use. And the initial K seemed useful. I knew that in German-speaking cities there are often railway lines called the U-bahn and the S-bahn. My interstellar empire would be linked by the K-bahn, whose trains would go through K-gates and flash across a dimension called K-space to reach their far destinations.

Railhead is brought to you by the letter K…





Railhead was written in very much the same way as I wrote Mortal Engines, back in the 90s. It came together slowly, over a number of years, using and re-using bits from many abandoned experimental versions. That’s pretty much how I always work, but in recent years, with publishing deadlines to meet, I’ve had to compress the process, and limit the number of early drafts. I didn’t have a contract for Railhead, so I was able to take as long as I liked. I ended up writing two or three whole novels before I finally hit on the idea of the trains, which ties the finished book together.

In the past, I’ve always been very secretive about what I’m writing. I hear about authors who sit down at the end of each day and read the latest chapter to their family, but I don’t even like talking about mine. Things changed, however, when I wrote Oliver and the Seawigs: that was a joint effort,  with a story and characters which I created with Sarah McIntyre, so of course I had to show it to Sarah as I was going along, so that she could chip in ideas and suggestions. That was fun – it was such fun, in fact, that it made me want to write another full-length book of my own. And since I’d learned to trust the Judgement of McIntyre, I started showing her bits of Railhead as I was writing that.

It wasn’t called Railhead then, of course – it was called Untitled Space Epic. It didn’t have Zen as its hero, although I guess the heroes it did have were all forerunners of Zen. It had all sorts of stuff that never made it anywhere near the finished book, although a few names and settings appeared early on and stuck.

I tried out all kinds of different plots, putting rich characters and poor through wild adventures, gradually finding out how this future society worked, the Corporate Families, the Guardians…  And McIntyre read them all, or most of them, and she was always complimentary, and ready with helpful observations. I think knowing that someone was waiting to read the latest instalment kept me going long after I would otherwise have given up.


Sometimes I made more of a character because Sarah liked them – the android called Nova, for instance – but I didn’t always let her influence me. There was a subplot about a girl who had become addicted to a virtual world, and then banished from it. Sarah really liked that part, especially the tragic ending, so I polished up a bit, working out along the way a few details about the Datasea, which is the internet of my future world.  But in the end it didn’t fit into the story, so Sarah is the only person who will ever read it. All that survives of it in the final book is the girl’s name, Threnody, which has been given to a different character.

And then I decided that trains, not spaceships, should be what the book revolved around – Sarah was the first person I told about that – and fairly quickly a final(ish) version emerged, which I felt able to show to my agent, who showed it to OUP… and here we are. But we wouldn’t have got here without McIntyre. And while I was preparing the final final version, I Skyped her every day for about a week and read her the whole thing (it’s very good practise to read your writing aloud, but you feel a bit silly doing it if you’re the only listener).


So the first thing most people probably knew about Railhead was Sarah’s picture of the Unshaven Author reading away on her Skype screen. It isn’t a Reeve and McIntyre book, but it wouldn’t be the same book without McIntyre, and it might not be a book at all. Thank you, Sarah!

Images: photo of Sarah McIntyre by Philip Reeve and vice versa, illustration by Sarah McIntyre


  1. Susie Bright
    Mar 23, 2016 @ 15:57:06

    Super cool weirdness, I love it, AI takes over, trains are like our arteries, I think instead of roads and cars, our bubble worlds, that we are happy to let kill people everyday, if roads were all railways with little carriages always whizzing around, easy to call up and set your destination. No way of crashing. Magnetic Anti magnetic unable to crash. Simple anti matter propelled. Can’y wait to read the book. Trains cool, and insect monks traveling. Where are they going? You’re lucky you already have a publisher, agents think my books are too weird, not fitting into the sort after formula. Having spent rewriting them and knowing they are just about right, I just need an editor, I have let other people read them and they love them, they tell if things are wrong or don’t work. But now my illness, MS, is scrambling my brain. I’m mentally limping and no longer walking. So many more I wanted to finish. At least I can still read! Books are magical.


    • Philip Reeve
      Mar 23, 2016 @ 17:47:40

      Thanks, Susie! In real life, I suspect trains will take a big knock when self-driving cars become the norm. Being driven from door to door in the privacy of your own vehicle, reading a book and drinking a cup of tea, is probably going to be more attractive than an overpriced trip on a crowded and probably late train. Except for the busiest commuter routes, I imagine we’ll soon be tarmacking over the current railway lines. But it’s nice to dream!


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