Beginning an occasional series in which I attempt to boost my career by posing with people younger,prettier and more talented.  No.1: Sarah McIntyre.  
Here we are buying each other's books at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.  She's ended up with Fever Crumb; I'm clutching Vern and Lettuce, an album of cartoon strips which first appeared in the David Fickling Comic.  It's about  some animals who live in a tower block in London.  Sarah signed and drew in the copy I bought for Sam, and he loves them and now thinks she's the greatest draw-er EVER.  

The Old, Old Story

A few years ago I got bogged down in the book I was writing, Fever Crumb.  It had a very long and complicated story with multiple points-of-view and a lot of flashbacks, and countless bits of backstory to be explained.  Whatever I did with it, I ended up with characters sitting each other down and explaining great chunks of plot to each other in long, wordy monologues.

So I gave up on it, consigned all existing drafts to the dustbin, and set to work on Something Completely Different.  It eventually ended up being published as No Such Thing As Dragons, which is just about to come out in paperback in the UK, and as a hardback in the US (it's one of the books I'll be talking about at Edinburgh this week).  At the time I wrote it I didn't have publication in mind: I just wanted to write something that wasn't Fever Crumb.  Fever Crumb was long, so Dragons would be short; Fever Crumb had crowds of characters, so I decided the new book would have very few; Fever Crumb kept getting clogged by long speeches, so the hero of this story would be mute: that ought to stop him banging on too much...

I also tried to think of the simplest, most basic story I could.

We are often told that there are only five stories in the world, or only seven, and that all our books, plays and films are a variation on one or other of them.  Some Hollywood writers go further and say that there are only two.  ( 'A man comes to town', and 'a man leaves town'.)  But I think there is one story which is so fundamental that it's probably an echo of the first story ever told.  That's the one I tried to draw on for No Such Thing As Dragons.  It's the story of a small community being threatened, stalked and picked off one by one by a malevolent outside force; and of the hero who eventually arises to save them.  It's Beowulf and St George, but it's also Jaws and Alien.

And to our Pliestocene ancestors it must have been the stuff of everyday life.  Then, small clans of hunter gatherers would have made attractive prey for the bears and big cats with which they shared their world.  It's easy to imagine them clustered around their fires, swapping accounts of the dreadful creatures which had come back again and again to carry off vulnerable members of the group, and of how they were eventually defeated.  The hunters who tracked the predator to its lair and killed it would have been the first literary heroes; forerunners to Odysseus, King Arthur, and that Jamie Lee Curtis out of Halloween.  And as human societies developed and the threat from predators became less immediate we still kept looking over our shoulders in the dark, and glancing uneasily into the shadows beyond the light of our lamps.  We no longer lived in such close proximity to bears and sabre-tooths, so we invented proxy predators to haunt the tales we told; dragons and demons; vampires and xenomorphs.

My first plan was to tell the story of a small band of prehistoric folk getting whittled down by some fell beast - a bear or a sabre-tooth tiger, but one so cunning and so seemingly malevolent that they start to regard it as an evil spirit.  However, that kept coming up much too bleak, and as I turned it over in my mind I was reminded of how, in the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, it was believed that dragons haunted the high peaks of the Alps.  And that sparked off another memory, of a story I'd toyed with one day while walking up the Old Man of Coniston*, about dragon-hunters setting off to work on some lonely mountain.  Not St George-ish, knights-in-shining-armour sort of dragon hunters, though; ordinary, flawed, cowardly people who were only in it for the money.  And not a talking, fire-breathing, gold-hoarding dragon but something hungry and primitive; a real animal.  

I took another walk to think it through, then came home and wrote the first draft of No Such Thing... very quickly.  So quickly, in fact, that it completely freed me up and I was able to go back to Fever Crumb, clear out all the dead wood and get to work again, so that's the book that ended up being published first. But I'm still fond of No Such Thing...  It's very different from my other books (although it has a few themes in common with Here Lies Arthur) and if you come to it expecting WOMEishness you may be disappointed: it's really just meant to be a children's book of a slightly old fashioned sort, and I think I'd have enjoyed it when I was nine or ten.  It also features some illustrations by yours truly, some of which I think are quite nice, and a handsome new cover by Mr Wyatt.  I hope you like it.

*Which is a mountain in the Lake District, not an actual old man.  That would be weird.

Teen Ink and EdBookFest

No blogs for the next few days: I've been spending far too much time staring gormlessly into the shallows of the internet, so I'm switching this machine off for a bit, and hope to get some drawing done instead.  However, I was recently interviewed by Rachel Herriman for the Teen Ink website, so if you feel you can't face a week without my penetrating insights and deathless bon mots you can read the results here.  Not only that, but if you can bear the excitement and happen to be near Edinburgh you can see me in person at the Book Festival, where I'll be appearing on the 25th August alongside fellow illustrator-turned-tween-friendly-sci-fi-scribe, Ian Beck.


The Guardian sat up and noticed Steampunk this week .  The article itself is so cursory that it's barely worth reading, but there are a lot of interesting comments, including one by Lyndon Ap Gwynfryn which echoes my own growing doubts: "Steampunk is the stupidest of all subgenres of speculative fiction...  To retrospectively associate contemporary Victorian science fiction, which was forward looking and progressive, with a self consciously anachronistic and frivolous genre like steampunk is deeply insulting to great writers like Wells and Verne."  
But me and Mr Ap Gwynfryn are clearly pretty much alone in feeling this way, (although one of the other comments says, rather perceptively, "Zzzzzzzz")  There's no point in complaining: the rise and rise of steamy punky things now seems unstoppable.  I can't help wondering, though, why Victorian/Edwardian is the only form of retro sci-fi that seems to appeal to YA authors.  What's happened to the 1950s 'Golden Age' stuff, which you'd think would offer pickings just as rich to a backward-looking world-builder?   
I don't mean the plots (virtually all sci-fi, with the possible exceptions of cyberpunk and that nice Mr Ballard, has basically been re-running the same plots and tropes since about 1930*).  Nor am I talking about the historical context - who cares about that any more?  It's the imagery which I think could fuel a whole series of YA best-sellers.  Skylon-shaped rocket ships, spiny ray guns, perspex-bubble space helmets, flying cars with fins and chrome radiator grilles, square-jawed space-rangers, heroines with beehive-hairdos and cantilevered bras, mad scientists, Nazis... What's not to like?  The movies revisit this look from time to time (Robots, Monsters vs Aliens, bits of the Star Wars prequels), kids' TV loves it (Atomic Betty; the excellent Secret Show) picture books for younger children still use it (Simon Bartram's Man on the Moon for instance) and the tabletop gaming community have clearly brought it on board (check out the lovely 28mm robots from Hydra Miniatures which I've used to illustrate this post).  
So why do we not keep hearing about people rebuilding computers and i-pads in sleek 'fifties housings?  Why are there no no festivals or conventions where like minded 'Atompunks' (as I think they should be called**) can dress up in one-piece nylon numbers and compare the size of their Art Deco disintegrators?***  Above all, why aren't  there scores of books for older children and young adults?  
As with Steampunk, 'Atompunk' offers us arty folk the opportunity to write science fiction without actually needing to know any science. Robert Heinlein may have known his stuff when he wrote all those 'juvenile' space-operas back in the day, but he was awfully right-wing, and who needs to understand gravity and thermodynamics anyway?  This is meant to be fun, so everything works by, you know, atom-power, or some kinda space-diesel.  But it's not just whimsy: the mid-twentieth century flavour of this imaginary era will allow for all sorts of moralising and serious social comment.  Beneath its shiny exterior lurks Sexism!  Racial Prejudice!  McCarthyite witch-hunts!  IT'S ALL, LIKE, A METAPHOR FOR OUR OWN TIMES!  (Naturally the heroes and heroines will be having none of it, and will all share our own, more enlightened views.)
The idea for all this first occurred to me some years ago: I was still writing the Larklight books then, and I spent a pleasant afternoon plotting out a sort of Larklight:The Next Generation, which would swap all the Victorian motifs for Dan Dare ones.  Having done so, however, I didn't want to spend six months actually writing the thing, so I'm passing the notion on to anyone who's interested.  Strap on your jet-pack and rocket boots and set a course for the Lunar Academy: you could become the JK Rowling of the Jet Age!

*Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind.

**I just made up 'atompunk', but sure enough when I googled it I found that it actually does exist.  Sigh...

***...which means that there probably are.

London Crawling

It's been a while since I've trawled for Mortal Engines images on the internet, so here's one I just found: a very atmospheric picture of London by concept artist Ian McQue.  His blog is well worth a look, and features some very nice grimy-futuristic flying machines, including one image that could almost be Airhaven.  If I were writing Mortal Engines now I think these floating freighters held up by who-knows-what might be the way I'd go with the airships instead of the steampunky pseudo-Victorian jobs that I actually used.  Still, no use crying over spilt milk, etc...

On Tolkien and the Building of Worlds

This is the Tolkien poster I had on my bedroom
wall as a boy.  I can't recall the artist's name****.  The
drawing is nice, but the characters are nothing
like I imagined them.  Still, it was before the days of
Alan Lee, and this was the best I could get...
I finished reading The Lord of the Rings to Sam recently.  At eight, he's probably a little young for it, but I thought he should experience it before over-exposure to similar imagery via other books, movies, Warhammer etc. renders it all a bit meh.  (When I was a lad The Lord of the Rings seemed to be the only book that really delivered dwarfs and orcs and misty mountains; now they're everywhere.)  In particular, I wanted him to know the books before he saw the movies.

I've written elsewhere of some of my doubts about The Lord of the Rings - in particular, its distinct whiff of white supremacy (it's a far more racist book than, say, King Solomon's Mines, which I suspect you won't find in many school libraries these days, and whose plot and  action The Lord of the Rings echoes in several places)*.  But re-reading it I found that a lot of the things I thought were going to annoy me were actually not half as bad as I recalled (the bloomin' elves, whom I'd remembered as insufferable goody-goodies, actually have an edge of danger and strangeness about them) and that the things I liked about were often even better than I'd thought.

Matthew Bailey, writing on my Facebook page a few weeks back, suggested that The Lord of the Rings might have trouble finding a publisher these days, and I have a nasty feeling that he may be right, because Tolkien clearly had no interest in playing by the rules of adventure or fantasy stories - if, indeed, such rules really existed when he wrote it.  It's true that the book is very long and has a very peculiar structure; slow to start, often looping back several weeks to pick up on what all the different characters have been doing, and frequently stopping to deliver what I believe sci-fi anoraks call 'info-dumps'.  The characters are subtle, careful, moving, but to readers raised on the rather crude, touchy-feely stuff that gets praised as good characterisation by modern book-groups and the alumni of 'Creative Writing' courses they probably don't seem like characters at all.  But all these things, I feel, are strengths, not weaknesses: by ignoring so many of the usual techniques of this sort of novel Tolkien gives us the feeling that we are not reading a novel at all; it feels like real history, or at least a genuine myth.

The Lord of the Rings might not be the best fantasy ever written (though I can't think off-hand of a better one) but I do believe it's the best fantasy world ever created, which is quite an achievement when you think of the thousands of such worlds which have followed in its wake.  Since I basically build worlds for a living (and I'm starting work on a new one at the moment) I thought it might be useful to consider what it is that separates Prof T's creation from those of his many imitators.
These aren't my original copies.
I read those till they fell apart.

The Devil in the Details

One clear reason why Middle Earth still tops the made-up worlds chart is its detail.  Tolkien seems to have an intimate knowledge of every last inch of the landscape; each tree-root and tussock, each twist of every road.  His lengthy descriptions bore some readers, and I confess I skipped a few of them while reading aloud, but for anyone with an attention span longer than Sam's they are a delight; rich word-pictures of the British landscape filtered through a mind steeped in history and legend.  Like my other favourite childhood author, Rosemary Sutcliff, Tolkien wasn't a great hill-walker or explorer of wild places - as far as I know some strolls on the Marlborough Downs and an annual trip to Bournemouth were more his cup of tea - but by some alchemy of the imagination he makes you believe that he knows these places.  Who can describe dawn in a forest or the mist lifting off a mountain better?  And he's forever telling us what his characters can see; what mountains or plains they look out over from this hill or that; where this river comes from; what lands it flows through on its way to the sea.  This is a tale told by a map-maker.

The same obsessive detailing applies to the history of Middle Earth.  The Lord of the Rings isn't just one adventure with a bit of patched-together backstory slung in to make it work.  It's part of a whole structure of stories, a vast myth-cycle in which the characters are steeped and which the reader dimly perceives.  We may not be quite sure who Durin, Elendil and the rest of the legendary figures the characters talk and sing of were, but their names, and the scraps of their stories which dot the text, give us the impression of great depths of time and history underlying the events we are reading about.  (Of course, Prof Tolkien had worked out all these older stories in some detail; he never published them, and presumably never thought them worth publishing.  Anybody who has struggled through The Silmarillion or the other volumes that have appeared since his death may well agree.)

The Naming of Names

They don't make covers like this any more -
thank crikey.
Tolkien was, of course, a professor of philology, the study of languages, and this gives him a clear world-building advantage over those of us who aren't.  One of the reasons I've chosen to set my own fantasies on the far-future earth rather than in a wholly invented world is because I don't like made-up names; they almost always sound fake, and I far prefer to be able to use existing names and words.  George Lucas's original Star Wars films were another great influence in my childhood years, and I remain fond of them, but listen to the names - Luke Skywalker, Owen and Beru Lars,  Biggs, Tatooine, Tarkin, Han Solo...  There's nothing wrong with them individually, particularly in the context of a movie, where they whip past almost without you noticing, but collectively they sound like what they are - a collection of found words and nonsense sounds slung together because G Lucas thinks they sound right**.  That's presumably how most fantasy writers operate (it's certainly the route I went down with alien names in Larklight) and there's nothing wrong with it, but Tolkien's names are in a different class: they spring, like real ones, out of their parent languages; whole languages which he had invented, and whose rules and grammar he understood.

Not only that, there are loads of them; far more names than the story actually requires.  Reading the book aloud really made me notice how many of the characters and places don't just have one name but  two or three; the Mines of Moria are also called The Dwarrowdelf and Khazad Dum; rivers and mountains have names given to them by men, but also older names in elvish or dwarfish.  And we are for ever being told more names: when Gandalf (AKA Mithrandir) rides with Pippin from Rohan to Minas Tirith at the start of The Return of the King, they see the beacons of Gondor being kindled on the mountain-tops, and Tolkein tells us the name of every mountain: "See, there is the fire on Amon Din, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halfirien on the borders of Rohan." There is no need for us to know the names of those peaks; they play no further part in the story; we never hear of most of them again.  But Tolkien knows that's what they're called, and he likes the sound they make, and by sharing them with us he fills in a little more background, and makes his made-up world that little bit more real.

And, of course, you don't have to be a philologist to appreciate Tolkien's ear for words; those great, sonorous, rolling sentences with their echoes of Tennyson, Beowulf and the King James Bible:  'And straightway all the horns in the host were lifted up in music, and the blowing of the horns of Rohan in that hour was like a storm upon the plain and a thunder in the mountains.' And in the quieter moments, in the Shire, where the language is meeker and less heroic, there is still that pitch-perfect use of place-names; Crickhollow; Micheldelving; Archet; Bywater; names that sound so much more English than anywhere in England that just typing them makes me feel all nostalgic***.

Tol Brandir by the mighty Alan Lee, from his
illustrated edition of The Lord of the Rings
That's what I brought away from this latest re-reading; an admiration for Tolkien's love of language.  That's what makes The Lord of the Rings a great book, and it's probably what makes Middle Earth a great world too; for in the end it is a world made of words.  If you haven't yet read The Lord of the Rings you should definitely do so:  if you haven't read it aloud then I recommend that you get hold of an 8 -12 year old child at once, sit them down, and begin at the beginning.

*King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard is the high-tide mark of the Imperial adventure story.  It tells the story of three white adventurers who set off in search of treasure and a lost African kingdom in the late nineteenth century and end up helping to restore the rightful king of the place.  It reflects all sorts of late Victorian notions about race and empire, many of which are of course distasteful to a modern reader.  On the other hand, it is informed by Haggard's knowledge of and respect for  Zulu society, and has a black hero (a sort of Zulu Aragorn) who gets to deliver a rather strikingly anti-imperialist speech at the end.  It's also a rattling good, if extremely bloodthirsty, yarn.  'Almost Unbearably Exciting!' boasts the blurb on the front of the old US paperback edition my dad bought when he was on National Service in Port Said in the 'fifties, and that gets it about right IMHO.

**It gets worse in the more recent films; Mace Windu, Naboo, General Grievous - the last one presumably chosen, as Mad magazine pointed out, because 'Hitler von Killington' didn't sound quite evil enough.

***I've heard some people complain that once the Dark Lord is defeated and the Ring disposed of the story is over, and everything that happens afterwards is an anti-climax.  But they're idiots.  The Scouring of the Shire is to me the whole point of The Lord of the Rings; it's Tolkien's admission that evil isn't really about Dark Lords and Witch Kings but is something that can thrive wherever ordinary people are greedy or misled.  The skirmish between the hobbits and Sharkey's men at Bywater is as powerful as any of the huge battles that come earlier in the book, and the closing chapter, with its mood of loss and elegy, its refusal to deliver a conventional happy ending, is magnificent.

****  Strange-but-True Dept: the artist who drew the Tolkien poster turns out to be Jimmy Cauty, who went on to be in the band KLF.  He must have been startlingly young when he did this.  Thanks to everyone who's been in touch about it.


I've almost finished Scrivener's Moon, which I'll be handing over to Scholastic on Monday.  It won't be published until next spring, but the speedy and hyper-talented David Wyatt is already hard at work on an illustration for the de-luxe hardback edition.  It's still at the sketch stage so far, but it's looking very good, and marks a complete change of tone and colour-scheme after the sunshine'n'seagulls of A Web of Air. Apparently the thing that struck David about the new book was it's 'visceral savageness', which he's reflected with a blood-red pallette in his early designs.  I'll try to post some of his colour sketches here over the coming weeks, but in the meantime I couldn't resist showing you his developmental sketches of Stalkers...