I’ve been itching to write a steampunk novel for years. I like the idea, the ethos, behind the sub-genre. I like the idea of writing SF unconstrained by the shackles of science and technology – it can be as way-out and whacky as you can make it – and I like the idea of writing action-adventure.
Last year I pitched a couple of steampunk ideas to my editor Jonathan Oliver at Solaris, which came to nothing. Then Jon asked, “How about something set in India…?” which set me thinking. Over the next couple of weeks, Jani Chatterjee was born. She would be half-Indian, half-English, torn by loyalties to both camps, grieving the loss of her recently deceased father, and pitched into an adventure in which the future of the world is at stake… It would be set in India and Nepal in 1925, when the British Empire rules the world thanks to something they discovered, fifty years earlier, in the foothills of the Himalayas; it would feature evil baddies, aliens from other worlds, strange devices – as well as obligatory airships – much derring-do, seat-of-the-pants adventure, and would be an unashamed romp, while at the same time taking a little time out to address issues like the idea of Empire, racism, and the role of women in society… but above all it would be a thrilling chase through an exotic India. Jani’s assumptions would be challenged along the way: in each book, reality as she assumed it to be would be subverted by things she learns – and the expectations of the reader would, likewise, be subverted by what is revealed.
Jon and the team at Solaris liked the idea, commissioned the novel on the outline, and then I sat down to write it.
First, though, Dominic Harman supplied a fantastic cover – which has struck the aesthetic cords of various people, along the lines of, “Mechanical elephants and steampunk… what’s not to like?” I gave Dominic the brief for the cover before I’d actually written a word. Oddly, the idea that a mechanical elephant might make an arresting image came to me before I realised that an artificial elephant would feature in the story. But, once the idea popped into my head, I had to make room for it.
Then I began Jani, and it whistled out in little over a month. It was one of those happy novels which wrote itself. Jani became a larger than life character, dictated where the novel should go, and I merely followed her. Alfie Littlebody, a secondary character, (A bumbling but well meaning officer in Field Security, opposed to the excesses of the Raj) also took off in ways I’d hardly envisaged when thinking about him before I started the book.
I had more problems with the ‘alien’, and his depiction. In the novel he befriends Jani – or perhaps uses her to his own ends – and persuades her to embark on a death-defying quest across northern India and into Nepal. The alien, Jelch, had to be obviously unhuman, but sufficiently human to pass visually amongst the folk of India. He also had to be of another world, yet understandable to the reader in his motivations and mind-set – always a hard trick to pull off when depicting aliens. Whether he works is down to the reader to decide, but so far the reviews haven’t singled him out as a weak point.
A couple of critics have said that the baddies are too one-dimensional, too evil – and here I hold my hands up. They were meant to be. This is melodrama, where we hiss at the baddies and cheers the goodies. The Russians are irredeemably bad, and Jani good, for the sake of telling a headlong action-adventure-chase tale.
At the end of book one, Jani, Littlebody, and Jani’s Indian friend Anand, are fleeing India bound for London aboard a vast airship – and bound for further adventures that will test their mettle to the limits. They’re being pursued by Russians, Chinese (little do they know it), evil aliens and even the British. The trio hold the future of the world in their hands, and it seems that the whole world is determined to halt their progress.
Their adventures will continue in the second volume of the Multiplicity series, Jani and the Great Pursuit.
All I have to do now is write it.
Here’s a sneak preview of Dominic Harman’s excellent cover.