Tag Archives: Jani

Space Opera

My first love in science fiction, both reading it and writing it, is space opera, or as Brian Aldiss termed it, wide-screen baroque. I’m not sure I’ve done anything very wide-screen, but I’ve written my fair share of space opera, starting with Engineman back in 1992. That was followed in 1999 by Penumbra. There was another longish wait until 2007 when Helix came out, and proved to be my bestselling title ever (with almost fifty thousand copies sold to date). After that I did the Bengal Station trilogy which, though set mainly on Earth, did in each book visit the stars. These novels were followed by The Devil’s Nebula, Helix Wars, and Satan’s Reach. Salvage, published last year, is a space opera fix-up of linked short stories.

I like writing about starships, aliens, and exotic planetary locations. I like writing fast-paced adventures using all three. Recently, however, I’ve been writing a couple of crime novels and the first and second volumes of the steampunk Multiplicity series, starring Jani, a plucky Anglo-Indian woman and her adventures in a very different 1925.

I’d like to get back to writing space opera, however, and for the past year, on and off, I’ve been daydreaming about just such a project. It will be called The Engines of Eternity trilogy, and each book will be longer than any I’ve done before, around 150,000 words. The trilogy will feature a human expansion, a host of alien races, vast alien artefacts from millions of years in the past, a war or two, colonies under threat, telepathy, sentient starships… and, above all, characters the reader will come to care about and root for.

So, I hear you say, what’s new?

A good question.

And the answer is, I don’t know. My counter question would be: what does it matter?

What does matter is that the story is gripping, the characters real and moreover believable and sympathetic, the action fast, the settings exotic…

That will do for me, and, I hope, for prospective readers.

Of course, The Engines of Eternity project might never come off; might remain as a daydream bubbling away in my back brain.

Only time will tell.

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Jani and Steampunk

It has been said that all my SF works are typified by the exploration of humanity’s reaction to change in society, clad in an SF jacket. I wouldn’t disagree with this, but would point out that this applies to almost all SF written these days. To set out to write about the future, and about some scientific and/or technological advance in the future – allied to the explication of character (after all, that’s what all writing is about) – is by necessity to explore humanity’s reaction to these changes. I’m not a Hard SF writer – I’m not that interested in the nuts and bolts of technological invention, or the theory behind the science. What interests me is how science and technology changes people, society and culture. To me, the prime example of a writer who did this well, and, what’s more important, entertainingly, is Michael Coney. On the surface his stories are about human interaction and the emotions wrought by simple human conflict; beneath the surface, he’s writing about a society, and individuals, changed by some scientific or technological advance – or, in the case of Hello Summer, Goodbye and its sequel I Remember Pallahaxi, about change brought about by alien biology.

Now, can it be said that my latest novel, the steampunk romp Jani and the Greater Game, is typified by the of humanity’s reaction to change in society? Well, ‘typified’ is a loaded word, but I can safely say that the novel is very much about the changes wrought to society – in Britain, India, and indeed the world – by one very important difference to reality as we know it. This difference is that in the world of Jani, set in an alternative 1925, the British Raj has discovered an almost magical power source in the foothills of the Himalayas. Throughout the novel this power source is alluded to, but never explained – until the denouement. It’s known simply as Annapurnite, and the reader, reading between the lines, will guess that it’s not much different to nuclear power. With it, the British Empire has secured its place at the forefront of the superpowers vying for world domination, the other contenders being Russia and China. Britain rules the waves (and waives the rules, as Jani Chatterjee points out at one point) and history has been changed by the discovery of Annapurnite… or whatever it is. There was no first World War, Europe has been at peace for decades, and America is ruled from London. However, there is Nationalist unrest in India, and Jani finds herself conflicted as to where her loyalties lie. Her mother was English, her father an Indian with pro-British leanings, and while Jani was brought up in India until the age of eight, she was educated in Blighty until she was eighteen. She can see the many benefits brought about by British rule, and the Raj’s utilisation of the mysterious Annapurnite, but she is also aware of the drawbacks; the racism, the elitism, the very iniquity of one race lording it over another.

And what she learns during the course of the novel subverts everything she ever thought true not only about the British in India, about Annapurnite, but about the very reality of which she is a small, but very significant, part.

So there we are: Jani and the Greater Game fits neatly into he corpus of the rest of my work: it is about change, and humanity’s reaction to it… (And it’s also about Imperialism, and racism, and loyalty, both personal and societal – as well as being, I like to think, a rip-roaring, page-turning adventure story with a heroine at its centre who you’ll come to love).

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Jani

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.

892-1First, 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.

jani-2 two~

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