The Story Behind the Shoal Sequence

The Story Behind the Shoal Sequence

The best ideas, for me, start with a title. If I know the name of a book before I've written it, then it's easier to picture it in its final incarnation. Once you can see it in your head, up on some bookshelf, it's easier to magic it into actual existence.  'Stealing Light' was the first title I'd come up with that not only sounded good, but that also reflected the essential idea behind the story.

The concept evolved out of a quite different idea for a story, in which I'd envisioned a kind of caper - essentially a science-fictional Oceans Eleven, in which a group of disparate and deeply flawed human beings band together in order to pull off a scam that will allow them to steal a faster-than-light spacecraft from a species with whom humanity has only recently made First Contact. But that soon evolved into something quite different, simply because at that stage of my career, with only two books behind me, I wasn't sure whether I had the chops to write something potentially very ambitious in structure and approach. 

There are, of course, no original ideas. Everything apparently new is generally a variation on something else, and that 'something else' is sometimes very old indeed. For this reason, Stealing Light was almost called Stealing Fire,  echoing the Promethean theme of stealing fire from the Gods - or, in this case, aliens. What would we do if instead of bringing fire down from the mountain, we instead brought some highly advanced form of technology back to humanity? Fire heats homes and cooks food; it also burns houses and takes lives. It can be a saviour, , but also a deadly enemy. Much the same might be said of some futuristic technology created by some more advanced race, were we ever to stumble across it, an idea that's appeared in a lot of sf - and most notably, I think, in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's late seventies novel, Roadside Picnic. Once I had that theme in mind, I had a better idea how to construct the plot in order to reflect it.

Stealing Light was written under relatively difficult circumstances. Increasing back pain led to me having to quit my part-time job as a graphic designer during its writing in 2006-2007. I wound up confined to my own house for six months, with no income outside of my writing, and on powerful painkilling drugs. I didn't worry too much about this, mainly because  I was high as a kite on those damn drugs. I don't mean to be facetious, but it wouldn't be too far off the mark to suggest that daily prescribed doses of diazepam might well have played a part in the writing of parts of the novel. Certainly I enjoyed a surprising lack of anxiety over my increasingly worrying financial circumstances - exacerbated when my heating system literally blew up in the depths of an appalling winter, requiring a replacement that siphoned away half of my remaining cash. When I wasn't literally crawling around my home on hands and knees because I couldn't even stand up straight, I was lying on my back, typing on a laptop suspended overhead on a special frame I'd purchased via Ebay to allow me to keep working.

Not long before, I'd been worried whether I might even get a chance to write another book under contract. My second novel, Against Gravity. hadn't done as well as I'd hoped, not helped by its complete absence from the 2005 World Science Fiction Convention, held in my hometown. Copies of it couldn't be found anywhere, even though it had been out for just a few weeks at the time of the convention. I had begun to despair. But it's said adversity breeds success, and soon after completing and submitting Stealing Light to my publisher, I learned it was scheduled to be my first hardback publication. Once it was out, it was rapidly clear the book was going to be something of a breakout hit.

By the time I started writing book two, Nova War, my back pain had cleared up, I was involved in a serious relationship, and subsequently relocated to the Far East for a couple of years. After the grimness of Stealing Light, I needed something lighter, and the word 'baroque' was to the fore of my mind while I wrote the second book. The scene featuring a restaurant located inside the maw of an enormous, sedentary worm, is a good example of this kind of approach. It's also why you get aliens with names like Days of Wine and Roses. The alien race called the Emissaries I pictured as creatures from out of a Terry Gilliam film, and were written with an eye towards the absurd as well as the violent. There's no sane reason for a highly advanced race to communicate by screaming into a huge microphone gripped in one tentacle, but it was a gloriously absurd image, so in it went. 

In a spirit of sheer nerdiness, I portrayed the enormous hive-towers that feature in many scenes in Nova War as having broad horizontal stripes, in the style of a Chris Foss painting. Chris Foss illustrations usually featured buildings and spacecraft decorated with broad stripes. And, more often than not, exploding. I wrote the scenes, snickering to myself how funny it would be if whoever got the job of illustrating the book went ahead and painted those towers, with big Fossian s stripes, and exploding.

Except they went ahead and did exactly that. You don't see it in the reissue cover design, but it's there in the original. My inner twelve-year-old was practically orgasming with glee. 

By the time I finished Nova War, I felt worn out from aliens and general baroqueness. Empire of Light, therefore, features an almost entirely human cast, stripping the story back to focus almost entirely on the occupants of a single FTL ship. In this approach, I was, in my own head, at least,  nodding back towards the kind of hard SF I'd grown up with, most particularly the work of Greg Bear and Gregory Benford. 

But even then I still couldn't bear to wrap the story up entirely. I knew there was a possibility for future stories in the Shoal universe, so I left it just open-ended enough to allow myself a way back in - which is what I've done with my new book, Marauder, due out in September 2013 and set in the same universe, but a few centuries on. It's been written as a standalone,  rather than a direct continuation. 

The Shoal Trilogy wasn't even originally meant to be a trilogy. I wrote Stealing Light with no idea of whether there might ever be a sequel, and that's one of the reasons why it's structured as an entirely self-contained story. But I gained a new level of confidence from writing it that spurred me on to sequels. In retrospect, I'm very proud of the books, and they've sold well over the years. I certainly don't rule out returning to that setting yet again sometime in the future.