We crave the novelty of the new but also the comfort of the old. You can see it any time a superhero gets a revamp – some people will love the bold new direction, others will cry out against it, and some will take entirely different views on the next controversy over.
One of the publishers I work for is trying to adjust its output. They want their content to be more modern in its style and more diverse in its content. But when they say this to me as a creator, I face the implied question – how much do you really want to modernise? How much do your readers want? How much will they take before they feel that they’ve lost something familiar and comforting?
I would be happy to play around with different story formats and to fill those stories with characters who aren’t white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied, and neurotypical. That would be a lot of fun for me and much more in line with how I want my culture. But if this publisher’s style moves too far too fast, it’s going to lose the audience. I want to change things up enough to keep readers entertained but broaden their horizons. I rely on the publisher to guide me in this, just as they rely on me to do it well.
Creatives and marketers face this problem every day. When asked, they’ll get lots of responses asking for new things. But if they actually deliver on that, they’ll often find that their audiences miss parts of what they had.
Of course, some people will complain no matter what you do. You can see that in the pre-release complaints about the Captain Marvel film from entitled men who think that a trailer featuring a female superhero is feminism gone mad. To them I say, you can fuck the fuckity off. Superhero films currently have more white male leads played by guys called Chris than they do female leads, there will still be plenty of what the whiners want. Asking to be represented is fair. Asking for everything to be about you is bullshit.
But when writing for the rest, the question remains, how much challenge and change do people really want compared with familiarity and comfort? How much innovation is too much innovation for this audience? And that’s a question I face when I sit down to write.
Cornwall might seem like an odd setting for a post-apocalyptic novel. But Emily Nation, Alec McQuay’s dark story of family and adventure, shows what a perfect place it is to show characters living on the edge.
The Edge of History
By their nature, post-apocalyptic novels are about living on the edge. The characters struggle to survive in broken cities and barren wastelands. Their societies reflect the jagged outer edge of history, a moment in which civilisation has collapsed, leaving us wondering if it can ever be rebuilt.
That rebuilding is central to Emily Nation. Generations on from a destructive war, the assassin Emily Nation is living in Camborne, a town rebuilt from the ruins. Here, families live lives of relative peace, supported and protected by the likes of Emily. Life hangs by a tenuous thread, and the swiftness with which Emily wipes out her targets is a reminder of how quickly anyone could be snuffed out. But at least the citizens of Camborne are rebuilding with good intent.
Down the road, life in Penzance is very different. Crime lords are rebuilding an economy based on brutality, prostitution, and forced labour. When Emily falls foul of one of these crime bosses, her friends and family suffer the consequences. The peace of Camborne is violated by outsiders, just as a reader’s sense of peace and security is violated by the post-apocalyptic ruins.
Our future balances on a knife edge between prosperity and collapse into McQuay’s speculative ruins. And as the story unfolds, the future Camborne joins us there.
The Edge of Britain
Cornwall is a perfect setting for such a story because it is already a land on the edge. Laying at the south-western extremity of Britain, it is geographically isolated. Even once you get to Cornwall, it can easily take two hours to reach Penzance. Most of the county lies within easy travel of the coast, where rugged cliffs mark the edge of land and sea.
Throughout its history, the people of Cornwall have found themselves living on the economic edge. The food and money provided by fishing are vulnerable to weather and the shifting shoals, fishermen vulnerable to storms. In the tin mines, men literally scraped a living from the dirt, again risking their lives for jobs that could vanish when a seam ran out, and that disappeared forever in the 1980s. The modern economy, dominated by tourism, offers the uncertainties of seasonal work.
This creates a background note of anxiety that matches the breath-taking bleakness of the coastline and its abandoned mines. That anxiety fosters a conservatism that led many in Cornwall to vote to leave the European Union, despite the benefits it brought the county. Living on the edge means living in uncertainty, and that pushes people towards the comfort of a conservative outlook.
The Forward Edge of Progress
This is where Emily Nation takes a different path from its setting.
The book embraces sexual diversity, starting with the protagonist’s marriage to another woman. It holds up alternative family units as just as valid as the traditionally mum, dad, and their own kids. It shows the systemic oppression that comes when desperate people accept desperate jobs, giving cruel economic masters power over them. Racism is exposed in all its hypocrisy through the struggles of mutant miners. The biggest driver for destruction is effectively the arms trade.
The values of the book lie left of centre, at least in a British context. Having a gay female protagonist shouldn’t be unusual, yet is still a radical act, pushing genre fiction towards greater representation. The women in the book are just as capable as the men in exactly the same fields, and it’s not an issue. This is a progressive book that lives on the edge in a positive sense, at the forward edge of current reforms in society and representation.
The Two Edges
Like the blade that features prominently in its final act, Emily Nationhas two edges. One is a dark edge, exposing the insecurities that come not only in a post-apocalyptic future but in any part of the world where life and livelihoods are uncertain. The other edge shines brightly, slicing through traditional expectations, joining with other great speculative fiction in trying to set people free.
Sure, this is an action story, one dominated by fights, chases, and explosions. But it’s an action story with a thematic richness, made all the more satisfying by its distinct and evocative setting.
Diverse characters in worlds of brass, steam, warped science and wild adventure.
Steampunk Universe is an anthology being kickstarted by Alliteration Ink, publishers of the award-winning Steampunk World. The focus is on disabled and aneurotypical characters leading the way in steam-powered worlds. Among the stories in here is one from me, “To Measure the Heavens”, a story of religious politics, personal defiance, and gears that grow on trees.
Hogan’s arms ached as he made his way up the ceremonial road to the temple. He had been ready for the fact that a pilgrimage would be arduous. Without struggle, it would be no proof of his faith. Dragging himself hundreds of miles on his wooden trolley, the stumps of his legs barely keeping him upright, had been the test of will he sought.
He had thought there might be some reprieve at the temple precinct. Instead there was a winding gravel avenue in which his wheels became constantly stuck, cherry blossom falling from the trees as he tried to force himself forwards.
Most of the other pilgrims looked away as they walked past, embarrassed at the sight of him. A few offered to help, and he tried to stay polite as he said no, this was his journey, and the priests had been clear that he had to make it for himself. In some ways, those conversations were worse, the pity on their faces reminding him of just how little he fitted in.
At last he reached the end of the path. With a final crunch of gravel, he rolled onto the smooth tiles of the temple forecourt. Too tired to drag himself up the steps to any of the roofed shrines, he sat staring at the statues, the places where the gods accepted prayers and offered miracles in return.
Looking around, a growing unease settled on him. Even here, he was alone. Every god was an image of bodily perfection, as judged by the eyes of sculptors and priests. All had two legs, two arms, two eyes. None were scarred or disfigured, none stooped or twisted.
He had heard stories of gods injured in battle or laid low by disease. Where were the signs of such suffering, never mind of gods born in different shapes, as Hogan was?
These statues were supposed to give everyone a sense of belonging, to open their hearts to the divine. Hogan felt nothing looking at them.
His arms had rested enough to move again, and so he rolled over to one of the blue-robed priests setting incense in a jar.
“Excuse me?” he said.
The priest looked down at him.
“Yes, my son?” she asked.
“Where are the other gods?” Hogan asked.
“There are no other gods,” she said with a tolerant smile.
“But I was told there were gods for everyone, from the humble fisherman to the mighty king.”
“This is true.”
“So where are the gods for people with no legs?”
She laughed, the sound like sand being ground into a wound in Hogan’s heart.
“The gods are perfect,” she said. “So are their bodies.”
“But these statues…” Hogan waved his hands and the incense smoke billowed around them, a sweet scent that made him want to cough. “How can I feel closeness to the gods through these statues when they are nothing like me?”
The priest nodded thoughtfully, and then smiled.
“There are broken statues in a clearing back there.” She pointed down the gravel road. “You could try praying to them.”
“I’m not broken!” Hogan had no energy left for patience. He was tired, aching and bitterly disappointed. He felt as if the whole world had betrayed him. “I’m not half a person. I don’t want half a statue to pray to.”
“Well really.” The priest folded here arms. “Is that the tone to bring to the holy of holies?”
Hogan gritted his teeth. She had at least been trying.
“Thank you,” he said, and set off back down the road.
The track leading to the clearing was made of the same thick soil from which the priests took clay for their statues. Hogan’s wheels became stuck in it, his hands filthy and slippery, but he pressed on.
At last he found the broken statues. They had been abandoned in a heap in the centre of the clearing, years of cherry blossoms rotting to a soft mulch around them. Someone had lifted a few out and set them up beneath the trees. There sat an old blind man with his young guide, as well as a woman missing half her arm. They smiled in welcome as Hogan approached.
“Imperfect gods,” the man said, running his fingers lovingly over one of the statues. “For imperfect pilgrims.”
The words snagged at Hogan’s heart. Was this really how the man thought of himself – as someone lesser than the rest? But the woman was nodding agreement. Maybe this was how they could fit in.
Hogan looked at the statues and tried to let their divine essence in, to feel the touch of faith. But there was nothing. Just a broken statue for broken people.
Trailing his fingers despondently in the clay mud, he scooped some up and rolled it idly between his hands. He had been looking at bodies all day, and almost without thinking he formed the clay into one. He gave it one leg and a whithered arm, a patch over one eye and a bent nose.
At last, something stirred in him. A feeling of recognition, and of seeing something deeper looking back at him.
He placed the figure on one of the fallen statues. The woman smiled, and as his guide described it so did the man.
“The perfect god,” Hogan said, “for perfect people.”
Together they bowed their heads in prayer, and finally Hogan felt that he belonged.
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This story was inspired by a comment from Laura, who wondered if there were any disabled or impaired gods. It’s been wonderful to find that, even though we’ve separated, she’s still a great source of inspiration to me. Hope you enjoy this one Laura!
My latest steampunk release, Guns and Guano, has taken me into some tricky territory. Though it is in many ways a rollicking adventure story, it also deals with serious issues around slavery, colonialism and race relations in the 19th century. I firmly believe that a story can both be fun and carry a serious message, but in this instance that created serious challenges for me.
I’m a white, male, heterosexual, middle-class English bloke. I am not part of a group that has ever suffered from systemic oppression, as happened to many Africans and their descendants as a result of colonialism, the slave trade and the racism that endures in some quarters to this very day. I do not know what it feels like to be in that position. I am unlikely to ever know, and no amount of research is going to give me a full understanding.
This means that I can never fully understand or completely represent that experience. If I can’t do that, should I then avoid representing and addressing it?
I think not. To do so would be to retreat into the safe and the familiar, to keep representing, and so perpetuating, the privilege of people closer to my background. It would be to avoid facing the uncomfortable elements of history that put us where we now are. And from a purely aesthetic perspective, it could get pretty bloody dull.
So how do we, as writers, square this circle? How do we represent something if we can never get it quite right?
For me, the answer is by being heartfelt and humble. I’ve tried to use this book to give some voice to the suffering of that oppression. Despite my best intentions, my initial drafts got a lot wrong, and thanks to the feedback of my beta readers the results are much better than they would have been. I know they’re still not perfect, that I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so, but I’ve done my best, with the best of intentions, and I hope that people enjoy the results.
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Guns and Guano, the first in a five volume story of action, adventure and the dark side of the Victorian age, is available now on Amazon and other ebook retailers, and is free from most sites. The second volume, Suits and Sewers, is coming in the next few weeks.