Tuesday 15 October 2013

Two Trunks

According to popular wisdom, all writers have at least one early and unpublished book that is best consigned to obscurity - the so called "trunk novel", the idea being that you keep it locked away in a trunk rather than doing the sensible thing and binning it. According to another branch of popular wisdom, the first thing writers do when they're stuck for inspiration is dust off a trunk novel and pass it off as a fresh new book. I'm sure that happens occasionally, but I suspect the truth is that most writers would rather throw themselves under a bus than see their juvenile work reaching print. More probably, I'd suggest, we look on these things as part of the necessary learning curve of becoming a fluent writer - we don't have to admire them, or even like them, but we can understand that they were an essential part of our literary development that we had to pass through. There may even be elements of these unpublished works that, with a little recasting, can still filter through into our professional work.

My two trunk novels don't live in a trunk and while they're not exactly representative of where I'm "at" as a writer in 2013, I'm certainly not ashamed of them. I keep them on the same shelves as all my other written works, and look on them with a sort of tolerant fondness. I take them to schools and libraries and pass them around. I don't have any illusions as to the quality of the books, but I am proud that I started and finished them. They were vital stepping stones on my path to becoming a published writer, and if they served one useful function, it was to cure me of any fear of The Novel.

Here they are, in exactly the same ring folders in which I started them:

Exciting, aren't they? I bet you can't wait to see what's inside those enticingly patterned covers.

Wait no more, because here are the thrilling title pages:

The uppermost book, the one in the yellow Colman's Mustard folder, is "A Union World", which I wrote between 1979 and 1982. It took a long time because whenever I got to the end of the book, I hated the start. This initiated a Forth Bridge-like process of constant revision which might have gone on forever had I not decided to finally accept the book on its own terms and stop.

When I began "A Union World", my science fiction horizons were very limited. I enjoyed TV and cinema SF, 2000AD magazine, and had read a bit of Clarke and Asimov. But I was really pretty clueless. When I finished the book, my literary tastes had widened to include the likes of Larry Niven, Harry Harrison and James White - true eclecticism, I think you'll agree. During the late revisions, indeed, I tried very hard to emulate the tone and scope of Niven's Known Space sequence. The novel deals with the human space federation making first contact with a number of different alien factions. It has colony worlds, FTL, robots, space battle fleets and so on. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a military research base on a distant colony world, which has mysteriously severed all contact with Earth. In a setup surprisingly similar to the opening act of Aliens, the Colonial forces decide to send in an assault ship full of elite soldiers to retake the base and establish what has happened, and in doing so recruit (or rather blackmail) a civilian pilot into helping them out. It turns out that the civilan's creaky old space freighter has an outmoded drive system which means it's the only ship that can enter the planet's atmosphere undetected, enabling the troops' dropship to be placed close to the compromised base. Later on we discover than an alien mastermind has taken control of the base, plans to enshroud it in a force field, and use planet-destroying bombs to literally shatter the entire rest of the planet, so that the base becomes a free-flying space fortress. This all happens! Later, predictably, there's an enormous space battle between the combine forces of Earth and the flying space fortress. There's even a space-aircraft-carrier called the Ark Royal.

The second book, entitled "Dominant Species", is of similar length and takes place in the same universe. But I wrote it in a much shorter span of time compared to the first. My recollection is that I started it very late in 1983 and finished it somewhere around the Spring of 1984 - in other words, in a few months rather than a few years. The upside of that intense burst of creativity was that the book was much more uniform in its style, and actually had a plot that made a kind of sense. The downside is that I really should have been studying for my 'A' levels in 1984, which I duly failed in spectacular fashion. But at least I had a novel to show for it.

Both books are handwritten in their entirety, on lined A4 paper, in black biro:

I've still got a bit of a thing about black biro: I can't be doing with blue at all. I also used a tankerload of Tip-Ex correction fluid, and where that wasn't practicable, I either rewrote the entire page (front and back) or glued a small insert over the offending section. Years later, I'd go through a very similar process of cutting and pasting while preparing the artwork for my PhD thesis, so the experience certainly wasn't wasted.

I shan't say too much about the second book, except that it picks up the story of the human expansion a bit later on, and there are some more aliens and giant flying space things. Neither book takes place in the Revelation Space universe, incidentally, but a lot the furniture and character names of the RS stories show up here for the first time. Most of the planet names, as well as some of what would be later be principle characters in Revelation Space such as Sajaki and Captain John Brannigan, but here in very different roles.

Speaking of which:

At the time I wrote the second book, I was heavily influenced by the "fake documents" style of Joe Haldeman's second novel, Mindbridge, and so I made up a few fake documents and logos to be inserted into the text. Looks fantastically convincing, doesn't it? I'm sure they'll still be using typewriters with sticky ribbons in 2332, and won't yet have solved that tricky "right justification" problem.


  1. They may even have machines that can correct your spelling for you...

    My (first) trunk novel led to me having to resit my first year exams at uni, and yes, there's still stuff in it that I think could damn well work now, alongside or even interwoven with the cringy bits. So I can relate to all this! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Teenage 'early works' are great fun to rediscover and provide a great snapshot of influences at the time of writing. I've kept all of my 'attempts' at novels and comic strips and they perfectly capture the influences and themes of the time of life they were written in.
    They also clearly demonstrate why I didn't become a writer.

  3. I'm still writing my trunk novels! lol

  4. How often are compilations like Galactic North taken from "abandoned" novels or the editing process? Most big SF authors seem to have them, usually with a fair few short stories from magazines and so on, but I frequently get the feeling (especially with Baxter) that a lot of them are from existing novels where an editor has put a big red pen through a large section, or the author went off on a tangent that was later abandoned.

    I'm not complaining in any way, it's nice to have stuff to pad out a universe and fill in some gaps, even if it wasn't something that meshed into one of the novels.

  5. It doesn't work that way with me, in that I've never managed to recycle any of the material cut out of a book. With Terminal World, I eventually ended up posting some deleted chapters here as they had no other place to go. The problem with most deleted material is that it simply doesn't have the right narrative form to enable it to be expanded or reused very easily. It's generally not worth the effort when you could just as easily start something else from scratch. I wrote three original pieces for GN but they were done over a short period of time with only the collection in mind.

    After I wrote "Sleepover" I mentioned that it was developed from ideas from an abandoned novel, which some readers took to mean that all they were getting was a fragment of a novel that had never been finished. But that wasn't it at all; I simply had a small notebook's worth of thoughts that I couldn't quite see working at novel length, but which with a bit of distance struck me as perfectly suitable for a novellete. You have to be careful how you talk about these processes as *someone* will always find a way to make it seem as if you're deliberately short-changing the reader.

  6. I can honestly say I've never felt "short changed" by a compilation, whether I thought it was all original material written just for that purpose or whether I had the feeling it was "offcuts" of some description.

    The thing that got me into SF when I was a kid were compilation books of short stories (eg "Childhood's End", "The Fun They Had") and adapted chapters or abridgements from full novels (Harry Harrison's stuff springs to mind). Short form SF seems particularly effective to me. I think my favourite example is the genesis of "Knock" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knock_%28short_story%29)

    "The last man in the world sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door..."