'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Thursday 23 June 2011

Guest Post: Changing Yesterday with Sean McMullen

KBR is thrilled to welcome Science Fiction writer extraordinaire Sean McMullen with this fascinating insight into his latest book. We'd also like to congratulate Sean for his recent (and presitgious) nomination for a Hugo Award for his steampunk story, Eight Miles.

Changing Yesterday was inspired by a real-life experience. I was on a United Airlines flight returning to Australia during the S11 attacks, so terrorism was brought into pretty sharp focus for me by that.

A couple of years later, I was looking at a painting of the opening of the first Australian parliament, in the Melbourne Exhibition Buildings in 1901. I wondered how history might have changed if terrorists had bombed the building and brought the roof down with so many leaders and royals inside. The British would have been pretty annoyed, and I was sure that they would have at least declared war on someone.

I now imagined a world war that lasted a hundred years, and because none of that happened, the story had to be about how the war was prevented. Changing yesterday has been described as steampunk, even though only a small part of it has anything to do with steam engines. All science fiction with a Victorian era setting tends to be called steampunk these days, even though real steampunk is just an excuse for people to dress up in top hats, goggles and techno-jewelry when they go to fancy dress parties.

Changing Yesterday follows my novel Before the Storm, where two cadets from the future, Liore and Fox, come back through time to stop the bombing of parliament in May 1901. Four teenagers from 1901, Daniel, Emily, Barry and Muriel join forces with them.

Fox and Liore have been raised as fighting machines, so that they are sort of human Terminators with a bit of social responsibility added. Daniel and Emily are from a wealthy Brighton family and are very respectable, but Barry is a school dropout who is training to be a petty criminal. Muriel wants to be an artist, and she does risqué, bohemian things like hanging out in St Kilda coffee shops and posing nude for art students. Daniel and Muriel fall in love, which scandalizes his sister Emily.

A secret society called the Lionhearts plans to bomb parliament and blame it on Germany, so that the British Empire will be forced to go to war and stay united. The six teenagers succeed in stopping the bombing of parliament, but as Changing Yesterday begins, things are starting to go wrong. The group falls apart when Muriel dumps Daniel and runs off to Paris with Fox to become an artist. Daniel loses interest in life, so his parents send him to an English boarding school to prepare to university and have his obsession with Muriel beaten out of him.

The day that Daniel sails for England, Barry steals Liore's 21st Century plasma rifle, flees to Adelaide on a train, and ends up on the same ship as Daniel. Barry wants to be knighted in return for giving the plasma rifle to the king. Liore chases after Barry on another ship, but by now the Lionhearts know about the weapon, and they want it too. They intend to use it to have another go at starting a war between Britain and Germany.

A lot of action takes place on three ships steaming from Australia to England. Not many authors have used the Australia-England voyage in their novels, which is a pity because it's a wonderful setting - a bit like Titanic, but in the tropics. The down side of that was that I had to do a lot of research to get the details right, and there were loads of details: about early Melbourne, about steamships, about life on steamships, and especially about growing up in 1901. The reader learns about shipboard entertainment, popular music, dances and social life a century ago, visits colonial Colombo and Port Said, and learns quite a lot of history.

The underlying theme of Changing Yesterday is growing up. The book shows teenagers that they have to leave some things behind them as they get older, but also that there are lots of new things to look forward to. In just six weeks on the ocean liner, Daniel goes from being an awkward, overgrown child to quite a suave young man who is very popular with girls. All that he needed was freedom from his suffocating family.

Barry tries to remain a streetwise kid, because it is what he does best. As a result he turns out to be a great survivor, but he can never see the big picture.

Emily is kept as an over-protected girl by her parents, but she has a hyper-dynamic personality under all those restrictions. The longer her parents hold her back, the bigger the eventual explosion will be.

Liore, the teenage commander from the future, was never allowed to have a childhood. She is stuck as a sort of machine warrior, neither teenager nor adult, but very, very dangerous.

The new character, Madeline, has grown up already. In contrast to Emily's parents, her mother has forced her run one of the family coffee shops and live by herself. Madeline has been reading too much Sherlock Holmes, however, and she wants to run away to London to become a detective. Because she is already so independent and resourceful, by the end of the book she is pretty close to achieving her goal.

Changing Yesterday will be released on the 1st of July, and will be distributed by Macmillan for Ford Street.

Another of my steampunk works, Eight Miles, has been nominated for a Hugo Award, and this is pretty rare for an Australian story. The Hugos are like the Oscars of science fiction, and even getting nominated is pretty special. Eight Miles was published last year, in the American magazine Analog, but you can read it online at seanmcmullen.net.au/eightmiles.htm.

The story is set in 1840, and although it is called steampunk, there are no steam engines in it at all. Well, I didn't invent the word! It's about a man named Harold Parkes who does joyride flights in hot air balloons over London. A very rich man named Gainsley hires him to fly eight miles high, with a mysterious girl called Angelica as a passenger. Harold soon learns that Angelica is not human, and probably comes from a planet where the air is very thin and cold. Even on Earth's highest mountains she can't think clearly because the air is too thick, and is always on the verge of falling asleep.

Harold's problem is that although his balloon can reach eight miles, humans die at around five miles. He has to invent a way to make oxygen aboard the balloon, as well as stay warm and work the controls. When they eventually do reach eight miles, Harold learns that Angelica is a very dangerous alien war leader, who has been exiled to Earth where the thick atmosphere will keep her permanently drowsy and harmless. Gainsley wants to get the secrets of her civilization's weapons from her and use them to rule the world, so Harold has to make some very important decisions about Angelica on the way back to the ground.

Check out Sean's website for more on his amazing work.