Why I wrote Twisted Metal…

June 5, 2011

The Edinburgh SF Book Club recently met to discuss Twisted Metal.  They asked me to provide them with a little bit of background to the book.  Here it is…

https://tonyballantyne.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/duality-materialism-and-why-people-like-robots/

The main inspiration behind Twisted Metal is here on my blog:

…but that’s not the full story.

The working title of TWISTED METAL was THE BOOK OF ROBOTS. That was never going to be a commercial title, but I liked the way it literally described not only the novel itself but also the rather biblical “Book of Robots” within the text; and that it also sounded like the sort of big SF picture book I used to read when I was a child.  One of the reasons for the manga like illustrations within the novel was to make the book look like an old illuminated manuscript.  The joke on the robots is that they don’t believe in their creator when they clearly have one.  The reader can form their own conclusions about our world.

TWISTED METAL was partly inspired by the nature and form of old ballads:  the idea of old stories that subtly change in the telling over the years.   I have since written a quartet of stories: STORIES FROM THE NORTHERN ROAD based on old English ballads but set on Penrose.  These may eventually see the light of day if Macmillan ever get round to giving me the go ahead to publish them.

The names in TWISTED METAL weren’t chosen by accident.

Karel should need no introduction to SF robot fans, his wife Susan dropped her maiden name of Calvin.  Turing City and Penrose offer differing thoughts on the nature of machine intelligence, and the countries of Segre, Bethe, Wein et al are all connected.  Even Artemis featured in my previous Recursion trilogy under another name.  Whilst reading the book, you may want to spot the connections, SF and otherwise, between the names.   The only original name, by the way, was made up by my daughter who, when she heard I was writing a book about robots said “You should have one called Banjo Macrodocious, then.”  I realised that she was right, and he was so included.  She also came up with Wa-Ka-Mo-Do from BLOOD AND IRON.

There comes a moment in the development of every story when I have the realisation that finally allows the transition from my mind to the page.  For TWISTED METAL, this eureka moment came when I figured out the mechanism by which robots reproduce:  with the women twisting the shape of a child’s mind and the men looking on and having to trust what they were doing.  This led to the book’s original opening line:  Two robots were making love in the middle of an electrical storm.  The preceding paragraphs were added later to make the opening more commercial.

TWISTED METAL and BLOOD AND IRON were originally going to be one book, but the characters developed a life of their own and the first book expanded.  Kavan, in particular, was only going to be a minor character, but such is the nature of his belief he quickly invaded more pages than he should have.  That’s why Karel and Kavan have such similar names, by the way.  If I were to write the book again Kavan would be called Arban and would play the cornet beautifully.

There is a third, as yet untitled, book that completes the trilogy.  Personal circumstances have meant that it is as yet uncompleted, but in time I hope that both Karel and Kavan will finally make it to the top of the world.


Blood and Iron Extract

March 17, 2010

I finished checking the page proofs for Blood and Iron today.  I’ve posted an extract over on my website:  follow the link http://www.tonyballantyne.com/?page_id=178


Stone Age, Iron Age

January 27, 2010

I’ve just got the copy edited manuscript for Blood and Iron from Macmillan and I’m busy working through it.  It always amazes me the inconsistencies the copy editor picks up.  The MS must have been read by at least six people by now, including me,  and none of us noticed that I used the same word eight times on one page, or that one character knows another’s name even though they’ve never met before.

The copy editor also queried the fact that I said the Stone Age came after the Iron Age.  In fact everyone so far has pointed out this is the wrong way round.  They’re right of course, but I state here, for the record, before the reviews come in, that on Penrose the robots learned to handle iron long before they learned to handle stone.  In fact, for robots, the Iron Age means the time of the birth of the robots.

Okay, I make it me 1, copy editor 552 and counting.


Duality, Materialism and Why People Like Robots

January 14, 2010

Can a robot be capable of thought, creativity and emotion?

Many people and religions would answer “no”, believing that some spirit or soul within us is responsible for our thoughts.  This concept is known as Duality: the idea that the body and thoughts are two different things.  However, in the past hundred years or so, work on computers and the study of such natural phenomena as Emergent Behaviour have led to the materialistic belief that the mind can be explained in terms of  nuts and bolts and levers arranged in different patterns (or more accurately through an arrangement of cells and electrical impulses).

Now, materialism has been a common theme in SF for the past few decades.  One manifestation of this is the “mind running on a computer” idea. After all, if a mind is not some separate spirit or soul, and is instead just the result of physical interactions, then why can’t those interactions be modelled on a computer, pretty much the same way as the World is now modelled on Google Earth?  I used this idea myself in my Recursion trilogy where minds hopped freely back and forth between processing spaces. But whilst writing Divergence, the last book in the series, I became aware of the following problem: once we accept the ideas of minds jumping back and forth between computers, we are almost back at the idea of “souls” jumping between physical containers. On an intellectual level we are thinking “Materialism”, but subconsciously we are back at Duality.

So I decided to write a book that was unmistakeably materialistic.  I came up with the idea of using robots, robots that would take a piece of wire and twist it into a new mind. These robots would seek out metal to make children, and, when resources were short, they would fight other robots for metal just as humans fight each other for land and food.  I liked the idea, and the novel that eventually became Twisted Metal began to unfold. The novel deals with robots that are capable of thought, creativity and emotion, and of anger, hatred and irrationality, but each with a mind made up of nothing more than a piece of metal twisted into shape by his or her mother.

But I digress.  I wanted to say why I think people like robots.  And I think it’s this fascination that they are the same as us, but oh so different.  You take a piece of metal, you twist it into a robot, and what you have there is exactly what you built.  It may malfunction and try and kill you, it may learn how to love you, or it may just hoover the carpet, but what you are looking at is materialism in action.  And this, for many people, is their first glimpse that the world may be stranger than they think…

(The above originally appeared as an article in SciFi Now Magazine)


KISS

October 28, 2009

“No, father, you never did care about anything except your precious job.”

This is a line from Blood and Iron, spoken by a young woman to her father, and overheard by a nearby robot.  Given the circumstances in which the words were spoken, I originally used an expletive in place of precious.  But then I realised that as the words were being translated by computer as the young woman spoke them, and robots don’t use human expletives which tend be organically based, the sentence would probably read

“No, father, you never did care about anything except your rusting job.”

This is logical, but it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to the reader at first glance as it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing a young woman could say.  I could have put in an explanation (a common writers’ mistake, in my opinion), but that would have slowed down the action, and worse, taken the reader away from the scene and reminded them they were reading a book.

I love a complicated plot, I love hard SF, but when it comes to the writing I always like to Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Anyway, Blood and Iron is finished and should be with Macmillan now.


Blood and Iron

September 16, 2009

Follow this link to my website to see Jon Sullivan’s amazing cover for Blood and Iron, published April 2010.


Redrafting

September 13, 2009

Julie, a friend of mine, came up with a perfect description of the process.

She said that when you first write a story it’s like a baby:  perfect and precious in your eyes.

After a few redrafts it grows into a young child: you see that  it has its faults, but you love it anyway.

But as  you keep rereading and improving, a story becomes a teenager, lurking in its bedroom and complaining that you don’t understand it anymore. Catch it on a bad day and all you can see is its faults- everything about it irritates you.   If you’re honest with yourself, you realise that you’ve both been in each others company too long: you’ve both changed.

By that time you’re looking forward to the day when your story can go out into the world and start earning a living.  That’s when you can both see the best in one another again.


Fire and Steam by Christian Wolmar

August 24, 2009

This has nothing to do with either Robots or Accordions, but it was one of the books I took on holiday with me, and I thought it worth a mention here.

Now, there is nothing quite like the sight of an SF author lying on the beach reading a history of Britain’s railways to get the pulse racing, but let’s stick to the matter in hand…

Fire and Steam traces the history of the railways from the Liverpool to Manchester railway to the present day. (Wolmar doesn’t count the Stockton to Darlington line as a proper railway.  One reason for this is that the line was intended to be leased to any operator who cared to run a vehicle across it, in the manner of a turnpike.  As someone who grew up within the vicinity of the S&D route  I felt a little aggrieved by this, but I follow Wolmar’s reasoning).  The book is a polemic in the best sense, championing the railways and questioning the orthodoxy that they were badly run, particularly in the days of British Rail.  It’s a fascinating history, peppered with interesting facts (for example, the plan to surround London with  a circle of railway lines around which armed trains would run to defend the Capital.  If I’d known that at the time of writing, I’d have included a similar scheme in Twisted Metal for defending Artemis City)

I’d recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in railways, but that’s too obvious.  There seems to be a real interest for this sort of thing within the SF genre and beyond.  Think of the popularityof Steam Punk, for example.   There is something comforting about technology that we can all understand, something very satisfying at looking at a machine and knowing how it works from start to finish.  This book treats the entire railway network as just such a machine, and you might want to give it a look even if you think you don’t like trains…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fire-Steam-History-Railways-Britain/dp/1843546299


Pat Mills

May 12, 2009

I’ve included this entry in the Interviews category to make up for the fact that I forgot to mention Pat Mills…

Let me explain.  Interviews usually include a question along the lines of “Who are your biggest influences”, but it wasn’t until I was reading this weeks 2000AD I realised I hadn’t been mentioning one of my biggest: Pat Mills.  Now, its not within the scope of this blog to write biographies (its scope is Robots and Accordions, as I’ve mentioned before), so follow the link if you want to know more about him, but I’m including this entry to make up for Mills’s omission from recent interviews.

So why Pat Mills?  Well, his stories Robusters, ABC Warriors and Metalzoic all featured robots and were an undeniable influence on me, but there is more to it than that.

I grew up on three great comics writers, Alan Moore, John Wagner and Pat Mills.  Mills was always my favourite:  for the breadth of his imagination (Nemesis book 4 is surely the birth of Steampunk), his attention to detail (the research that went into Slaine spawned many imitators), but mostly for his depth of character.  Fitting real characters into SF or Fantasy settings can be a challenge, Mills manages it better than the others, to my mind.

I could go on, in fact I think I will  in another entry some time, but for the moment, here are some recommendations:

Marshall Law

Charley’s War

Nemesis Book 1 


My Robot’s Got No Nose

May 6, 2009

As far as I can remember, only one robot in Twisted Metal has a nose, and she uses this to sniff petrol.  Although all the robots on the planet Penrose have the capacity to install a nose, very few of them choose to do so.  The robots of Shull, in particular, live in a place with very few organic compounds, and so have little reason to smell things.  They prefer to use the metal to make something else.

It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who has ever been on a writing course to discover this made writing the book (and the sequel) something of a challenge.  Would be writers are always advised to make use of all five senses when describing things, and this is good counsel.  The sense of smell is particularly evocative (the smell of the sea and sun tan lotion always makes me think of holidays, for example) and to remove this sense from the book was a great wrench.

But I had to do it.  The novel is written from the point of view of robots, and the robots in the book have no need to smell things.  

Did it make a difference to the reader of the book?  Did anyone even notice?  I’d be interested to hear what people think…