Jon Wallace is a London based author and jack of many trades. Barricade was his first novel and followed super-human Ficial Kenstibec’s road trip across a post-apocalyptic Britain. His second novel, Steeple, continues Kenstibec’s journey up a thousand-storey tower in search of something which might save his life.
GS: Can you give us an elevator pitch for your Kenstibec series?
It’s a fast and furious, action packed science-fiction series with a bit of cheeky satire about Britain as it is now, and the place it could become.
Narrator Kenstibec is a member of the ‘Ficial’ race, a breed of merciless super-humans. Their war on humanity has left Britain a wasteland, where Ficials hide in barricaded cities, besieged by tribes of human survivors. Barricade follows Kenstibec as he drives an armoured taxi on a high-octane sortie across a desolate landscape of bunkers, dead cities and fortified service stations, fighting off a crazed king and his ragged army. Steeple sees Kenstibec climb the battered remnant of a huge, impossible skyscraper that looms over ruined London – chased by cannibals and drones, through crawlspaces and lift shafts, up the crumbling edifice of man’s last great monument to greed.
GS:How challenging was it to write in the first person as an artificial person?
It was initially challenging writing in the first person – it was the first time I’d tried first person and there were moments where I was desperate to show other points of view, but it becomes fun after a while. In terms of writing from the perspective of a Ficial, it was an enjoyable challenge. Kenstibec has no emotions, no religion, no politics, no vulnerabilities, no doubt, and as a result when he looks at regular people – or ‘Reals’ – he finds a lot about their behaviour incomprehensible. Writing him was an exercise in stripping away conventions and morality and emotion, and seeing what was left.
The worrying thing was how readers might react to his company –Kenstibec’s been compared to Takeshi Kovacs from Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon for instance – but Takeshi doesn’t make the kind of patronising, sweeping statements about humanity that Kenstibec does. Still, I think most readers can adapt and relate to his feeling of dislocation from our conventions and customs.
Of course there’s a lot of fear about AI. The reason why it’s so interesting to write about it turning against us is this moment in history, where we find ourselves on the cusp of it racing beyond our understanding, let alone control.
Many scientists and philosophers want us to pause and try to figure out how AI might develop before progressing it further. However this can’t happen, because so long as there is money to be made, people will keep trying to take the next step. Kenstibec and Ficials play on this idea, although they are more like enhanced or ‘augmented’ people than how we might normally think of AI.
Personally, I don’t worry about AI ‘taking over’. I think it’s more likely AI will either prevent a catastrophe, or clean up after one.
We have plenty of other ways to efficiently exterminate ourselves already – for instance by nuclear war. The reason nuclear war features in the series is because I still think it’s the greatest and most immediate threat humanity faces.
Also, the aftermath of a nuclear war seemed an appropriate way to explore what a strange place Britain is now. For me our Trident doomsday device encapsulates a delusional Imperial hangover, and utter moral cowardice in our political system. It makes perfect sense to ditch nukes as part of a broader world disarmament process – but we won’t do it. I think many of my generation feel a real sense that we ask for trouble with our military posturing, that we could very easily bumble and bluster our way into catastrophe.
How did you go about researching nanotechnology and artificial intelligence?
The books are more about being human than anything, but the main thing about nanotechnology was inspired by an article I read about it being developed to treat cancer. The nanotech largely serves to feed the main story: it makes Kenstibec near invulnerable, with a perfect physique that heals quickly, and he lives longer too. During the books all that changes for him. It’s about exploring his changing attitude to humanity’s flawed, painful existence.
Who would you want to play Kenstibec in a movie adaptation?
Someone has suggested Jamie Bell, and I think he would actually work really well!
Well, the first book, Barricade, is all about this journey across Britain. The second book, Steeple, is also about a journey but within one location – a ruined skyscraper. The last book has a much broader geographical spread. Our relationship with the rest of the world is explored. I wanted to have an exciting, action packed adventure that also holds a mirror to the damage we plan to do to delicate environments. I did a lot of research about the Arctic, about our maritime history and modern ‘super-yacht’ culture.
Did you always plan for Barricade to be the first part of a trilogy?
Not at all. With Barricade, I wanted to write something fun that I would want to pick up and read myself. So I really concentrated on writing something which was fast, furious and funny. Then, during the writing, I realised there were lots of other places it could go, so when I was offered a three book deal, I was really happy to continue exploring Kenstibec’s world.
I also think that as a writer, doing a trilogy really helps test and develop your skills –You have to try and ensure that all three books stand alone as well as they make a trilogy. It’s really hard. I think short stories help develop your skills as well. I’ve written quite a lot of short stories, and they gave me discipline. Without that experience, I wouldn’t have had the commitment to write Barricade around a full time job.
Did you find it hard having to work to very specific deadlines after being able to spend as much time on Barricade as you wanted?
The problem for me is I need time to step away from the book after the second or third draft. I had a year altogether which for me which was just about long enough to find time for that break. Without it I think I would get too close to the book and begin to lose perspective.
Once you’ve had an idea, what’s the hardest thing you find about writing and editing a book?
I do have a problem with concentration in terms of sticking to just one project. I get really frustrated when I get a story idea and then I can’t immediately do anything with it. I’ve got a vault of story ideas going back three years now! And I blog as well as writing and working – I really love good criticism, good reviews where you learn something interesting about something you love. Interzone are really good at this with their movie reviews. I like to try and do the same thing.
How much do things like music and architecture play into your creative process?
I don’t generally listen to music when I write, although during Steeple I listened to The Marriage of Figaro quite a lot, because it sounds very uplifting but somehow it’s not distracting.
Architecture plays a big role, certainly in Steeple, which is set in this 1000 storey tower. I was inspired by living in London at a time of booming construction. Walking about town it’s hard not to conclude that there’s no ambition in our building now. When you look at the Victorians sure, they were repressed, morally dubious Imperialists, but their buildings and engineering at least partly expressed confidence in science’s ability to build a great new society. Post-war Brutalism, much of which was misguided, also possessed some vision, of using new materials to build a better society. Sadly, most of what we are building now is creatively bankrupt, designed for profit alone. We do not seem interested in building a better world for everyone, it is all about luxury and exclusivity.
On a practical level, I worked in an engineering company when I was writing Steeple and I ended up taking this guy out for lunch. I told him I planned to set the story in a 1000 storey tower and asked if it was possible. He was so helpful, he came up with all sorts of ideas (like a gravity clamp!) and even gave direction for another part of the book which fit perfectly with a new character.
Who or what have your key inspirations been?
2000AD has been a huge influence on me, especially the Cursed Earth series which was really my inspiration for an apocalyptic landscape. In terms of voice, probably Raymond Chandler – when he’s good, he’s very, very good and has this pure, sharp form of speech which perfectly suits an emotionless creature like Kenstibec.
What attracted you to writing SF?
No other genre makes you realise how uncertain and tenuous reality is, how fleeting our concerns in terms of our own history, let alone the planet’s. I think SF gives us a sense of this, of how narrow our horizon can be. SF shows that if we’re going to survive as a species, nationalities and tribalisms are going to have to go by the wayside, that we’ll simply be forced to unite – so why cling to these divisions now? Most of all SF allows you to pose all kinds of interesting questions. With Barricade, I was interested in thinking about our worship of physical perfection – the nanotechnology would create equality as far as appearance and health goes. What then? Would we be better or worse without life’s constant beauty contest?
What are you reading now?
Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley – I was on a panel with him at Gollanczfest and wanted to finish his book before speaking with him. I didn’t quite manage to read it all, but I’m really enjoying it!
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Jon!
Barricade and Steeple are available now, with the final book due out in June 2016, all from Gollancz. You can follow Jon’s blog here.
GS Blogger: Michaela Gray (@bookiesnacksize)