Sean is here today to talk about his new YA novel, Changing Yesterday. Welcome Sean.
I found Changing Yesterday hilarious. It brought to mind silent movies and the exaggerated actions of the stars. I kept wanting to describe it as ‘swashbuckling’ and to exclaim ‘egads’ and the like. Did you set out to write a humourous story or did it creep in as you wrote?
Humour finds its way into my work whether I want it there or not. If I had to write fiction that was deliberately serious I’d probably starve. I would say that Changing Yesterday a book with a lot of humour in it, rather than something written to be funny. I think back to when I was around fifteen and remember that a lot of what we did and said as kids was very funny, but back then it was just us being normal. Life really is full of fun and funny conversations, even when things are really horrible. Then fiction comes along, takes itself seriously, and leaves the funny bits out. Perhaps you could say that most fiction is too serious, and the Changing Yesterday is more like real life. I agree that the pace is pretty intense, but only in what the book deals with. You see the really interesting incidents in Daniel’s voyage on the Andromeda (like Barry’s animal act with the milk or the fancy dress ball), but not the long hours sitting in a deckchair reading or below decks, watching the ship’s engines.
Changing Yesterday is a steampunk novel. Can you define steampunk and talk a little about why you chose to write in this genre?
I define steampunk as retro science fiction, particularly when it is set in in the Victorian period. For example, my story Eight Miles is set in 1840, and is about a balloon flight that ascends about twice as high as was safe for humans. I invented an oxygen generator that engineers of the time could have built – but never did – so that the aeronauts could breathe and so survive the flight. The Victorians had the technology and engineering expertise to build a lot of things that were for them quite futuristic, and a lot of this shows up in their own science fiction. Steampunk authors are just putting themselves into the same period as H. G. Wells or Jules Verne, then writing science fiction as it would have been. Fantasy people do the same sort of thing with medieval romances, so maybe that sort of thing should be called elfpunk.
Liore comes from 2011, but she feels much more ‘future’ than most of the people I know (does that say something about me??). Did the 100 Year War provide the environment for development of her ‘enhancements’?
Liore is from a very different 2011 to ours. For her, Britain was invaded by Germany in 1901, and the British Empire has been fighting to toss them out ever since. This war has caused a headlong arms race that has driven technology and science to provide both sides with some horrendous weapons, including enhancements to the human body. Liore is one of a new “series” of soldier: heavily enhanced humans who are meant to be totally loyal yet highly independent and innovative when cut off from the command structure. Her retractable titanium claws are not technically difficult, the enhanced muscles can be arranged, and the medical marvels available in her first aid kit are only a few years away from our own science. On the other hand, her mobile phone is not all that different from an ipod, except that it does its positioning with astronomical radio sources instead of satellites – not as accurate, but they can’t be shot down by the enemy. The big mistake that they made with Liore was making her innovative. Once she started thinking about why they were fighting, the reasons for not fighting at all started to look really good and she decided to do something about it.
Although your characters spend most of their time in a ‘real’ place and time, they also accept Liore, Fox and the wonders of the future. Did you find it challenging to construct a future world and to convince your 1901 teenagers to accept its existence?
It was a challenge, but if it were easy, loads of other people would be doing it. I had to visualize the future wonders as the characters of 1901 would have thought of them. That was pretty hard at first, but then I realized that this period was not at all backward. In 1901 the first radios were operation, voices could be transmitted over telephones, movie cameras were in use, people could fly in powered airships, and X-Rays had been discovered. Their authors were pretty good at science fiction as well. H.G. Wells had heat ray weapons in The War of the Worlds, yet lasers were five or six decades in the future. It was a time when science and technology was not utterly alien relative to what we have today, so I think some bright, well educated teenagers from 1901 could have got their heads around the wonders that Liore and Fox brought from the future. Actually that sort of excludes Barry, who has enough trouble with even 1901 technology, but he just accepts that if Daniel says it’s true then it probably is.
Time travel is a wonderful idea, although Liore’s journey back in time sounded a little like a virtual trebuchet! Do you think time travel will ever be possible? Where would you go? Why?
Forwards time travel, definitely. The physics works (eg relativistic time dilation), and there are no paradoxes. Going backwards is a lot harder, but some theoreticians think it’s possible by using huge amounts of energy, wormholes and so on. Even if it’s not practical to build a real backwards time machine, the idea of a huge machine controlling vast energies appealed to me. It shoots small things like people back through time, but stays where it is. The people get a one-way trip, and power packs on the gadgets and weapons that they carry absorb a titanic amount of energy. That gave me the ending on a silver platter.
Where would I go in time? I do like the period from about 1890 to 1914, especially in France and Britain. It was the Belle Epoch, the old aristocracy was enjoying its last parties before the Great War put most of them out of a job, and the living was pretty good – if you had money. The Theory of Relativity had been announced, some famous art was being painted (and sold very cheaply), the first aircraft were flying, and so on. When you traveled, the biggest ships were like floating palaces – although you would not want to sail any further than Queenstown on the Titanic. It was a great combination of old-style romance and elegance, but with enough modern conveniences to make life familiar and survivable. The Middle Ages were romantic and elegant too, but the sanitation was pretty basic, the plague was not much fun, and trial-by-combat-to-the-death was a lot more extreme than just hiring a good lawyer.
If you could travel back in time and take one 2011 gadget with you, what would it be?
I think I’d take an iPod with a full charge and some carefully selected files. I could use it to record sound and images, while carrying a library of electronic books and files from the future in my pocket. The whole point of visiting the past from the future is knowing what is about to happen, so a really good list of things that are going to happen is vital to any time traveler.
If you had been back to 1901, is there anything that you’d bring back with you?
A Norman Lindsay sketch of myself would be pretty cool, because I like artwork that has an interesting background. In 1993 a promising young artist named Shaun Tan illustrated my story Charon’s Anchor for Aurealis magazine. I loved his painting, so I wrote to him and asked if I could buy the original. He wrote back saying that he had never sold an original before, and was a hundred dollars too much to ask? I sent him a cheque for a hundred dollars in the return mail, and the picture has been up on my wall for eighteen years. Then he won an academy award, and suddenly I have a hyper-special picture on mt wall. In the same way, a Norman Lindsay portrait of me done half a century before I was born would look really great beside the Shaun Tan picture.
Sean McMullen writes spec fiction for young adults and for adults. ‘Changing Yesterday’ is published by Ford Street Publishing