Richard Harland talks about his latest release, the mesmerising Worldshaker…
I loved writing Worldshaker—I think steampunk/Victoriana is the kind of fiction I was born to create! I suppose I’ve been heading towards this all through my previous fourteen books, and it’s certainly turning out my most successful book yet. It’s just added a UK contract with Templar to a US contract with Simon & Schuster—and the advance of the American contract alone is bigger than all advances on my previous novels added together.
Worldshaker is set in an alternative history, which has followed a different path ever since Napoleon dug his tunnel under the English Channel and invaded England. (In real history, there was a plan, but the tunnel was never dug.) Now mechanical iron juggernauts, as big as mountains, moving on rollers, gouge their way over the face of the earth – a hyper-development of steam-age technology.
The way of life on board the juggernauts is also a hyper-development, of Victorian society. What’s always fascinated me is the terribly respectable façade of 19th century society masking some very ugly realities beneath. On the juggernaut Worldshaker, Col Porpentine believes in Queen Victoria, duty, trade and the absolute rightness of the world he lives in. Even the unspeakable—unthinkable—Filthies who labour among the boilers and turbines Below—well, they’re no better than animals, and it’s only natural that the civilised inhabitants of the Upper Decks should treat them as such.
However, Col has to start thinking about Filthies when a girl Filthy, Riff, escapes from Below and tries to take refuge in his cabin. Of course he should turn her over to the authorities, of course he should avoid contamination, of course he should never ever listen to what she says—and yet, irrationally, he does.
Now he has a problem. Because, as the grandson of Sir Mormus Porpentine, he’s been nominated as successor to the position of Supreme Commander. If his guilty secret leaks out, he’ll not only lose his prospects, he’ll be shunned by his society forever. Unfortunately for him, Riff just won’t stay out of his life …
I knew this was going to be a special novel from the time I formed the first ideas, fifteen years ago. That’s why it took so long to plan and write—I had to get everything right. The world was only the start of it; I mulled over the characters for ages too, not to mention their names (Ebnolia Porpentine, Sir Wisley Squellingham, Mr Bartrim Gibber, Sephaltina Turbot …) Even when I began writing, I kept going back over my drafts, improving, tightening, intensifying. Three total re-writes over six years—I could never have done it if I didn’t have faith in the final result.
I’m sure it’s my best ever novel, and it also ties in with a growing steampunk trend that’s already a way of life in the US and just starting to take off in Australia. Good karma came into it too—because I took 4 months off from my own writing to produce a guide to writing fantasy and genre fiction, all 145 pages entirely free at www.writingtips.com.au. I’d just finished putting it up on the web when the US contract came along!