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Friday, 11 May 2012

The scrapbook of Ada Byron

A break from Frankenstein today - kind of. This is Frankenstein's Legions, which was originally conceived as a videogame with Martin McKenna when we both worked at Eidos, the publishers of Tomb Raider. The idea then was a strategy game of resurrected soldiers, in which you would harvest body parts from the battlefield to build your armies. (A very different concept of "the monster" from that in Mary Shelley's novel, as I discussed in a recent post.)

Over the years we had various ideas of what to do with it. A comic book? I love writing comics, but Martin has no patience for that sort of narrative illustration. A movie? I wrote a treatment. Took it to Hollywood, even. But, really, you can fritter way your life on the meandering streets of studio lots. It's wearying, even if you have a cart to ride on.

A novel was the obvious plan, which is no doubt why we thought of it last. By then I was working at Elixir Studios and, as lead designer on a big, ambitious, Sims-type game called Dreams, I barely had enough spare time to write grocery lists, never mind an entire book. So I handed it over to acclaimed SF author John Whitbourn, who wrote a cracking adult steampunk novel in our setting - which you can get as an ebook here, incidentally.

Martin and I even worked out the obligatory airships. Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Henri Giffard had both proposed more-or-less contemporary plans for dirigible galleys. In real life, the crew couldn't row with enough strength to propel Giffard's prototype vessel other than on a perfectly still day. But suppose the "oars" were driven by bicycle-like mechanisms that were pedalled. And suppose too that the people doing the pedalling had been specifically assembled to have huge legs, hearts and lungs. I love it when a plan comes together.

After Elixir folded, a victim of the economics of the UK games industry, I found myself with time to devote to cherished projects. It was either Frankenstein's Legions or gardening. During a long walk across Hook Heath on a day of freezing fog, the teenage Ada Byron peered palely from a window in my imagination and there it was: the idea of treating the material as a young adult novel. Perfect, and it only took seven years to think of it. The opening of the story, which I wrote down as soon as I got back from my walk, is actually based fairly closely on Ada Byron's peculiar upbringing:
Ada rattles around inside a cavernous manor house in the depths of the English countryside. Fourteen years old, she knows no-one of her own age and spends her days between lessons mostly in silence. When she looks outside she sees a garden hemmed in by trees and steeply rolling meadows. For much of the year the fog brings the boundaries of the world within yards of her window, which Ada loves as she can use her imagination to paint whatever she likes in the space beyond the misty white.

The house has dozens of servants. Some of them are young enough that Ada can imagine being friends with them, but in fact she hardly knows their names. They are trained to turn their backs and study the floorboards when she goes by, or to retreat discreetly through paneled doors to the hidden rear staircase.

Ada has seen the backs of those paneled doors and knows they are lined with green baize. She spends hours crouched on the lofty staircase, ear pressed to the wood, straining to hear the muffled sounds that intrude from the servants’ world – a shout of laughter, a swear word, the clatter of plates. These lively noises, muffled though they are by the baize, affront the fusty dignity of the old manor, to Ada’s great delight. In her mind’s eye she is as familiar with the servants’ quarters as the house she knows. She pictures it: noisy, cooking-smelly, crowded, cramped and cosy. A hearth-warmed cottage built up to the eaves of her home.

The manor is a vast chilled mausoleum where half-full grates and stone bedpans provide islands of inadequate warmth. Ada considers how it would look if she could view it through the eyes of a snake – the rooms seen as empty gaps like melting caverns in the interior of a huge iceberg, a smoky blue gloom lit here and there by pulsing dull spots of red. After lessons she pulls on her overcoat and goes out into the grounds, where the cold air is at least fresher and the grass is more comfortable than ancient iron-hard settees.

Ada’s only confidant is Kearne, the groundsman. He rarely speaks, having spent several years on the continent fighting in the war. The pale round scar in the base of his throat shows that he was killed at least once. Perhaps that is when he got his new hands – slender and delicate they are, younger than Kearne’s own leathery skin. They lovingly tend the hedges and lawn borders, something that was not in Kearne’s nature before he went to war.

When he speaks to Ada, it is as though he were recounting half-remembered jumbles of dream: "They give 'em to me in a big jar. I have to put my arms around it to hold it. They're not doin' nothing, just floatin' in there, I says. Soft and white like grubs in ink. Wait till we put them on, the surgeon says. They don't understand a great deal, he says to the sergeant. An' thank God they don't, sir; not likely as 'ow they'd keep gettin' up and goin' out and gettin' shot to tatters every day if they unnerstood a blamed thing."

Kearne’s anecdotes seldom have beginnings or endings, yet Ada loves to hear them. They are all she really knows of life.

Of the things written in books, and that can be measured or mapped, Ada has great knowledge. Her mother, who is absent from the house for weeks at a time, is anxious that Ada should receive a comprehensive education. Private tutors give her lessons for six hours a day in a small pantry that was formerly used for hanging pheasants and rabbits. Ada’s mother has a system of vouchers to ensure Ada is attentive. Her mind is inclined to wander, and Ada’s mother has reason to be anxious about flights of uncontrolled fantasy. The vouchers are issued when Ada achieves full marks in a lesson, and can be redeemed for small treats – an extra half-hour before bed, a square of chocolate, a sheet of music for the piano.

Ada no longer hands the vouchers in, having long outgrown the childish rewards an individual voucher can buy. Instead she collects them, pasting them into a scrapbook. She has been doing this for a long time now, and the pages of the scrapbook are stiff with many jars of gum. She leafs through it every night, marveling at the hundreds of vouchers she has collected. She has no idea what reward the book might earn when she slots in the final voucher and presents it to her mother. She has tried not to think about it, keeping even her wayward imagination from exploring beyond that door. She hopes it will be something very different in kind from earlier rewards. Something much more than a hundred squares of chocolate. But Ada is ill-equipped to imagine what such a reward could be. She has no experience of the thing she is missing.
I plotted the whole book in detail - in fact, the whole trilogy. So why abandon it? Partly because Mirabilis came along, and that grew to occupy as much of my time as developing Dreams at Elixir had. But there was something else bothering me. Ada Byron... Victorian airships... Babbage machines... It all feels a bit stale nowadays. There are hundreds of novels that recycle the same tropes, to the extent that even the (often brilliant) spoofs like Lovelace and Babbage are now pretty commonplace.

In short, I didn't feel the world needed another version of those characters in a setting with all the usual steam-powered trimmings. There has to be something new. So Ada's wan face withdrew from the window, the white curtains of fog rolled in, and I walked by in search of other stories to tell. But I like to think she's out there somewhere, yearning to experience the outside world, and if I ever find an untrodden path to her door then I'm going to help her escape.


  1. Fantastically-written excerpt, Dave.

    I agree with you about steampunk. Far too many books, movie and games of various kinds in this genre all try the same thing, just with differently-named characters and slightly different synopses. Already, the genre seems staler to me than epic fantasy, and definitely less flexible in terms of how people use it. Perhaps Whitbourn's novel has a fresh take on the genre?

  2. Hi Hamza. John Whitbourn is certainly never one to slavishly follow genre conventions, and when I describe his take on Frankenstein's Legions as steampunk, that's really just the nearest fit.