When I sat down to start thinking about ‘Waking Hell’, I knew three things about it. First of all, I wanted it to be a science fiction story that also worked as a horror novel, just as my first book, ‘Crashing Heaven’, is fantasy as much as SF. Secondly, I wanted to balance ‘Crashing Heaven’s two lead male characters with a female double act. And thirdly, I wanted it to tell a stand-alone story, albeit one suffused with both revelations about old mysteries and hints of new ones.
Oh, and of course it’s an SF book so it needed to be powerfully futuristic as well. Most of that was already in my head, partially as an evolution from ‘Crashing Heaven’, partially from spending time with tech folk over the last couple of years. Amongst other things, ‘Waking Hell’ talks about augmented reality, virtual worlds, digitised selves, the internet of things, the importance of data integrity and when to fork personalities. And it’s set on Station, a giant inhabited asteroid orbiting an abandoned post-apocalypse Earth. That’s all great from an SF point of view, but looked at as horror fodder there’s one problem with it all – none of it’s very spooky. So, I started watching lots of horror movies. Inspiration hit me hard from two very different directions.
First of all, British horror movies from the forties and fifties – films like ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, ‘The Innocents’ and ‘Dead of Night’ – raced into my mind. Watching them, I felt an odd combination of terror and nostalgia. On the one hand, these are authentically disturbing films, majestic classics that both demand and reward repeated, terrified re-watching. On the other, they come to us out of a simpler past that, when compared with the fearsome complexities of the present, can seem deeply attractive. I made a note of both emotions. Station is inhabited by digital ghosts called Fetches. I knew that I’d be writing about them, about how their society had developed since the end of ‘Crashing Heaven’. The sense of haunted longing that these aging classics evoked in me helped set the mood for their dead lives.
Secondly, I found myself sucked deep into some of the 70s’ more lurid horror flicks – surreal oddities like ‘Le Frisson Des Vampires’, anything Dario Argento ever made, ‘Daughters of Darkness’, ‘To the Devil A Daughter’, and so on. As I watched them, I found fascinated by their bad guys. So many of them were – to my 21st century eyes – ludicrous 70s fops, impressively hairdressed men doing their best to look villainous as their flared trousers and massively over-collared shirts and jackets expanded around them in some weird singularity of tastelessness.
And yet I found them profoundly unsettling. Almost every single one of them had an unshakeable authority that I couldn’t ignore. I realised that, the last time I’d been around people dressed like that, I was tiny and they were grown-ups. I was struck by just how strongly I still felt that elemental adult power. So I lifted it up, moved it over and built it into the book’s antagonists – the Pressure Men. They too are archaic, with all the out-of-time absurdity that that can bring, but like grown-ups to a child they’re also a very powerful, overwhelming presence.
And then there was ‘Waking Hell’s heroine, the fetch Leila Fenech, and her sometime sparring partner, sometime sidekick, fraud investigator Cassiel. Crashing Heaven’s hero, Jack Forster, was in his way quite posh; he’s an accountant-turned-space-warrior who’s spent most of his life at the upper end of the greasy pole that is Station society. So Leila begins the book right down at the bottom. She’s an estate agent, barely hanging on to a job she hates. And through her, we see a whole different side to Station life, understanding what life’s like for the other 98%. We also get an oblique critique of the characters of the first book, as we’re shown just how privileged they really are.
Cassiel works in a different way. She’s a Totality mind, an AI running within a human-shaped blob of nanogel. The Totality are a rebel society of humans and AIs who live on the outer edges of the Solar System. ‘Crashing Heaven’ is set just after the Totality comprehensively defeat the Pantheon, the corporate gods of Station, in a Solar System-wide space war. We hear about it but we don’t really get to see much of it. I wanted to explore exactly how fearsome you’d have to be to win that kind of battle. Cassiel became a vehicle for that, bringing a certain elegant lethality into ‘Waking Hell’. Through her we also get to learn a little more about Totality society, understanding what it values and how it’s developing.
I also had to think about how Waking Hell would interact with ‘Crashing Heaven’ in broader terms. Waking Hell has two female leads to balance ‘Crashing Heaven’s two male ones; an at-first penniless heroine to balance a wealthy one; a sister with a loving brother to contrast with a son whose parents were lost to him; a fiercely moral Totality mind to balance Jack’s sidekick, psychotic virtual ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo Fist; and so on. But these were all just individual points of detail. I started to think about how the book as a whole could contrast with Crashing Heaven.
It struck me that ‘Crashing Heaven’ is quite a forward looking book. It’s all about what happens next; what happens after a space war, what happens when a crime is revealed, what happens when Jack and Hugo find themselves in an intolerable situation and can only push forwards to get out of it. The simplest, most effective way of balancing that seemed to be to look backwards – to have a plot defined by the dangers of yesterday rather than the possibilities of tomorrow. And so, as I wrote ‘Waking Hell’, I thought a lot about how memory, power and the self interact. All of us are made of yesterday; all of us guard and curate our pasts very carefully, because they define us. All of us move forwards while actually looking backwards. But what if someone else can take control of all that history? The book explores what that might mean.
Oh, and there was one last bit of the past in there. It came to me from Paul Koudounaris’ wonderful book ‘Heavenly Bodies’, which explores how the skeletons of ancient Roman religious martyrs were taken up by the Catholic church and ended up as beautifully decorated icons all round Europe. It was profoundly inspiring – but telling you why would be a bit of a spoiler, so all I’m going to do is encourage you to google the book and check out some of the astonishing images in it.
And finally, there’s ‘Waking Hell’ as a stand-alone novel. It is very definitely that – it tells a story that’s complete in itself and that absolutely doesn’t need any knowledge of ‘Crashing Heaven’ to understand. But I did seed it with details referencing the earlier book. We find out more about the Solar System’s main cultures, we check in with some of ‘Crashing Heaven’s key characters and we learn more about Station itself. And I looked forward too – as I wrote, I was toying with ideas about what might happen next, so I dropped some hints into ‘Waking Hell’. There’s a larger, deeper story going on behind both books, and ‘Waking Hell’ in particular holds several clues that begin to reveal it.
So that, in very broad summary, is how ‘Waking Hell’ came together. On the one hand, it’s a very pure science fiction book, suffused with all sorts of SF craziness. But on the other, it draws on quite a wide set of definitely strange and hopefully interesting non-SF inspirations. So it really is both a science fiction and a horror novel – and I hope it’s equally enjoyable as both.
Order Waking Hell by Al Robertson here: