INTERVIEW Pax Britannia short stories

A steampunk collection from Jonathan Green becomes Abaddon’s first 99 cent e-book – will this tempt you to start buying digital SF fiction?

A 160-year-old Queen Victoria kept alive by steam technology. Dirigibles. Dinosaurs. All this is part of the Pax Britannia world, a steampunk adventure series from Abaddon created by Jonathan Green. Last week the Oxford-based gang announced that a collection of short stories set in that universe, the Ulysses Quicksilver Short Story Collection, would be available as a Kindle e-book for just 99 cents (69p). With this, they join the growing number of SF publishers experimenting with different publishing models, so we caught up with the author and editor of the collection and asked, “What the devil is this all about, then?”

“We’ve been thinking about e-book opportunities for a while now,” begins Abaddon’s editor-in-chief, Jonathan Oliver. “We already do e-books for all our print releases and we wanted to do something that added a bit of extra value to the line. With the Pax Britannia short stories, we thought, why not collect it as a cheap e-book edition, a sort of fun extra for fans of the series?”

The adventures of Ulysses Quicksilver are now the longest running series from Abaddon (“It may, in fact, be one of the longest running steampunk series around,” muses Oliver) and so rolling out a downloadable short story extension was a logical idea. Jonathan Green (who you may know from his Fighting Fantasy or Doctor Who books) is the mastermind behind the tales so we quizzed him about the new format and the series in general:

SFX: How does the change of pace from full novels to short stories alter the way you work?

Jonathan Green: I enjoy the variety. The strange thing is short stories and novellas probably take me longer to write, in terms of days spent writing and number of words produced, than novels. I would expect to finish a 90,000 word novel within three months. However, a 10,000 word short story will take me a couple of weeks. If I wrote at that pace it would take me more than four months to write a novel.

SFX: How do you account for that difference in pace?

Jonathan Green: With something so much shorter and tighter you have to be much more ruthless and disciplined in terms of plot structure, character development and word usage.

I know I have a tendency to over describe things, so a shorter word count makes me ration my adjectives, which hopefully is then carried over into my longer form fiction. That’s not to say my novels are loose and baggy and full of padding, but having the extra word count in a novel allows you to try different things, just as with a short story you can tell a tale that is based around one conceit or one nasty twist in the tail, which wouldn’t be enough for a novel.

It’s very satisfying to finish a novel, but it’s also nice to get closure on something much more quickly. I know that’s one of the reasons Dan Abnett writes novels in the morning and comics in the afternoon, because he gets the satisfaction of finishing something much more regularly with the comics than with a novel. I’ve been writing short stories for years, mostly for Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint, and really enjoy the form. I know that some writers don’t like novellas, but for me, in the case of the world of Pax Britannia, they’re a way of adding layers to that world, telling stories that wouldn’t be involved enough for a novel. Hopefully it gives readers an extra hit of steampunk goodness too – rather like the bonus material on a DVD.

SFX: You’ve been writing Pax Britannia books since 2007. What appeals to you about working in a steampunk environment?

Green: It’s the quirky, anachronistic nature of it, rather like Doctor Who. You have the optimism of the Victorian age and the arrogance of Imperial Britain (when it seemed like nothing was unobtainable and there wasn’t a machine that couldn’t be built to help you master anything) married to your standard sci-fi tropes, such as robots and space travel – only here the robots are powered by steam and clockwork and traversing the solar system has become the new Grand Tour. At the same time you’ve still got the extremes of the 19th century, with abject poverty and virtual slave labour practically right next door to the echelons of power and the palaces of the super-rich.

Within the Pax Britannia setting there really isn’t a type of story that can’t be told. You’ve got dinosaurs in London Zoo, vast undersea cities and aliens hiding on the dark side of the Moon. I’ve told straightforward action-adventure stories, I’ve done a Christie-esque murder mystery, there’s been horror and even a little political comment (although I try not to do too much of that sort of thing). I suppose, at the end of the day, I just love the retro-futurism and elegance of the steampunk milieu.

And then there’s all the teak and brass, and you can never have too much teak and brass in my book.

SFX: How did you come up with the character of Ulysses Quicksilver?

Green: When I first pitched the Pax Britannia setting to Jon Oliver I did so in a two-paragraph email. Ulysses Quicksilver appeared in the second one:

“Into the setting of Victoriana meets steampunk dystopia we throw suave dandy and rogue Ulysses Lucian Quicksilver, sometime adventurer and agent of the throne, who works for shadowy masters who are desperately trying to maintained a regime that has lasted for over 150 years and which is falling apart from within, and who may not be all that they seem.”

I remember plucking the name Ulysses Quicksilver out of thin air and thinking I could always change it later, only I never did. So I suppose, in a way, that name alone says a lot about the tone of the Pax Britannia setting.

In terms of the character himself, I wanted someone who could move easily between all ranks of society all around the world, so he had to be independently wealthy, and because of all the exciting (not to say life-threatening) situations I was going to throw him into, he had to be able to stand up for himself. I suppose he’s the bastard offspring of James Bond, Sherlock Holes and Oscar Wilde. He’s a lady’s man, a toff, a show-off, an expert swordsman, a damn fine shot, an epicure, a dedicated follower of fashion, a thrill-seeker, a man of the people, a lover, a fighter, a habitual challenger of the authority he so often represents, a man of action, an incisive mind, a mass of contradictions, a playboy – most, most importantly of all he’s an old school-style hero, and there aren’t too many of them around in genre fiction nowadays.

SFX: Of the short stories in this collection, do you have a personal favourite?

Green: “Fruiting Bodies” was the first Pax Britannia short story I wrote, so I’m very fond of that. “Vanishing Point” has developed into a whole story arc for the novel line, so that’s something a bit special too. But of the three of them, I have to say that “White Rabbit” is my favourite. It’s inextricably linked to Alice In Wonderland and is one of those stories I’ve wanted to write for a long time. There was just something about the idea and the twist that excited me. I actually went back and read both of Carroll’s Alice books before I sat down to write it, to make sure that I made it as authentic as possible. It also has interesting (and wholly intentional) implications for the Pax Britannia series, and one character in particular.

I know it’s also Jon Oliver’s favourite and, as a huge Alice fan himself, he gave me the highest praise possible when he compared it to Burton’s recent big-screen take on Wonderland:

“… you actually understand and appreciate the original… whereas the studio execs clearly said to Burton, ‘Give me another Narnia.’ That Alice, that’s like Narnia right? You achieve nightmarish surrealism. Tim Burton manages a second rate, if pretty, kids film.”

The reason “White Rabbit” happens to be my favourite might also have something to do with the fact that Jabberwocky is the only poem I still know off by heart and the impact Terry Gilliam’s movie made on me as an impressionable teenager.

SFX: Will downloadable e-books play a major role in the future of SF and fantasy literature, do you think?

Green: I think they’re already having a huge impact. In these recession hit times it keeps the cost of buying booking, and producing them, low. And it’s also allowing more people than ever to publish their own SF and fantasy stories. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen, but the wheat will always separate from the chaff, and the more stuff that’s out there can only serve to raise the profile of genre fiction in general. I’m certainly actively looking into how e-publishing can help me advance my career as a writer.

Of course, if an e-book (or even a traditional processed tree carcass one) has the Pax Britannia banner on it, you know you’re assured of quality and an entertaining read! I’m looking forward to seeing how many more people join the ranks of Pax Britannia and Ulysses Quicksilver fandom, with the publication of this short story collection, and hope we can do some more of the same in the future.

SFX: Thanks Jonathan!

The three stories in this collection, “Fruiting Bodies”, “El Sombra” and “Vanishing Point” have all been published in other Abaddon books before, but are available here together for just 69p in Kindle format or 49p from iTunes. For more information about Jonathan Green and his work, visit the author’s website at www.jonathangreenauthor.com or visit the official Pax Britannia site. There’s possibly more “rollicking adventure novels set in a steampunk universe” to come in future as editor-in-chief Jon Oliver tells us that “as well as the ‘normal’ e-books we’re planning on adding value to series we already have by releasing exclusive e-short stories and the like.”

Remember that SFX‘s Summer Of SF Reading, a three-month celebration of the best in sci-fi and fantasy fiction, begins in issue 211, which goes on sale next week.