by Sandy Auden
Two exciting new series begin for science fiction and fantasy fans alike: Tony Ballantyne introduces us
to the robot infested planet of Penrose as it descends into war in Twisted Metal; and Juliet McKenna
takes us behind the scenes of Irons in the Fire as rebellion causes chaos in the dukedoms of Lescar.
Tony Ballantyne's science fiction stories are always thoughtful, layered and fun. With Twisted Metal, he launches a brand new trilogy that mixes philosophical exploration with adventure and conflict...
On a world of intelligent robots who seem to have forgotten their own distant past, it is a time of war as the soldiers of Artemis City set out to conquer everything within range on the continent of Shull. They kill or convert every robot they capture to their philosophy, while viewing their own wire-based minds as nothing but metal to be used or recycled for the cause.
Elsewhere, the more individualistic robots of Turing City believe they are something more than metal, but when the Artemisian robot Kavan sets out on a determined crusade to prove himself, even Turing City can't stand against him.
Following the inevitable violence and destruction, Artemisian ambition focuses elsewhere and a journey begins towards the frozen kingdoms of the north... and towards the truth about the legendary Book of Robots, a text which may finally explain the real history of this strange world.
Given the popularity of movies like Transformers and the Terminator series, it's clear that humans are fascinated by the actions of all kinds of mechanical characters. Ballantyne has created an entire planet full of robots in Twisted Metal so why does he think we're hooked on them? "There are lots of reasons, just as there are lots of different types of robots," he says. "I think people feel sympathy with the unquestioning 'slave' robots like Wall-E, Robbie and Walter the Wobot. Then there is the fascination with their superhuman aspect: it must be nice to be very strong or able to fly or walk underwater without needing to breathe. There is also the horror of imagining one of them cutting loose, as well as that distorted mirror they hold up to ourselves."
"The big question, though, is when are robots going to start taking an interest in humans?"
When they start doing that, they'll have to try to understand emotions. Ballantyne's futuristic robots already have a deep emotional capacity built in. "My robots are living, breathing beings just like us, except of course they don't breathe. They love their children, they argue and fight and sulk and bear grudges, they do silly things and don't admit they're wrong, and then they are capable of kindness, bravery and heroism.
"There is a subclass of robots that don't have any emotional capacity but the robots themselves treat these as, well, robots.
"And then at the centre of events there is the robot Banjo Macrodocious, who is obviously intelligent, but denies it."
Ballantyne hasn't just transplanted human personalities into robot bodies though, there are differences in the robotic thought patterns. "They can count a number of objects at a glance; they can distinguish different types of metal just by feel; they aren't driven by appetites such as hunger and thirst; they think that organic life is vaguely obscene; they think that allowing metal to rust is morally wrong. They can see the beauty in a piece of twisted metal, a painting or a piece of music; and they see nothing wrong with twisting their values directly into the minds of their children."
After getting into the heads of his robots, Ballantyne has set them against a complex and compelling back-drop. "The thing was to think not how I would make the landscape, but to look at the drives and the desires of the robots and think how they would be shaped by it.
"They don't need water as much as we do, for instance, so their towns tend to be closer to the motherlode than to rivers. I gradually came to the realisation that I didn't know enough about where metal comes from, and so in the end spent a long afternoon with a man named Steve Poole, having a crash course in geology. He explained how our world was formed, and I used this knowledge to construct Penrose, the robots' world.
"I find it a very seductive world. I still find myself looking at, say, a railway station and thinking how would the robots have built this?"
But one crucial point needed to be settled for the book to make sense: "The big moment was realising how robots reproduced. Once that was clear, a sort of logic took over that dictated the shape of the world."
Twisted Metal is out now from Tor Publishers.
Juliet E McKenna - It All Depends On Your Point Of View
Juliet McKenna's new novel Irons in the Fire opens the new Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution with a mismatched band of exiles and rebels agreeing that there has been enough suffering and the time has come for change. Can a small group, however determined, put an end to generations of intractable misery? Perhaps. After all, a few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motionů
Now, for SF Site, McKenna talks about how the series evolved for her and the complexities of differing points of view.
"I've written novels and short stories in the third person, in the first person and in a mixture of both, following intertwining stories. Irons in the Fire is a single narrative seen from six different third-person perspectives. That's a challenge so it wasn't a decision I took lightly. But as I planned The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, I became convinced this was how this tale must be told.
"I first realised how widely accounts of the same events can vary when I compared the Irish history heard at my grandmother's knee to the version learned at an English girls' grammar school. There was quite some contrast. Reading more widely, I concluded the elusive truth was somewhere in between. I realised something else. The truth matters but so does the way history is told. It's never merely dry dates and arid accounts. It's loaded with emotion from that first draft; originally word of mouth, then newspapers, nowadays the multimedia press. Glance at a news-stand to see how differently a story can be interpreted. Add to that the emotional impact of personal experiences and tragedies that have befallen family and friends.
"All too often, the news making those headlines stems from historical misunderstandings, deep-rooted grudges and irreconcilable demands. Look at the recent history of Ireland, the Balkans, the Middle East, and other divided lands and peoples. I'm not going to write about those places though. The thought of researching such convoluted history makes my blood run cold -- and I'm someone who likes research! More importantly, I couldn't do them justice, not to convince anyone who had lived that reality since childhood. Whatever stance I might take, I would undoubtedly offend those thinking differently about such contentious topics.
"This is exactly where SF and Fantasy come into their own. Writing about some unreal time or place, SF and F authors have always been able to examine the politics, philosophy and morality of real life unencumbered by cultural baggage. Better yet, we can explore those deeper questions unobtrusively, by way of hinterland to an exciting story. As we engage readers' emotions with our characters, we can shape our narrative for maximum impact, unburdened by inconveniences of fact. History rarely shapes itself to suit the dramatist.
"Luckily I have a divided society sketched into the background of the books I've been writing for ten years. (Not that you need to have read those). Lescar is a country divided between six dukes, all striving to become High King. They plot and skirmish and once every generation or so, warfare engulfs them all. Seen from the outside, that's simple enough. The complexity arises from those different perspectives.
"Tathrin was born and raised in the dukedom of Carluse. His family prosper, owning an inn on the high road cutting across Lescar from Caladhria in the west to Tormalin in the east. But he knows how insecure their lives are. He's seen at first hand the vicious mercenaries hired by Duke Garnot. He's seen innocent and guilty alike brutalised, unable to retaliate. That's why his parents have sent him far away, to study in the peaceful city of Vanam. He earns his keep as a servant to richer students. But Tathrin cannot forget where he's come from. He's desperate for the ordinary Lescari take a stand. All Lescari, setting aside loyalties to individual dukes in favour of their common good.
"One of Vanam's wealthier students, Aremil has no recollection of Lescar, though he was nobly born in the dukedom of Draximal. Incapacitated since birth and never expected to live, he was sent far away with his nurse. But his wits are as sharp as his body is weak and he sees why Lescar's sufferings persist. Exiles send coin to save their poor kinsfolk from greedy tax-collectors but that only sustains the dukes' quarrels in the longer term as they use those revenues to hire more mercenaries. Equally, as long as the fighting stays inside Lescar, Caladhria and Tormalin's rulers have no interest in forcing a peace. Not while their merchants prosper, buying Lescari materials cheap and selling tawdry goods to people with few options.
"If these two men are to see change in their homeland, they must convince women like Failla to help them. She's deep in Duke Garnot of Carluse's counsels, raised since childhood to mistrust and despise every rival duke. Her first loyalty is to her family, immediate and extended. Can she be persuaded to look beyond their interests to a greater good? Can she persuade her fellow Carlusians to rise above a lifetime believing tales of deceit and atrocities?
"Then there are exiles like Branca, another Vanam scholar. Her parents fled Lescar before she was born and she's as poor as Tathrin. Lescari emigrants find they're despised wherever they end up. Ironically, that unites them far more than old quarrels divide them. Branca and her like reserve their contempt for those stubbornly staying in Lescar, too stupid to turn their backs on the squabbling dukes. But Branca and a few fellow Lescari scholars hold the key to a secret that could give this conspiracy a vital advantage.
"They will have to think fast and move faster to outwit Duchess Litasse of Triolle. A daughter of the Duke of Sharlac, her marriage is one of petticoat diplomacy not love. She's no less committed to ensuring her husband's continued wealth and status though, and yes, the peaceful prosperity of those who owe him fealty. She's known no other life but sifting intrigue and suspicion, which helps her hide her own secrets all the better.
"Then there's Karn, the Triolle enquiry agent. An orphan of war, he's grown into a man without conscience or qualms and even more dangerous, he's both intelligent and shrewd, well used to strangling plots at birth.
"Who are the heroes and villains? It all depends on your perspective."
Irons in the Fire is out now from Solaris Books.
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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