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Interview: Sean McMullen on “Electrica”

Tell us a bit about “Electrica.”

The idea behind Electrica is that an intelligence from the geologically distant past has been preserved in amber. While experimenting with a form of electrostatic semaphore using amber, the eccentric Sir Charles Calder realizes that the signals he is detecting are not coming from a distant transmitter, but from within the block of amber in his receiver. He manages to communicate with the time-travelling mind. Meantime, Lieutenant Fletcher, a young code breaker from Lord Wellington’s staff, is called back from the war against Napoleon in Spain to check the military potential of Sir Charles’s semaphore. Fletcher soon gets drawn into some very murky intrigues involving sex, jealousy and obsession between Sir Charles and his wife. Electrica is set against the real scientific arms race during the Napoleonic Wars. The opposing sides had almost uncrackable secret codes, semaphore signaling systems stretching over hundreds of miles, observation balloons, and plans for steamships and submarines. There was even a scheme to invade England by digging a tunnel under the English Channel. In more general science, Luigi Galvini had established the link between electricity and biology with his famous twitching frogs’ legs in 1771, and by 1802 Giovani Aldini was applying electricity to dismembered human body parts and getting similar effects. While in London in 1803, Aldini even tried to bring the corpse of an executed man back to life, although without success.  

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I knew that electrostatics was quite well developed by the late Eighteenth Century, and about Galvani’s experiments with electricity and frogs legs, but Mary Shelley had beaten me to the most obvious theme by a couple of hundred years. Then I came across a book on code breaking in the Napoleonic Wars, and it reminded me that science and mathematics were valued very highly by the military authorities of the time. Where you have advanced science, you can have advanced science fiction. The idea of sending an intelligence across space as data had been used in A for Andromeda, but I had an idea to send the data for an intelligence through time. I thought about setting it in the modern world, but then I realized that I could make it a lot more interesting with an historical setting. I considered World War II, then World War I, then Victorian England, and finally I realized that Regency England had all the technology that the story needed. It was about now that a story idea for code breaking in 1812 merged with the story of Electrica’s trip through time. All I needed to do was a little research into a few details. This turned out to be a very large amount of research into nearly everything.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

As I have said, quite a lot. I had already studied the late Eighteenth Century semaphore towers for my 1999 novel Souls in the Great Machine, but I also needed a background in Regency electrostatics, steam engines, and suchlike. I have already mentioned reading Mark Urban’s The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, and I also re-read selected bits of Mary Shelley and Jane Austin, re-watched the Sharpe television series, checked with Trench’s A History of Marksmanship and Holland’s Gentlemen’s Blood to get the dueling scene right, and read some general history books like Richard Holmes’s Redcoats. At a practical level I did a few basic experiments with electrostatics and amber, and discovered that harpsichord wire is annoyingly awkward to use in electronic devices.   It was also very important to get the meals and clothing right. Apparently the British were very patriotic about their food during the Napoleonic Wars. They excluded French dishes from their tables and had theme dishes like desserts with the Union Jack’s colours and every possible variation on roast beef. Thanks to Beau Brummel and others, clothing was undergoing major changes at this time, so fashions were pretty volatile for both sexes. I did the best I could to cope with this, but the experts will probably point out what I got wrong. Then there was work on ravens, scalp electrodes, and even anatomy (where to get shot and seriously wounded without getting killed).  By now you probably think I wrote Electrica while mapping out the scenario for a novel (which I am now writing), but I started writing the story without having a novel in mind. In general I think science fiction has a greater impact if the reader thinks “Wow, this sounds like it could actually work”, so I take a lot of trouble to get the science and history as right as I can before taking a leap into the unknown. 

Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, then in what way was “Electrica” personal?

The duel scene was highly personal. Many years ago I was in a fencing tournament, and found myself facing an opponent with whom I had a girlfriend in common. What followed was the most ugly and hard fought bout of my three decades in martial arts! I like to think I got the general feeling into the Electrica duel. Weaving my computer career into a Regency story was another personal touch. Soon after I graduated and joined the workforce, I actually did some work on decoding data strings. In my case it was checking aviation weather reports for formatting errors, but in a sense I was – like Lieutenant Fletcher in Electrica – looking for hidden words and figures in strings of characters. This allowed me to develop him as a character who was a sort of fellow professional. The rather highly charged dinner scenes go all the way back to my undergraduate years. A girl who I was dating invited me home for dinner, and she turned out to come from a very, very rich family that had ties to the English aristocracy. My relatively poor family had rather more distant ties to the English aristocracy, so the conversation was not quite as awkward as it might have been, but I had a strong feeling that I was being treated as an amusing novelty rather than a prospective son-in-law. Memories of that night are certainly in Electrica.

What are you working on now?

Currently a short film is pretty high on my agenda. I have working in script writing for some years alongside my books and stories, and companies have taken out options taken out on several works. On the other hand, options are cheap, and actually getting anything on screen is super hard. Even a low-budget movie costs a thousand times more to produce than a book, so getting a book published and getting a movie shot is like the difference between a Viking longship and the Titanic. Still, the screen version of my soon-to-be published story Hard Cases looks like being shot within a couple of months, so that is extremely exciting. My daughter and I are also planning my first two e-book collections, both for later this year. Measuring Eternity is due to be released around August, and the other about four months later. The latter will contain a couple of stories set before my novel Souls in the Great Machine, and chronicles the building of the huge, human-powered computer, the Calculor by the dynamic and deadly Dragon Librarian Zarvora. For the fans of the ne’er do well and lecherous John Glasken, he does indeed make an appearance. Aside from all that, there is the novel based on the events in Electrica, but that will definitely not be coming out this year.

“Electrica” appears in the March/April 2012 issue.

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One Response to “Interview: Sean McMullen on “Electrica””

  1. SF Tidbits for 4/23/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog on April 23rd, 2012

    [...] The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction interviews Sean McMullen. [...]

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