Sunday, July 22, 2012

Anatomy of a Novel - Third Transmission by Jack Heath

Anatomy of a novel is an occasional series where writers write about their influences for a particular book ...

Third Transmission - Jack Heath

1. Red Dwarf.
 As a teenager I watched more TV than was healthy. My favourite program was Red Dwarf; goofy though the show was, there were some terrific sci-fi concepts at its core, and one episode from 1988 fascinated me. It was called Future Echoes, and it revolved around a pair of astronauts who, when travelling faster than the speed of light, start seeing ghosts of themselves. I loved the scenes which didn't make sense until seen from the point of view of the ghost, and the idea that the more you know about your future, the less power you have to change it. Both these concepts resurfaced in Third Transmission.

2. Fan mail
 After the publication of Remote Control, a young girl sent me an email. She said she wasn't sure how to write to an author, so she wrote it as though it would be sent to someone else. "You know what I like best about his books?" she said. "They're not only exciting, cool, teenage, fast and action with a capital A, but they're decent. There's a leeettle swearing, but if it doesn't get any worse in future it's ok by my families standards. There's no 'adult themes' as I like to call what others call 'heavy romance' or 'modern lifestyles'. You have no idea how many books I've had to close half finished this week because of that."

After trying to work out what swear-word she was referring to (and concluding that it was "hell") I replied. "I can't believe you'll close a book half-finished because of adult themes!" I said. "Why? Regardless of your views on sex, drug use and coarse language, the safest way to learn about them and experience them is on the pages of a book."

Her response:

In case you've never heard of it before, there was a frog sitting in a saucepan... the pan was full of water, and the frog was swimming around quite happily. Then someone came and turned on the stove, and the pan of water began to heat up.

"That's ok," said the frog. "If it gets any worse I'll jump out."

As the water got hotter and hotter, the frog just brushed it aside. "It's not that bad." he thought. "I can handle it."

Then suddenly, the water was boiling, and the frog was as good as last night's pasta. (except green.)

With me and my reading, it's like that. I can't let my guard down. Don't think it's easy, doing this. Trust me; me being a girl, I often bawl my eyes out when I have to put a book down... I'm not scared of being hurt by the words or what they're going to tell me. Now, this is gonna sound so old-fashioned you'll probably fall outta your chair – but if I need to know something about something, I ask my parents.  They don't brainwash me, they tell me the hard straight facts, and I appreciate that.

On a small scale, this got me thinking about how hard it is to escape a belief system, since these systems usually block out competing ideas. But it also revealed a troubling paradox: no-one really chooses who they are. Our identities are thrust upon us by circumstances, and yet we are all completely responsible for our own actions – actions which are the result of illusory choices. In a sense, the villain of Third Transmission (the leader of a doomsday cult, brainwashed by his parents) is based on that fan, but she also inspired the actions of the hero; a 16-year old superhuman who is no less victimised by his situation.

3. Time Travel
How To Build a Time Machine and Decoding the Universe, by Paul Davies and Charles Siefe respectively: An embarassing confession: I don't do research. I just keep my eyes and ears open, and whenever I see or hear or read something interesting, I use it. But for Third Transmission, I made an exception. Time travel is like private detectives and vampires; it's been done to death, so if you want to write about it, you need to know more than anyone else who has ever attempted it. These two books helped me design one of the most realistic time machines in literary history (although my publisher cut out a lot of the technical stuff, on the fairly reasonable grounds that the book was supposed to be young adult fiction, not popular science).

4. Third Transmission
It seems strange to say that a novel was inspired by itself, but that's just the kind of book Third Transmission was. Most of the protagonists and antagonists were previously established characters, so they wrote a lot of their own material. Because of the looping timelines in the plot, each scene I wrote dictated the events of two or three other scenes. Everything was so connected to everything else that the novel seemed to assemble itself.

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