Launching a new imprint is always a nerve wracking business, and this March, Virgin Publishing launch Virgin Worlds, a new list dedicated to new science fiction and fantasy writings. David J Howe explores the background to the list, and talks to the three authors whose works kick it all off.
Virgin Publishing is not a publisher noted for producing original fiction. In fact, if anything they are seen as a company which capitalises on media spin-offs. Although this is true, what can be overlooked is that from 1992 until 1997, the company published around two original science fiction novels a month in their acclaimed Doctor Who range. No re-treads of old episodes these, but well structured, thoughtful and often groundbreaking novels, written by young authors with little in the way of a ‘series bible’ to constrain them.
The other range of books which has done well for the company are a series of factual books tying in to science fiction and fantasy shows. There have been numerous high quality books looking at Doctor Who, but also individual titles dealing with Blake’s 7, The X-Files, Red Dwarf, Babylon 5, the numerous Bond films, The Simpsons and many other cult shows.
It was partly this background in media science fiction which encouraged senior editor Peter Darvill-Evans to consider starting a range of original non-media-based fiction in the first place.
‘Our fiction department evolved because of the people we had working there,’ explained Darvill-Evans. ‘We had three editors: Kerry Sharp looking after the erotica, Rebecca Levene handling the Doctor Who and also the one-off projects, and myself managing the overall output. All of us, even Kerry, were working on titles which had a science fiction or cult background. We were joined by Simon Winstone who eventually took over the Doctor Who list from Rebecca, and between them they decided to develop a science fiction imprint of their own.
‘This is not to say that the rest of us had nothing to do with it. The title of the list, Virgin Worlds, was one that I had come up with well over five years ago. It kind of lodged in my mind and would not let go and I determined to use it one day. I’ve always been interested in – and in my youth positively devoured – science fiction and was keen to develop the idea of an original list further.
‘Once we had the basic idea – which was probably sometime in 1995 or 1996 – all we then had to do was to convince the rest of the company that it was a good idea and then to actually do it. We met with very little resistance from the company. What took a long time was finding the right books to publish.’
With their Doctor Who range, Virgin operated an open-door policy on submissions. Anyone was welcome, whether they were agented or not, and whether they had been published previously or not. Darvill-Evans was keen to use this approach for Virgin Worlds.
‘We want to publish the very best we can, and we will only publish when we have the right book. I feel that some other publishers have been let down by the “always publish a book a month” philosophy, and that this results in some sub-standard work getting onto the shelves. We are determined that this won’t happen with Virgin Worlds.
‘Quality is the keyword. We believe that all our books are the best we can do in the genre. This is the most important factor. There are other factors as well: we have a preference for using fresh talent, new authors who have something original to say; we’re looking for British authors, or writers from countries not well represented by the genre; we want the stories to have an original angle, containing new visions of what science fiction and fantasy can be; finally, we prefer the fiction to be character led rather than idea led. There is a tendency for science fiction and fantasy to be built soley on ideas, but this can make for dull stories. We believe that stories based on strong characters that you can believe in are generally better.
‘These are not cut and dried rules that we will follow slavishly, but are some of the elements that we will be looking for.’
To launch the range, Virgin have chosen three novels which together exemplify nearly all these elements: Mirrorman by Trevor Hoyle is a dark fantasy novel which involves alternate dimensions and which features some strong characters along the way; Mnemosny’s Kiss, a debut novel from Peter J Evans is a character driven science fiction tale; and Havenstar is another debut from Malaysia-based Glenda Noramly: a fantasy adventure which relies on the characters to pull it along.
For Trevor Hoyle, the impetus to submit a novel to Virgin Worlds came from his agent. ‘My agent told me they were starting up the imprint,’ he explains, ‘and suggested we send them Mirrorman, which I was at the time working on.’
‘Mirrorman was a remarkable novel,’ says Darvill-Evans. ‘Indefinable in genre terms: maybe ‘magic realism’ is a term to use if you want to describe it.
‘I knew of Trevor through his previous work – his Q series of novels in the seventies – and was delighted to find that Mirrorman was in the same vein but far more accomplished. It’s a book of awesome power.’
‘I like novels which cross different genres,’ confirms Hoyle. ‘In Mirrorman I set out to write the kind of novel I like to read, and not be constrained by making it pure SF, or pure anything. Some publishers aren’t keen on this, because they’re not sure how to market a book that doesn’t fit exactly into one genre. This sets me a problem too, because when people ask what kind of novel this is, it’s misleading just to say “science fiction” or “fantasy” or whatever. The nearest I’ve come to an accurate description is to call it “a dark erotic fantasy”, which I hope gives some idea of the flavour of the book.’
As with his Q series, Mirrorman explores the idea of parallel worlds, and also touches on the exploits of a religious cult, with a charismatic leader who uses his position to achieve his own ends. ‘The parallel dimensions idea has always fascinated me, and continues to do so,’ replied Hoyle when asked about his influences. ‘But what really inspired this particular novel was the theories thrown up by quantum physics (again I explored these in the Q series) and the similarities with Buddhist beliefs. I was much influenced by the work of the American physicist Fritjof Capra (The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point) which point out that many of the very latest findings in quantum theory are already contained in Buddhist philosophy going back thousands of years.
‘Of course, quantum physics has now become a fashionable subject for contemporary novelists – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan etc – and I share their fascination. It’s all to do with a suspicion that the everyday reality we see around us is but a tiny fragment of the whole truth. Quantum physics allows us to glimpse what really is going on at a level our senses can’t perceive. Also, such ideas as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle seems to strike a chord – it feels right, and intuitively I think it tells us something about human beings and our places in the universe.
‘So in Mirrorman I wanted to portray a hero who wasn’t confined to one slice of reality but could pass through into several, existing simultaneously in different dimensions. The problem he faces is that he doesn’t realise at first what’s happening to him. He has dreams of an alternative life and doesn’t know he’s already lived through it in a “probable” past. This word “probable” is key. In quantum physics, particles exist in a state of probability, and don’t resolve themselves until somebody observes them. They’re perpetually in an either/or state. So what if there are an infinite number of probable pasts and futures out there, and we’re living in just one of them, unaware of ourselves existing in all the other probable worlds? In the book, our hero is able to go back in time and embark on another probable life where the events that happen to his wife and child never took place.
‘I’m also fascinated by the power religious cults have, and how this can be perverted – hence the Messengers with their global media empire, seeking to convert millions of people. I actually do believe this is a realistic possibility, given the millennial frenzy that seems to be gripping everyone.’
From ‘a dark erotic fantasy’ to ‘a futuristic mystery thriller’, which is how Peter J Evans describes his first novel Mnemosyne’s Kiss. ‘A bit cyberpunky,’ he continues, ‘if you want to me more detailed.’
Evans lives in Croydon, South London, and his un-agented submission landed on Peter Darvill-Evans’ desk as did so many others. ‘I thought it was brilliant,’ enthuses Darvill-Evans. ‘It has strong central characters through whose experiences the reader lives the story. The main protagonists are women, but they’re believable characters and not just babes with ray-guns.’
Evans expands on this idea: ‘Some people have made a big thing of the fact that the two main characters are women, but I grew up with stuff like The Ballad of Halo Jones and Bubblegum Crisis, so that just seems perfectly natural to me.
‘I never set out to write something unique. I just wanted to do something entertaining – something with funky characters, a good meaty mystery or two and plenty of stuff blowing up. I hope I’ve succeeded.’
The history of the novel is somewhat chequered, as Evans explains. ‘I wrote the first chapter of the book, or something very much like it, way back in 1995. I didn’t write any more until I got a PC in 1996 and even then I never thought to do anything serious with it. It didn’t even have a title. It was just something to do for fun in between magazine articles.
‘Later on, a friend of mine mentioned that Virgin were looking for new writers. So I put together a synopsis, fretted over a title for a couple of days, and eventually bunged the thing in an envelope and sent it to them.
‘At this point it would be nice to say that I was snapped up. But what I actually got from Rebecca Levene was a letter saying: “Well, we like the characters, the setting, and the way you write, but the story smells. Off with you!” Only more politely.
‘Luckily, the way that the first two chapters had been written made it possible to take the story almost anywhere from that point on. So I dumped the rest (about 40,000 words straight to the recycle bin!) and came up with a completely new story which met with a lot more approval. And after some more polishing (under Rebecca’s guidance) I had something which Virgin were prepared to commission. And then I thought: “Oh blimey, now I’ve got to actually write the bugger …”.’
Darvill-Evans is certainly pleased with the story now. ‘Although it’s set in the not-too-distant future, it’s not an urban distopia and the world seems quite a pleasant place. One of the points of the novel is that even in this future-world, people can make their own Hell. It’s much more interesting this way round. In addition, the book is well written and proceeds at a rattling pace. It’s a thriller set in Africa, central America and on into outer space. It’s the slimmest of the three books we’re launching with at only 386 pages long, but it’s so fast moving that you almost don’t notice the length.’
‘The inspiration came from the characters,’ says Evans when asked what influenced him to write it. ‘It always does, with me. I had them wandering around inside my head for so long that I just had to find them something to do.
‘I’ve always enjoyed writing stories. It was, I recall, the only bit of school that I actually liked. I did a lot of fan fiction when I was starting out – stuff based on Japanese animation – and even co-wrote and co-edited a small press fan fiction magazine for a while. But the idea of being able to write fiction for a living is still pretty gob-smacking as far as I’m concerned.
‘As for influences … well William Gibson, obviously. Clive Barker for his gorgeous use of the English language – one of the few people who can write about horrible things in a quite beautiful way. And H P Lovecraft. But the man I really have to take my hat off to is Tully Zetford, who wrote the four Ryder Hook novels (Whirlpool of Stars, The Boosted Man, Star City and The Virility Gene) back in the mid-seventies. They were hardcore, two-fisted space operas of the type that would draw groans of derision from any right-thinking adult reader, but when I read them at age 14 I was just blown away! More than anything they were the books that made me want to write.’
The third and final novel being launched by Virgin Worlds is Glenda Noramly’s Havenstar.
Noramly lives in Malaysia and, despite being unpublished, managed to find a UK agent for her novel. It was through the agent that Havenstar arrived with Virgin Publishing.
‘I think it appealed to the editors there because it is very much character-driven, and that was apparently one of the elements they were looking for,’ explained Noramly. ‘There are so many fantasy books around where the protagonist has some sort of powerful magic – which they have to find out how to use – and then at the end of the book, they learn how to use it and wham the problem is solved. I prefer to write about ordinary people with no great powers trying to cope in a world that is full of things they can’t control. (Pretty much like most of us in today’s world!) To win out in the end they have to use their wits and any other means – magic or otherwise – that is available to them. In most of my work the fantastic elements are found outside of the main characters – it is the world itself that is magic or it is the opposition that has most of the power. I think readers can relate to that.’
Darvill-Evans agrees. ‘The book is fantasy but it’s anthropomorphic – an excellent example of a character driven narrative. The people are immensely believable, but in an other-worldly environment. Glenda had set it all up beautifully and you live the story through the characters.’
As with Peter J Evans, Noramly was bitten by the writing bug at an early age. ‘I started writing when I was about nine or ten,’ she says. ‘I wrote my first book when I was about eleven (it was awful). I was eventually side-tracked into having to earn a living, raising kids and all those more mundane things! I don’t remember that there was any particular thing that influenced me to write as a child – it was just something that I had to do. Probably the more important influence was actually having a mother who loved reading. We had very little money as kids, but every room in the house had books stacked up somewhere. We had an aunt who worked for a publisher and we used to get all the rejects – books with pages out of order or inserted upside down, for example. Our birthday and Christmas presents were always books. We lived on a farm with no access to a library and no neighbourhood kids to play with, so I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on – I had read my mother’s entire collection before I was out of primary school. An interest in fantasy came much much later, when I started reading C S Lewis and Tolkien to my own children.
‘I’ve lived on four different continents and they all contributed something to Havenstar. The greatest influence was coming in 1970 at the age of 24 to live in Malaysia, not as an outsider but as one of the family to be assimilated into a culture that was not mine, where everything seemed overwhelmingly different: language, religion, dress, food – you name it, right down to what made people laugh. What better experience for a writer of fantasy? Living like that, you realise just how complex a thing culture is and how many elements must be included to invent a believable fantasy world.
‘Havenstar was born when I returned to Malaysia in 1994 after eight years away and discovered that many of the natural places I had loved before had been ravaged by rapid and often thoughtless development. Even worse, very few people could see that anything was wrong. So I started to think – how would people react if their world was being destroyed, not by development, but by some other force? Would they do anything about it? How could they fight forces that were larger and more powerful than they are?
‘By the way, the name I have used for the main protagonist of Havenstar, Keris, is the Malay word for dagger, now a ceremonial dress item, but once a formidable weapon. So even in little things like that there has been a Malaysian influence.’
Fantasy can be a very demanding genre to write for, but Noramly is fairly clear about what marks Havenstar out as being different from the rest.
‘You won’t find much about swords or magicians or dragons in Havenstar. Lots of very fine writers have dealt with those things before, and they have had lots of not-so-good imitators. I wanted to present a world where the land itself is rather bizarre and the culture that has evolved to cope with this is rather different as well. You won’t have met this kind of world before. In the midst of this madness, though, the main character is still a very ordinary person trying to cope with problems – grief and guilt, growing up and being independent, falling in love with the wrong person. And in the end, the survival of the world depends on the courage and the wits of these ordinary people finding unusual ways to solve extraordinary problems.
‘My main aim is always to write a rattling good story – something that’s hard to put down because you want to find out what happens next. Anything else is secondary. Of course, it would be nice to think that reading the book also makes the reader think some more about the issues that the book addresses: should we enforce stringent rules to save the world we have? How much would you pay for freedom? To save your loved ones? Is there value in religious rituals? How far should we go to restrict population growth?
‘All fantasy tells us more about our own world and ourselves, even if it is set in a land called Middle Earth or Malinawar. At the same time fantasy enables an author to explore ideas and to challenge readers in ways that are not open to mainstream fiction writers. Writing fantasy is hard work – not only do you have to make up the story and the characters, the world and the laws that operate in that world, but on top of that a fantasy writer is writing for a very discerning audience. People who read fantasy don’t let authors get away with anything! As a consequence, some of the best fiction writing today is to be found in the genre. It deserves a much wider audience than it has.’
Peter Darvill-Evans is adamant that the launch of Virgin Worlds is not a short term thing, and he like his authors is being inspired by memories and influences from his youth. ‘When I was a kid,’ he reminisces, ‘I regularly went to the library and headed straight for the rack of bright yellow-spined Gollancz science fiction novels. I knew that if I chose one of them, then it would be a good book, regardless of the subject matter or author. Another main influence was a series of collections edited by Michael Moorcock, of stories from his magazine New Worlds. They were full of superb and challenging writing and I voraciously devoured as many as I could find. Another anthology series from that time was New Writings in SF [by a strange co-incidence, from 1973 this series was edited by Kenneth Bulmer, who also wrote space opera under the name Tully Zetford …]. These books were full of fresh new writers and new ideas. They inspired me to buy and like SF and I hope that Virgin Worlds will provide a similar shot in the arm to the genre. My memories of getting hooked on science fiction in the first place are influencing what kind of books we want to publish – even the list’s name, Virgin Worlds, is redolent of this.’
As mentioned, Virgin do not intend to publish novels every month, or even to any regular schedule at all. Partly this is due to their stated intention to only publish work that is the best, but it is also to do with the difficulties of launching books in today’s demanding market. ‘Until the first three books have been on sale,’ says Darvill-Evans, ‘we don’t know how well the series is going to go. The book trade would not know how many to order of the titles. The trade orders so far ahead and we didn’t want them to hedge their bets and only order low. We want them to see how well the books are doing, and then to order high.’
The fourth title to be published is called The Wise and has been written by Andrew Cartmel, another new author, who has previously worked as a script editor at the BBC, and as a media tie-in novelist and comics writer. After this, as Darvill-Evans explains, ‘we have a whole stack of material to fit into some sort of schedule. There is lots lined up for the future.’
With this sort of enthusiasm from a publisher, it can only be hoped that it pays off, and that readers will be able to visit Virgin’s worlds for many years to come.
David J Howe