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Virtual Book Club: Andrew Wallace Introduces Sons of the Crystal Mind

Today I’m delighted to welcome Andrew Wallace to Virtual Book Club, the interview series in which authors have the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.

Andrew Wallace is the author of two far-future science fiction thrillers whose sub-genre could be described as ‘dystopian’. The first is Sons of the Crystal Mind and its sequel is The Outer Spheres. Both books are the first in a linked series called Diamond Roads, which is the story of resourceful young Charity Freestone and her friends, family and enemies as they negotiate the terrifying wonders of vast, subterranean techno-paradise Diamond City in the 24th Century. 

Following stage productions of his plays Byron and The Scissors Angel Andrew’s Radio 4 play Burn Your Phone was nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award and turned into a film on BBC2. He followed commissions for the feature-length script of acclaimed short The Cutter and an adaptation of the novel As Good As It Gets with the BBC7 show Wonderworld and wrote regularly for Radio 4’s flagship comedy Look Away Now. He has produced three Edinburgh shows including The Free Three and Seething Is Believing and created the Vengeance and Bloody Mary shows for the London Dungeon.

Q: Why do you think there is such a great desire to create a future that is like an imaginary great past?

Imaginary great pasts tend to have a national character, because that was how the world was organised and understood then. I’ll therefore address this from an English point of view, for which they are two positions. One is that we have a great tradition, particularly literary, with characters from Boudicca to King Arthur, Robin Hood to Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who to Harry Potter who inform our sense of identity while also inspiring us to go further in our imaginations. There’s also a history rich in achievement and innovation, which at its best has engendered an innate sense of national fairness. Now that everything is in flux more than ever before, it’s important not to lose these elements of our society and of ourselves.

What we need to be wary of, especially as storytellers, is distorting that history so it creates false notions of entitlement and superiority. There’s a fair bit of that around at the moment and a lot appears to be predicated on doing a single thing, like voting on a single issue, or pressing a single button, when in fact achieving anything, maintaining and then improving on it takes dedication over a long time.

For an idea of how things can get distorted, look at the original Star Wars. I realise it’s ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ but it appears to be futuristic so I’m going with it. With its magic sword and humble young male hero whose great destiny is aided by a wise old bearded wizard, the story is clearly a retelling of that quintessential English legend: King Arthur story. And yet in that far away galaxy, all the villains are English; they run an Empire with a combination of ruthlessness and emotional detachment and blow planets up to jolly well teach people a lesson. As with the actual Nazis, there is a myth that they’re terribly efficient, but in fact they’re not. They get through not one but two Death Stars, while Darth Vader throttles anyone who makes a mistake, yet constantly messes up with impunity.

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, we are apparently planning to turn the Commonwealth into Empire 2.0, as if it’s a sequel or, heavens forbid, an upgrade. Dear me.

Q: Michael Tolkin wrote he “wasn’t afraid that the world coming to an end; no, he was in a panic because he knew the world was already ten years dead and the future was just necrosis.” Is this one of your own beliefs?

It seems a bit of a waste of energy panicking if the world is already dead, although ‘necrosis’ is a gorgeous word and desire for its use may well lie behind the whole statement. I can understand the sentiment however, although I think the concern is seasonal rather than final, by which I mean there are periods of deadness like winter from which we recover. Some people might think we are in one of those now, but I don’t agree. Recent political events have been a wake-up call, which is always good for writers, especially if they are uncomfortable with it.

Even in Michael’s novel NK3, which interestingly uses collective memory loss instead of zombies to finish off civilisation, there is a way back; it’s just the Hollywood dictator character sees anyone strong who recovers as a threat and kills them. There are obvious shades of our current political predicament in this set up.

Q: You’ve already made several mentions of politics. Once you had the foundation mapped out, did you think of creating political allegories within the framework as opposed to telling a regular Sci-Fi plot?

A novel must always be about a character at a particular time in their lives regardless of genre. My heroine, Charity Freestone could only have lived in this world and made the decisions she does as a young woman lost in her early twenties trying to find her way in a confusing and contradictory environment that turns out to reflect her own true self more deeply than she cares to admit.

The reader can find whatever meaning they like in Charity’s predicament and because she is complex I don’t make it easy for them. For example one of her many antagonists in the first novel, the titular Sons of the Crystal Mind, are a misogynistic cult that worships the technology underpinning the city. We can read all kinds of parallels into them, but equally, Charity herself is a messiah character who in turn makes decisions that shock even me, still, and I wrote them.

Q: Does propaganda have a role to play in your novel?

In terms of contemporary party politics, no, not at all. I don’t think writers should use their novels as soap boxes and I am very resistant to on-the-nose lecturing from anyone, especially now. Also, propaganda, like much contemporary politics, is old hat and relies on ideas from the 19th century or before.

I think we now have an idea of truth as being a shifting thing rather than some sort of edifice that dates from a time of poor education and high rates of mortality. It’s hard to negotiate but if it’s honest we tend to go with it. Of course, the risk is if it seems honest but is not then people are taken in. I’m thinking about rich, entitled politicians in our own time positioning themselves as rebels, and the electorate believing them. I confess I didn’t see that coming, and I am not without a sense of humour as you know.

However, my characters do use some elements of their own propaganda, especially in The Outer Spheres, which is the second Diamond Roads novel. It is a sequel to Sons of the Crystal Mind, but works as a standalone book. In it, war has broken out, but it is as much an information war as a military campaign. Because it’s companies fighting rather than nation states, they trade in battle shares and use the conflict itself as an investment vehicle; however, that only works if people are loyal to the brands. So take the hatred between the psychopathic corporations we live with now, hype it up further with nano-weapons in a constrained, subterranean high-tech environment and try not to get killed in the first three seconds.

Q: Much dystopian fiction centres on eco-disaster, whether it’s global warming or plague. Do you think it has a serious role in flagging warnings?

I think we’ve moved beyond this position now because some vested interests are saying there is no global warming and the real world has become a sort of battleground between real and invented facts. Of course, that position itself is fictional because science does not deal in facts, it is a series of theories, often backed up by evidence, which over time and from a variety of sources come to support each other. So if you’d asked me this question five or even two years ago I would have said yes, absolutely, because the emotion involved in reading something like Billennium by JG Ballard in which there is literally no room left on Earth or seeing a film like Soylent Green which does the same with added cannibalism (albeit refined and tasty) then of course you’re going to want to do everything you can to avoid it.

Now I think we need to look at other narratives and one that has always stuck with me was the second Doctor Who movie in the 1960s, which starred Peter Cushing as the Doctor. In it, the Daleks have invaded the Earth with the intention of stripping out its raw materials and leaving it uninhabitable. Bizarrely, the Daleks are not the most loathsome characters. The most loathsome character is a human traitor, who the Daleks pay with gold and jewels.

Even as a kid, I kept thinking ‘There’s going to be no Earth left, you moron. What the hell are you going to spend that cash on?’ Fortunately, the Daleks double cross and then kill him. Go Daleks!

But the question about what you’re going to spend it on remains, if even if the rest of human civilisation does not, and it’s a fictional question that is coming closer and closer to reality.

 Q: 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale are both novels about distortions of a recognisable world. Is the world you write about recognisable?

One of the challenges of writing distant-future stories is how to make sure the characters are relatable. In my future, the upper class has died out and the middle class has taken its place, with things like drinking alcohol elevated to the preserve of this new elite. As with fox hunting now, everyone else just thinks, ‘What the hell is that all about?’. Outside my future social stratum you have artisans, brokers, etc. and then you just have the feral poor. I don’t think we’ll have to wait the 400 years between now and events in Diamond Roads for that stratification to be completed though.

This ‘traditionalism’, while patently absurd in a society where you can get high just by touching a glowing section of the floor, does mean that the heroine, Charity Freestone speaks in a way we can understand. At the start of the first novel Charity lives in Centria, which is the richest, most powerful company in Diamond City. Centria has its own enclave at the centre of the spherical city and is a physical place as well as a financial entity. Her privileged life does Charity little good when she ends up on the mean streets of the city outside Centria following a horrific disgrace that affects the company’s profit margins. Charity and her beloved older sister Ursula lurch from disaster to disaster as they try and survive, while at the same time attempting to find out who attacked, and possibly killed, their parents.


Q: The story goes that Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and biographer, asked Kafka, “Franz, is there hope?” And Kafka answered, “Oh yes, Max, there’s plenty of hope, an infinity of hope — but not for us.” How do you use short-termism v long-termism in your novel?

There’s a line in Watchmen where one of the vigilante heroes tells another how hard it is to be his friend. I have always felt that Max must have thought that about Franz on more than one occasion. Is Kafka talking about himself and his contemporaries, or the entire human species? Probably the latter, but it’s worth flagging the ambiguity because I think ambiguity is a precious commodity in fiction, especially science fiction.

The world of my novels is ambiguous. They are set 400 years in the future, in a vast underground city where the technology is so advanced you can grow whatever product you want out of the floor – if you have the money. This technology means that any government is impossible, so the city is a pure capitalist state whose only rules are determined by the market and by the big companies who dominate it, although even they struggle.

Diamond City is completely sealed; there is no way in and no way out. Something happened to the surface of the Earth that has rendered it uninhabitable, although we don’t find out what. Everything in the city is recycled, but it has a cost, either in fees to whoever owns the design of the product you are creating or though the natural entropic wastage caused by any exchange of energy, including the nanotechnology the city relies upon to function.

There will come a time, then, when the city will run out of the raw materials it needs to survive, so everyone who lives there has a vested interest in preserving those materials for as long as possible. They don’t, though. They are constantly fighting and in the second novel a war breaks out. War is always expensive, but no more so than in Diamond City where every explosion means less survival material for future generations, because while a bomb could be recycled an explosion cannot. Even Charity is not immune to this madness; she finds a taste for small-scale tactical nukes which are expensive in every sense of the word.

Q: In your distorted world, have you left the way open for the previous way of life to be restored?

I’d argue that in Diamond Roads the previous way of life has been preserved, but that it’s not necessarily a good thing. Yes, the last of humanity live 50 kilometres underground in a gigantic spherical city and that is not without its appeal (no bad weather; you can have anything you want if you’ve got the money), but there is a sense of things behind held in suspension. How this happens and who is doing something about it lies behind the conspiracy the protagonist uncovers. 

Q: Do you attempt to offer any sort of antidote to the disease of dystopic pessimism?

I always to back to the financial crash of 2007. You and I are of a similar age, so you will remember the last one in 1990, which came about for similar, although arguably simpler reasons that boil down to greed, lack of sensible regulation and the usual toxic mix of delusion and stupidity. That it happened again, in full view of everyone, was a such a psychic body blow that for a long time I succumbed to a kind of indulgence in what I call misery porn. There was a kind of ecstasy to it; an almost vindictive, orgiastic destruction: BOOM! The Indian markets are stuffed OOF! Bye bye steel. PHWOAR! Can’t afford the environment anymore. OOO! There goes social cohesion.

And you know, it was just silly; a phase if you like and as with all phases we get over it.

Dystopian fiction has reflected this tendency, with The Hunger Games in particular resonating with just about everyone. However, we should remember that The Hunger Games is a young adult novel, written for a generation that is probably even more horrified than we were when it was just nuclear annihilation we had to worry about.

There is now in science fiction a movement away from dystopian fiction, because it has been overdone and not always very well. Writers now are looking at the whole picture of a society and how it works or doesn’t; some, like Katie Khan’s Push Back the Stars don’t go in for dystopia at all and present an unapologetic utopian world.

To begin with, I marketed Diamond Roads as a dystopian thriller because that’s a nice catch-all term with proven traction with readers. However, I use that less now, not because the novels don’t touch on dystopia or because it doesn’t help sales, but because I think I do my world a disservice with the label. Diamond City is terrible and fabulous, as beautiful as it is lethal and not a place I mind being. The characters who live there demand more of my time because they know I’ll give it to them, even if it’s just running through the scenes in my imagination or acting them out.

The next ‘Diamond Roads’ novel, Beautiful Gun has been burning a hole in my head for two years now. The only reason I haven’t written it is because of other commitments, but it will be done this year because it has to be.

‘Sons of the Crystal Mind’ is a richly imagined dystopian thriller that introduces the latest in a long line of cool, kick-ass SF heroines. Charity Freestone combines the strength of Ripley with the wiles of Katniss and the vulnerability of Halo Jones. If you liked ‘Wool’ you’ll love this.’ Mark Edwards, bestselling author of ‘The Magpies’

Q: What is your own strategy for surviving an eco-disaster? I know you’ve thought about it. 

I certainly have. This answer has two strands really. The best way to survive an eco-disaster is to see it off before it happens, and trying to work out how to do so is one of the reasons I write science fiction at all. I invariably tend to rely for methodology on some sort of fantastical invention, such as a means of building very strong structures with inbuilt data management and solar cells/batteries extremely quickly. These could be used to create sustainable habitats like global underground train systems that can shift products and people to where they are needed, undermine petty nationalism and do away with the lethal by-products of things like air travel. It could also be used to multiply farmland by building it underground, using technology we already have like solar lamps and hydroponics and improving the lives of farm animals both by sheltering them and using existing technology like mobile milking parlours that follow the cows and reduce milk production time. That way, even if the surface of the earth does become uninhabitable thanks either to cretinous political decisions or a natural disaster, the survivors won’t all have to share the same loo.

Then there’s the other strand, which bypasses all this whimsy so one finds oneself in a scenario like that in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is the last book to give me nightmares. It’s less dystopian than post-apocalyptic although the genres are frequently linked. The world of the novel is a nuclear wasteland with no food and few people left.

There’s a chapter in the novel where the protagonists – a father and his young son – find a cellar full of people who are kept for meat. The father can’t release the prisoners because there are too many of them,  a number are missing limbs and the emotional thrust of the story is the father’s love for and protection of his son. The father has a pistol, but it only has one bullet rather than the eternal ammo beloved of action films. Worse, the captors, a man and two women, are seen heading back to the building with the cellar in it. The father makes another of the grim decisions that form the novel’s backbone and saves his son rather than the poor wretches in the cellar.

So the question is which of these characters I, and by implication anyone reading this, would end up as or want to be. It’s harder than you think, because moral values have been eroded along with society, which is an interesting philosophical point in itself. In this scenario, we root for the father, but regret the decision he makes. I’m guessing no one would want to be the captives, but then no one wanted to end up in a Nazi concentration camp either and it still happened. Which leaves the captors, who are at least well-fed. Were they psychopaths before, or did they become so? What would you do?

Want to find out more about Andrew and his work?

Andrew reviews and blogs about science fiction fantasy, publishing and the creative process at

Sons of the Crystal Mind is available here:

The Outer Spheres is available here:

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One comment

  1. Thank you, Jane Davis, for another fine example of the eclectic mix of authors you invite onto your Virtual Book Club. I’ve therefore just nominated this blog for the Versatile Blogger Award. You can read about that here:

    Comment by Carol Cooper on May 30, 2017 at 6:44 pm