A Q&A with Crashing Heaven author Al Robertson

CBP Jun - Crashing Heaven CB - Go - Oct 16 - Waking Hell Having read the marvellous Crashing Heaven – mass market paperback coming from Gollancz in May and the sequel Waking Hell scheduled for October – we were very keen to quiz the mind behind this “gnarly, wild AI thriller”.
Here’s what we wanted to know and what author Al Robertson had to say…
(NB. If you’d like to read more about Crashing Heaven first check out the link above and / or read our extract here!)


1) Crashing Heaven has a pretty insane set-up – were there any distinct influences on you in terms of the setting and Hugo Fist?

Thank you, that’s high praise! And, on the setting first of all – I began by looking at what’s around us now. Quite a lot of the world of Crashing Heaven is an extension of the way our own world works. So, for example, the weave – a kind of fully pervasive augmented reality that everyone’s pretty much permanently signed in to – came out of experiencing the web we have today, looking at how it’s already extending into every part of our lives and thinking about where that could go next.

In particular, I was fascinated by the way that so much of the content we see online is served to us to flatter us. Complex algorithms look at the kind of person we are and the kind of web history we have, then find content that fits smoothly with that. This creates a very enticing, but sadly entirely illusory, world in which *the kind of thing we like* comes to us very easily because we’re absolutely at its centre. It’s a short step from there to the kind of optimistic, solipsistic illusions that the weave creates for its users. AR - Major Corporation logos
And there are the corporate gods of the Pantheon. They came out of my fascination with the way that modern consumer and corporate branding works. It provides a kind of shorthand, summing up complex companies in very simple, often quite emotive and usually deeply optimistic terms. Apple innovates groovily, Coca Cola refreshes you, BP provides green energy and so on. These are not truths, but they are truth-like – they’re very easy to understand and buy into, and so they’re very influential indeed in our modern world.
It struck me that this kind of brand iconography has quite a lot in common with divine iconography, especially within pantheistic religions. Individual gods represent individual qualities (Venus as the god of beauty, Hermes as the god of communication, and so on), and these qualities are reflected in the iconography that surrounds them. People who want to have more of those qualities in their lives go and engage with the relevant god in some way, buying that quality from them through ritual or sacrifice. Of course, the benefits are a bit more abstract – Hermes doesn’t sell you an actual phone – but they do hopefully smooth that aspect of your life.

Once I’d realised that, I started to see how ritualised our relationship with modern corporate brands is. For example, tech acolytes perform all night vigils outside Apple stores to celebrate new product launches and receive the blessing of newness from priests evangelising on behalf of a dead icon. Before they can fly, air travellers pass through symbolic portals, before having wands waved across them by security priests – all to ensure safe air travel. Brand-blessed liquids gift youth, energy and excitement to their drinkers. Once you start looking for ritual in that world, you see it everywhere. Understanding that led pretty directly to the corporate gods of the Pantheon.

CA - AR - Dead of Night As for Hugo Fist – to be honest, I didn’t really plan him! He marched into the book as himself and very strongly insisted on both his personality and presence. But there were some very big influences on him as he developed. Hugo Fitch, the truly nasty dummy in awesome 40s portmanteau horror movie “Dead of Night”, was of course very important. Jan Svankmajer’s astonishing film adaptation of “Faust” was also very helpful. It’s stuffed full of humans interacting with more-or-less bizarre puppets. It helped me understand the more physical side of being around a short, hyperactive, furiously aggressive wooden person. CA - AR - Faust

And Nina Conti’s beautiful “Her Master’s Voice” came in right at the end of the writing process. It’s about how she comes to terms with the death of Ken Campbell, her ventriloquial mentor, by interacting with her own puppet Monkey and the dummies he left her. It’s at once profoundly moving, hysterically funny and deeply eerie. It helped me feel confident that I’d got the relationship between Fist and his human Jack about right.

Oh, and the Jack / Fist relationship is also a bit of a play on Faust and Mephistopheles. I’ve always been fascinated by those guys – partially because of the story itself, partially because of what it says about our relationship with technology. Mephistopheles is a very complex servant, one that ends up transforming then destroying his master! Technology certainly has the potential to do that to us, though of course I hope that we’ll avoid it’s more negative side.


2) We love our SF and our music as well. Were there any musical influences that played a part in Crashing Heaven?

I actually wrote on exactly that for trade release of Crashing Heaven on my own site – you can read it here!

But there is someone I wish I’d been listening to back then – Holly Herndon. She’s a wonderful artist, I’m only just beginning to understand not just her music but the thinking and practice behind it. I think Andrea, Crashing Heaven’s resident singer / songwriter, would be fascinated by her.


3) How about since then, other characters and on Waking Hell?

*** NB. We’ve added Apple / ITunes links to the cover images – just click and go through to check them out! ***

Well, I always saw Crashing Heaven as being a book that was as much fantasy as science fiction. With Waking Hell, I wanted to write a horror novel. So, I listened to a lot of quite dense, doomy stuff.

AR - Electric Wizard - Dopethrone AR - Electric Wizard - Witchcult Today AR - Warpaint Electric Wizard in particular were a huge inspiration – the heavy nihilism of Dopethrone and Witchcult Today matched the kind of mood I was after perfectly. I balanced them with the second (eponymous) Warpaint album – also deeply inwards-looking music, but in a very different way.

Those two bands set the tone of the book as a whole, at least in its early stages.

As for more specific inspiration – the hero of Waking Hell is a fetch, an AI constructed from the left-behind memories of a dead person, so The Haxan Cloak’s Excavation album – a concept piece about a journey through the underworld – was very helpful. And in plot terms, the book’s all about how lost, ancient technologies can really screw up your life (and possibly also your civilisation). To help with that, I wanted a kind of deep history-shot-through-with-tech vibe, and found it in Holden’s flawless The Inheritors. AR - Haxan's Cloak - Excavation AR - Holden - The Inheritors

Unfortunately, as it turned out, all this moodiness worked rather too well! Initial drafts were very monochrome – the darkness in them didn’t really work, because there was no light to show you just how deep the shadows were. So, as I rewrote, I switched emphasis a little.

AR - Fast Jungle Music AR - Fast Soul Music AR - Fast Warehouse Music The Fast Jungle, Soul and Warehouse Music compilations were a big help here – six CDs of non-stop drum and bass keeping things good and heavy without sacrificing bounce and lightness.
And there were two albums that stayed with me throughout the whole writing process: David Bowie’s Low, which struck me as the perfect balance of inturned ambient moodiness and something more open, and Popul Vuh’s Nosferatu soundtrack, which is just austerely, hypnotically wonderful. Oh, and some of Brian Lavelle’s music (Soundcloud link) turned up right at the end, to remind me once again how good he is. AR - David Bowie AR - Popul Vuh Nosferatu


4) If you’re writing something cyberpunk or cyberpunk-esque you need to have your technology and AI ‘down pat’ to make it work. How did all that come together and how did you make it work?

The three main AI blocks – the Pantheon, the Totality and the Fetches – all have very specific inspirations. I’ve talked about the Pantheon above – as for the other two…

Fetches were inspired by the way anyone who’s regularly online creates a huge amount of mundane-but-detailed content. Corporate entities are already mining that content to understand the personality it implies, then using that understanding for their own ends. I just pushed it a little further – what if that content is so rich that it doesn’t just imply a personality, it can actually create and then support one?

And the Totality are at heart a self-aware operating system. Imagine if Windows 10 or Ubuntu got really fed up with all the deeply boring, mundane stuff we ask it to do and decided to strike out on its own! Oh, and the central division between the Totality and the Pantheon is based on the split between the open source and the corporate worlds, with (of course) the Totality as the former and the Pantheon as the latter.

As for the technology in general – again, it’s all very observational. I’d just look at whatever’s happening today, then stretch it out a bit and try and imagine where it might lead to.


5) And so the future… Waking Hell is due this October – can you share a little of the scope of the books / where they’re going? Are we looking at a trilogy or is there a longer sequence of stories?

CB - Go - Oct 16 - Waking Hell Waking Hell is about what happens when the past turns militant and attacks the present, and only the dead can save us. And at the moment, I’m planning its sequel Purging System, which will be all about where everyone in the Solar System goes next. That’ll be the final book in the trilogy, pulling together characters, locations and ideas from the previous two books – though like the first two books, it will work as a stand-alone novel in its own right.
Metaphorically speaking, each book is a bit like a wave. Crashing Heaven is a big breaker, rushing excitedly up the beach. Waking Hell is the wave withdrawing, showing all the depths of the seabed that you never normally see. And Purging System will be everything crashing back all at once, like a kind of futuristic tsunami.



You can read an extract from Crashing Heaven here or read more on the book and other Gollancz titles on our Gollancz Jan-Jun 2016 page – or just click the Buy link below to read more on Waterstones.com.

You can also check out more musical inspirations and writings of select books and graphic novels here…

CBP Jun - Crashing Heaven
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