How I wrote In The Mouth Of The Whale- Paul McAuley

In The Mouth of the Whale, like most of my novels, began with an image. In this case a gigantic cylindrical construct hung in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet, with spidery drones working on some machine attached to its skin, and trains rushing up and down a long spine or tail that dropped away into an ocean of clouds.

This mind’s eye picture had grown out of thinking about how to fit a couple of ideas together. There was the idea of continuing to explore the sandbox of the future history of my last two novels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun, by moving out of the Solar System to a nearby star, and jumping ahead at least a thousand years because that’s the time scale any remotely feasible interstellar colonisation project would take without violating Einstein’s speed limit. I wanted the novel to be a separate story, a stand-alone, but I also wanted, somehow, to include a link to the first two novels. The choice was obvious: one of the characters from the first two novels, Sri Hong-Owen, had quit the Solar System and headed out towards Fomalhaut – a destination I’d chosen because a gas giant had just been discovered orbiting that vigorous young star, at the edge of a vast dust ring. It would take Sri a long time to reach Fomalhaut, 1500 years or so. A span of time as long as the period between the present and King Alfred burning his cakes. What would happen, in all that time? Suppose others reached Fomalhaut ahead of Sri? What would they be like and what would they be doing? What would happen when she arrived, and what would she do? So I wanted to write about this star-crossed star-traveller, and I also had an idea about writing something about a large-scale science project, the costs of acquiring knowledge, and the kind of hierarchies such a project would generate, and how they’d be expressed. Something even bigger and more difficult than the Large Hadron Collider or the Human Genome Project – something like exploring or exploiting the cores of a gas giant planet like Jupiter or Saturn. Or Fomalhaut B. Which is where the picture of a big construction project floating in the atmosphere of a gas giant came in.

That image was the anchor point from which threads of a story began to grow. Human aspirations and conflicts that would, I hoped, gave it scale and perspective and meaning. The owners of the construct were conducting research into weird manifestations that might have something to do with the gas giant’s interior. The drones were operated by slave engineers adapted to the crushing gravity. And settlers from a neighbouring star, the Ghosts, were contesting the settlers of Fomalhaut for control of the gas giant. So there was a war, with the project as the prize. And in the middle of the war was a conspiracy involving the construct and its massive research programme. Someone a little like a secret policeman was investigating the conspiracy, and this would bring his story into collision with the story of one of the slave engineers.

I made a lot of notes and as usual ignored most of them; notes about an as yet unwritten novel are, for me, mostly a way of eliminating the obvious. Authors smarter and more organised than I’ll ever be flesh out their books using whiteboards, grids of post-it notes, flip-charts, colour-coded notebooks, and hyperlinked files. They plot chapter-by-chapter outlines before committing themselves to the first line, or write condensed versions that they later flesh out into the final draft. I accrete ideas, try to jigsaw one or two together, and develop the story from there.

And so it went with In The Mouth of The Whale. I wrote a few chapters. The character of the engineer and the shape of her story soon resolved; the story of the secret policeman didn’t. Or not in any way that would fit with the stories of the engineer and Sri. This is what happens, sometimes, when you feel your way inside a novel insteadof making a plan and sticking with it. If you set off into a territory largely unmapped, a psychogeographer discovering the novel as you write it, you can expect a few dead ends and detours. So I started over. After a little while I began to think about another character, a librarian working in a strange and very big library set up to catalogue and make sense of a vast flood of knowledge transmitted from the Solar System. And once that fell into place, so did the shape of the narrative. It looked like this:

A couple of the names were place-holders – Japer became the librarian, Isak, Alika became the engineer, Ori, and the clade became something else – but now I had something on which I could hang the plot. The stories of Isak, Ori and Sri would spiral around each other, and the ongoing conflict with the Ghosts, and gradually converge. The only thing I didn’t know was would happen when they did. So I wrote the novel to find out.