Kids in clogs


I’m currently working with a brilliant artist called Yu-Chen Wang on a short piece of Turing-inspired science fiction for her upcoming exhibition at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry. Along with Sarah Baines, a MOSI curator, we’re writing a story that explores the interior lives of four items in the museum’s collection. The finished text will be printed by Linotype (exciting!) and presented with the rest of Yu-Chen’s installation next March.

I’m so chuffed to be part of this project, not least because Yu-Chen’s art demonstrates a quiet obsession with more-or-less obsolete machinery and its weird beauty – something I’m approaching with my own stuff at the moment. Lots of her work explores fantastical equipment, whose uses seem unknown, and strays well into science fictional territory – biomechanics, symbiosis, memory and retelling. But on a visceral level it also highlights a simple fascination with how mechanical things work. You get the impression she’s seen and loved the way a piece of equipment looks, or moves (or both) and wants to pull it to pieces to try and understand it. Or maybe to repurpose it, craft her own reasons for it.

To be honest, I think lots of writers, me included, often look at the produce of handiwork and the specialised trades with reverence. Not only does it feel like these people get more sunshine and exercise, but the objects they engineer are often so delicate, intricate, improbable, they’re more like mathematical dreams, somehow remembered in the morning and translated into reality. When you see them in motion, all those parts in symphony, you think, How the frigging hell did someone think of that? How did they even begin to design it? How can someone’s mind be so effortlessly practical? And then you just have to step back and marvel at their ability to pull it off; fabricate cold equipment that works with such grace that you can’t quite believe it was made by humans at all.

From another angle, someone might say something similar about the process of writing a story or a piece of music. But I can’t help thinking that if writers sit down and create new worlds with words, engineers somehow manage to create entire galaxies with their parts, castings and fastenings.

Anyway. Today Yu-Chen and I caught an early train up to MOSI to explore its collections and archives. The site is home to the world’s first passenger railway station, and holds within its bounds a full range of steam engines, locomotives, cotton processing plant, vacuum tubes, colliery salvage, fossilised computers – each piece kept in stasis, trophies of the industrial revolution and the years beyond it, and all so lovingly catalogued. As Yu-Chen put it, they’ve got a whole genealogy of Linotype machines down there in one store, their frames massive yet precise, their alien keyboards fixed to cast-iron exoskeletons. We poked and prodded around them in awe – admitted that these things alone would satisfy anyone with a machine-fetish. (One still had the remnants of a cigar in a tray, as if the operator had put it down while they nipped off to make a fresh brew.)

Strangely, though, the highlight of the trip was actually the documents store. Here a lovely archivist called Jan went and fetched a ream of technical drawings by a man called Frank Wightman, and unfurled them on a wide table.

A Stretford engineer and millwright, Wightman’s work recorded in monochrome the boiler engines and assorted installations he helped to dismantle and re-site at the museum as Cottonopolis began to fragment. I really can’t explain how sublime these drawings are: the linework is faultless, the detailing ridiculous. God knows how many hours the bloke must’ve put into them, or (as with the machines themselves) where he might have started. But more than inspiring, they were touching: apart from his all-caps, evenly spaced writing (such an engineer), and his clean, no-nonsense prose, he’d peppered each page with little annotations that hinted at a dry humour, an awareness of his talent, and a recognition that if the world was about to change and leave people like him behind, he’d damn well make sure they had something to remember it all by.

My favourite of these drawings depicted a man’s workshop in Hollinwood. To get power to his machine tools, which he needed to repair mangle rollers, the man had driven a shaft system out into his shed and mounted it with bicycles. Not being able to afford their own bikes, the local kids would go mad for the opportunity to ride them – so they’d come along, get on, receive their ‘speed instructions’ from ‘t’gaffer’ and pedal for half an hour at a time – more than long enough for him to ‘parallel and end’ a pair of rollers.

At the end of this great story was an even greater line: ‘Horses turned machinery everywhere, dogs earned their keep on driving manor house roasting spits, but kids in clogs drove a wood lathe in Hollinwood.’

I bloody love that.

GRAFT to Angry Robot

Y 2

I’m proud and giddy to announce that Angry Robot Books has picked up my second SF novel, Graft.

Set in the same alt-future Manchester as The Folded Man (but seven years on, and, save a few familiar faces, not a sequel), Graft follows a local mechanic called Sol who’s caught up in a human trafficking conspiracy when he finds a three-armed woman called Y.

Graft will be published as a paperback original and ebook in the UK and US in early 2016. And if the rest of Angry Robot’s books are anything to go by, it’ll look flipping ace too.

The official Angry Robot announcement is over here, and on The Bookseller here, but unofficially I can say it’s blissful (and a bit terrifying) to know it’s going to be on the shelves and (hopefully) in readers’ hands. This novel’s been a long time in the works, and I can’t wait to share more.


The other week we met a man who sells ‘ballast water management systems’ to shipping operators.

A challenge with global shipping, he told us, is that big vessels tend to dredge a lot of marine biology into their ballast tanks as they cross the world’s oceans. This means ships can easily introduce invasive species to new areas when they dump their ballast before docking.

I said I hadn’t really imagined this could be a thing, and that it sounded like interesting work. The salesman smiled and told us that because all this stuff happens beneath the surface – because you can’t see it – people just don’t think about it. ‘But the pump pipes have openings like this,’ he said, and held his arms out wide. ‘And the tanks can hold a lot of creatures.’

I asked him if they simply put a mesh on the inlets, or installed some kind of filtration equipment.

‘No,’ he said, and paused. ‘We just kill everything with chemicals.’

The conversation fizzled a bit after that. But I did come away with a reminder that you can find science fiction in almost anything.

Anyway: happy new year!



My first car was a white mk1 Clio with heavy steering and a surprisingly perky engine. It took me between Hyde and Old Trafford to work; it often took me over the Woodhead Pass for no reason other than to get me out of the house; and in summer 2007 it just about got me down to London.

One Friday evening after work I discovered it’d been stolen from an Old Trafford back street. This crap picture, taken on my old Nokia, is the empty space. Continue reading

Difficult second

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.

— George Orwell


I swear I’ve spent the last few weeks in a constant state of risk aversion, fretting that if I died or mangled myself I wouldn’t finish the new novel; and worse, that someone would come along and take it all the wrong way. To be honest I got so worked up about this I’ve now deleted all the writing I can find from 2011 backwards.

It’s a good feeling, then, to know you’ve finally hammered out a first draft. All told it’s taken about 18 months, and clocks in at 101,000 words – almost twice as long as THE FOLDED MAN, and well beyond where I’d originally pegged it. It’s more a companion than a direct sequel, and is probably the last thing I’ll set in Manchester for a while. (It doesn’t actually have a publisher yet, either.)

I could go on about how writing it felt like a bastard. That difficult second album. But in perspective, factoring in the hardships of our neighbours at home and fellow humans around the world, it was actually fine, maybe even frivolous. When you’re sitting there in your pants, unshowered, wallowing in the word-hole, binge-eating cheese and chocolate and cashew nuts, it’s easy to forget that writing will be first out the window when the end times come. And that a load of vitamin-D deficient, weak-limbed writers will be no good to anyone in the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

Still. I worked steadily and methodically, on buses and trains, in the gaps between the dayjob and sleep, until this weekend something crawled out into the light, shapeless and bending in all the wrong places, to croak: ‘Edit me. Please edit me.’

So that’s why I’ll be doing for the next month or so (unless I die sooner.) Then it’ll go to my first readers — always the worst bit — before Mr Agent and the wider world beyond (unless the feedback makes me kill myself).