Something a bit different this week, as I’m joined by Scott Perkins, to tell me about his novel Howard Carter Saves the World, released this year by Crooked Cat Publishing. This is a time-travel coming-of-age story, and Scott is happy to tell us more…
So, Scott, tell me a bit about Howard Carter
Howard Carter is a coming of age story for young mad scientists. It’s packed with robots, freeze rays, pirates, mad science teachers, sapient puppets, flying cats, secret government agencies, alien invasions, time travel, jetpacks, and pistachio pudding. (Because what fun is a coming of age story without dessert?)
In many ways, it is the result of the author getting profoundly irritated by the sheer number of dismal dystopias on the shelf at his local bookstore, and deciding that there had to be someone out there injecting some fun back into our visions of the future.
What first attracted you to the eras you’ve written about?
Howard Carter Saves the World plays a lot with the decision points where alternate visions of the future (for good or ill) are possible. In fact, my young hero does everything he can to avoid heroism against the staunch opposition of travellers from alternate versions of his story where both better and worse have futures happened.
There’s a lot of broad comedy there, and a lot of the backstory hinges on whether or not Charles Babbage was able to complete his Difference Engine (the first computer) in 1842. (In reality, he ran out of money and had to pull the plug on history’s first computer before it was finished.)
What sparked your first foray into this type of fiction?
This is what I grew up reading. My dad gave me the science fiction stories he loved as a boy, especially Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter” stories, which were, quite frankly, preposterous even at the time. But no one cared because they were adventure yarns, not roadmaps for budding scientists.
So much of modern science fiction has gotten dry and factual and dismal. So many of the stories cannot see a positive outcome for humanity no matter what the characters do. Howard Carter is vehemently anti-cynical. It’s a throwback and homage to those ‘Golden Age’ stories when we were positing worlds of untold wonder and using them as backdrops for Big Ideas, not writing text books of post-apocalyptic doom.
Tell me a bit about your research process – are you able to stay focused, or do you find yourself distracted by new, interesting snippets or stories?
There’s a peculiar skill set, which I think is common to most writers of absorbing information quickly, retaining it for the duration of a project, and then erasing it to make room for the next thing on the list. Writers are human chalkboards. (Not dry erase boards, mind you, the smell of the markers gives me a headache.)
This kind of research is addictive and tends to lead to a very strange form of book collecting. I can pick a lock or repair a watch, conduct surgeries, examine corpses for forensic evidence, bind a book, dress a deer, identify or concoct poisons, and reproduce Lord Nelson’s flagship down to the last knot and nail. If necessary, I can also conduct a Latin Mass, reproduce the scripts of Carolingian scribes, shoe a horse, summon Cthulhu, or swear like a WWII soldier. I can walk the streets of forgotten cities in lost kingdoms and navigate the alleys of Calcutta in the year 2010. And I can do it all from the safety and convenience of my writing chair.
This does lend itself to sparking ideas that I can’t use, of course, but I have a folder on my computer for that sort of thing. I find that if I jot the idea down real quick, it pulls it out of my head and keeps it out of my way so that I can get back to what I’m supposed to be working on.
I wrote Howard Carter in two months, posting each chapter online, unedited, as I finished it. It took about two months and gave the impression to my readers at the time that I didn’t do much research. The silliness of what the mad scientists are doing in the story sort of cements that impression. In reality when I wasn’t writing I was watching lectures from MIT professors and reading books by Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene, and asking my engineer wife some pretty bizarre questions. All of the science is incredibly weird, but a lot of the jokes are very nerdy and most of it has some basis in actual science somewhere. In fact, the more unbelievable things are, the more likely they are to be real.
This led to some of my favourite jokes in the book, including the “Dozing Grannies” a secret cabal of grandmothers devoted to overthrowing the physics establishment and replacing it with good little boys and girls who don’t pester granny to read them A Brief History of Time. (Which would not have been so bad except that the little scamps insisted that they do the voices.)
I’m not sure I answered your question, but I’ve had a lot of fun trying.
Which is your favourite of any real historical characters who have appeared in your writing? The influence of historical scientists and leaders from Newton to Babbage to President James K. Polk are felt or at least mentioned in the book, but the historical figure with the greatest influence on the outcome of the story ends up being Jim Henson. If I elaborated on that, it would spoil too much of the story. Suffice to say that children’s television causes some confusion among the aliens sent to observe us.
Here’s a snippet from the book to give you a good idea what I’m talking about:
“Most of the time, we don’t think about how our television shows present us as a species. For instance, we do not live in a place where talking animals, monsters and other strange creatures walk among us unremarked, teaching our children important lessons about counting and eating tasty words that begin with ‘C’. In point of fact, when monsters, talking animals and strange creatures from other planets try to teach our children valuable lessons, we have a tendency to scream, run and even (especially in the United States) shoot at the strange tattooed creature asking our kids about these ‘cookies’ they’ve heard so much about.”
Yes, Earth is a little weird if you view it from the outside, but it’s worth the journey and the food is excellent.
Sounds fantastic! Have you ever had to include a real historical character you’ve really disliked?
Not really. I actually went out of my way to avoid that exact situation because it didn’t sound like fun.
Sensible 🙂 If you could visit any historical event or period (as a witness only, no changing things!), which would it be, and why?
It seems a strange answer for a science fiction author, but I’d go to Elizabethan England. I would love to stand with the groundlings at the Swan or the Globe to watch a Shakespeare play performed by the original players on the original stages with the playwright in attendance.
Any how about ‘rewriting’ the history books? If you could change any single event, which would it be, and what would be your preferred outcome?
Well, it would be immoral not to use that opportunity to try and stop Hitler, wouldn’t it? But what one event could you really boil that down to? Beyond just putting a bullet in his head, which I don’t think would genuinely stop what happened so much as delay it or shift the blame to a different terrible person who might be more efficient and successful about it.
Choosing one event is almost impossible. Most events aren’t one event, they’re the culmination of so many that unravelling them to one lynchpin event is almost impossible, which is what makes writing about time travel so enticing. Taking the Hitler example, even if you chased that down the rabbit hole and kept going back and back, following the decision points that led to his rise, you’d end up standing on a street in Sarajevo trying to redirect the motorcade of Franz Ferdinand, because the Second World War was in many ways just the second act of the First World War. But would saving the Archduke really stop the war from happening? Or would it just delay it a few years? And would delaying the start of that war ultimately just allow military technology to advance to a point where it uncorked at a later technological point and make it just that much worse?
Good God, that’s the sort of power no one should have.
No, perhaps you’re right. Always a difficult one. Finally though… You’re allowed a whole afternoon to yourself with anyone from history. Who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
I’m a sentimental man, so if I’m honest it would be my mother. We lost her so suddenly this year, I’d give anything to spend more time with her.
That’s a genuine conundrum. If I exempted family members, most of the people I truly admire were very serious men and women of import and gravitas who would not be amused by my antics at all. I suspect that Shakespeare would spend the whole afternoon grilling me about my life and playing with my mobile phone and I’d get back from my trip to find out that the original draft of Hamlet has been found and is in fact a science fiction story about busybody time travellers with tiny pocket windows that allowed them to view silly cat videos on demand. So really, the world is probably better off if I just go back and visit my mother.
A really lovely answer to finish on Scott, and thank you for joining me today.
Scott Perkins was born and raised in rural Missouri, dreaming about turning his grandfather’s tractors into giant robots and reading and absorbing the sort of classic science fiction and fantasy that was a little bit ridiculous, and a whole lot hopeful about the potential of humankind. His debut novel HOWARD CARTER SAVES THE WORLD is the result of that youth among books, robots, and tractor exhaust fumes.
Scott is most assuredly not a mad scientist living on a secret island fortress somewhere in the vicinity of Seattle, Washington with his wife and assorted felines (which most assuredly do not have wings, though it’s not for lack of asking). As far as we know, he’s a writer, puppeteer, and graphic designer who does an adequate job of pretending to be perfectly normal at all times.