Today I'm talking with Simon Kewin about his new young adult novel Engn. It mixes elements of steampunk, fantasy, and science fiction into an adventure story with surprising levels of depth.
As a fellow computer geek, I enjoyed Finn's foray into cryptography with the line-of-sight telescopes. What inspired the communication system?
It seemed like a cool idea. I heard the phrase "line-of-sight" somewhere and that triggered the whole thing with the telescopes and the switch houses. Then, later on, I needed to have encrypted messages because of the thing with Matt, so I added that in. Of course, it's an old-fashioned shared key symmetric encryption method. It's just as well the people of Engn haven't discovered asymmetric encryption because Finn wouldn't have had a chance then...
What is the nature of Engn's socio-economic structure? Is it a vast collective in which individual freedom is squashed to serve the needs of everyone through the machine or an extreme form of capitalism in which the lower castes/classes are reduced to slavery to support a life of ease for those at the top?
I'm going to avoid answering that as I'm wary of placing a precise interpretation on the book. I think readers will apply their own meanings. But it did have a very specific idea in my own mind when I wrote it. I will say I like the idea of something being so vast and all-encompassing that people don't question its existence; that they think that's the way the universe has to be.
Any parallel with Kafka is thrilling - I love his writing and there's clearly an influence there. Why does Finn survive and fight? On one level, it's because that makes for a (hopefully) exciting adventure story. On a deeper level, I suppose it's because I identify with Finn more than anyone else in the book. Whether I'd do the same as him I don't know - but it would be nice to think so.
While Finn struggles with the system, Connor appears to thrive. What aspects of Connor's character equip him for success in Engn?
Partly it's his background. He gets opportunites Finn doesn't. His background has also given him good reason to want to destroy Engn. Let's just say some of that backstory is something that will be explored some more if and when there is a sequel...
The first third of the novel covers the back story of Finn's youth and his trip to Engn. Elements of the back story, such as the avalanche, reappear as relevant memories during Finn's struggles inside the machine, adding depth to Finn's story. Did you fill in parts of the back story as you wrote the scenes in Engn?
It was the other way round - I wrote it more or less chronologically so that by the time I got to the later episodes I already had the avalanche and the falling from trees and so on as things that would be in Finn's head. Things happen in Engn that would have reminded him of those earlier episodes, but also I had fun setting up the various parallels and references.
Your story "Her Long Hair Shining" centers on a woman mangled by a machine in a factory. Engn takes mechanization to a new level. What drives your interest in the sometimes deadly relationship between people and machines?
Hmm, good question. I'm no Luddite—as you say I'm a computer geek—but machines are a recurring trope in my work. I guess they're a pretty obvious metaphor for the way society works too often: reducing people to little more than machines themselves. The Valve Hall, for example, has people labouring away for long, long hours at pretty pointless work. I don't think you'd have to look too far to find instances of that in the real world.
Besides a counterweight to Finn's optimism and faith in Connor, what does Diane bring to the story?
I see her as a voice of reason. Also I wanted to bring a third person into the group and I liked the idea of this resourceful, smart girl who has done things no-one else has dared. She doesn't have a huge part to play, but she's at the centre of matters when she does appear.
Engn extols the triumph of determination, friendship, and loyalty in the face of extreme cynicism and authoritarianism. Is that a fair summary?
In a word, yes. In my mind that's what it's about; staying true to yourself.
Simon was born and raised on the misty Isle of Man, but now lives and works deep in rural England. He divides his time between writing SF/fantasy fiction and computer software. He has had around fifty short stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, along with a similar number of poems. He has a degree in English Literature from the Open University.
He is currently learning to play the electric guitar. It's not going that well, frankly.
He lives with Alison, their two daughters Eleanor and Rose, and a black cat called Morgan to which he is allergic.
Simon's Blog: http://www.simonkewin.co.uk/
Simon's Twitter: @SimonKewin
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