The Black Locomotive, by Rian Hughes


Hi all,
this was a rather curious book that my local bookshop put me on to. I liked it, not in an overwhelming "everyone ought to read this" sort of way, but in the sense that I think that Hughes's ideas are interesting, and his style of executing them sufficiently unusual that you might like to hear about them. Hughes is (according to Wiki) "a British graphic designer, illustrator and comics artist and novelist" who in his day has had a lot to do with the Forbidden Planet bookshop and numerous high-profile comics and stuff. The Black Locomotive is his second novel. He's also, seemingly, a total nerd about things like fonts and typography.

The striking thing about the book is that he uses varying fonts as well as illustrations, like drawings both freestyle and more technical in appearance to augment the text. It's certainly not a graphic novel in the normal sense of that word, but it does have elements of that. Now, for me the visuals didn't really add much to the text - I couldn't always work out why he was choosing to put picture X at point Y in the book, and after a while I stopped trying to work it out. But it's obviously meaningful to him, and others might find it more affecting than I did.

The basic plotline [spoiler alert] is that a secret extension to the Crossrail project runs into an unexpected obstacle (for those who don't know, Crossrail, or the Elizabeth Line, is a real thing, being a new underground railway line going roughly east-west across central London linking Heathrow Airport and beyond across to the Docklands). The (probably untrue) secret extension is planned to provide emergency exits for the monarchy and parliament in case of dire need. But the tunnelling machine runs into an object which turns out to be the hull of a buried alien spaceship. This triggers a defensive EMP pulse which kind of closes London down as a living city. One of the protagonists goes into the hull and ultimately finds the control chair. The other main protagonist is locked out, so hits on the idea of getting a friend to drive him out to near Bristol where (apparently) there is a secret stash of old steam locomotives - which are of course unaffected by trivia like EMPs - he then hijacks one of them which hurtles him back to London and is used to batter open the locked opening.

Things then get weirder (?!) - we learn quite a lot about the original purpose of the ship as it integrates itself with protagonist 1 - there was a long-ago war with another species which Went Badly, causing this particular ship to crash sometime in the Neolithic, ie roughly when human settlement was starting in the London area. It then sat there dormant, but its latent energy had the effect of shaping how London subsequently grew. Now, this basic concept - that the overall large-scale structure of London above and below ground has been shaped since the very beginnings of human settlement there by the design and purpose of an alien spaceship - is certainly original, so far as I know. The geographical settings are bold and obviously drawn from actual acquaintance. So far so good, and it's worth reading for those factors alone. As the book draws to a close, protagonist 1 learns enough about the ship that he is able to make it take off again, lifting (intact) a roughly 6km radius sphere of London with it into low earth orbit. Protagonist 2 has doubts about this at first but then goes with the flow.

But as you may have guessed by now, I had reservations. The story's opening sections make it seem as though there are going to be multiple protagonists and viewpoints, but before long this closes down to just two. They're both male, both quite weird in very different ways, and both conveniently free of any relational ties. The few other people who have any narrative focus at all are not really given enough for me to feel I got to know them in any real way. I'd have liked more focus on a few more people. The end result is a sense that London is home to only very few people, and these aren't part of any real community. This is in stark contrast to other places in the book where Hughes clearly loves and celebrates London as a vibrant and diverse place to live. Having lived there myself for a few years, I'm also convinced that London does have social and community relationships, as well as a degree of isolation and loneliness, but you wouldn't really get this from the book.

There's a lot of preoccupation with the secret society of steam railway enthusiasts - The Smokeboxers - who manage to turn up at the crucial point of the plot and facilitate the way in which the two main characters are reunited. This was, to be sure, fun, and one assumes is built on personal wishes and hobbies. But it provided an exceptionally complex and unlikely way to (basically) get through a locked door, and felt very much like wish-fulfillment. On the other hand, a good bit of wish-fulfillment does no harm in a novel!

The alien ship, together with its whole back story, is fun, and introduced at a sensible point. But the culmination of the story, with a big circle of central London and the ground below it - the aforementioned sphere about 6 km in radius - taking off into space, didn't fit well for me with the build-up. We had no prior clues that the ship could achieve that sort of thing at all, nor why it or its new captain might want to do it. The end result is broadly the same as James Blish's 1950s series Cities in Flight, except Blish's cities went through a whole lot more preparation before taking off. Again, the overall effect was to separate London from its environment rather than maintain the integration that seemed to be a lot of Hughes's theme. It was also, IMHO, very rushed - there had been a lot of long build-up but then a very sudden resolution, and I would have preferred a more measured pace.

Finally, the last pages rather suddenly introduce the idea that this may simply be book 1 of a longer series. I know that publishers love a series and push authors towards this, but I hadn't seen any prior clues that this was on the cards here. So all of a sudden the long long ago enemies of the ship reappear, with only the two weird protagonists and an unknown number of their Smokeboxer allies to prepare a defence. And the whole plot theme which makes use of steam trains to unite the two protagonists seems a bit pointless as it stands, since the train-driving engineer's presence serves very little purpose at the end of this book. One assumes that it might become important in book 2?

All in all my feelings were mixed. I'm very glad to have read it, if only for its bold zaniness, but felt it could have done more with the ideas and setting. It hasn't particularly enticed me to read other books by Hughes - I see he has done one other novel, plus a few highly geeky works on fonts and such like - and if he does publish a sequel I'm not altogether sure I'd rush to get it. If anyone else has come across this book or other ones by Hughes, it would be interesting to hear what you thought...


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