Saturday, May 27, 2006

Saga review of Hybrids

The link on yesterday's blog doesn't seem to work so here's the text:

After an astounding 883 manuscripts, months of reading, weeks of deliberation and one delayed announcement due to that staggering response: ladies and gentlemen – we have a winner.

David Thorpe, 51, has won the Saga/HarperCollins competition to find a new children’s book-writing talent with his book Hybrids. His book will be published in Spring 2007. Our congratulations go out to him. “It’s a dream come true,” said David from his home in Snowdonia, near Aberdovey. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve written, and wanted to be a writer. But I had a lot of bad luck with getting anything published, and sort of gave up. Up until now.”

As outlined in the editor’s letter, David, an environmental journalist, sometime scriptwriter and cartoon-strip inventor, had to dictate his book using voice-recognition software, as mild childhood cerebral palsy had matured into painful carpal tunnel syndrome, making typing almost impossible.

His 50th birthday saw him living in Wales with his two children, Dion, 17, Nemos, 13, and Greek wife Zoe, and a complimentary copy of Saga magazine sent to him to commemorate this landmark just happened to be the issue in which we began the competition.

“I had a feeling it might be OK when my son took a draft to school and a group of kids started reading it over his shoulder. They were saying ‘Turn the page! Turn the page!’ It’s simply fabulous that I’ve won – I wrote it simply for myself, not what I thought the market was looking for, as so often tends to happen. And this is a vindication of that approach.”

One of the judges, Orange-prize winning author Helen Dunmore, said of the book: “Hybrids questions our human dependence on technology, and the loneliness of children and teenagers who may have a stronger relationship with computers and mobile phones than with flesh-and-blood family and friends. It’s a powerful ‘What if?’ fantasy, whose central premise is that humans - especially young humans - begin to bond with the pieces of technology that they use most.

“The writing is sharp, the dialogue good, and the action pacey and page-turning. But there’s a real depth to this story, too. Like all good fiction it makes the reader see the world in a different light.”

Gillie Russell, the publishing director of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said: “I was so impressed with not only the quantity of submissions to the competition but the quality of the writing. It has far and away exceeded our expectations and has been an incredibly hard job to choose the shortlist, let alone a winner.

But someone had to win, and for us the clear champion was Hybrids by David Thorpe. His wonderfully original and compelling story is told in alternating voices of the two young teenage protagonists in a totally fresh and exciting way. The reader is instantly drawn into the world which is current, but not quite; which is real, but only just; which is horribly close to our fears of what is happening and may happen in the future. Exciting, page-turning, vivid and unputdownable, Hybrids and David Thorpe will, I’m sure, be a real winner - not only within Saga, but in the children’s book market as a whole.”

Of the shortlisted three stories from a longlist of fifteen, each had their own particularly enjoyable and well –written plot, characterisation and compelling narrative. Each was very different from the other: a comic fantasy, an atmospheric ghost story and a sci-fi thriller – which certainly made the task of reading and selecting the winner varied and enjoyable.

The other two runners-up were The Standing Stones of Fowlis Wester by Alexander Gardiner, and Lord of Aldhammer by Annemarie Allan. Orange-prize winning author Helen Dunmore compiled these reports on each.

The Standing Stones of Fowlis Wester by Alexander Gardiner

Lively, fast-paced and well-constructed, this is the story of the battle between good and evil and the awakening of forces which want to destroy the human race. There are giants, ogres, dwarf armies, magical swords, a talisman and creatures which grow fat on the oozings from coffins ... and above all a very well-handled interface between the everyday human world of policemen and supermarkets and the world of magic.

Comedy and strong characterisation are the main strengths of this story. Moss Tudloch, the dwarf who drags the human boy Roger into the magical world, is very well developed. His earthiness grounds the fantasy. His romantic secrets have a humorous edge to them, and his tough, stroppy, loyal personality is completely convincing. When Roger crams the dwarf’s injured body into a stolen pushchair, and his maliciously curious neighbours pull down the tartan covers to see the ‘baby’. “Moss’s gnarled, meaty hands shot out, grabbed both women by their noses and twisted them – violently”. Moss may fit into a pushchair, but he is no pushover...

Lord of Aldhammer by Annemarie Allan

The setting is an isolated Scottish community on the shores of the Firth of Forth. This story has emotional depth as well as a strong dramatic structure. It’s a ghost story: in Aldhammer the past won’t lie down, just as the dead won’t lie peacefully in the graveyard. The past sucks the life out of the present, deforming it in a way which is uncompromisingly ugly and cruel. Aldhammer, with its bleak shoreline covered in seaweed, broken bricks and sea-clutter, its walls of mist and rain, and its bored, deviant teenagers, comes to life from the first pages. Maura’s quest to save the souls of her unborn sister and her mother from the voracious Lord of Aldhammer reveals that her own identity hides a mixture of dark and light. The quality of the writing and the solid, believable setting anchor the drama of Maura’s journey and make this an atmospheric and compelling book.

But for Helen Dunmore too, Hybrids pipped them to the post. Her review went thus: The central premise is that humans begin to bond with the pieces of technology that they use most. This hybrid virus - Creep - can give a girl a mobile for an arm, or a boy a computer monitor for a face. Like all pandemics, it creates hysteria.

David Thorpe has imagined his world through and through, with its Gene Police, its Centre for Genetic Rehabilitation, and its feral, desperate kids who have hybridised and want to stay out of the clutches of the authorities. The question of what it is to be human isn’t asked directly, but the whole book implicitly deals with it. The characterisation is very good; Johnny Online, rejected by his mother, struggling to survive, tough, feisty and wary; Cheri Winter, an idealist trying to provide refuge for the victims of hybrid plague; the street kids who pool their knowledge and don’t trust anyone; the boss of technology corporation Mu-Tech who may have released Creep into the world without reckoning on the power of the virus to mutate.

Friday, May 26, 2006

What's a hybrid?

A few notes on the origins of hybrids as used in my novel.

First, a link to the competition results page where more judges' comments and details of the runners-up can be found.

Hybrids have many qualities:
  • Are part human-part technology
  • The technology has to be electronic
  • The victims must merge with gadgets they use frequently
  • The condition is the result of a transmissible disease, probably a virus
  • The sufferers have to be adolescent when they get the disease
  • The disease operates on the dna of the subject.

Where did the idea come from?

I get asked this a lot. As there are so many aspects to hybrids, the different ideas have different roots:
  • Flan O'Brien's Third Policeman contains a literary antecedent. A character uses his bike so much he ends up swapping molecules with it and the bike begins to display human qualities - it can be found in the bar - and vice versa - our man is seen weaving down the gutter late at night. That's not electronic though.
  • There's obvious parallels with cyborgs - Star Trek's Borg, Cybermen - except that they have the emotion taken out and are mindless enemies. Hybrids are very definitely human. Maybe more like those in Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner by Ridley Scott) as they lament their lack of humanity (but androids aren't cyborgs, they're artificially created humans)
  • Mutants - like the X-Men - have their DNA altered. But it's always puzzled me why they always seem to benefit from their mutation - and either want to save the world or destroy it. You never get a mutant who is in agony due to their condition. But that's the limitation of the superhero genre. Nevertheless, since I used to edit and write Marvel comics, I'm a big X-Men fan, especially Grant Morrison's version.
  • Aids, and how it and its victims were seen in the '80s - and still are in many places
  • On a personal level, being slightly disabled, I have always felt the discomfort and sense of 'outsideness' disabled people feel when they look at the able-bodied world. Hybrids are outside the system.
  • This can transform into growing political awareness as you realise the socially-constructed barriers to acceptance, and where they originate.
  • Genetic engineering; our dependence on and obsession with technology, how it is permeating our lives, dematerialising, and how this is fed and led by corporate expansionism. Bio-chips.
  • Our changing relationship to our bodies - we often despise and want to change them.
As regards the storyworld, this is a development of that found in my '80s work, Doc Chaos.

Is that enough?