Author Focus: RB Kelly

Rachael’s debut novel Edge of Heaven has just been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Here she discusses the novel and its genesis.

I grew up on a diet of Terry Pratchett novels, thanks to my father’s excellent reading habits and his enthusiasm for passing on the things he loves to his children. I must have been around twelve years old when I first picked up The Colour Of Magic, and, though I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, discovering Pratchett changed the stories that I wanted to tell. Like all great literature, in fact, the Discworld novels changed the way I looked at the world. I distinctly remember coming across Hwel the playwriting dwarf, Wyrd Sisters’ cosmic receptacle for incoming inspiration particles, and thinking that Sir Terry was, as ever, onto something important. Inspiration particles. I think every writer recognises the phenomenon.

A few years later, I was in the back seat of my dad’s car, driving through early-nineties Belfast, and a particle struck. What if there was a city — in two layers? That was it, the sum total of the information imparted at that moment, but Creo Basse was born, and, with it, the germ of the idea that would become Edge of Heaven, my debut novel.

I was fifteen at the time and, while I’m sure there are many talented fifteen-year-olds who could write a proper, grown-up novel (actually, come to think of it, I’ve taught a few), I was not one of them. I thought gratuitous swearing was how you persuaded adults to buy your book, and I still hadn’t worked out what the actual story was about. The process of teasing out a workable narrative was long, and it bounced off just about every dystopian sci-fi trope that has ever existed. I had human cloning in the earliest versions. Space travel. Sentient AI, with violent rebellion fitted as standard (that bit stayed). And then a brand new virus poked its way into the story somewhere along the line and I knew immediately that this was the tale that I wanted to tell.

I find it difficult, now that we’ve been living with Covid-19 for over a year, to access the very specific anxiety that used to accompany thoughts of the pandemic that we’d been told for decades to expect. I’m something of a hypochondriac anyway, so the knowledge that a brand new disease was inevitable, but without any idea of when it would arrive or what form it would take, unsettled me deeply. This has, I think, fed into my love of zombie narratives: exorcising the fear of the microscopic unknown by fictionalising it and making it defeatable. Starting work on Edge of Heaven, when the threat of a novel virus was still hypothetical, was another way to make that fear manageable. Popular culture had assured us that societal breakdown was inevitable once a significant infection took hold of the world, and I had, in a misguided effort to overpower unease with knowledge, spent far too much time seeking out information about the devastating 1918 flu pandemic. I don’t recommend this strategy at all, by the way. There’s just no way to use those historical facts to reassure oneself about humanity’s ability to cope with a novel pathogen. My great-grandmother died during that disease’s fourth wave and I’d heard enough stories from my grandmother, her daughter, to understand that the loss of a loved one to a pandemic is a very specific kind of grief, changing those left behind. Transposing those fears, that knowledge, all of the question marks around society’s response and how ready our digital-age selves might be to confront such a basic and fundamental threat to our way of life, onto an imagined future world — just far enough distant to be safe, but still recognisably us — became the heart of the novel that now began to take shape.

I can’t access that first draft anymore. It’s so old that the software I used to type it no longer exists, and, in any case, I’ve absolutely no desire to revisit my first, excruciating attempt at writing a sex scene. But slowly, surely, revision after revision, the narrative began to emerge. The inspiration particle that had found me in my dad’s car carried with it the whisper of a heroine — Danae Grant, keeper of a dangerous secret — and as soon as I began to write her, I knew I was going to enjoy spending time with her. Boston Turrow, the man for whom Danae will ultimately risk everything, appeared almost as easily, and the society in which they both live began to grow up around them. The city itself is the third main character, a massive resettlement centre for climate change refugees, and I fell in love with its noirish streets as I began to find my way around. The different beats of each district, separated by gargantuan supporting walls; the smells and the sounds; the fusion of colliding cultures; and the million different ways that its citizens have taken the darkness and made it beautiful by re-making it over and over again in the image of the homes they’ve had to leave behind — Creo Basse was supposed to be dystopian, but humanity abhors a dystopia. Wherever possible, we seem to find a way to make something just radiant enough for us to survive.

Into this world creeps the shadow of the violent past. The AI rebellion was crushed some twenty-five years before the novel begins, but pockets of resistance remain, and there’s big money to be made by whoever works out how to eliminate the insurgents once and for all. A chance discovery by a dog walker in the Auvergne region of France sets in motion a chain of events that will bring devastation to the gates of Creo Basse, in the form of a new disease that nothing, not even the most advanced medical technology that the twenty-second century has to offer, can stop. As Danae and Boston fall in love, the city begins to fall apart, and Danae is forced into a terrible decision. The secret she has been holding onto for so long might well be the key to stopping the new plague — but stepping forward is tantamount to suicide. And then Boston begins to cough….

Yes, this fictional virus also starts with a cough. That’s not a huge coincidence, given how useful a bodily reflex it is for dealing with lung-based pathogens. But the novel also features a lockdown, anti-lockdown protests, and mass vaccination centres so similar to the one that I visited for real in April of this year that I’m thinking I might have a go at predicting the lottery numbers in my next novel. It’s worth a shot.

Edge of Heaven was released on 14 April 2020. The launch, ironically, was cancelled due to Covid-19.

By the time we reach 2119, the year in which Edge of Heaven takes place, I’d like to think that we’ll have had the opportunity to become as complacent about potential pandemics as we were pre-Covid. I think, however, that it’s actually much more likely that major disease outbreaks — including those caused by novel pathogens — will become increasingly commonplace and we will, hopefully, get better and better at dealing with them. Edge of Heaven assumes as much, and I’m not unique in thinking this, of course; in the past year alone I’ve encountered plenty of fiction that posits Covid as our re-introduction to disease on a scale we thought we’d left behind. But that, to me, is one of speculative fiction’s greatest facilities: the ability to not only ask what if? but to answer it with THIS! If we don’t get our acts together, so, come on, humanity, and let’s just sort it out.

We still have a lot of work to do to get through this. History presents a grim reference point for the ravages of a pandemic’s second wave, as we’re currently seeing in the horrifying infection rate in India, and popular culture is awash with maps of the world turning rapidly red as viral outbreaks slither unstoppably across the globe. And yet… society hasn’t collapsed. It’s bruised, for sure, and battered by incredible loss — not only to the virus but also to the economic and mental health catastrophes that the virus has created — but we haven’t, after all, lost the best parts of what make us human. We are a herd species and the herd continues to stand together, on the large scale and the small: from the aid that’s pouring in from around the world to the countries currently drowning in the deluge, to the Facebook pages set up in the earliest days of lockdown to make sure that the most vulnerable members of society could access their shopping and medications. As I write this, I’m three weeks post my first AstraZeneca jab, partially vaccinated against a virus that didn’t exist eighteen months ago. What we’ve seen over the past year is an incredible testament to human kindness, ingenuity, and our tenacity and determination to survive.

We are, in mid-2021, in a very different place to where we were in early 2020. Globally, collectively, we’ve been changed by fear, uncertainty and grief — but also, I like to think, by the knowledge of how fundamentally altruistic we can be as a species. At the start of lockdown, I saw a poem circulating on social media that still moves me to tears every time I read it:

and then the whole world
walked inside and shut their doors
and said we will stop it all. everything.
to protect our weaker ones.
our sicker ones. our older ones.
and nothing. nothing in the history of humankind
ever felt more like love than this.

— Chelsie Diane (@poemsandpeonies)

This is what I want to remember when we’re finally on the other side of this pandemic: all the ways in which we’ve remembered that humanity can be great. And this is what’s at the heart of Edge of Heaven: love. It might tell a tale of sentient AI (with violent rebellion fitted as standard), of climate collapse and healthcare inequality, of a city in two layers that’s ravaged by a new disease that nobody can seem to stop, but it’s about love. And about the magnificent things that humans can do because of it. That inspiration particle delivered much more, that day in the back of my dad’s car as I drove through early-nineties Belfast, than I realised for many years. And it kept this hypochondriac optimistic when the pandemic finally hit.

Researching the umpteenth redraft of this novel that I started writing so long ago, I found out, quite by accident, that we’ve managed to reverse the growth of the hole in our ozone layer that was the environmental spectre of my teenage years. And now we’re working our way through a pandemic with new vaccine technology that has the potential to turn the tide in the fight against more diseases than Covid-19. We are a problem-solving species in our formative years and we make plenty of bad decisions, but we’re getting there, slowly but surely.

I might write dystopian science fiction about what’s going to happen to humanity if we can’t get our collective act together, but deep down, in my zombie-loving heart of hearts… I think we’re going to be just fine in the end.

Edge of Heaven is available now from the NewCon Press website: