In The Ghetto

British railway modellers are a funny bunch. You knew this already, of course; as much as we like to pretend that Sheldon Cooper is not representative of the breed (at least its American sub-species) he does share certain identifiable quirks with the rest of us. There is an ever-increasing mania for ‘prototypical realism’, for example. As one gets older, spends more time (and money!) on one’s layout, one is ever more concerned with getting it looking ‘just like the real thing’. Or so it would seem – certainly it seems to be true of me.

I recently bought Hornby’s ‘Rare Bird’ train pack. A train pack, for those of you unaware of the subtle distinctions here, is different from a train set. A train set is the whole shooting match – locomotive, rolling stock, track, controller, transformer. A train pack, on the other hand, consists solely of the locomotive and train. It’s like a train set for people like me who already have all the track they need.

The ‘Rare Bird’ pack is particularly nice. It features a Gresley A4 – the world’s fastest steam locomotive – in BR Blue, and 3 de-liveried LNER teak coaches. This dates the set to (probably) 1951. This means I can run it on Starlingford when the layout is set up in its ‘Early Postwar’ guise. However, there is a slight problem with the train pack – a problem that lies with Hornby, not me. The problem is that an A4 on an express would be hauling somewhere between 8 and 15 coaches, and the pack contains only 3. And Hornby, in their wisdom, has not made available individual coaches in the correct livery to expand the rake. In consequence, I suspect I will not be running Kingfisher (the A4) with the coaches it came with: I will be running it at the head of a rake of 7 Bachmann BR Mk1s in their crimson and cream livery. The LNER coaches can go behind a BR Blue Holden B12 I happen to have (because my locomotive stud has now, officially, reached ridiculous proportions).

This is what railway modellers do, you see. We get stuff and then work out how to make it run as realistically as possible. I work in a model shop and there are a few regular customers who will come in and buy a whole stack of identical coaches and then spend ages renumbering them with T-cut and replacement transfers so that the running numbers (which you are unlikely to see, since they are 1mm high and likely to be going past you at high speed) are all different.

Something else that railway modellers demonstrate is an extraordinary fidelity. They get more and more specialised with regards to the trains they actually run. So they decide, for instance, that they like the LMS. Then they decide they like the LMS in the early 1930s. Then they decide they like the LMS in the early 1930s around Shap. And before you know it they have become ghettoised, refusing to go near any model that could not justifiably have been present at Shap in the early 1930s. After that, of course, there’s only one thing for it, and that is to start writing letters to the modelling press complaining that the manufacturers seem to have decided, en masse,  not to concentrate sufficient resources on addressing the specific needs of those who are modelling Shap in the early 1930s…

The situation is just as bad, if not worse, in literature. I’m not even talking about Academia, although it strikes me that an Ivory Tower is just a ghetto that’s gone vertical and has better plumbing. I’m in the middle of Peter F. Hamilton’s newest novel, Great North Road and even I – a fan of Hamilton’s and of technological verisimilitude – am beginning to get a bit tired of the endless alphanumeric designations that appear for new bits of kit. So it’s not simply a Jaguar convertible, it’s a Jaguar XJ-7 convertible. It’s not a Daedalus transport aircraft, it’s a Boeing C-8000 Daedalus strategic airlifter. I know why these things are there, of course – they’re thrown in for the tech-heads who love that kind of thing and in whose ghetto Hamilton has placed himself. Terry Pratchett once described (male-oriented) holiday reading as ‘a thousand pages thick and crammed with weapons specifications’, and it’s hard, from time to time, not to sympathise.

I’m particularly alive to it at the moment because I have just finished editing Ghost Among Thieves. When I first wrote it I thought there could be nothing better than a book a thousand pages thick and crammed with weapons specifications. I liked Dale Brown. So GAT was filled to the gunwales with that kind of extraneous detail. It may be important that you, the reader, know that the space-borne “aircraft carrier” FSS Gladiator is a Legion-class vessel (because that kind of detail explains why what happens next comes to pass) – but you definitely don’t need to know that its registration is CVE-682. That kind of thing can sit quite happily in a glossary without intruding on the main text.

In editing, what I have been doing – I now realise – is mild ghetto-busting. While the book is still hard military sci-fi it is no longer tech-head -oriented hard military sci-fi. And I’ve thrown in a few new things too. Going back and re-reading, tweaking and fixing up various things was a marvellous opportunity to insert interesting foreshadowings. There’s a painting term, chiaroscuro, that describes a technique of using light and shadow to suggest depth and three-dimensionality. What I’ve been doing, in my editing, is adding shadowy bits round the edges to suggest that there’s a whole lot more going on in the backround than is immediately apparent. And that has been fun. I’m helped, of course, by the fact that the second book and a major part of the third are written, so I know in considerable detail what happens next, and I can point to it, so that if you were ever to read the entire trilogy you would see things at the end that had been pointed to at the beginning. Even so, I’m able to read GAT in a much more streamlined form than ever before, and that has been more rewarding than I had anticipated.

Speaking of streamlining…something else I did (because reasons) was to try and condense my 182,600-word book into a 250-word synopsis. That’s tricky, but I think it worked out okay. You can read my attempt here, which has been updated with the new version.

I like science fiction. I like that it is so nakedly and unashamedly an ideas-driven genre. It’s my genre. It’s my ghetto.

Or, to put it another way, it’s home.

Your moment of Zen for today:

Gresley A4 ‘Quicksilver’, in original silver and grey livery, disposes of firebox ash after a fast run from Edinburgh. In the background A4 ‘Mallard’ moves off-shed to take over express duties.

About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
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One Response to In The Ghetto

  1. eruntane says:

    I read a book by Dale Brown once – in fact, you lent it to me. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure whether it was a novel or a textbook. Looking forward to reading the new, de-techified, “slim, trim and terrific” incarnation of GAT at some point.

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