While many books are just words on a page, sometimes writers like to do interesting things with how those words are place on those pages. Case in point: XX (hardcover, Kindle), the new science fiction novel by writer, graphic designer, illustrator, and comic book artist Rian Hughes. In the following email interview, Hughes explains why XX is a typographically interesting novel, as opposed to just a graphic one, as well as what inspired and influenced its story.
Photo Credit: Robin Farquhar-Thomson
To start, what is XX about, and when and where is it set?
It’s set tomorrow, or the day after. I didn’t put an exact date on it, even though I do with a lot of the historical material.
The main locations are London, Jodrell Bank, and the far side of the Moon, with a later excursion out to the heat death of the Universe.
On one level, it’s about the detection of signal from space of extraterrestrial origin and the aftermath, but undergirding this are the main themes — what ideas are, how they are encoded and how they travel, the nature of consciousness, and how we as humans perceive ourselves.
Where did you get the original idea for XX, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote it?
I actually had the idea for a designed novel or a form of “narrative design” around twenty-five years ago. I recently came across an old interview in the magazine Circular, the organ of the Typographic Circle, where I discuss the possibilities. For some reason — pressure of commercial work, the fact that I am easily distracted, perhaps — it’s taken me this long to get around to writing it.
It sounds like XX is a sci-fi story. Is that how you see it?
It has sci-fi elements, historical elements, excursions into semiotics and philosophy. It touches on cosmology and memetics. If that sounds a bit daunting and academic, apparently it also “reads like a thriller,” as SFX magazine said in their review.
The UK edition carries the strapline “A Novel, Graphic.” This, of course, is an unsubtle pun on “graphic novel.” The U.S. version omits this because the publisher thought it may confuse bookshops, and they’d shelve it with the Marvel and DC comics. Which, in my local bookshop in London, they did.
“A Novel, Graphic,” however, does come close to describing what the book is: a mix of type experiments, letters, magazine articles, photographs, montages, type from the built environment, etc., etc.
The wider spectrum of expressive forms that the printed word can adopt, many of which we are familiar with, just not in the context of a novel. I pressed all of these into use for their narrative power.
The limitations of print technology meant that novels used to be set in Times New Roman (or a similar book font) throughout, but now? It’s just a convention, a throwback. Technology has freed us from such constraints. Why don’t all books use different fonts to express different character’s personalities? Or different point sizes depending on whether they’re shouting or whispering? They’re missing an obvious trick.
XX is your first novel, but you’ve written and drawn a number of comic books. Why did you decide to tell this story as a prose novel — albeit one that does visual things with its typography — as opposed to doing it as a comic book?
I think there’s a broader range of storytelling approaches that could be called “words and pictures.” What things mean, and what they look like — and the fact that what they look like also means something. So “comics” are a subset of that, as are illustrated novels, magazines, newspapers, poetry, road signs — you could argue that everything is a thing and a symbol at the same time, even natural objects like a black cat, or the Moon, or a thunderstorm.
I have an idea for a novel that would include sequences told in silent comic strip panels — visuals only, no words. So I’ll definitely return to the form of comics at some point in the future.
The conventions of comics, as we currently understand them, have evolved — speech balloons, for example, are a fairy recent innovation. There’s no reason why the current form is its final form. Language is pliable, and new forms, hybrid forms, can always arise. It happens in music all the time.
XX is, of course, not the first novel to do interesting things with its typography. Did you look at any other books that took a similar approach to get ideas of what to do, and what not to do?
There is a tradition that goes back to Tristram Shandy, and before, to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, that combined words and pictures. More recent examples of the form might be [Mark Z. Danielewski’s] House Of Leaves, S [by Doug Dorst with J.J. Abrams], or [Steven Hall’s] The Raw Shark Texts. These all opened up the repertoire of the novel in really interesting ways.
For XX, I designed fonts specifically for the book, and wrote it directly into Indesign. I was typing in the actual character’s font as I went — the look and the content were created in tandem, together. This, I hope, makes it unique.
So, are there any writers who had a big influence on XX but not on anything else you’ve written?
The expansive “opening up to the wider stage of the Universe” sci-fi of Arthur C. Clarke was a big influence, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rendezvous With Rama. That sense of encountering something utterly alien that, almost inadvertently, has a transformative effect on the humans involved. Both Rama and 2001 end on cliffhangers — hence the sequels, which unfortunately follow the law of diminishing returns. I wanted to revisit that sense of expansive wonder, and push the story on as far as I possibly could.
The main influences for the story-within-the-story Ascension were Jack Vance, and to a lesser extent, Philip K. Dick. Vance’s Cugel the Clever, protagonist of Eyes Of The Overworld and others, influenced the aristocratic arrogance of The Celestial Mechanic. The whole is typeset like an issue of Fantasy And Science Fiction, or a ’60s pulp magazine.
What about non-literary influences; was XX influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
There are many influences. Fortunato Depero and the Dada collages of Marinetti and his proto-punk crew of Italian Futurists inform XX‘s hyperbolic ranting. Those photocopied punk fanzines like Sniffing Glue. Bauhaus modernism. Concrete poetry. 8-bit computer games. Peter Saville, and the conceptual purity of his early work for Factory. Even Monty Python, in their willingness to mess with the expected format of the thing for effect.
Now, along with the text, XX also has QR codes that will trigger original music by Citizen Void — a.k.a. DJ Food and Saron Hughes — through Bandcamp. Why did you decide to do a soundtrack, and have it be accessible via QR codes, and why did you ask them to do it…besides, of course, the fact that Saron is your sister and your mom probably told you to let her help, you need to be nicer to your sister.
Ahah! I should explain — in the novel, the extraterrestrial signal is leaked, and then used in all manner of creative ways, including making music. A review of the album Citizen Void by Celestial Mechanic is included, written in my best Pretentious Music Journalist style. I then commissioned Saron and DJ Food to take the review and make it a reality. The review was their brief. This may be another first — the review preceded the album. Saron has a classically-trained pianist’s ear for structure, while Kev (DJ Food) is the master of weird production effects and spooky noises. The result is an amazing collision of the familiar and the unsettling, the epic and the ambient.
We also included a recording of my late father reading “The Silent Voice,” one of his poems. The words seemed to reflect the finale of the book — themes of reincarnation, a calling home. I have to say this gives me a shiver every time I hear his voice come in. It was recorded almost as an aside on an iPhone shortly before he passed away. I don’t think he’d ever imagine how we’d use it, but I hope he’d approve.
We’ve signed a deal for the actual release of the album, which should be out around February. It’ll be pressed in flouro yellow vinyl, to match the U.K. cover.
Nice. Though I am curious — given that the bio on your website says you have a, “stack of easy listening albums which [you] play very quietly” why didn’t you just link to The Carpenter’s Greatest Hits?
The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft” is apparently the official song of World Contact Day. So, when the aliens finally do arrive, out of all the music us humans have ever created that’s what they’ll hear first. I do wonder what they’ll make of us.
Now, as you may or may not know, sci-fi novels are sometimes stand-alone stories, and other times part of larger sagas. What is XX?
It’s definitely a stand-alone book. Once you’ve read the finale, you’ll realize that there’s nowhere else I could take it.
Earlier I asked if any movies, TV shows, or games may have influenced XX. But do you think XX could work as a movie, TV show, or game?
I think a longer-form adaptation would work best. And you’d need to find filmic analogues of all the tricks I use in the book. Perhaps the Ascension story could be a short episode from a ’50s TV show along the lines of The Outer Limits, inserted into the larger narrative?
If that happened, who would you want them to cast as Jack and the other main characters, and why them?
I’ve been thinking about this, and I honestly didn’t have any specific people in mind when I wrote the book. No-one comes to mind…they exist purely in my head at the moment.
Finally, if someone enjoys XX, what sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out next?
I’d recommend those Arthur C. Clarke and Jack Vance novels. You can’t beat the classics.