In his new cyberpunk sci-fi thriller Zero Bomb (paperback, Kindle), writer M.T. Hill tells a tale of a man who’s radicalized by, well, the writer of a sci-fi novel. But as he, Hill, explains in the following email interview, this novel isn’t a case of wishful thinking.
To start, what is Zero Bomb about?
It’s set in a mostly automated near-future England, where a traumatized man called Remi flees to London when his daughter Martha dies. There he’s gradually radicalized by a science fiction author called Laurel Brace, whose 1970s anti-machine novel has become a manifesto for a group of dangerous neo-Luddites.
It sounds like Zero Bomb has a political or social undercurrent to it.
It has plenty of both going on. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible to write speculatively without drawing on politics or social issues — for me that’s the essence of what SF is and does.
So did you set out to write something topical, or did you come up with the story and then, as you wrote it, realized it needed to have a socio-political component?
We’re facing multiple crises: environmental, political, social, economic. To set a novel in the near-future of all that, then you have to engage with these problems. For Zero Bomb, that meant weaving a human story through a world extrapolated from where we are now, and thinking about the ways these characters might respond to or navigate that situation. So the novel’s background is political — what happens if our current power structures, including wealth inequality and pervasive surveillance, persist (and worsen) when automation sweeps the country without mitigation? — but the focus of the story is social.
Where did you get the idea for Zero Bomb and how different is the finished story from that initial concept?
It started out as a story about an ultramarathon runner who couriers handwritten documents between towns and cities in a full surveillance state. My step-dad’s a courier, and it’s always interested me. But when I fleshed out the idea, it stopped making sense — there wasn’t a good reason the courier would go on foot. So, I kept the character and combined him with some other things going on in my notes. I wanted to write about parenthood and all the anxieties that go with it. I wanted to write about radicalization in a human, even empathetic way — I really believe we need to keep asking why. And for many years I’d had this idea about being stalked by a fox. When I lived in north London, you’d constantly bump into foxes in the street. One morning I went out running very early and was struck by the idea of a fox collecting my sweat, or my spit, or whatever, and feeding it back to some massive database. Silly, sure, but the image persisted, and now you can see the results right there on the cover.
Zero Bomb has been labelled a thriller and a work of speculative science fiction, but it also sounds like it has elements of cyberpunk. How do you see it?
I’d say all of those are in the mix. Remi’s part of the story happens in a sort of post-cyberpunk London, with my take on a few classic tropes. You could call it thriller-y in terms of plotting, especially in Remi’s section, when the pieces are being moved into place. And there’s also plenty of mystery; we learn quite early on that Remi’s memory isn’t quite as it seems. Alongside all that, you’ve got some espionage in there, a dose of surrealism, some bleakness. Loads of drones. And then in the later sections, the story moves away from the city into a more rural landscape, and you start to get a different picture of a future-English life, away from all the city lights.
Now, as you mentioned, part of the plot of Zero Bomb involves a sci-fi novel. What’s that book called?
It’s an out-of-print novel called The Cold Veil, allegedly written by an old English author called Laurel M. Brace in the 1970s. Really, though, it’s just me paying homage to old-school work by writers of that time: a pre- and post-apocalyptic story about several generations of a family waging war against sentient machines, with more than a nod to Philip K. Dick’s short story “Second Variety.”
So did you include excerpts from The Cold Veil in Zero Bomb?
Without giving too much away, there are four chapters of The Cold Veil in the book. They were tricky to write — a bit of impersonation, a lot of trial-and-error. I did sketch out a fairly light plot arc so I could work out what went where, but to try and do the whole thing would’ve been exhausting.
And is there a reason the book in the book is from the ’70s as opposed to the ’50s or the ’90s? And that it’s a book as opposed to a movie, TV show, video game, comic book, or a concept album by some obscure prog rock band?
It’s mainly from the ’70s for practical reasons: Laurel Brace is still alive and actively plotting — pun intended — in the 2030s, so I needed to make the maths work. As fun as writing prog-rock lyrics would’ve been, it’s an out-of-print novel because there’s some meta-commentary in there about the relevance of SF culturally, not to mention our gentle obsession with the idea that SF is only good if it accurately predicts the future. All this, and so many books from that time are synonymous with radicalism. The Cold Veil has grown into a cult text over the years — a bit like another real SF author’s work from the mid twentieth century…
Speaking of other books, Zero Bomb is not your first novel. But are there any writers, or other stories, that were a big influence on Zero Bomb but not on your previous novels The Folded Man and Graft?
One book that made me think I should just go for the novel-within-a-novel approach — instead of simply treating The Cold Veil as a prop the characters reference, say — was Austin Wright’s Tony And Susan a.k.a. Noctural Animals], which a friend had been urging me to read for ages. It’s a sublime novel about reading and fiction itself, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing in the way it balances its main characters’ lives with the thrilling nested story that runs in parallel. I thought, yeah, okay, I’ll have a bit of that. And trying it completely opened the way for me.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a particularly big impact on Zero Bomb?
I’ve half-joked that some scenes from the The Cold Veil are just Titanfall fan fiction that got out of hand. Who doesn’t love a mecha? But I’ve played games since I was tiny, and have always included sly references to them in my stuff. In fact, most of my exposure to SF growing up was through gaming. I definitely absorbed a certain near-future aesthetic through titles like the original Deus Ex, which was formative for me, and which obviously drew so much from the original wave of cyberpunk. Perrin, an augmented police officer who turns up later in Zero Bomb, is a good example of that.
As you know, some sci-fi novels are stand-alone stories and some are parts of larger sagas. What is Zero Bomb?
It’s a self-contained novel, and I feel satisfied that it does what I wanted it to do. It does share a fictional town, Dillock, with my next novel The Breach, but that’s only a smudged version of where I live at the moment, and it doesn’t necessarily place them in the same world.
Earlier I asked if any movies, TV shows, or video games had an influence on Zero Bomb. But has there been any interest in making a movie, show, or game out of Zero Bomb?
Not that I know of. A taut little film with one of those disturbing ambient soundtracks might be fun, though I don’t know how you’d handle the layering / multiple perspectives. Screenwriting feels like witchcraft to me.
Finally, if someone enjoys Zero Bomb, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one as opposed to the other one?
I’d say to go for Graft. It shares some themes with Zero Bomb, and a similar approach: things are going deeply wrong but people on the ground are making the best of it — surviving, adapting, trying to hold on to their humanity. The Folded Man is prickly and grim, full of northern English dialect, and a lot more hostile. Not everyone’s cup of tea.