Today Fantasy Literature welcomes Philip Reeve, whose most recent novel, Railhead, is accruing rave reviews (including ours). Jana chatted with him about Easter eggs within his novel, his thoughts on grimdark, and more. One lucky commenter will win a copy of Railhead!

Jana Nyman: I recently discovered that Railhead is being adapted to film, so congratulations are absolutely in order! How excited are you to see your novel morph from page to screen? Are you involved with the process at all?

PhilipReevePhilip Reeve: Yes, Warner Brothers bought the rights for the director Doug Liman, and I believe they have someone at work on a script — I’m not involved in the process in any way. Doug Liman’s previous film was Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, which I thought was very good, so it will be great if he can bring Railhead to the screen.

I thought Edge of Tomorrow was a great adaptation from the original source material to screen, so that gives me a lot of hope!

You packed so many Easter eggs into Railhead, including references to Frank Herbert, Star Trek, Humphrey Bogart films, and much more. Did any of these specifically influence how you wrote the novel in terms of background information or plot development? Which reference was the most important one to you?

You can’t really use references in that way when you’re writing for younger readers, because most of my pop-culture touchstones are thirty or forty years old now, so it’s quite likely that people under 20 won’t pick up those references. Part of Nova’s character is that she likes watching old movies, and I hope people will recognise Casablanca and Key Largo — but it won’t matter if they don’t. Otherwise, any references are just there because they sound right — Thought Fox, the name of one of the trains, is the title of a poem by Ted Hughes, for instance, but I don’t think it will add anything to your understanding of the book if you know that — it’s just a good name. There are also some references which seem really obvious to me but which no one has spotted (as far as I know). Also some which I’ve forgotten about (I don’t remember a Star Trek one). And inevitably some people have detected references to things which I’ve never even heard of…

The only Star Trek reference I picked up was the mention of Klingon as an Old Earth language, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t connect Thought Fox to Ted Hughes.

I thought that the merging of old and new technology was well done, and the railheadsfascination with sentient train travel was infectious. What was the appeal to you in making locomotives sentient and then using them as the mode of faster-than-light interstellar travel?

I’d been trying for a long time to write a proper, old-fashioned space opera, but I found I didn’t much want to write about spaceships — it was hard to make them feel different to all the spaceships we’re familiar with from Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. So I started wondering if there was some other way for my characters to get from planet to planet, and I thought trains might be a good alternative. I liked the idea of introducing something very familiar and everyday into this strange future setting, too. I think SF and fantasy stories need to be anchored to reality in some way, and trains worked perfectly for that: as soon as I put them in, the whole thing started working, and this whole society arranged itself around the interstellar railways. As for making the locos sentient, that just seemed logical, given the level of technology in the book — I don’t recall even thinking about that decision!

Despite some of the heavy themes and events in Railhead, you still included moments of levity and excitement, which I appreciated. Was this an intentional response on your part to what seems like an oppressive turn toward grimdark in popular culture, or were you just focusing on writing a well-balanced and entertaining novel?

There has been a bit of a glut of dystopias in recent years, and I was very conscious of not wanting to add to that pile. So I’ve tried to create a society which is very peaceful and prosperous and where most people are living perfectly happy lives. But of course the story has to focus on the people who aren’t, so darker elements keep creeping in. I hope it’s fun, though — most of my favourite things are fun in some way, even if they’re deeply serious in others.

At the conclusion of the novel, there seems to be a possibility for further adventures, especially considering the layers of political intrigue and manipulation and the vast number of K-gates which are, understandably, unexplored in Railhead. Do you think youll come back to this fictional universe to tell more stories, perhaps about the Hive Monks or another of the family-run corporations?

Definitely! I’ve tried to make Railhead self-contained, but there’s a lot more to explore, both in the characters and the background. By the end of the story it’s clear that huge changes are coming, so that opens up new possibilities, too. I’m writing a sequel at the moment, and I hope there will be a third book to follow.

I’m so glad to hear it!

Finally, I’d like to ask about your favorite drink — either relating to your creative process (as a relaxation aid while writing, for example) or something involved with your work. Are there any beverages which remind you of working on Railhead, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?

I run on tea and coffee, so quite a lot of those were involved, I suppose. And maybe a gin and tonic to celebrate/console me at the end of the day’s writing!

That sounds very refreshing! Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Reeve!

Readers, comment below to win a finished copy of Railhead, available now from Switch Press. U.S.-based addresses only, please.


  • Jana Nyman

    JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.