Lecturer's latest novel turns up heat on gas-lit world

Following the critical success of his novel The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter, Rod Duncan, a lecturer in Creative Writing at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) launched the second book in his series The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire.


Unseemly Science, a darker, pacier work than Bullet Catcher, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Philip K Dick Award, sees Rod’s latest ‘steampunk’ sleight of hand spin an ever-widening web of intrigue and illusion around his central character, the double-life detective Elizabeth Barnabus. Like Hilary Mantel, Rod’s now due to deliver the third of a three-book series… and he won’t rule out any further adventures in the sepia, Victoriana world of ‘alternate history’.

* Read Rod's top tips on writing your own novel
* The Bullet Catcher's Daughter is shortlisted for a Philip K Dick prize

Unseemly Science was launched by the Leicester Centre for Creative Writing at a free open event in the DMU Clephan Building (Room 3.03) on Thursday 21 May.

Rod’s gas-lit, alternative world is inspired by the everyday glimpses of Victorian life he sees and imagines in and around Leicester, “its bones seen in the cobbles that sometimes emerge from under the tarmac, or the inscriptions you can spot under the eaves dating some terraced houses.”

It’s a fossilised Victorian aesthetic and trace of social development that is kept largely under the surface though still very much present, Rod feels, in a kind of parallel existence. He’s even created a website to offer readers a portal on this ghostly gas-lit world.

Indeed, early 19th Century Leicester is almost a character in itself in the series, sitting astride the cultural divide between a southern kingdom and a northern republic, a rich hunting ground for smugglers and ne’er-do-wells.

The title of the second book is taken from a phrase used in ‘Bullet Catcher’ to describe the role of an all-powerful International Patent Office in a post-Luddite culture which has ‘…a mandate to regulate technology and services so that they’re kept for the benefit of the common man. Anything else is unseemly.’

“Some readers have seen this as some kind of dystopian vision but I painted it deliberately as an ambiguous world – on the one hand there is no conflict in this gas-lit existence yet, on the other, it’s driven by an overbearing regime; there is this constant battle between the law and freedom,” says Rod.

Rod has enjoyed the attention he’s received on the back of his nomination for the Philip K Dick Award, getting to fly out to Seattle for the awards ceremony and to meet Will Staehle, the Seattle-based designer who created the quirky cover designs, much admired by Rod, for both books in the series. Seeing the book reviewed by the Washington Post was an extra-special moment for him.

Yet Rod knows that all that jazz can’t be allowed to change or get in the way of the writer’s creative task, that he still has to sit down and do the hard work, always looking to improve, forever reaching that little bit further.

His advice to new writers is only to do something if you feel driven to do it and to surround yourself with like-minded souls who share experiences and find encouragement in what can be a tough job.

“Writing a novel will change you since it comes with a lot of struggle on what can be a long, stony and lonely road. You have to put yourself into each scene so that you live it, to make it more vivid and immersive. You put a lot of your emotions into writing and there’s always the prospect of rejection at the end of it… yet it’s the best job in the world.”

For Rod, that world will often take on a gas-lit sense of illusion, a world he’s created and come to share with an increasing number of readers across the globe.

Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2015

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