Monday 19 November 2018

The Smallest Of Things, by Ian Whates (a review and Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (sci-fi thriller, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
There are many Londons. From pomp to sleaze, from sophistication to dark corruption, Chris knows them all. A fixer with a particular set of skills, he can step between realities, piercing the thin veils that separate one London from another to find objects or locate people that have fallen between the cracks.

When a close friend, Claire, comes to him fearing for her life he is forced to use his abilities as never before, fleeing with her through a series of ever stranger Londons, trying to keep one step ahead of the men who murdered her boyfriend and are now hunting her.   

At some point, Chris hopes that he and Claire can pause long enough to figure out why these mysterious figures from another London want her dead, but right now they’re too busy simply trying to stay alive.

Taking as its central conceit that there are multiple Londons, co-existing in different dimensions and each distinctive from the other, this follows Chris, who can travel between them.  He’s a fixer, a troubleshooter who can find people or things that have fallen between the cracks, a sort-of Robin Hood (as one character calls him).  When his old friend Claire gets in touch, fearing for her life as she’s just witnessed her boyfriend being murdered by men in brown coats, he’s called upon to help her escape from these mysterious strangers who will seemingly stop at nothing to catch her.

Told with skill and poise, this paints a picture of modern London quickly and vividly, casting dark shadows onto places we all see every day.  With Chris and Claire, fully formed characters who leap off the page as soon as they’re introduced, we drop straight into the story and the pace doesn’t let up, slowly revealing plot points that build brilliantly.  The men in brown coats are cleverly used and the cast of supporting characters, who assist Chris in various ways, are given just enough history to make an impression without clouding the main story.  As for the Chris and Claire backstory (I’d love to see more of it, to be honest), that feels fully formed and just out of sight, with plenty of mentions of Chris’ previous jobs that all sound as exciting as this one.  The different Londons are excellent - a high-tech one with wide roads and trams, another a smog-filled Dickensian nightmare and others, including ones very similar to ours - and again feel fully formed, though they’re not revelled in, there’s no “look at what I made here” indulgence, we see just enough to realise we’re in a different place and then we’re off again.  Filled with well realised set pieces, some terrific action scenes and a nice line in humour, this works on every level and is greatly assisted by the brisk pacing (though I’d have preferred it to be much longer).  An excellent sci-fi thriller, this is a great read (with a brilliant last line) and I’d highly recommend it.

* * *

I enjoyed the story so much, I decided to ask Ian some questions about it and he was gracious enough to answer.

MW:   What’s the story behind this novella and how did it come about because it feels like we’re seeing something that has a very complete backstory.  What came first, Chris or the concept of the alternate Londons?

IW:   Chris came about a few years ago, following a day of wandering around numerous shops in central London. While my better half, Helen, continued with the retail therapy, I sought refuge in a pub close to Covent Garden, where I began jotting down notes on the various characters we’d encountered during the day.

As I did so, I reflected on the manner in which London possesses so many different faces: the political hub of the nation, the financial centre, the home of pomp and ceremony, celebrity restaurants and high-end dining, exclusive boutiques and prestigious department stores, cockney heritage and the spirit of the Blitz, nightclubs and all-night bars, markets and street entertainers, red buses and tourist attractions, and so on… I found myself thinking: what if there were other Londons, less apparent, more difficult to find? Londons that brush alongside the city we know without quite intersecting, hidden from view by the facets we’re so familiar with that catch the light and sparkle.

Those notes, scribbled while sipping a pint or two of Young’s Special, became a story called Knowing How to Look, which marked Chris’ debut. It featured a succubus and a curse, but I realised immediately that this premise of different Londons would enable me to play around with aspects of science fiction, fantasy and horror, mixing and matching as I chose, because there are an infinite number of alternative Londons and anything could be possible somewhere. Making a cameo appearance in this first story was a character called Claire, based on a tall, vibrant young woman we had come across earlier that day serving in a Berwick Street shop …

MW:   PS have done a fantastic job with the novella.  How much fun was the launch at FantasyCon?

IW:   Yes, PS have done their customary fabulous job, and I must thank everyone involved; also huge kudos to Ben Baldwin, who produced the cover art. Nicky Crowther at PS first proposed a map of London tearing to allow a man to step through. I then added the suggestion that part of the map could be in flames, as if lit by a match, and Ben ran with that, taking our suggestions and pushing them one step further. I love the result, which couldn’t be more appropriate.

The launch at Fantasycon was great fun. Thankfully, not everyone attending came up only for Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Volk’s signatures, and sufficient copies of The Smallest of Things were purchased to keep me busy.

MW:   A lot of Chris’ previous adventures are alluded to in the novella, have you written any of these?

IW:   This is actually the fifth of Chris’ adventures I’ve written (though the first at this length). One of the others, frustratingly, has been lost somewhere along the way without ever being submitted for publication. The first story, in which Chris attempts to save his sister’s life, is the safest in some senses, because it’s set entirely in our reality, although it relies on interaction with beings from other Londons (it’s currently available in my first collection Growing Pains). I wrote the second, which involves the Green Man (the creature of folk lore, not the pub), for an Alchemy Press anthology, and that’s now in my third collection Dark Travellings. The fourth, The Yin Yang Crescent takes us to the London that’s home to Jed, who has a cameo in the new novella. That one sold to an American publication a few years ago but for various reasons they never published it. I subsequently sold the Spanish language rights and it featured earlier this year in the excellent Windumanoth magazine, but has yet to appear in English.

Claire doesn’t feature in either of these tales, but the (ahem) missing story centres on a gig by her band Quiet Catastrophe. The frustrating aspect of this being lost somewhere between computer change-overs is that I wasn’t convinced the idea would work as a story. It did, and I was quite chuffed by the result. My fear is that if I try to rewrite the piece, I’ll never get it to work again.

MW:   The alternate Londons are beautifully constructed though you don’t dwell on your world building, we see them as briskly as the characters do which is fantastic.  How many Londons did you create and what drove you to use the ones you chose?

IW:   To be honest, I conjure up the different Londons as needed. I spent six years attending school in the City, so have a strong affinity and reasonable familiarity with London (and during that period won the Lord Mayor’s Prize for English, open to every school in the capital, with an essay called ‘London: the Living City’, which drew comparisons between London and a living organism). Yes, the city changes constantly and often dramatically, but I can still recognise the London I know and adapt my knowledge of it to each altered incarnation.

With the Londons that Chris and Claire encounter in The Smallest of Things, I wanted to depict contrasts, so I started with a glimpse of a city very like ours but where trams are an established form of public transport, and followed that with a version where the industrial revolution still holds sway, where pollution is rife and the infamous London smogs are still a thing, another hi-tech version where human transport is apparent but no person is ever seen (a tip of the hat towards the concept of technology distancing us from our own humanity) and finally one where prejudice and suspicion of ‘others’ leads to mob rule.

MW:   The action sequences are gripping, punchy and well-paced, did you have to do a lot of planning with them?

IW:   Thank you, I’m glad they work. Most of the action centres on two chase sequences. Knowing there were to be two of these – the first when Chris first meets up with Claire and learns of the people hunting her, the second after they’re surprised by a trio of ‘brown coats’ at Claire’s flat – I wanted to avoid repetition by making them markedly different. Escalation was important: the first had to be sufficiently tense to hold the reader’s attention, but the second had to out do it in every way; so I kept the first to this reality, drawing on Chris’ knowledge of London and its people. The second was where I let rip, and had Claire and Chris pursued across a series of starkly contrasting realities.

In the story, Chris utilises a number of trinkets he’s accumulated during various jobs, including hi-tech gadgets and lo-tech charms. For the story to work as intended, I needed to ensure that my villains the Faramund (brown coats) were biologically different from us in a subtle way, and I wanted to make that difference scientifically plausible. To ensure it was, I ran my thinking past a former member of the Northampton SF Writers Group, Dr. Steve Longworth (an MD), and his input was invaluable in getting that aspect right.

MW:   I liked the characters of Chris and Claire a great deal, partly because of their close friendship and shared history.  Can we expect to see more of them?

IW:   That’s certainly the intention (and thank you, I’m fond of them too). I’m delighted to say the PS Publishing have commissioned a new novella to follow on from The Smallest of Things, which I’ll be writing next year, and, you never know, I may yet bite the bullet and re-write that lost story.

MW:   What’s next for you?

IW:   All manner of projects with NewCon Press – I’m currently committed to publishing 35 titles over the next two years, a mix of novels, novellas, anthologies, and single author collections. At the same time, I’m determined to find space for my own writing. I have a commissioned novella to finish for Shoreline of Infinity (this one is fantasy); my fourth short story collection (in English – I also have another collection out in Spanish) is due from Luna Press next summer; I’m determined to finish the third volume of my Dark Angels space opera trilogy of novels for release next year; and I have a literary fantasy novel called Twelve Faces of Beauty sitting with my agent, which he’s asked me to revise but I simply haven’t found time to as yet. Doubtless there’ll be one or two short stories along the way as well, but I reckon that should be enough to keep me occupied.

* * *
Ian at FantasyCon 2018 in Chester, at the Smallest Of Things PS launch
Ian lives in a sleepy Cambridgeshire village with his partner, Helen, and a manic cocker spaniel called Bundle. A writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror, he is the author of seven novels (four space opera and three urban fantasy with steampunk overtones), the co-author of two more (military SF), has seen some seventy of his short stories published in a variety of venues, and has edited more than thirty anthologies. His work has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and twice for BSFA Awards. His novel Pelquin’s Comet, first in the Dark Angels sequence, was an Amazon UK #1 best seller, and his work has been translated into Spanish, German, Hungarian, Czech and Greek. His fourth short story collection in English, Wourism and Other Stories, will appear via Luna Press in 2019.

Ian served a term as a director of SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) and is a director of the BSFA (the British Science Fiction Association) an organisation he chaired for five years.  In 2006, Ian founded multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press by accident, and he continues to be baffled by the number of titles the imprint has produced.

Ian can be found online at


  1. I loved the concept of multiple London's and the different faces of the city. It's interesting to hear the background. Thabkyou