The Black Locomotive: Rian Hughes

Published by Picador

“It had been designated Anomaly 36.

“The previous thirty-five anomalies had all been examined, evaluated, excavated and catalogued; then work had continued on the undocumented Crossrail tunnel extension under central London, the one that would never appear on any map.”

The construction of a secret Crossrail tunnel linking Buckingham Palace to Westminster is brought to a halt when the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) hits an anomaly. The TBM has encountered other anomalies on this route—such as Victorian sewers, a plague pit and a Roman mosaic floor. London, after all, is built on layers of history. But this one, Anomaly 36, is completely different. It has stopped the TBM in its tracks.

When Austin Arnold, the engineer heading the project, descends into the subterranean depths to see the anomaly for himself, he finds that “a twisted mass of shredded metal had been pushed up against the face of the tunnel, sharp twisted petals surrounding a jagged opening a couple of metres across”.

When Austin looks inside, he finds a huge curved space—it is a 20-metre drop to the floor—with what seem to be ribbed sides. It is too regular to have been formed geologically, so it must have been constructed. But what object of this size could find itself so deep underground within a stratum that dates to the Neolithic age, when “London was not even a crossroads by a riverbank”?

When Austin and his team go into the anomaly, they find a metal hatch that seems to open on to a larger space below. Whatever this is, it was probably not built by humans and is huge, stretching out below London. What they find within it might rewrite London’s history.

Meanwhile something emanating from this structure creates a power outage in London, rendering most new technology useless: mobile phones, the internet, buses, trains and cars. The city is highly dependent on electricity, and if power is not restored in a day or two, things could rapidly deteriorate.

Two people are at the centre of this story: Austin, who is being pushed by his boss, Georgina Ash, to finish the tunnel on time; and Lloyd Rutherford, an artist who has been given full clearance to the site, although no one knows why.

The narrative follows the two men, one underground and one above ground. Rutherford manages to get into the structure when the hatch is opened. It closes behind him, and the people outside have no way of opening it again. We follow him as he navigates the vast space he finds himself in, a space that clearly has not been used for a very long time.

Austin realizes that it is up to him to find a way to break through the hatch and fix whatever it is that has gone wrong. He turns for help to a club he joined as a child: the Smokebox Club for train lovers. The Club still functions, using an old-fashioned online message board to communicate; members know each other only by pseudonyms. They now work in different fields, with some of the members now in high places.

It is time to bring these people together in an attempt to save London.

The story is told in third person from different points of view. As someone who is a bit of a font nerd, I enjoy the way Hughes uses type. Each point of view has its own font and page layout. The moment you start a new chapter, you know exactly from whose perspective the story is being told.

The Black Locomotive focuses on urban spaces and how they affect—and are affected by—the people who live there. Hughes includes detailed diagrams of built environments, infrastructure and machinery. There are also pages with small black and white photographs of various elements that make up a city’s structures, such as concrete, cladding, paving, tiling and so on. One of the things I love about Hughes’s writing is the way he makes you look closely at things you normally take for granted. I, for one, have been paying far more attention to my surroundings after reading this book.

The Black Locomotive is a love letter to London, and to old technologies—like steam engines and old phones—that come to the rescue when newer ones are rendered useless. We live in a technologically advanced world, with the latest developments at our fingertips. The question Hughes asks is: how fragile is this world? Have we become so dependent on today’s technology that we will have trouble surviving without it?

Hughes is a graphic artist and type designer, and these skills come through in his book. He has designed all of its elements, including the front cover, the old Smokeboxer magazine covers, and the page layouts. He does an impressive job of bringing together disparate elements to form an engaging narrative, and makes the unimaginable seem completely possible. I did, however, get a little lost towards the end but it didn’t seem to matter.

This is the second novel from Hughes, and like his first, XX, I found it to be imaginative, unusual and thoroughly enjoyable. Hughes tells an excellent story that also makes you think about the way we live. I highly recommend this book.

Read Talking About Books’ interview with Rian Hughes.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK

3 thoughts on “The Black Locomotive: Rian Hughes

  1. Sophie

    Hi Suroor
    This novel sounds like I might like it, all the more because I’ve always read and enjoyed sci-fi. I recently read The Mockingbird by Walter Tevis which really was a good surprise.
    I also finished Steven King’s Billy Summers yesterday, and that was an even greater surprise (for though I’m a hardcore fan of King’s, I gracefully admit that some of his novels are ‘lazy’ if not disappointing).
    Billy Summers is absolutely brilliant (plot/embedded narrative/thoughts on writing etc).
    If you love sci fi, here’s a fantastic (though demanding and time consuming) read: The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K Jemisin. A tour de force.

    1. suroor alikhan

      Hi Sophie,
      It’s good to hear from you! I’m sure you will enjoy this book. Rian Hughes’s books are unusual because they incorporate design and images and raise questions about the things you take for granted.

      Thanks for the recommendations. The Broken Earth trilogy is on my list, so I’ll put the first one in my next order.

  2. Pingback: Integrating Design into the Narrative: An Interview with Rian Hughes – Talking About Books

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