|Name: MATTHEW BLAKSTAD
On the web: www.matthewblakstad.com
On Twitter: @mattblak
Ah, yes: Professor Elyse Martingale. Doyenne of Britain’s post-war computing revolution. Political radical and scourge of the state. Inspiration to a new generation of 21st century hacktivists. Surely you know all about Elyse Martingale?
What’s that? You’ve never heard of her? Well, there’s a reason for that. It’s not because
historical accounts of technology tend to marginalise the contributions made by a series of remarkable woman – though they do that in spades. No. The reason you haven’t heard of Prof. Martingale is that she doesn’t exist. I made her up. Yet, even though she isn’t real, I’ve dedicated much of the last few years to her memory. Specifically, I’m writing a series of stand-alone but interconnected novels that gravitate around her story. The Martingale Cycle traces an alternative history of technology, power and protest, stretching from the second world war to the very near future.
It’s hard to recall when this flawed genius of a character first gripped my imagination, but I do know I wrote my first story about her way back in 2001 – and there she was already, fully-formed. I could hear in my head her slightly aristocratic voice, preaching radical messages about the political revolution that would soon be spurred by technology. I knew all about her dissolute lifestyle, her unrecognised wartime service at Bletchley Park, her broken marriage to a government spook, and her estrangement from their cold-blooded son. I could see the way her fractured reputation would spawn a new generation of acolytes among the hacker movements of the internet age.
People often ask me where my characters come from, and I always have to shrug my shoulders in reply. I know there must be something of me in every character I write, but I have none of Elyse’s courage, very little of her pig-headedness – and I’m nobody’s technological genius. (You should see me trying to set the controls on my boiler.) So Elyse is not some female version of me. She came from somewhere else. She must in part have been inspired by all those real-life woman who broke with convention in the post-war years to make their stamp on the Modern era, and forward the cause of equality. The avant garde architect Alison Smithson, for instance, was an influence on Elyse’s personal style, and her shoot-from-the-hip approach. But my interest in Smithson and other radical woman of the 20th century can’t explain how I came up with this very specific character, with her very specific biography – or why she’s held my imagination in such a vice-like grip ever since. She simply seemed to turned up from somewhere, of her own volition; and, for whatever reason, she’s chosen to stick around.
I’m glad she has. Since she arrived, she’s guided me through not one but a whole series of stories that explore the many ways that tech has changed the way we think about our world, and about ourselves. Stories about how the computing world has treated women over the years. About how the digital revolution has increased state surveillance, but also put a new set of weapons in the hands of the political resistance. Some of these stories aren’t even really about Elyse. I’ve written three so far – my debut novel Sockpuppet, the micro-thriller, Fallen Angel, and my second novel, Lucky Ghost, which is out this month. All these books are set after Elyse’s death. In them, she features as a cultural memory more than a character, kept alive in the culture by the kind of techies who choose to turn their skills to political resistance.
Now, though, with Lucky Ghost on its way into bookshops, I’m finally starting to write Elyse’s own story. In the next two Martingale books I turn the clock back to the 1960s, and then the 1940s, using my character’s personal history to chart the rise of post-war British computing; and its lamentable collapse.
Three books into the series, I’m still no wiser about where Elyse – or any of my characters – arrived from. I doubt any writer ever truly knows. Our job is simply to welcome them when they arrive, provide them with a place to live – AKA a story – and as we write, to listen carefully to the things they want to say, and the choices they want to make.
Because, in the end, novelists don’t write stories. Characters do.