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… the origins of the story
Ewan McGee
Ewan McGee (photo credit: Loredana LaRocca)

It all started with a song by a German punk band, based on a true classic of modern literature – A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. The song in question – of which you can find both a German version (Hier Kommt Alex) and an English version (The Return Of Alex) – was published by Die Toten Hosen in 1988 and retells the story of Alex (DeLarge) and his droogs, running around town, beating up people out of utter boredom. I had known the song since the early ’90s and probably listened to it dozens of times over the years, but one day in ’03 or ’04 I had a completely new thought when listening to it: What if it wasn’t Alex, a guy, running around town with his male friends, causing chaos, but a female Alex and her female friends, doing the same? How would people’s perception of the story change if we changed the gender of the protagonists?
By now, we are used to our politically incorrect male ‘heroes’. The ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ type. Characters willing to break the law. And bones. Even hero characters who are criminals (albeit it the ‘noble’ kind of criminal). But female characters kicking ass and taking names? Sadly, they are still few and far between.
This thought hit me, after I had known the song for about a decade, and suddenly an entire (near future) world appeared in my mind, in which a female Alex and her female friends were causing all kinds of trouble. It was an alluring scene, populated by exciting characters. It was dark, brooding, and thought provoking in more than one way. The problem was, I had no idea why those girls would cause the chaos they were already causing in my mind. And without a motivation, there was no real story.

I put the idea aside, picked up another one, turned that into a novel, then decided that this wasn’t actually the kind of novel I could see myself writing for the rest of my life. So after novel no.1, I started looking for new material. I had a few ideas and wrote a few first chapters, to see which one feels best. The story of Alex was not among them.
But then, in the summer of 2010, I discovered a book called Makers by Cory Doctorow in a local book store. I took it home, mostly because of the cover art that had attracted me to it in the first place (the blurb didn’t hurt either), started reading, loved it, and then looked the author up on the web, to see what else he might have written. What I found was quite the backlog of novels, as well as plenty of blog posts, articles, podcast appearances and videos of talks by the Cory Doctorow … mainly about a topic I was very curious about anyway: the future of the digital world.
And then it happened. While listening to one of Cory Doctorow’s talks, something clicked. I hadn’t really been thinking about that idea from six or seven years before, not even while trying to figure out what story to write next. But there it suddenly was – the motivation for my girls. There was the reason why they would be running around their somewhat dystopian world, causing mayhem. Alex and her friends would be fighting the system, trying to re-establish privacy and user rights our generation gambled away, because we were too ignorant, too uninterested, or too busy with our shiny new toys that are the internet, Twitter, iPhones, etc. And all it took was a German punk band writing a song about a novel by an English writer, as well as the political ideas of a Canadian activist and author.

… the genre

When This Way Lies Mayhem was ready for publication, I started thinking about how to explain the book to journalists and potential readers. So, what genre is this novel? My first instinct was to describe it as a story in the tradition of books like A Clockwork Orange, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But then I thought that probably every author who has a book that is sci-fi(ish), set in a more or less near future, has some political elements to it, maybe a few critical ideas about society, wants to conjure up the image of greats like Orwell, Bradbury and Burgess in order to sell a few copies. I didn’t want to do that. And for some time I really didn’t, out of respect for those masterpieces.

But the more I thought about it and the more I talked to people about the book, the more I found that there is no better way to describe This Way Lies Mayhem. It is set in the future, but only a near future. It has certain science fiction elements to it, but it isn’t what some call “hard sci-fi” – no aliens, no spaceships, no laser guns. Not even robots trying to take over the world. But Alex’s world definitely is dystopian. What else would you call a world without privacy, in which politicians and industry have conspired to very clearly tip the scales in their favour when it comes to all global communications?

Yes, This Way Lies Mayhem is a dystopian novel. It is social science fiction. It’s a little bit science fiction and a little bit literary fiction. And it does stand in the very proud tradition of some amazing books, even if it does not share their accolades (yet?). So if you like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451 or A Clockwork Orange, mixed with a very generous dash of geek culture references, you might just like this one.

… “bodies upon the gears”
THIS WAY LIES MAYHEM cover design by Rhonda Zayas

I’d by lying if I claimed that Mario Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech was something that has always been at the forefront of my mind. At best, I had been peripherally aware of it in my 20s. That was until a certain alternative rock band sampled the speech for the song Wretches And Kings from their album A Thousand Suns – very conveniently released shortly before I started working on This Way Lies Mayhem.

The words spoken by Mario Savio on 2 December, 1964, on the steps of Sproul Hall, at the University of California, Berkeley, very quickly became the perfect expression for the spirit of the story. There are, of course, a number of allusions to the speech in the book. And I am very happy and proud that, after talking to Lynne Hollander, the widow of Mario Savio, I was allowed to include the famous quote itself in the book.
The initial idea may have come from a punk song (and, indirectly, from Anthony Burgess) and from the talks and articles by Cory Doctorow. A number of songs may have had a big impact on the mood of the book. But the single biggest source that made the book what it is now have to be the words by Mario Savio, spoken 50 years before the publication of the book, long before computers were a ‘thing’ or anyone talked about the internet. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the story of This Way Lies Mayhem is about way more than privacy and user rights.

– Ewan McGee

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