Time’s Up by Sean Cregan

I first read Sean Cregan back in 2004, Winter’s End, though at the time I didn’t know it was Sean Cregan. To be fair, he didn’t know he was Sean Cregan at the time either. What? Sean Cregan is the pen name of author John Rickards, who writes a wonderful crime fiction series featuring the character Alex Rourke. Somewhere along the way John decided he wanted to write something a little different, and with that new direction came a new pen name. Sean has released three books, The Levels, The Razor Gate (which I will be reviewing tomorrow), and most recently the novella All You Leave Behind, and today I am happy to welcome Sean/John to talk a little about his work.

Sean Cregan John RickardsChrist. The Razor Gate. Guest blogs. Books.

Focus, mate. Think about death.

Imagine you know, to the day, the time of your death. You know there’s nothing to be done about it. And it’s coming in a year. What would you do with your remaining time? I can’t imagine there’s too many of us who haven’t wondered something similar in the long dark of the night, whether as a result of idle (if morbid) insomniac speculation, or in the wait for bad or good news, test results, probabilities.

I would imagine that people with that kind of knowledge would fall into three broad camps – those determined to make the most of their time, those spending it in a sort of drunken or drugged haze, living it up while they can, and those angry at the unfairness of it all, raging at the world. And a fourth camp: those who end it all themselves before their time’s up.

Many stories feature people struggling against seemingly insurmountable odds or fighting to survive in the teeth of almighty whatever. I wanted to write one where people do, but where their fate is absolutely sealed. In this case, not only sealed, but with a very specific and sudden cut-off date. Nothing that happens over the course of the book can change this. Which, I guess, if you were one of those affected would be horrible, but it’s largely the point.

Personal digression: when I was very small – I barely remember him – my granddad was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer. A tumor that grew in his throat until he could no longer eat, and it killed him by starvation. He faced it with what I now understand was astonishing fortitude (especially when you consider that he’d lost his son, my uncle, earlier that year as well); I was 4 and although I remember being baffled as to why all his food had to be mashed, I never (that I recall) had an inkling from him that he was going to be dead soon, or that he was miserable or afraid. He was with me how I’d imagine most granddads to be (further digression: by which I mean my best direct experience of it is in how my own father is with my son; my other grandfather died a year after the first, while my son’s other granddad lives in another country and he’s only met him once, briefly).

Point is, people act differently when facing their end. ‘The Curse’ in the book is absolutely fatal and absolutely unavoidable – you can’t “fight” it any more than you can fight an incurable tumor or a fatal auto accident – but you can choose how you respond. Whether it dominates you, leaving you either deeply depressed or very angry, whether you try to deny that it’ll happen and run from the reality, or whether you say: “fuck it, I’ve got a year”.

As much as everything I knock out these days seems to be “dead parent” fiction, I don’t write deep and meaningful explorations on the nature of human mortality, so that point is heavily dressed in slightly-cyberpunky thriller clothes and features lots of running around and jumping off things. And, at one point, a hovercraft.

That said, the relationship between one of the doomed victims and a cop, Garrett, formerly working the case, and his increasingly desperate attempts to save her – at risk of missing her final moments entirely or getting himself killed in the attempt to find a cure – is the key to half the story, a half that’s as much about coming to terms with the inevitability of death as it is about survival.

Where you have death – and in particular a strange and seemingly random cause of death – you also, inevitably, end up with weird mythologies springing up to rationalize and frame the phenomenon.

(You also, of course, have people seeking to exploit it, and the mechanism behind the Curse is one that I can’t help but think a lot of people would be interested in for their own ends. The rich and the influential, as a rule, are always seeking new ways to make them even richer and more influential. On top of which, the Curse isn’t theirs – it’s not the result of government research gone wrong or hideous corporate misdoing, but something grown out of street level and the masses of the poor. Frightening, if you’re at the top, as well as potentially lucrative.)

The Razor Gate by Sean CreganAs with peasant folk myth in ye olde dayes of yore, it’s down at the muddy end of society that new myth and belief around physical phenomena, like the Curse and rumors of ‘the Razor Gate’, that those afflicted are said to pass through, is at its strongest. Always has been.

Nowhere more so than the sort of floating refugee camp turned unofficial neighborhood, Blackwater Port. Writing the Port was probably the most fun aspect of the book – a real interstitial community in the cracks of society, a place that was never supposed to exist at all, and which has had to evolve its own mechanisms, economical, practical and social, to survive and (relatively speaking) prosper, all in the dockside shadows of a major American city.

That, too, is tinged with the process of dealing with death and moving on. The other main character, Maya, grew up here with her father (my favorite scene in the book is the intro to the place, where she’s talking to a cab driver about it while reminiscing about her childhood). She hasn’t been back since not long after he died and she managed to escape the poverty well into the city proper, and it’s that early uneasiness and sadness – brought up again later on when we see how a floating settlement (with neither burial nor memorial space) deals with its dead – that informs the whole way we see it.

The Port, for what it’s worth, is based partly on a real place. I seem to have stolen all the cool parts of the fictional city of Newport used for this book (as well as the earlier THE LEVELS and just-released novella ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND) from Hong Kong, at least as it used to be. The lawless slum of the Levels was based in part by Kowloon Walled City, while the Port was inspired very loosely – and I do mean *very*; research on this was a lot scanter than on the Walled City, and like the Levels I had the idea before I looked for analogs in the real world – on Aberdeen Harbour and the floating homes of the Tonka ‘boat people’. (Both are, in reality, long gone. The Tonka largely moved onto land in the 70s, and the Walled City was torn down in the early 90s.)

The nature of the place, like the nature of the Curse and the people who have it, pretty much defined the course of the story. Worldbuilding, more or less; if you start from a supposition like “these people have a year to live” or “these people are boat-bound refugees” and a series of hows and whys then give you the territory on which you’ll be working.

I have no idea what it’s like to read, but it was certainly interesting to write.

Even if most of it is about death.

And hovercraft.

Sean Cregan is the pen name of author John Rickards. As Sean he writes “not-quite-SF urban weird ‘biohazard noir’ thrillers” (The Levels, The Razor Gate, All You Leave Behind). As John he writes a crime fiction series featuring the character Alex Rourke (Winter’s End, The Touch of Ghosts, The Darkness Inside, Burial Ground). A self-professed gamer and geek, John has one young son, another child on the way, and is currently in negotiations with his fiancee to use “The Imperial March” at their wedding. You can find John on Twitter and Facebook. To learn more about Sean/John, visit his website.


  • C.A. Newman

    June 8, 2011 - 4:48 pm

    Great post. I definitely want to check this one out.
    I agree with Elizabeth in that I’d probably start out with the rage, and move onto making the most of it, but I have a feeling as it approached the end I’d get pretty damn pissed off again.

    • Elizabeth A. White

      June 8, 2011 - 5:30 pm

      And then there are the dark “If you could kill someone and get away with it” thoughts that take on a different angle in this scenario. “If you’re gonna die in 1 year anyway, why not?” Or perhaps I’m just a dark, sick fucker. 😛

  • Sean C

    June 8, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    FWIW, while I’ve never had to face that particular piece of bad news myself, I suspect, based on when I’ve been confronted with bad lifechanging stuff out of the blue in the past, I’d be of the “fuck it, I’ve got a year” variety myself.

    Of course, that gets harder to hold together as the end date approaches…

  • Elizabeth A. White

    June 8, 2011 - 11:13 am

    I’d be lying if I didn’t say I would spend at least a little time initially in the “raging at the world” category, but I think I’d move into “make the most of my time” rather quickly. After all, I do already have a list of Things To Do Before I Die, so I’d definitely know exactly where to start. 🙂

    Great post, John. Thank you so much for taking the time.

  • Sabrina Ogden

    June 8, 2011 - 9:51 am

    Sean- Wow! Very interesting. Death and dying is a constant theme for me this week, and as I’ve struggled to grasp a couple of things in my own life, I’m pleased to know that I would probably be lumped among the group of people “determined to make the most of their time.”

    Excellent post. I’m looking forward to Elizabeth’s review tomorrow.