The author of one of my favourite sci-fi stories, Robert Holdstock, has died. The writer and novelist actually passed away in 2009, age 61, but I only just found out as I was trying to dig out his email address.
I’m a little shocked. I interviewed him a few years ago when I was researching an article for Retro Gamer on the classic space game Elite. Fans will remember Holdstock as the writer behind The Dark Wheel novella that was bundled with the game – the first to be bundled with any game. Until EVE Online came along it was probably the only game fiction worth recommending, which seems like faint praise but isn’t: On May 6th 2003, approx 9:30am, I proudly named my first EVE character after one of the protagonists. By the time I had the skills to create a corporation, around lunchtime, The Dark Wheel name had already been appropriated. I wasn’t the only fan.
To me, 14-years young at the time of Elite’s release, The Dark Wheel was a significant work of fiction. Not a great work of fiction, as Holdstock would later admit, almost embarrassed that others saw merit in it after 20 years. But to thousands of young gamers, as I was, it blew open just how imaginative and captivating a game could be, even if the game didn’t quite offer all the freedoms the literature had alluded to. It wasn’t the first work of fiction I had read, obviously, but it was the first I was happy to read more than once. I’ve read it dozens of times since. I was reading it this very morning on the train, oblivious to the fate of the author.
Holdstock went on to write countless novels, many of them successful. Moving on from science fiction in the mid-1980’s, he went on to write exclusively in the fantasy genre, his Ryhope Wood and Merlin Codex series being I think the most well-received. I’ve not read any of them on account of the lack of spaceship action within. After our very brief reminiscences he was kind enough to send me a copy of his 1992 novel The Fetch. “Sorry it’s not sci-fi” he wrote inside, “but maybe you’ll like it.” I did, very much so.
I remember asking Robert Holdstock if he’d ever considered writing a follow-up to The Dark Wheel. In the event of a commission he had something approaching a full novel sketched out in his mind, but he was never asked to progress it. Publisher Acornsoft had their own imminent demise to worry about while the creators of Elite were about to embark on a career-long slanging match.
Sadly it seems we’ll never know what Alex Ryder might have done next. I should have asked when I had the chance. Shame.