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Behind the Scenes: The Alchemist's Folly

Whilst it may seem at first glance that The Alchemist’s Folly has an anti-science message, my objection is actually to scientific advances being hijacked for nefarious purposes. It’s not so much that science itself is the problem, but what humanity does with it. Hence the quote from ‘Jurassic Park’ at the beginning of the book (my absolute favourite film and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Well, maybe a little bit…) So Alchemist’s Folly is basically about people being the real monsters.

Obviously, this goes against the grain a little. After all, in Fighting Fantasy, the arch-nemesis is a Snow Witch, Lizard King or warlock, but with Nightshift’s big baddie being a demon, I wanted to try something new. With that, my inner misanthrope gave an evil smile, started plotting and the power-crazy humans who inhabit the Folly were conceived. Welcome to Bio-Imperium!

I like using names as foreshadowing or for cohesion, and it all starts with Bio-Imperium: Latin for control of life, which is exactly what the genetics company is trying to do. The characters’ names are no accident either but first, a little history of alchemy is needed. The raison d’être for alchemists was to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, so they could change base metals into gold. The chemical process — their Magnum Opus — changes the substance’s colour from black (nigredo) to white (albedo) to yellow (citrinitas) then finally, if the experiment is successful, red (rubedo). Which is why the CEO of Bio-Imperium is called Professor Rubedo. For a long time, the clone was named Dr Citrinitas, as he was second in line to the professor, but it felt clunky and difficult to pronounce, so I changed it to Cinnabar. Yes, that is Bloodbones’ name but it’s also the old-fashioned name for the compound mercury sulphide, which just so happens to be substance that you make for the elixir. And yes, mercury sulphide is toxic but it wouldn’t kill that quickly in reality.

Talking of red, black, white and yellow, those are the colours that the four doors in the gallery are painted, and to be honest, that only came about late in the writing when it was threatening to snowball out of all proportion. You can enter the gallery by three of the doors and, at first, I had it that you could exit through the “opposite door or the one on your left…” This meant I had duplicate sections and it just got too complicated. Having the doors identified by colour rather than their relative position made life a lot simpler! And sticking with rooms, surely everyone got that the house was based around Cluedo. Although the Hall is missing, there is a ballroom, library, kitchen, lounge, conservatory, billiard room, dining room and the escape room at the start is the study. This is referenced when you are in the library and mutter “Colonel bloody Mustard” after you’ve knocked the candlestick over. And on a side note, the escape room part was initially much bigger with 4 puzzles to solve in order to leave. In the end though, I wanted the story to get moving a bit quicker, so I hacked it down. Sometimes, you’ve just got to be ruthless.

There are 4 possible endings, although they have varying degrees of success and even in the GOLD ending, you don’t leave as a true champion. I wrote ‘you’ as being cut-throat and self-centred, so I really wanted to give the protagonist an ambiguous ending — again, bucking the trend of many gamebooks where you are the hero! Not sure if that went down too well, but it was something else I wanted to try out.

Other homages to mention were:

· Spirals — thanks to the double helix of DNA, there is the exterior staircase of the folly, the spiral staircase leading up to the attic and the nautilus shell tattoo on the electrocuted test victim.

· Henrietta Lacks — in section 139, you pass by a large rune and part of its inscription reads “Behold the line of cells that lack/immortality to the cursed.” Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, but her tumour cells were cultured and became an immortal cell line (HeLa). Professor Rubedo is said to have died of lung cancer and the lovely broth of cultured cancer cells is all that is left of him.

· Evolution — Darwin developed his theory from observing different beaks on the finches from different environments in the Galapagas Islands, which is why the Dr Cinnabars all have different nose shapes. By the time, I got to the appearance of the last Cinnabar clone, I was really struggling to come up with a new nose description!

The experiments and conditions are mostly taken from real-life. CATDOG was originally done in the 1950s by Vladimir Demikhov, although he used adult dogs with puppy heads sewn on. The test room experiment is a classic psychological experiment by Stanley Milgram and the goat-wasp-prion is a hybrid of 2 experiments/discoveries. The first is an experiment with spider silk genes which you read about in the platform waiting room. The second is the recently discovered Zatypota wasp which lays its eggs on a spider. The larva then produce a substance which controls the spider, making it create a strong web for them. Once that job is done, the larva feed on the spider before tucking themselves up inside their cocoons — you see this in action in the garden where the hives are. By mixing these two up together, I came up with the Zombie disease. Having it spread via goat’s cheese just tickled me, and I liked the idea of the clones being stumped by vegans.

For the ‘mutants’, I was inspired by the Medizinhistorisches Museum in Berlin, which has rows upon rows of human embryos. By studying their mutations, scientists could understand the process of embryonic development and the role that genetics plays in it, but you can also see how legends and folklore tales would have evolved. For example, as people in the past tried to explain a baby with only one eye in the centre of its forehead, the Cyclops myth was born. That said, the cover image is the Homunculus and that most definitely isn’t real!

I enjoyed the variety of puzzles in the Folly. They emerged with the situations, so there is the maze walkthrough at the actual maze; the odd-one-out portrait in the Artist’s Room, snooker balls and the ethernet cable logic problem in the Server room. I also liked that the modern world was brought into the book with viral YouTube videos, WhatsApp, PIN and decontamination showers. It was a nice juxtaposition against the Roman mythology and alchemical elixirs.

And finally, did anyone notice the mention of Charpentier’s veterinary appointment? Charpentier was the talking, occasionally helpful cat that you may have met in Nightshift. This was the first clue that Nightshift and The Alchemist’s Folly are set in the same world and more is revealed in The Phantom Self. Especially if you went to the library and met Otto the Failed Applicant…

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Love the description and the references. I need to look up CATDOG as it reminds me of something that happened when I was teaching. One day, when the year 11s were doing a wordsearch, one of them noticed the word DOGAT was randomly there. Theyblatched onto that word and used it as much as possible. On their last lesson, they took a picture of a DOGAT from Google (a CATDOG) and photos hopped my face into its eyes. There's still a copy in the department even though I left in 2013. Good times(?)

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