Guest post: Universal Language by Tim Major

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Risingshadow has the honour of featuring a guest post by Tim Major.

Tim Major
Tim Major

Tim's time-travel thriller novel, YOU DON'T BELONG HERE (Snowbooks) is available now. He has also released two novellas, BLIGHTERS (Abaddon) and CARUS & MITCH (Omnium Gatherum) – the latter was shortlisted for a This Is Horror Award. His short stories have featured in Interzone, the British Fantasy Society’s Horizons and numerous anthologies. He is the Editor of the UK SF magazine, The Singularity, and blogs at

Click here to visit author official website.

Universal Language by Tim Major
Universal Language
by Tim Major

A novella.

To launch NewCon Press' brand new series of stand alone novellas, Tim Major delivers an intriguing murder mystery that pays homage to Asimov’s seminal robot stories and also to the classic detective tale.

Investigator Abbey Oma is dispatched to a remote and failing Martian colony tasked with solving the murder of scientist Jerem Ferrer. The killing took place in an airlock-sealed lab, and the only possible culprit is a robot incapable of harming humans...

Abbey soon discovers the case is by no means as open and shut as she might have hoped, with political and commercial interests at stake and local resentments threatening both her work and her very life.

Guest post: Universal Language by Tim Major

My novella Universal Language began as a response to a hastily-written note in my green notebook: The airlocked room mystery. I’ve heard other writers suggest that to begin writing a story, you require two ideas that work together or which are in conflict with one another. I’ve followed this approach many times, scouring my green notepad for a combination of concepts that, when merged, produce an appealing flavour in the mind’s eye. It’s rarer that two ideas pop into my mind spontaneously, already linked together. But the airlocked room mystery seemed complete at conception, to the point that it remains the subtitle of the published novella.

So, Universal Language is a locked-room detective story – and the body is discovered in a room that’s not only locked, but also airlocked. The sole suspect is a servile ‘aye-aye’ robot whose programming makes it impossible that it might harm a human.

Probably, a couple of the influences on the novella are already pretty evident, though some others are buried deeper. Here goes.

Locked-room mysteries

I love detective and gaslit crime fiction, from Sherlock Holmes to Father Brown, A. J. Raffles to Arsène Lupin. And no mystery is more tantalising, or satisfying to see through to its solution, than a locked-room mystery. My favourite examples are John Dickson Carr’s The Hollow Man and Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room – my edition of the latter including a map that makes tracking the development of the mystery at times more like playing a tabletop game than reading a novel. I’ve always wanted to write a locked-room mystery, but didn’t have the courage. I suspect that introducing other genre elements, to avoid feeling that I was following too slavishly in the path of writers I love, freed me up to have a go.


Universal Language takes place on Mars. A very specific version of Mars, in fact. I’ve been writing short stories set in dilapidated Mars colonies for many years, all featuring ‘aye-aye’ robots, vast mobile trawler bases and sand-sculpted habitats. Despite the particularly British sensibility of these barely-connected stories, my Mars is modelled on the version created by Ray Bradbury in his sequence of stories which were collected as The Martian Chronicles. Like Bradbury’s invented world, my Mars is a pretext to examine the isolated colonists, their frustrated ambitions and their homesick nostalgia for their old lives.


It’d be difficult for any story centred around robots and their innate abilities and restrictions to avoid squaring up against the laws that Isaac Asimov established in his robot stories, another loosely-connected sequence like Bradbury’s Mars tales. In Universal Language I tackle these limiting protocols head-on – it’s a murder mystery with a robot as the sole suspect, after all. One complicating factor is that each aye-aye’s simulation of consciousness is modelled upon the brain pattern of a specific human colonist, representing another trail of clues to follow.


The title of the novella refers to the hypothetical language spoken by all people before the fall of the Tower of Babel – a language featuring terms that (somehow) describe concepts precisely. The word for ‘cat’, for instance, would itself convey concepts such as four legs and has whiskers and miaows and destroys furniture. Over the centuries, the search for such a ‘perfect’ language resulted in some insane experiments. Revealing how this relates to my novella would represent something of a spoiler.


I can’t remember at what point I decided that my ‘Optic’ detective, Abbey Oma, would be a fan of jazz music. I always create imaginary soundtracks for my novels and novellas, and I think I just relished the idea of Abbey and her Watson, the puppyish Franck Treadgold, hurtling around in a Mars rover to a backing track of Sun Ra or Duke Ellington or Alice Coltrane. I was as surprised as anyone when Abbey announced that she considers Nina Simone’s ‘Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter’ her theme song. (You can find the full soundtrack on my Cosy Catastrophes website.) Anyway, I think the jazz soundtrack turned out to have a big influence on the tone of the novella. It’s kind of an unusual book, all told.