Musings on Populists

18 Jun

Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer – except, of course, for the pigs and the dogs.

-Animal Farm

Robert A. Heinlein, may he rest in peace, had an observation on communists and communism that should be borne in mind. Communism simply did not take root in healthy societies. The presence of a communist movement, therefore, was a clear warning sign that something was deeply wrong, that society itself was sick. Society therefore needed to take heed, to address the social sickness before it turned terminal and brought society crashing down in ruins. The communists were not, at least at first, the cause of society’s problems. They were a symptom of a far deeper issue.

The same could easily be said of populists. Would-be populists come and go all the time, of course, but they only gain traction when two conditions are met. First, there must be a serious problem (or set of problems) gnawing at society’s vitals. Second, society itself – i.e. the government/ruling class – must be either unwilling or unable to admit there is a problem, let alone confront the problem directly. The former lays the groundwork for populists; the latter ensures that populists will climb to power.

Populists do not get to choose, by and large, what problems they intend to address. A populist who genuinely believes that eating asparagus for breakfast may have good intentions, but he simply won’t get very far. Why should anyone take him seriously? Very few people are prepared to die on a hill, or simply vote for, a platform that is so patently absurd. Even something a little deeper – a Scottish politician who insists that all Scots should wear kilts, perhaps – isn’t likely to get much traction. There aren’t many people – if any – who regard the lack of kilts as a serious problem – and the lack of such people ensures that would-be populist gets nowhere. No, a populist who wishes to gain power must identify a social issue that meets the criteria I mentioned above and use it.

And it is important – very important – to bear in mind, at all times, that the populist is not necessarily wrong. If people are voting for him, then his message is resonating with them; if the message is resonating with them, it’s a clear sign that there is a growing percentage of the population who both agrees that the issue is a serious issue and has no faith in the ability of the government – however defined – to handle it. If this wasn’t true, the populist would be about as dangerous as Screaming Lord Sutch.

Wait, you say. The populists are lying. They’re all liars, con artists, swindlers, etc …

Maybe they are. The point is, the really dangerous lies – the ones that tend to linger – are the lies that are based on a kernel of truth. When Hitler told the German people that they had been betrayed by their leaders, he was right; when Lenin told the Russians they were being oppressed by their aristocracy, he was right; when SJWs told the internet that political correctness was all about politeness, they were right. And one didn’t have to look very far to see evidence that they were right. The lie slipped through because, at its core, there was a certain degree of truth. And once the liars were firmly established, it became incredibly difficult to unseat them.

The populists are winning because the establishments are simply unwilling or unable to heed the legitimate demands of their electorates.


(Given a better cause, this guy could be really dangerous)

But there is a deeper problem.

There are, if I may crave your pardon for a slight digression, three default mindsets for humanity: Barbarism, Tribalism and Civilisation.

The Barbarian recognises no law, but force. He cares nothing for anyone, save for himself; he has no concept of right and wrong, no concept of the future, no willingness to honour his word, police his own actions … and no restraint. Given the chance, he will happily loot, rape and slaughter his way across an entire country. The only way to stop a Barbarian is force, the demonstrated ability and will to give him a bloody nose. The rule of the fist is the only rule the barbarian acknowledges.

The Tribesman is loyal to his tribe. He will respect the tribe and its rules; he will honour them, whatever his opinion of outsiders. He will not betray the tribe, even when it is clearly in his personal interest to do so. His tribe is his home, his family. At his best, a tribesman can deal with outsider tribes in the pursuit of profit and mutual stability (no one benefits from a long-term blood feud); at his worst, a tribesman will hold his tribe over all others, waging war on all other tribes.

The Civilised Man is loyal to an ideal, civilisation itself. He honours and respects the rule of law. He deals fairly with outsiders because he expects the legal framework to uphold whatever agreement is signed (and he can seek redress from the courts if there is a problem); he doesn’t try to cheat the system. At his best, a civilised man will place his faith in the system, expecting it to provide redress instead of setting off on a private vendetta; at his worst, a civilised man will hide behind the rules while civilisation crumbles around him.

(John Campbell talked about something similar, but as a series of stages human civilisations progress through. I see the three as always with us.)

All three states exist within the human mindset, sometimes simultaneously. Chess Players, for example, are Civilised Men because they have a structure of rules for playing chess (both for actually playing and for how they should act while they’re playing) and follow them religiously. At the same time, they are also Tribesmen; the world is divided into players and non-players. They recognise an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group.’ They also recognise that someone who refuses to play by the rules is not part of the in-group, whatever they are told by superior authority.

Now, when times are good – when faith and trust in the rule of law is strong, when the barbarians are held at bay – there is no need for tribalism. Why rock the boat? (Scotland didn’t vote for independence because most Scots saw no need for such an extreme step.) But when times are hard – when faith and trust in the rule of law is declining, when the barbarians are running rampant – people become tribal. They instinctively seek their fellows, people who will support them against outsiders (i.e. both barbarians and other tribesmen.) They want – they need – unquestioning support and protection. And they are often prepared to pay a steep price for it. In medieval times, low-ranking men would attach themselves to high-ranking noblemen and serve them loyally, in exchange for their support and protection. (Bastard feudalism.) In modern times, they vote for populists.

Like I said above, the populists didn’t create the conditions that inspire people to vote for them. But they do take advantage of them. And the only way to keep populists from eventually being voted into power is to tackle the conditions that lead to their rise.

The political and media classes, throughout the entire Western World, have been in deep denial. This is partly understandable. Any honest assessment of why things have been steadily growing worse would have to focus on leadership; doing something about the problem would mean admitting that they are part of the problem. (In much the same way that the greatest problem with Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign was Hilary Clinton herself.) The only way to deal with the problem is to openly admit that there is a problem and show (not tell) that they are taking steps to deal with the problem. This would not be easy – it would mean taking sides and dealing with the flak they’d get for doing so – but it would put things back on an even kneel.

Instead, they have reacted like people with something to hide.

There isn’t enough space to go into detail here, so I’ll touch on a few highlights. Media attacks on right-wing politicians, combined with a program of either ignoring or downplaying crimes committed by left-wing figures. Attacks on free speech; deplatforming, openly and covertly, anyone who appears to be a right wing figure. Deliberate mockery, below-the-belt attacks … anything and everything, apart from conceding that there is a problem and doing something about it. In short, they are trying to pretend that everything is fine by trying to silence everyone who says otherwise. In earlier days, this might have worked; now, the mere act of trying to silence opposition draws attention to it. And this makes people ask the obvious question. Why would anyone bother to silence the opposition unless the opposition had a point? Indeed, it makes things worse. It’s safer to believe the worst about anything if you can’t get reliable data. (The panic after 9/11 was wrong, but it wasn’t misplaced.)

There’s a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail which neatly illustrates my point. (Scene, quote.) King Arthur claims to rule – effectively – by divine right. Dennis the Peasant promptly points out that – all together now – “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” And Dennis is entirely correct. Arthur is unable to put together a response to this argument and resorts to shouting at Dennis, then trying to strange him. Dennis snarks: “ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system!”

The point is this. Dennis asks a reasonable question, which Arthur cannot answer. Indeed, his claim to power is risible. But Arthur cannot concede that Dennis has a point because that would undermine Arthur’s claim to power. He is therefore reduced to trying to silence Dennis, which makes Dennis’s claim more creditable. After all, if Arthur had a good answer to Dennis’s question, wouldn’t he have given it?

Populists point to this as proof they’re right. No one would bother trying to silence someone who’s talking nonsense. Why bother? People only try to silence the opposition when the opposition has an unanswerable point, one that cannot be countered fairly.

Back in a world that isn’t governed by the laws of comedy, this short-term attempt to conceal the problem has made matters worse. By undermining trust – in the media, in big tech, etc – it makes the opposition more creditable. Wild ideas and misconceptions about immigration, for example, take root because it’s hard to hold an open discussion about the issue. Instead, the populists and extremists get a boost – deserved or not – because they’re the only ones talking about the issues…

A lack of faith in the rule of law (etc) weakens the bonds of civilisation. So does a belief that civilisation’s leaders (from politicians to corporate CEOs) are not on civilisation’s side. The massive promotion of everything from identity politics to multiculturalism and top-down bureaucrat-driven social engineering makes things worse. The people pushing this are not, by and large, the people who will suffer. They’re the people who are rich or powerful enough to enjoy a certain insulation from the world. As I’ve noted before, the benefits from hugely controversial issues – immigration, globalisation – have not been spread equally. Why should the people who get the short end of the stick support them?

People who no longer trust that the law works for them – that, at the very least, they will get a fair trial if things go wrong – are thrust out of the civilised mindset. In a sense, they turn tribal. They put their own interests first.

Civilisation is weakened by harassment. Tribalism is not. Indeed, a program of harassment – direct or indirect – and outright repression makes the bonds of tribalism stronger. On one hand, the mere existence of a program of harassment is proof that there is an outside enemy. On the other hand, harassment means that the tribe has to hang together or hang separately. Populists take advantage of this by setting themselves up as the leaders and making shows of strength and determination, displaying a willingness to weather attacks from their detractors while serving their tribe. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s approval ratings kept rising every time he stood up to the media and gave the finger to political correctness.

In a sense, we have moved from ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ through ‘all animals are equal’ to ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ The rise of tribalism promotes both resentment of the ‘more equal’ tribes and a bitter determination to become the ‘more equal’ tribe.

It also obliterates nuance. To a civilised man, for example, there is considerable nuance in the abortion issue. There is room for a compromise that would satisfy the vast majority of people. But to the tribes – the pro-life and pro-choice tribes – there is no nuance. The tribal mindset doesn’t allow it. A concession will merely lead to another concession, followed by a third concession … neither side can risk disarming (i.e. offering to accept a reasonable compromise) because it believes, probably correctly, that the other will see it as a sign of weakness and pounce.

The marvel of western civilisation is that we built institutions that stood apart from the men who ran them. Our institutions were not perfect, but they worked. In a sense, they allowed us to overcome the tribal mindset. We made rules for electing our leaders, for example, and honoured them. But this was not built in a day! It required a degree of commitment, a willingness to make the system work (if necessary, by accepting defeat gracefully.) This is now under attack by people who see the system as something to be subverted or simply don’t have any loyalty to it at all.

We can cope with this. But we can only cope with it by openly admitting what is wrong and taking steps to deal with it.

Heinlein’s sad comment on communism is still true today:

“Communism is so repugnant to almost all Americans, when they are getting along even tolerably well, that one may predict with certainty that any social field or group in which the Communists make real strides in gaining members or acceptance of their doctrines, [that] any such spot is in such bad shape from real and not imaginary social ills that the rest of us should take emergency, drastic action to investigate and correct the trouble.

“Unfortunately we are more prone to ignore the sick spot thus disclosed and content ourselves with calling out more cops.”

Unfortunately, this is true of populists too.

Review: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

17 Jun

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

-Farah Mendlesohn

It may surprise a few of my readers to learn that I don’t place much credence in literary criticism, although I have written a piece of lit-crit myself. Critics have a tendency, in my view, to miss the forest for the trees, to indulge in ‘presentism’ and view the author through a very modern-day lens. This can be infuriating, at times; it is difficult to understand certain works of prose – Romeo and Juliet, for example – without some understanding of the realities of life in Shakespeare’s time. And critics also have the habit of over-thinking matters, declaring that the author’s decision tell us that the curtains were blue was a reflection of deep-seated depression when, in fact, the author meant to tell us that the curtains were blue!

Farah Mendlesohn, thankfully, has managed to avoid most of those errors.

By any reasonable standard, Robert A. Heinlein has had a massive impact on the science-fiction field, but his works have rarely been given any substantial analysis. Indeed, most modern-day critics have judged Heinlein by our standards and declared him to be sexist, racist, bigoted, etc. Others, in the meantime, have been completely uncritical of Heinlein and his works. He was one of, perhaps the, founding father of our genre and attacking him (particularly as the wokescolds try to drag his name through the mud), feels like treason.

After a brief assessment of Heinlein’s life and career, Mendlesohn starts to assess the themes running through Heinlein’s works. Heinlein was very focused on the family, but the family one chooses rather than the biological family one has. This spans a range between the happy – and very 50s-typical – Stone Family to the family Lazarus Long built for himself towards the of Heinlein’s career. As Heinlein grew older, he grew more cynical; the Stones are an ideal family, in many ways, but the Farnham Family is an utter disgrace. Curiously, although he is often branded an individualist, Heinlein talks often about the need for social support structures – familial, rather than governmental. Heinlein’s heroes are never true loners. They have support from their families and friends.

Mendlesohn is quite adapt at recognising the concealed racial markers encoded into Heinlein’s text (she spotted several I missed during my own overview), although Heinlein was often quite limited in what he could come out and say. This is a point that Mendlesohn doesn’t discuss openly – it is quite possible that Heinlein’s early books would have been rejected, outright, if he’d features openly black heroes and black men in positions of power. But he gave himself enough room to deny it, if necessary. One may argue that this was contemptible, but it was a fact of life. Later, Heinlein made it clear that he had created a series of multiracial worlds.

She does, however, point out that most of Heinlein’s coloured heroes were still, culturally speaking, Americans. Heinlein’s heroes might have been multiracial, but not multicultural. One might accuse Heinlein of a lack of cultural diversity here, particularly in the juveniles, but it should be noted that different cultures are not always better and it can be hard to empathise with someone from a culture so different to our own that their actions made no sense to us or come across as outright evil. I would not like someone who married a child-bride, for example, and I think most people would feel the same way. Heinlein’s early heroes are Americans because Heinlein saw the American ethos as the best in the world.

Mendlesohn also raises a number of interesting points regarding Heinlein’s female characters, both lead characters (Podkayne and Maureen Smith) and secondary characters (Betsy of The Star Beast, Wyoming of Moon). Some of them – Maureen and Betsy – start their careers as second fiddles, held back – directly or indirectly – by social conventions. They grow and develop as their stories develop – Mendlesohn points out that Maureen was a daughter, then a wife and mother and finally an independent women … Maureen couldn’t go back to motherhood, when her estranged children re-entered her life. She had outgrown the parental urge. Podkayne, by contrast, was the victim of failed parenting. Her parents were unable to give her the tool she needed for adulthood; nor, for that matter, was she surrounded by women who would aid her. (Duke Farnham, too, was a similar victim.) Indeed, Mendlesohn makes it clear that women within the novels played a major role in restricting other women.

In some ways, however, Mendlesohn is guilty of ‘interrogating the text from the wrong perspective’. Heinlein’s juveniles were written, first and foremost, for teenage boys – and teenage boys, by and large, are not interested in feminine issues. Heinlein glossed over them because he knew his audience would find it a turn-off. Successful female heroes – women, written by women – who appeal to men do it, in a sense, by turning away from traditional femininity. They are either surrounded by men (Hermione Granger) or exist in male-shaped universes (Paksenarrion). They are rarely involved with female social groups – the only real exception, as far as I can tell, is Mildred Hubble. But her books are written in a manner that allows boys to pretend that she isn’t classically feminine. Heinlein did not set out to be all things to all readers – a good thing too, as it is impossible.

This explains, I think, some of the weaker moments in his earlier juveniles. The main character of Red Planet shows signs of sexism, as Mendlesohn points out, but his sentiments would not be out of place for a teenage boy (particularly of Heinlein’s youth). Heinlein clearly evolved, as similar sentiments expressed within Tunnel in the Sky lead to an embarrassing case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. Indeed, Heinlein would intentionally start writing his juveniles for girls as well as boys, but he kept boys as the core audience – a wise move, as girls will often read boy-books but not vice versa.

This has other effects on his writing. Mendlesohn points to problematic moments within the text – the failure of a father to admit, for example, that his daughter is more than just his daughter – but this is caused by the male mindset. Maureen argues, at one point, that men assume that a woman is subordinate until she proves otherwise. It would be more accurate to say that people (men as well as women) are pigeonholed very quickly and, once pigeonholed, have the greatest difficulty in climbing out of the pigeonhole. The male mindset leads to the same problems as female intuition; when it’s right, it cannot explain why it is right, when it’s wrong, it finds it hard to truly believe it’s wrong. Heinlein depicted this process quite accurately – and, in other books, argued that the only true way to counter it is to give the wrong person room to retreat. This does, of course, require a sensitivity that few people are encouraged to develop.

Her comments on racism within Heinlein’s works, including Sixth Column and Farnham’s Freehold, are interesting. Heinlein did not depict the Pan-Asians of Sixth Column very kindly, it is true, but the atrocities they committed are very pitiful shadows of the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan. To challenge Heinlein on this requires a certain willingness to ignore real-life atrocities (by 1941, it was clear that the Japanese were not being ‘decent’ in China) and Mendlesohn, to her credit, largely avoids it. She does point out that the ‘killing rays’ of the Sixth Column kill Asian-Americans as well as Pan-Asians, but this is an unfortunate – and logical – effect. The ray could not tell the difference between two different groups of Asians.

Mendlesohn also raises a number of points concerning Farnham’s Freehold – and concludes that the book is racist. This is a commonly-held belief, but it isn’t one I share. Mendlesohn suggests that Farnham’s Freehold is an ‘if this goes on …’ book; I see it, instead, as a ‘flipping’ book. Hugh Farnham and his family – a deeply-flawed group of people, as becomes clear on the second read – start in a position of ‘white supremacy.’ They then go through a short period of ‘equality,’ followed by ‘black supremacy’ and ending with the ‘aftermath.’ In doing so, they are shown – time and time again – what it is like to be on the opposite end of the scale. The book pulls no punches – every time Hugh starts to think that maybe life as a slave won’t be so bad, it pulls a rejoinder of ‘OH YES IT WILL!’

There is room for an entire essay here – In Defence of Farnham’s Freehold, perhaps – so I’ll content myself with a handful of points. Heinlein, throughout his work, identified two different kinds of slaveowner – the thug, who treats his slaves as mere possessions, and the paternalist who tells himself that slavery is for the slave’s own good. When Farnham’s Freehold opens, it becomes clear that Hugh is a paternalist-type, while Duke – his son – is a thug. Their roles are so embedded within their personalities that neither of them really adapts to the period of equality. Worse, when they enter the period of black supremacy, they find themselves at the mercy of another paternalist-thug duo. They are to be denied everything, from freedom itself to the slight comfort of getting away with a little defiance. They may even be eaten alive – the slaveholders of Dixie did not practice cannibalism, as far as I know, but the slaves were certainly metaphorically cannibalised. They were certainly denied any hope for a better future. By the time the book comes to an end, Hugh has come to realise – perhaps – just what it is like to have a taste of his own medicine. He had all the answers … he could argue and browbeat his son into submission … and so could his ‘master.’

Farnham’s Freehold raised points that needed to be raised. And if it made people a little uncomfortable, that might not be a bad thing. Mendlesohn assesses that it was an overall failure, but I disagree. It came as close as it could for a book of its time.

Mendlesohn’s assessment of Heinlein’s ‘male’ and ‘female’ selves is interesting and well worth a read, although it may be pushing things a little too far. She notes that many of Heinlein’s main characters are less interesting than their supporting characters, although – again – this isn’t always a bad thing. Max Jones and John Thomas are bland, compared to Sam and Betsy, but that doesn’t mean they’re not heroes. Indeed, their simplicity may be part of the lesson. Max surpasses Sam and comes to safe harbour, at least in part, because he’s honest enough to admit to the deception they’ve pulled; John Thomas defends a friend because it’s the right thing to do, while Betsy, who over-thinks everything, makes things more complicated (and, at worst, worse). There is little to quibble with here.

Her assessment of the underlying social structures Heinlein depicts is quite accurate – and, unlike some others, she refrains from blaming Heinlein for depicting them. Poddy’s lack of support from other women has already been noted – Maureen’s financial dependency on her husband, in addition, was quite serious in a world where men held the purse strings. (It’s really quite terrifying how something ‘normal’ can be weaponised if things go sour.) She also assesses the interaction between the public’ and ‘private’ lives of his characters, noting how they interact (and how things can go wrong.) She does, however, overlook a handful of contextual points – she notes that Lazarus treats Estrellita as property, denying her agency, but one can reasonably argue that this was for Estrellita’s (and Joe’s) own good. He regards them both as kids in adult bodies – a dangerous combination. Of course, this is also the argument that slaveholders made (which Mendlesohn notes) and, even though it is reasonably justified in this case, it does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Overall, it is difficult to assess this book.

Mendlesohn makes a number of very good points, although some are influenced by modern-day thinking and perceptions that Heinlein would have found very alien. She demonstrates that Heinlein seemed to have grown and evolved as he grew more confident, ranging from seemingly-trite adventures to pieces of literary merit. This may have been due to the influence of his second wife, who was a screenwriter and editor. She also makes it clear that Heinlein was very ‘woke’ for his era – he detested slavery, regarded rape as a great evil, created coloured and female characters in an era when no one would have batted an eyelid if he hadn’t. And she raises some interesting points about Heinlein’s relationship with guns, although I don’t agree with all of her conclusions. Heinlein did not fetishise guns, unlike some modern authors; he seems to have regarded them as tools, something to be used if necessary. It’s a valid point.

It’s assessment of how Heinlein was influenced – and later, uninfluenced – by his life is also very good. Mendlesohn draws lines between his naval service and his wartime work and shows how it might have influenced his writing – Heinlein put female characters forward, at least in part, because he worked closely with women during the war. (He wasn’t blind, either, to the issues raised by women entering a formerly masculine sphere.) The influence of both his second and third wives on his career are also discussed, raising the issue of just how many of his issues Heinlein was working out on paper. She also notes that, in his later years, Heinlein lost (at least some) touch with the world around him. It is hard to know how seriously to take this, but it is an interesting point.

The book also reads very well. It is an academic text, rather than a novel, but it avoids many of the boredom-inducing pitfalls common to textbooks. I enjoyed reading it and never felt the urge to skip pages or chapters.

The book also has weaknesses. It does not focus on each of the books, separately; it is easy to see how Heinlein evolved, but harder to place his words in context. In this, it is very like Heinlein in Dimension (free, online); it runs the risk of assuming that his characters speak for him, rather than accepting that Heinlein preferred to show us their weaknesses rather than beat us over the head with them. (That’s part of the reason I feel that Farnham’s Freehold rewards a second read, once the reader knows where the story ends and can follow the themes running through the story.) It also notes Heinlein’s weaknesses – the moments we would call ‘problematic’ – without always acknowledging that many of them would not have seemed problematic to Heinlein. He would have snorted, I think, at the idea that disguising Wyoh would be seen as ‘minstrelsy’ (or Blackface, a comparison Mendlesohn doesn’t draw, but one that occurred to me).

Heinlein was not fond of critics, not entirely without reason. Even in his day, a good critic could be a wonder – and a bad one a nightmare. But I think he might have liked this book – and, as Heinlein remains popular, we should ask ourselves why. You may not agree with everything in this book, but it will make you think. Mendlesohn treats Heinlein as what he was, a man. Not an angel, or a demon, but a man. An influential man, but a man nonetheless.

Snippet– The Family Pride

11 Jun

Here we go …


When I was a child, one rule was drummed into me from the very start. Anything, for the family. It was a very clear rule. The family was my home, my tribe. It sheltered me, protected me, empowered me. And, in exchange for everything it gave me, I was to always put the family first. I could leave, if I wished, but if I left I gave up everything. The family came first. Always.

Isabella, my twin sister, and I had grown up together, told – practically since birth – that we were expected to be a team, against both the outside world and the family itself. The family might show a united front to outsiders – Father had made that very clear, during his long and tedious lectures on politics and family loyalties – but we bickered amongst ourselves in a constant, genteel struggle for power. My sister and I – as the Patriarch’s sole children – were expected to inherit, yet we could lose that position in a moment if we showed ourselves unworthy. In truth, I wasn’t sure I cared. Isabella might enjoy the drive for power, she might strive to establish herself as a leader amongst our generation … I did not. I was always more interested in forging, and magic, than playing power games. It didn’t matter if I wanted to inherit or not. I was going to inherit anyway. Father had it all under control.

I was ten years old, a year short of going to Jude’s for the first time, when I finally realised just how far apart Isabella and I had become.

It was a long hot summer, dominated by endless lessons from our teachers and supervised playdates with children from other aristocratic families. The games might have been fun, if they weren’t so tightly controlled; I might have enjoyed it, just a little, if we’d been allowed to run free, like children who had no aristocratic parents to disappoint. Instead, we were expected to act like miniature adults, demonstrating our manners on one hand and our magic on the other. The playdates were boring. I found myself sneaking off as soon as possible. It was worth the lecture from Father just to be alone for a few short hours.

I was sitting in my study, reading a book on advanced forging techniques, when Isabella burst into the room. I looked up, alarmed. We’d both practiced unlocking the other’s door, but it was generally understood that neither of us would actually enter the room without permission. Our bedrooms were ours, the only rooms in the mansion that were truly private. Even our Governess was supposed to knock. There had been times when I’d kept my mouth firmly closed, when she knocked on the door, and waited for her to go away. It worked. Sometimes.

Isabella and I looked alike, naturally, but – as we grew older – we had started to diverge. Her blonde hair, the same colour as mine, hung down in a single long braid, while mine was cropped close to my skull. Her blue eyes, I fancied, were a little sharper than mine, although our parents claimed they were identical. The green dress she wore was a copy of one of Mother’s gowns, a dress so complex that it was difficult to put it on without magic; I, thankfully, was allowed to wear shirts and trousers. Isabella couldn’t wear trousers. The old ladies of the family would throw their hands up in horror at the mere thought, then subject her to very astringent criticism. A young lady of House Ruben wearing trousers? What was the world coming to? Horror of horrors!

“Akin!” Isabella looked flushed, as if she had been running. “You have to help me!”

I stood up, glancing out the opened door. I half-expected to see Madame McGinty – our Governess, a woman who would explode with fury if we forgot to call her Madame – charging down the corridor in a towering rage. Isabella had been picking fights with the governess more and more as we grew older, constantly struggling against the governess’s dictates as she fought to establish herself as a young girl. I was on her side, naturally. Madame McGinty was not a nice woman. But the corridor was empty.

The door closed at my command. “What happened?”

Isabella held up a book. “I … ah … borrowed this,” she said. “You have to help me.”

I swallowed, hard. “You … you took that from Father’s bookcase?”

Isabella nodded, her head bobbing so rapidly that her braid swung loose. I stared, unable to help myself. Father had made it clear that we were not to touch the books on his private bookcase. Some of them could be very dangerous to the unprepared. I had no idea how Isabella had managed to circumvent the locking charms, let alone steal the book without being frozen in place or zapped into a frog or having something unpleasant happen to her. She’d always been better at charms than I, yet Father was much older and far more experienced. I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked with my Father – he was always busy, managing the family – but I had a healthy respect for his powers. He’d been practicing magic for longer than I’d been alive.

“He’ll kill you,” I said, horrified. Not literally, I hoped, but Isabella would be in a lot of trouble. Father would hit the roof. Isabella would be grounded for so long that her grandchildren would still be trapped in her bedroom. “Why did you …?”

Isabella met my eyes, her blue eyes wide. “I had to know.”

I winced in perfect understanding. We had been taught to be curious, to study magic and develop our knowledge as far as possible. It seemed almost a crime to ignore books, even ones that were dangerous. I’d read hundreds of textbooks and tomes that had been intended for older children, although I hadn’t been permitted to try any of the spells. I understood perfectly why Isabella would want to read a forbidden text. They were forbidden. That was half of the fun!

“He’s coming,” Isabella said. She was always pale, but now she was so white that her skin looked almost translucent. “He’ll find me and …”

Her voice trailed off. Isabella was already in trouble. She’d mouthed off to Madame McGinty earlier in the day and the Governess had not been pleased. Mother wasn’t going to be pleased either, when she came home from her society meeting. It really would not do to have a young lady showing anything less than the proper respect … Mother would be angry and Isabella would be grounded and it was a horrible ghastly mess.

“What can I do?” I looked at the book. The title was faded, which meant it was old and probably very rare. “Isabella …”

“Tell Father you took the book,” Isabella said. “Please.”

I blinked. “You want me to lie to Father?”

“He’ll kill me,” Isabella pleaded. “But he won’t kill you.”

I heard the bitter frustration in her voice and winced. Isabella would never be Heir Primus, let alone Matriarch. House Ruben was always led by a Patriarch. I might inherit my father’s titles and position, but Isabella … the best she could hope for was marrying into a position of power. She would have power, I’d been assured, just as Mother had power … it wouldn’t be hers. It was a sad irony of our lives that I, who didn’t want power, was going to inherit it. And my sister would never have power in her own right.

I would have traded places. Yes, I would have done. Isabella actually wanted the power.

“He won’t kill you,” I pointed out. “The worst that will happen is that you get grounded …”

“Yeah, but I have to attend the Lancet Party,” Isabella said. “It’s the event of the year, before school. I have to go, just to solidify alliances …”

I rolled my eyes. Yes, I knew alliances were important. Yes, I knew it was vital to have friendships before we went to school. Yes, I knew that who one knew could be very important in later life … but I didn’t really care. I’d been surrounded by sycophants for most of my life. Isabella, on the other hand, was determined to be a social queen. She’d started training for the role at a very young age.

“Please, Akin,” Isabella pleaded. “I need this. I’ll repay you …”

There was a solid knock on the door. I blanched, feeling my stomach starting to churn. Only one person knocked like that, only one. Father. I looked at Isabella, at my sister’s pleading face, and made up my mind. I took the book, then cast a simple spell. The door opened. My father stepped into the room.

“Akin, Isabella.” His voice was very calm, so calm I knew he was angry. My father rarely showed any display of temper. “Would one of you care to explain …?”

I held up the book. “It was my fault, Father.”

Father eyed me for a long moment, his face utterly implacable. I couldn’t tell if he believed me or not. I wasn’t a good liar and Father had been running the family since well before I was born. But his face showed no trace of his feelings. Isabella was going to owe me big. I made a mental note to ensure that she paid through the nose.

“Your fault,” Father said, slowly. “And why did you take the book?”

“I was curious.” I could have kicked myself. I hadn’t thought to take a look at the book before Father had arrived. I could have come up with a convincing reason to borrow the book if only I knew the subject. “It was the first I touched.”

“Indeed.” Father’s gaze moved from me to Isabella and back again. “Give it to me.”

I held out the book. Father took it, his eyes never leaving my face. I knew, with a sickening certainty, that he knew I was lying. But he said nothing.

“I’m sorry, Father.” My voice shook, although I wasn’t sure if I was afraid or angry at Isabella for getting me into this mess. “I just wanted to know.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” Father said, quietly.

“Satisfaction brought it back.” Isabella gave him a charming smile. “Father …”

I shot her a sharp look. This wasn’t the time to be flippant. It never was, when Father was concerned, but now was a particularly bad time.

Father gave her a stern look. “I believe Madame McGinty is looking for you, young lady.”

“Oh,” Isabella said.

“And you can go find her, afterwards,” Father continued. “Akin, I am very disappointed in you.”

I looked down. “Yes, Father.”

“You will report to my office after dinner, where we will discuss your punishment.” Father’s voice brooked no disobedience. “And you will remain in your room until dinner.”

“Yes, Father.”

Father studied me for a long moment. I was fairly sure he knew that ordering me to stay in my room wasn’t much of a punishment. I had books to read, experiments to plan … and a perfect excuse to avoid everyone until dinnertime. Cousins Francis and Bernard had been nagging me to play hide-and-seek with them. I liked them both, but they were a bit much when I was trying to study.

“Good,” Father said. “And the next time you want to read one of my books, ask first.”

He turned and swept out of the room. The door closed behind him with a sharp thud. I sensed the spell a moment later, keeping me firmly in my room. Anyone else could come and go as they wished, but I … I was stuck, until Father lifted the spell. I …

Isabella gave me a hug. “Thank you, thank you,” she said. “I owe you my life!”

“Hah,” I muttered. I hugged her back, very briefly. Dramatics aside, it was nice to know our relationship wasn’t totally lost. “Anything, for the family.”

Chapter One

The corridor leading to my father’s office seemed endless.

Isabella and I used to joke, in happier times, that Father used magic to deliberately extend the corridor. It wasn’t impossible. House Ruben was so old that magic had seeped into the very bones of the mansion. The inside was bigger than the outside, in places; there were staircases that went up to be the basement and corridors that twisted in odd ways, threatening to go in directions the human mind couldn’t grasp. Father could have extended the corridor for miles, if he had wished, but I doubted it. I simply didn’t want to reach the far end.

I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I made my way along the corridor. Isabella and I – and all the other children – had been told, in no uncertain terms, that we were not to enter the office floor unless we were specifically invited. And we were only invited when we were in trouble. I didn’t think I’d done anything that might get me in trouble, certainly not in the last few weeks of summer, but … I couldn’t help reviewing everything that had happened, wondering what Father might have found offensive. Perhaps someone had seen Cat and I exchanging brief kisses, when we’d last met. We might be betrothed, yet there were limits to how far we could go. We’d been chaperoned, but …

That was two weeks ago, I reminded myself. Father would have told me off by now, if he was going to tell me off at all.

I pushed the thought aside as I came to the first set of family portraits. The first one showed my parents, Lord Carioca Rubén and Lady Jeannine Rubén, on their wedding day. I stopped to look at them for a long moment, before heading on. Everyone said my father and I looked alike, but I couldn’t see it. Father was taller and more dignified than I would ever be. The next portrait showed Isabella and I, as children. We’d been five when the portrait had been painted … I smiled, as I walked past a series of portraits, each one painted a year after the last. Isabella and I really had looked alike, back then. We’d joked that we could swap clothes and no one would notice the difference.

My good humour faded as I reached the eleventh portrait. It was the last one that showed Isabella, before her disgrace. She looked young and pretty, dressed in her school uniform … I swallowed, hard, as I remembered the House War and Isabella’s role in it. She’d betrayed the family, she’d thrown her lot in with Stregheria Aguirre … she whose name was never spoken. Isabella had been young, young enough to avoid execution, but not young enough to avoid punishment. My sister had been in exile for the last six years. I’d only seen her once, in all that time. Her letters had been upbeat – reading between the lines, I thought she’d found something to do with herself – but something was missing. A little of her fire, her passion for life, her determination to be great, had died with Stregheria Aguirre.

And the Crown Prince, I thought. He died too.

I swallowed, hard, at the thought. I’d killed the Crown Prince, with the family sword. It was currently resting in a scabbard attached to my back, the scabbard charmed to make the sword difficult to see unless someone’s attention was drawn – specifically – to its presence. I had the right to wear it – the blade had bonded to me, once Cat had repaired it – but not everyone liked the idea of me carrying a priceless Object of Power everywhere I went. It was silly – it wasn’t as if students my age didn’t know a handful of killing spells – yet … there was no point in arguing. Besides, the sword was – technically – a betrothal gift. It was going to get sticky if the betrothal fell through and Cat’s family demanded the sword back.

I touched the hilt – it felt reassuringly solid against my skin – and forced myself to walk further down the corridor. The portraits changed, showing me – and me alone. There was no sign of Isabella. I might as well be an only child, for all the acknowledgement my parents made of their daughter. She was lucky they’d kept her childhood portraits. I knew that some of the family elders had demanded they be destroyed. Isabella had betrayed the entire family. They would forgive a great deal, but not that.

And if they hadn’t pushed so hard, Father might have given them what they wanted, I thought, as I reached the final portrait. He couldn’t let them browbeat him into submission.

I stopped and stared up at the portrait. Cat and I stood together, flanked by both sets of parents. Cat’s sisters were missing, no doubt a diplomatic measure to conceal Isabella’s absence. We both looked older than we were, but … I smiled, feeling a rush of affection. I’d always known my parents would choose who I married, yet … I’d been lucky. Really, I would have been lucky if I’d known Cat.

My father’s door was solid wood. Privacy charms – some basic, some quite nasty – crawled across it, their mere presence daring me to tap the door. I braced myself, then lifted my hand and knocked. There was no sound, but I could feel the vibrations as they echoed through the ether. There was a long pause, just long enough for me to wonder if Father had been called away on short notice, before the door swung open. Uncle Davys stepped out.

“Akin,” he said, sternly.

“Senior.” I bowed, quickly. Uncle Davys – my father’s twin brother – was very insistent on proper protocol being followed at all times. It was no surprise to me that Cousin Francis was a little hellion. “Father summoned me …”

“Quite.” Uncle Davys didn’t sound pleased. I knew he’d been one of the loudest voices demanding that Isabella’s sentence be made permanent. “You may enter.”

He walked past me and strode down the corridor. I glared at his retreating back, resisting the urge to stick my tongue out at him. My father and his brother had fallen out long ago, before they’d married and had kids, but they couldn’t ignore each other. Uncle Davys had been the Heir Primus, until I was born; even now, he still had power and position within the family. I was surprised that Francis and I got on, most of the time. It helped, I suppose, that we were very different.

I turned and stepped into my father’s office. It was an immense room, the walls lined with mahogany and studded with bookcases and cupboards. Two comfortable armchairs rested in one corner, another was dominated by an oversized wooden desk and a chair that looked more like a throne. A large portrait of the entire family – Isabella included – hung from one wall. There were no windows. The light came from a handful of glowing crystals, embedded in the ceiling. I schooled my face into careful impassivity as my father stood to greet me. He looked tired, tired and old. For the first time, it struck me that my father really was old.

Not that old, I told myself as I bowed. He’s only in his early fifties.

“Akin.” My father sounded tired too. “Take a seat, please.”

He indicated the armchairs. I allowed myself to relax, slightly. If I’d been in trouble, I would never have been allowed to sit. I’d have had to stand in front of the desk and listen while he told me off for whatever I’d done. I sat, leaning back into the comfortable chair. My father sat on the other, resting his hands on his lap. Even when he was at home, even in his office, he wore fancy suits. It had never creased to puzzle me. No one would dare say a word if Father chose to wear something comfortable.

“You’re going back to Jude’s in a week,” Father said, shortly. There was never any small talk with him, not when he had something important to discuss. “Are you looking forward to it?”

“Yes, Father.” It was true. I was. I’d miss the mansion – and my private forgery – but I was learning a great deal at school. The chance to work with Magister Tallyman was not to be tossed aside lightly. I’d already started to plan how I’d ask him for an apprenticeship, after I finished my final year at school. “It should be fun.”

“You should be more concerned with your exams, not with fun.” Father made the word sound like a curse. “Your exam results will dominate the next decade of your life.”

“Yes, Father,” I said.

Father nodded, slowly. “You will be Head Boy, of course.”

I blinked. “What?”

“You will be Head Boy.” Father sounded irked. He didn’t like repeating himself. “You’ll share the honour with Alana Aguirre, who has been appointed Head Girl.”

“Father …” I stared at him. “Father, I didn’t ask to …”

“Of course not.” Father snorted, as if I’d said something stupid. “You are a Ruben, son, and Heir Primus. It would be surprising indeed if you weren’t Head Boy. It would be quite difficult, quite difficult indeed, if Alana had been a boy too …”

“I didn’t earn it,” I protested. “I don’t want it.”

“You don’t become Head Boy through merit,” Father pointed out, dryly. “And whether or not you want it doesn’t matter. You are going to be Head Boy, Son, and you are going to be good at it.”

“Father …”

My father held up his hand. “The decision has been made, Son, and favours have been called in. It cannot be changed.”

I scowled in mute resentment. Father hadn’t asked if I wanted it. Why would he bother? He’d been making decisions for me – and the rest of the family – for years. But then, if he’d asked me I would have said no. I didn’t want to be Head Boy.

Father met my eyes. “Are you feeling up to discussing this rationally?”

“Yes, Father.” It was hard to keep the anger out of my voice. I was seventeen, not a baby who couldn’t be trusted to keep his hand out of the fire. “Why?”

“You are aware, of course, that there have been some … rumbles … of discontent amongst the family,” Father said. “On one hand, they have been … concerned … about me and my rule ever since Isabella … left us. There have been suggestions whispered – and not very quietly either – that I am not up to the job. And, on the other hand, they have been deeply worried about the alliance between us and House Aguirre. They would prefer not to see the alliance become permanent.”

I frowned. “Father, House Aguirre has the only known Zero. They are …”

Father cut me off. “I am aware of the advantages” – he shot me a smile that made him look years younger – “and also of your … feelings … regarding your betrothed. I have no reason to doubt that a permanent alliance would be good for the family, for both families. Less so, of course, for the rest of the city.”

“But who cares about them?” I spoke with more bitterness than I intended. “The family comes first, always.”

“Quite.” My father studied his hands for a long moment. “They are also concerned about you.”


“You,” Father confirmed. “You have many strengths, Akin, but you also have weaknesses. There are … concerns that you are unable to manage the responsibilities that come with being Heir Primus and, eventually, Patriarch. And your betrothed has similar issues. It isn’t as if you’re betrothed to Alana.”

I blanched. I liked Cat – Caitlyn Aguirre – but Alana? She’d grown up a lot, in the years since I’d first met her, yet she still had a sharp edge and sharper tongue. She and Isabella had been very alike, in a great many ways. Isabella had envied Alana, as well as hated her. Alana didn’t have a family that stuck to the old traditions, even though they’d died with the Thousand-Year Empire. She could succeed her father and take control of her family. And I pitied the poor bloke who married her.

“I have the family sword,” I pointed out. I tapped the hilt, drawing his attention to the blade. “Doesn’t that prove something?”

“The family council would object, loudly, to the suggestion that receiving the sword as a betrothal gift qualifies you for anything,” Father countered. “You were merely the first one to touch the sword, after it was repaired. It could have been Francis or …”

“Or Isabella,” I finished. “She could have taken the sword.”

My Father’s face darkened, as it always did when my sister was mentioned. I knew he loved her, even though he found it hard to show it; I knew he regretted sending her away, even though he hadn’t been given a choice. He had to wonder, deep inside, if he’d failed as a father. His daughter had turned traitor. It was a wound that cut to the quick.

“Quite,” he said. “The family council is lining up possible candidates right now. We have to move fast.”

I leaned forward. “Why bother? I don’t want the job and …”

Father glared. “The family gives you many things,” he said. “You have safety and security, wealth and power and education” – he waved a hand in the vague direction of Water Shallot -“that the average commoner could never dream of having. The family gives you a showed and a shield so you may fight for the family. And in exchange, you will serve the family. It is your duty.”

“Yes, Father.” I did my best to hide the sarcasm in my tone. It might drive him over the edge. “Anything, for the family.”

The look Father gave me suggested that I hadn’t managed to hide the sarcasm. “You should know, by now, that everything has a price. And the price the family demands, for what it gives you, is service. It is your duty to complete your education, marry well and – eventually – lead the family.”

“And if I don’t want the job?” I pressed on before he could explode. “What if Cousin Shawn or Cousin Alcamo would do a better job?”

“Well” – Father’s voice dripped poison – “on one hand, that isn’t very loyal to our branch of the family tree. Is it? And, on the other hand, reshuffling the succession will cause all manner of resentments. There will be endless disputes over just who should succeed me if you refuse the honour. That would be very bad, would it not?”

I knew the right answer. “Yes, Father.”

Father eyed me. “And so you must prove yourself worthy of the title you carry before my enemies can muster enough votes to challenge the succession. You must do something that will convince the doubters that they can support your succession, rather than trying to unseat you before I die or retire. No one expects you to be me, not yet, but they do want to see signs of promise.”

It was hard not to give a sarcastic answer. “I don’t think that being Head Boy will be that impressive, not to them. How many strings did you pull to get me the job?”

Father seemed oddly pleased by my comment. “Too many. But you’re right. The family council will not be impressed. You’re going to do something else.”

I felt a flicker of fear. What could he have in mind? Marrying Cat clearly wasn’t good enough. Cat and I had been betrothed for years. The arrangement might be a legal fiction, at least on paper, but it couldn’t be dismissed. It had to be treated as real – as legitimate – right up until the point Cat and I grew old enough to marry … or say no. The fire-breathers who wanted to restart the House War couldn’t do anything until the betrothal was formally ended.

“It also has to be done quickly,” Father added. “There is a push, even amongst my allies, for you to be declared adult immediately after you leave school. Cat too, meaning that you will be expected to marry in a year or two. The ones who want to unseat you will have to act fast – and that means you’ll have to prove yourself this year too.”

I scowled. I knew the betrothal was important, but I didn’t want to think about it. “What do they want me to do? Fight a dragon?”

“No,” Father said. “You might fight a dragon, you might even kill a dragon, but that wouldn’t prove anything. Your detractors might even claim that just going out to fight a dragon is proof you’re an idiot. And they might be right. It would be very stupid.”

“Yes, Father,” I said.

Idiot would be the right word, I supposed. Dragons were nasty, immensely strong flying monsters that breathed fire and were practically immune to conventional weapons. Thankfully, they rarely flew into civilised lands, preferring to haunt the Desolation. Dragon hunters were amongst the bravest men in the world. They also had the highest death rates. It was rare for a man to stay in the profession after he’d brought down a single dragon. The skin alone would be more than enough to make him wealthy for life.

“You need to demonstrate the skills to run the family,” Father said. “Everything from strong and skilled magic to leadership and teamwork. And you have to do it in a year. Less than a year, really. You cannot fail.”

His voice was very firm. “You, Akin, are going become Wizard Regnant.”

Angel in the Whirlwind–Series Update

10 Jun

I keep being asked about the ‘Angel in the Whirlwind’ (Kat Falcone) series, which is probably a good thing <grin>.

As you know, I finished the first book (Debt of Honour, formerly The Embers of War) and did the edits before I was diagnosed with lymphoma and ended up going into hospital. My publishers were kind enough to give me an extension, which was something of a relief. They did, however, choose to hold the first book until the second was written. I understood perfectly as I’d planned the books to come out fairly close together.

I’ve just finished the first draft of Debt of War, which is book II. Hopefully, we should have a publication date for book I in a few weeks.

Thank you for your patience.


REPOST – The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE…

10 Jun

Reposted with updated links.

The Limits of an Analogy, or How Billy Mitchell might not be right INNN SPAAACE…

By Matthew W. Quinn

One rule of Internet discourse that it’s wise to follow is to avoid reading the comments. There, protected by anonymity, all sorts of ugly commentary tends to flourish. If you value having a positive view of humanity, by all means stay away.

However, occasionally one can learn from the comments section. Awhile back, Chris was so gracious as to host a guest post promoting my Kindle Worlds novella "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths," set in Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire universe. I related the Alliance strategy depicted in that story to Billy Mitchell’s thesis on air power trumping capital ships and cited the case of Operation Ten-Go in which dozens of American carrier aircraft sank the Japanese super-battleship Yamato and several of its escorts, killing thousands of Japanese at a cost of a dozen or so of their own.

Well, not everybody agreed with my argument. The gentleman (or lady) whose handle was Pyo pointed out that the distances involved in space battle are vastly larger than those in an oceanic battle. A space-opera setting will also feature vastly more advanced sensory technology to track incoming enemies and combat in space lacks the drag imposed by water or even air that contribute to a capital ship being less maneuverable than a fighter. Pyo also pointed other variables like energy shields, rapid-firing point-defense weapons, etc. that wouldn’t have been a factor in WWII naval battles. The user whose handle is Tim pointed out that PT boats are the same size as aircraft and were much less maneuverable on the water. In a space battle all vessels are maneuvering in the same medium, depriving aircraft of that advantage.

Pyo in particular made a very good point, which I responded to by citing the example of Battlestar Galactica. Multiple capital ships bunched together could create a very effective flak barrier, while energy shields make it so you’d need many torpedo hits, not just one or two, to actually inflict damage. That’s one reason the Cylons resorted to trickery (human-appearing infiltrators, hacking and disabling ships) as much as they did in the Second Cylon War–disrupting the flak barrier, even for a moment, would be necessary for their missile-spam strategy to bear fruit. And in an environment without drag, a capital ship’s much larger power-plant could make it far more faster and maneuverable in relationship to attacking fighter-craft than an earthbound battleship would be against torpedo bombers.

All those factors come into play in my newest Fallen Empire Kindle Worlds novella, "Discovery and Flight." The story takes place before and after Buroker’s short story "Remnants," which you can find in the You Are Here short-story collection. "Remnants" describes the Alliance having to evacuate one of its bases after fending off an Imperial assault that devastates its fleet. "Discovery" tells the tale of that battle and how much more difficult the Alliance’s fighter-heavy space force would find multiple Imperial capital ships supporting each other against torpedo barrages instead of the two Imperial cruisers they managed to separate in "Ten Davids."

So if you want to see more of Lieutenants Geun Choi and Tamara Watson–along with the canon characters Alisa Marchenko and Bradford Tomich–or just want a fun military scifi/space-opera story, check out "Discovery and Flight."

REPOST – Billy Mitchell, Fighters vs. Ships, and "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths"

10 Jun

Reposted with updated links.

Billy Mitchell, Fighters vs. Ships, and "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths"

by Matthew W. Quinn

Once upon a time, large ships carrying cannon were the core of the world’s navies. At first, they were made of wood, but technology marched on. The Civil War’s Battle of Hampton Roads, in which the Confederate Merrimack (or as they called it, the Virginia) faced the Union’s Monitor, showed that wooden ships would fall before ironclads. The older ironclads were replaced by the steel "pre-dreadnought" battleships and ultimately by the dreadnoughts themselves. Though each new type of ship was more impressive than the last, they were all variations on a theme. Nobody thought of a weapon that would make gun-bearing ships themselves obsolete, or at least greatly diminish their role.

Nobody, that is, until American aviator Billy Mitchell. He believed that the airplane would be the decisive element in 20th Century warfare, trumping the great ships and their guns, and proved it with a series of demonstrations. Although his views were not popular with the U.S. military establishment, events soon vindicated him. The sinking of the Yamato, the biggest battleship ever built, by American aircraft in the waning days of the Pacific War, serves as the perfect example.

The great battleships were reduced to escorts for aircraft carriers, the new queens of the seas, and to shore-bombardment platforms. The vaunted U.S.S. Missouri served in this role in the Korean War and after extensive upgrades, in the Persian Gulf War.

Although Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire series takes place in the future, it seems that the tyrannical Sarellian Empire did not learn from the past. The Empire maintained a military fleet consisting of enormous warships that the rebellious Tri-Suns Alliance avoided facing in open battle, instead engaging in "guerrilla tactics."

And one possible tactic an ill-equipped space guerrilla army could use is eschewing matching the enemy in big ships and focusing on fighters. In my Kindle Worlds novella "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths," set at the beginning of the rebellion several years before Buroker’s first novel Star Nomad (which you can read for free), the Alliance attack two Imperial cruisers on a training mission with many fighters, not rival cruisers. Fighters can be more easily kept in hidden bases (the primary Alliance hideout in Buroker’s story "Remnants" seems to be a fighter base), plus it’s much easier to recruit defecting fighter pilots than getting the crew of a larger vessel to agree to bolt. There were many pilot defectors during the Cold War, but no attempts by Soviet ships to flee. A dissident pilot can hide his feelings until he bolts; organizing a mutiny on a larger ship, especially in a police state like the Soviet Union (or the Sarellian Empire), is a much harder proposition.

So if you like space opera, I would recommend reading the Fallen Empire series, and if you want to see the war that took place before her stories begin, I would recommend you check out "Ten Davids, Two Goliaths."

Guest Post: Speculative & Fiction: SF as Two Genres

30 May

Written by Leo Champion

Speculative & Fiction: SF as Two Genres

Sven Hassel writes the worst cozy mysteries. The first of his that I read for review, Wheels of Terror, absolutely failed to meet my expectations of a whodunnit among gentry in vicarage gardens; it contained an absolutely excessive amount of murder and not a single adorable kitten. However, a resolute reviewer, I gave him another chance with The Bloody Road to Death, hoping this second title would contain an adequate number of intrepid old ladies knitting.

I was bitterly disappointed. Hassel’s comfortable caper in rural England at an indeterminate time period was historically inaccurate, being set in Russia during the Battle of Stalingrad, and featured not a single obscure poison. Furthermore, Hassel depicts his amateur sleuths implausibly as ragged soldiers more interested in drinking than solving any of the murders they themselves commit. The Bloody Road to Death is also sorely lacking in depictions of sleepy basset hounds, and its lovably incompetent village constable acts terribly out of character by leading a Gestapo murder squad.

I am unsure whether Mr. Hassel is merely ignorant, or whether he is disrespecting the cozy genre by refusing to follow its conventions, meet its expectations, or deliver the type of story its readers expect. It is almost as though he thinks he is writing something else entirely.

We will now resume a post about speculative fiction, an area where two radically different types of story – written along entirely different criteria, with entirely different objectives, for entirely different reasons, for generally different audiences – are judged by the same criteria.

It’s time to acknowledge that speculative fiction isn’t one genre – it’s two distinct ones, and it has been since its birth in the late 19th century when both Jules Vern and HG Wells were inspired by Mary Shelley. Wells wrote scientifically-grounded speculation, stories about ideas in which his characters were primarily observers. Verne used ideas as a means and a setting for his characters to have adventures.

Wells would have won Hugos and Nebulas. Verne’s fans would have been Sad Puppies.

Every so-often, on the Baen’s Bar forums in the mid-00s, someone would grumble about how their favorite publishing house never got any respect in the awards scene. It was said by conservative-leaning Barflies that there was left-wing bias, maybe even a fannish conspiracy against Jim Baen for publishing Newt Gingrich. Maybe there was some of that, but Lois Bujold’s repeated Hugo Awards are proof it wasn’t all-arching. When a Baen author wrote the kind of Wells-style “literature of ideas” that Worldcon voters favor, the Worldcon voters would happily bestow gold rockets upon them.

The actual reason Baen titles may have gone unrepresented at awards was that the Hugo Awards have always been for Wells idea fiction, not for the Verne-style action stories (SF as the setting, not the subject) whose purpose isn’t social commentary or cultural discourse but raw entertainment. The finest orange at the show isn’t going to place well in the apple contest.

Eventually some of the Verne (or Burroughs, who defined ‘SF as a setting’) fans decided that their entertainment fiction was good entertainment, and deserved award recognition.

The Wells fans were appalled at the low quality of the action- and plot-driven excuses for literature (no subtexts or themes, no greater meaning and no cultural value – it’s almost as though the authors had something completely different in mind) being shoved into their literary awards. Well, yeah. The judges of fine wine contests don’t appreciate it when kegs of beer get nominations.

There is, of course, overlap between Wells and Burroughs fiction. Wells fiction, the literature of ideas, can include breakneck stories built around those concepts. And there’s got to be some speculative element in Burroughs fiction, even if it’s just giving Dirty Harry a storm bolter. Some authors do both really well – they illuminate and they entertain.

I always learn from reading a Neal Stephenson book. He introduces dizzying arrays of interlocking ideas that have changed my perspective on subjects.

I usually learn something about guns from reading a Correia book, but that’s not why I pick him up. It’s because I want a fast-paced adventure story to entertain me. Correia – or Christopher Nuttall, or any of Chris Kennedy’s crew, any more than Burroughs back in the day – does not promise any more than that, but if he’s done his job as he intends there’ll be plenty of the action I’m giving him my money for.

I’m associated with both sides. As a small publisher, I have authors who write beautifully-phrased works of meaning and substance. I also have authors who write exploding spaceships for the sake of pure entertainment. (No, I don’t cross-promote those guys. I haven’t even introduced them to one another. They have nothing in common and wouldn’t get along.)

Both have their merits as themselves… but compared to each others’ standards, they’re abysmal. Some readers prefer one type, some prefer the other, some prefer both, for many of us it depends on the day and the mood. Either way, the best Hugo-worthy foie gras in the world is a one-star disappointment when you ordered, and were expecting, a burger and fries.

Of course the fans of the ideas-driven literary Wells fiction were going to object when ideas-incidental, literarily meritless popcorn books started being pushed for awards.

Of course the fans of the action-driven entertainment-for-its-own-sake Burroughs fiction wanted their books to get recognized as the great entertainment they are.

Until about a decade ago, Wells and Burroughs fiction did uncomfortably share a home – they had the same publishers. The rise of Kindle Direct Publishing (best thing to happen to the book industry since Steve Gutenberg) has allowed indie authors (and small presses like mine) to mushroom, writing and publishing whatever we like.

Burroughs fiction is now overwhelmingly indie – KDP, Kindle Unlimited, $2.99 to $4.99 for a novel that took the author six weeks to write. Wells fiction literati who scoff at this are completely missing the point. Of course it’s terrible by the standards of the Wells fan, it wasn’t written with those standards in mind. It’s never going to win a Hugo and maybe it shouldn’t. Good luck in Atlanta, though!

Wells fiction hasn’t gone anywhere – large houses (and more than a few small new ones dedicated to literary and conceptual work, indie isn’t all Burroughs) have long pipelines of painstakingly-written and carefully-edited masterworks all hoping for a golden rocket.

Some authors write one kind or the other (me, because I live in an expensive city and have this strange obsession with paying the rent, I’m entirely on the pulp side. I’m also fonder of eating than I am of laboring endlessly over breathless prose). Some vary between both. Some people have even managed to successfully write both simultaneously.

But never mistake the idea-driven, literary, Wells-fiction and the entertainment-driven pulpy Burroughs fiction for each other. You’ll be disappointed every time.