Problem with the Reality Check Audio

23 May

Hi, everyone

To sum up a long story (well, short story) there was an issue with the recording of Reality Check that resulted in the sample of Retreat Hell being moved to the front of Reality Check. This problem has now been fixed, once the producers were alerted to it; if you already downloaded a copy, you should be able to download a new version free of charge.

Reality Check: The Empire's Corps, Book 7

Please let me know if you have any problems.

Thanks

Chris

The Liberal’s New Clothes

20 May

I was planning to write something different, then this occurred to me and I decided it rated a post of its own.  And I was in a cranky mood at the time.

There are times when I really think people should be forced to read The Emperor’s New Clothes at Secondary School (12-18) and think about its deeper meaning. I imagine that most teenagers would object to reading a kid’s story, but the fable does have a profound meaning that resonates through the ages.

The basic story, of course, is well known. A pair of swindlers convince a king that they can make him a magic suit of clothes. To a wise man, they tell him, the garment is a beautiful set of robes; to a fool, it is absolutely invisible. The king, naturally not wanting to appear a fool, promptly tells the swindlers that it is a magnificent garment indeed. And his queen, equally determined not to appear a fool agrees. And so does everyone in the palace. As the song goes, ‘it’s just the thing to wear on Saturday’s parade, leading the royal brigade.’

So the king walks out stark naked, knowing – at some level – that he’s in the nude, but unwilling to admit it to himself. And everyone admires the set of clothes so much that, perhaps, he begins to truly believe in them … right up to the moment a small boys shouts out ‘the king is naked!’

Terry Prachett, may he rest in peace, had a pithy comment on the whole story that should be borne in mind. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a story about a small boy who sees through the lies and calls out the truth, embarrassing the king and exposing his complete lack of fitness to rule. But it’s also the story of the small boy who was sharply rebuked by his father for being rude to royalty … and also the story of the crowd that was rounded up by the soldiers and told to pretend the whole embarrassing episode didn’t happen on pain of death.

(This was in a Discworld book, but I have been unable to locate the source.)

Ok, so what does this have to do with the modern age – and liberals? No one could be this stupid, right?

Well, there’s a reason I suggested everyone should read the story, because if there is one thing liberals are good at, it is the manipulation of words.

Put the correct buzzwords into an argument, liberals discovered years ago, and the argument will avoid any cold-blooded scrutiny that might reveal its flaws. ‘Liberal’ sounds so much better than ‘conservative,’ ‘progressive’ sounds so much better than ‘reactionary’. Who can argue against progress? Of course, one could make progress forward until one falls off a cliff – having decided that reversing or altering course is reactionary – and one can be supremely liberal until one discovers, the hard way, that one has allowed people too many liberties and they use them to hang you from the nearest lamppost.

Dictators were quick to take advantage of this curious blindspot. What is wrong with a state that calls itself the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’? (Well, apart from the fact there isn’t a single truthful word in the name?) Or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea? (Which is at least marginally more accurate, as it does control North Korea.) And then there’s the absurd quest among liberals for an agreement, ink on paper, between the West and Iran. Or Israel and Palestine. Or a hundred other flashpoints where liberals have been trying hard to paper over the fact that the Emperor has no clothes. To the liberal mindset, having the agreement is all that matters …

…Choosing to completely ignore the fact that dictatorships feel free to ignore any agreement that isn’t actually enforced.

This gets worse, believe it or not. Liberals have demonised the word ‘racist’ so much that the mere hint that someone is racist leads to hasty back-treading, or outraged condemnation from the perpetually offended if the accused does anything other than genuflecting to liberal orthodoxy. A rational society demands that the accused be proved guilty, not have to prove his guilt; liberals demand the accused prove his innocence … and, as there is no way to prove a negative, the accused is unable to remove the stain of the accusation. The charge of racism – and sexism, homophobia, etc – makes it impossible to hold a rational argument, if only because everyone knows that such people are invariably wrong. Is there any point in arguing with someone who seems to be arguing from a blatantly racist point of view?

Unsurprisingly, this results in shattering levels of contempt for so-called liberals from everyone else. Why? It is far from impossible that the so-called racist is arguing from a far more reasonable point of view than bloody-minded racism. A person who thinks the thugs who recently ran riot through Baltimore should be imprisoned, rather than being allowed to run free, isn’t a racist, but someone who has a respect for the rule of law. But anyone who makes public statements to this effect runs the risk of having spurious charges of horrific bad-think levelled against him, isolating him from his supporters or the mainstream community. I honestly don’t think liberals grasp just how strongly their bullying tactics are detested, or how bad it will be when this hatred and rage finally explodes.

This ties back to the quote I used earlier. Yes, people may see the nakedness of the argument for what it really is and turn on the king. Or the person who points out the truth may be vilified for daring to suggest that the king is naked. Or the bosses may use deadly force to maintain the illusion, even though everyone knows the truth.

Or, perhaps, that they will walk out one day and discover that it’s a very cold day and they’re freezing to death …

… And their new clothes simply do not exist outside their deluded minds.

Quick Update

18 May

It hasn’t been a good week.

I’m not sure if I’ve caught something, or if it is the rising temperature or simply the stresses of a baby who has started the crawl towards growing his first teeth, but I’ve been feeling permanently tired and unwell over the last few days. This has obviously impeded my writing; I’ve had to take today off, because I just feel too tired to think straight, and I’m not looking forward to the rest of the week.

My current ambition, really, is to write Book 11 of The Empire’s Corps, then finish Democracy’s Price and the fourth and final Bookworm book. Ideally, I would like to tie off a couple of ongoing series before starting anything new. However, with a return to Malaysia in mid-June to July and a few other problems, I have no idea when anything will actually get done.

<sigh>

Chris

The Wrong Response (Or How Not To Get What You Want In Politics)

11 May

[This is probably the last post I will write on the election, at least for a few weeks.]

Let me start with one of those funny stories that really isn’t very funny at all.

One day, the Pointy-Haired Boss of Super-Yummy-Pet-Foods (fictional, I hope) holds a meeting. Everyone is invited. As soon as the doors are closed, the Pointy-Haired Boss turns to his staff and subordinates and starts to speak. “We spend millions of pounds on advertising our Super-Pet-Doggie-Meal every year, yet sales are steadily dropping. Why?”

He glares at the Vice-Pointy-Haired Boss, who says nothing. The Supervisor of Pet Muck says nothing. The Assistant Vice Human Resources Manager says nothing. The Chairman in Charge of Animal Testing says nothing. No one says a word until his glare finally reaches the eighteen-year-old intern who has only just started to work for the company while building up the experience to apply for a proper job.

“Sir,” she says, hesitatingly, “no matter how much we spend on advertising, dogs aren’t eating our product.”

The Pointy-Haired Boss blows a whistle. Two burly security guards appear out of nowhere, pick the poor girl up and carry her out of the office, down the stairs and out onto the streets, then kick her so hard she flies across the street and lands in a puddle on the other side. Tears stream down her face as she picks herself out of the water and staggers off, dripping wet. She knows she’s not only been sacked, she’ll never work in the same town again. No one in power wants to hear inconvenient truths.

Back in the office, the Pointy-Haired Boss glares at his staff. “Stupid dogs don’t know what’s good for them,” he growls. “Double our advertising budget!”

Not very funny, is it?

Ok, so we had a general election on Thursday; the results started to come in on Friday and by Saturday we knew the Tories had won a surprising victory. It was a surprise because the polls didn’t predict anything of the sort, perhaps because of the ‘Shy Tory’ syndrome. However, on Sunday we had riots outside Ten Downing Street and countless flame wars on the internet, including condescending posts written by left-wingers addressed to Tory Voters, blaming them for the coming disaster and much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. The general tone of many of those messages is the same as the Pointy-Haired Boss’s line. “Stupid voters don’t know what’s good for them.”

And I feel like screaming, because this demonstrates just what is wrong with the left.

It does not help to demonise one’s political opponents, let alone the men and women who voted for them. It does not help to attack people verbally, let alone physically, for daring to vote the wrong way. It does not help to assume that voters voted the way they did because of ignorance, deliberate malice, racism, sexism or anything other than making what they thought was a good decision for the future.

The Tories won. Deal with it.

(The right has its extremists too, but were there riots on the streets when Blair won? No.)

It’s probably too early to say why the Tories won, but I have a few ideas. Each political party has what might be called its natural constituency; there are certain limits to just how many votes the parties will pick up outside its natural borders. The SNP, for example, only appeals for votes in Scotland. By its very nature, the SNP doesn’t seek English votes. However, the dividing lines between the other parties is harder to see. Labour’s natural share of the voters is actually smaller than the Tories, at least partly because they’re competing with the Liberal Democrats (and the SNP in Scotland.) The Conservatives, by contrast, draw votes from every class … and the only force trying to steal ‘their’ votes is the UKIP.

Someone will argue, I suppose, that the Tories cheated, that the anti-Tory votes were shared out among Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP. However, even going by proportional representation, the Tories still won.

The Tories won. Deal with it.

If you want to win political power in Britain, you have to win elections. That means going out and convincing people that it is in their best interests to vote for you (or at the very least a government run by you won’t be actively harmful). Rioting on the streets does nothing more than alienate everyone else from you; insulting and belittling everyone who disagrees with you doesn’t make them disposed to take you seriously or to consider you anything more than a glorified thug, screaming and shouting to drown out everyone else.

And, unlike the Pointy-Haired Boss of Super-Yummy-Pet-Foods, you need to ask hard questions about why you lost, why people aren’t buying what you’re selling and what you can do to improve on it.

Or you can just be a sore loser.

Snippet: Falcone Strike (Angel In The Whirlwind II)

10 May

Prologue

The Hall of Judgement was a towering structure, huge enough to hold a thousand witnesses comfortably as the accused made his long slow walk towards the judges seated in their thrones, right at the front of the chamber. It was almost empty now, Admiral Junayd discovered, as two Inquisitors shoved him through the heavy wooden door and onto the stone pathway. The only people in the room, save for him and his escorts, were the Speaker and two Clerics, waiting for him,

He rattled his chains mournfully as he started his walk, smiling inwardly at the cold glares levelled at him by the Inquisitors. They would have been happy to give him a good kicking, if they hadn’t had to keep him reasonably intact to face his judges. No doubt that was why they’d left half the chains off, even though procedure insisted the accused had to be weighed down with so many iron chains that walking at anything more than a staggering crawl was impossible. They wanted him to be able to answer the charges when they were levelled against him.

Not that there’s any hope of leaving this room alive, he thought, bitterly. Someone has to take the blame.

He ground his teeth together, silently. Who could have predicted that the Commonwealth, asleep for so long, would have woken up just in time to organise an effective defence? Who could have predicted that one of their junior officers – a woman, no less – would get enough ships out of the trap to render the First Battle of Cadiz a tactical success and a strategic failure? And who could have predicted that the Commonwealth would have enough reinforcements in the vicinity to launch a counter-attack that had severely embarrassed the Theocracy? Someone had to take the blame …

… And, as far as the Theocracy was concerned, failure was a sign of God’s displeasure.

The weeks he’d spent in captivity had been far from pleasant. His interrogators had alternatively rooted through his life, searching for the secret sin that needed to be punished to please God, and praying at him to repent and hurl himself into the fire, to sacrifice himself for the Theocracy. There had been no point, he was sure; he had committed no sin deserving of punishment … save, perhaps, for losing. And now … he knew the Speaker would need to make an example of him. The Theocracy had to be seen to deal with failure harshly or it would undermine its position.

He stopped in front of the thrones and bowed his head, feeling the weight of the chains pulling him towards the floor. It was all he could do to remain upright, but he forced himself to hold steady. Going to his death bravely, even willingly, would make up for his sins and convince the Inquisitors to spare his family. His wives might be returned to their families, his children might be distributed among his relatives, but at least they would be alive. The alternative was unthinkable. Sin was so prevalent and the Inquisition so determined to root it out that they would happily kill his children, if they felt he had not repented.

“Admiral,” the Speaker said. His voice was very cold. “You have failed God.”

“I served God willingly,” Junayd said, calmly. “If it was His will that the battle be lost, it was His will.”

The Speaker looked at him for a long moment. “You have served God well, over the years,” he said. “It is our considered judgement that your work was undermined by the presence of sinners within our fortress and our failure to weed them out cost us the opening battles.”

Junayd blinked in surprise. He’d expected to be made the scapegoat, not …

“But the opening battles have still left us in a strong position,” the Speaker continued, seemingly unaware of Junayd’s shock. “We will still win the war.”

If we can, Junayd thought. The Commonwealth’s long-term potential was far greater than the Theocracy’s. Assuming it survived the opening blows, there was a very strong prospect of it winning the war outright. Junayd had no illusions about just how few of the occupied worlds truly loved the Theocracy. Resistance movements might be hopelessly doomed, as long as the Theocracy controlled the high orbitals, but they would distract the Theocracy from focusing on the war. They may survive long enough to bring their greater strength into play.

He realised, suddenly, just how precarious the Speaker’s position was. It had been his daughter, a mere woman, who had defected, taking with her advance warning of the oncoming storm. Who would have thought that Princess Drusilla, the Speaker’s own daughter, would take such a chance? No one had given any thought to her at all, beyond the simple fact that whoever she married would be in a strong position to become Speaker when her father died. Hundreds had died to keep the secret buried, but if it got out … the Speaker’s position would be untenable. Who could condemn Junayd for failing to react in time, perhaps because of a long-buried sin, when the Speaker’s own daughter had committed outright treason?

A flicker of hope ran through him. He had friends and allies … most of them might shy away, after the failure, but not all of them would. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance for survival.

“You will be reassigned, Admiral,” the Speaker said. “Command of the striking fleets will be passed to someone else. You will assume command of the outer defence formations, protecting our borders against intrusions. In time, with God’s grace, you will return to your old role.”

Junayd nodded, hastily. The defence formations weren’t highly regarded, not when serving on the striking fleets brought glory and wealth, but at least he wasn’t being ceremonially beheaded, let alone hung, drawn and quartered. He could build a new power base for himself, given time; indeed, with the Commonwealth no doubt seeking ways to strike back, there would even be chances for glory. On the other hand, the manpower would be poor and morale would be in the pits. Few competent officers were assigned to the defence formations.

But at least I will be alive, he reminded himself, firmly.

“You will assume your new role at once,” the Speaker said. “The guards will escort you to your ship.”

So I can’t talk to anyone along the way, Junayd thought, wryly. Whatever deals had been struck while he’d been languishing in a prison cell wouldn’t have taken his desire to see his family and friends into account. Everything I send to my family will be carefully censored first.

“Thank you,” he said, instead. “It will be my honour to serve.”

“Indeed,” the Speaker said. “And may God defend the right.”

Chapter One

“You know,” Candy Falcone said, “you really should be on the dance floor.”

Kat Falcone sighed as she leaned over the balcony, peering down at the guests below. Candy had a talent for inviting the best and brightest – or at least the richest and well-connected – to her balls, but she had very little in common with any of them. Some were trust fund babies, unable to do anything more complex than unscrewing the cap on the latest bottle of bubbly; some had built themselves reputations based on their family name and a certain willingness to exploit it for themselves. They would have been somewhere – anywhere – else, she was sure, if they’d actually lived up to their claims.

“I’m bored,” she confessed, without looking around. “I shouldn’t even be here.”

“You’re the Guest of Honour,” Candy said. “Percy wants to meet you, Katherine, while I believe Owen and Gayle were trying to work up the nerve to ask you out …”

“God forbid,” Kat said. “What do I have in common with any of them?”

She groaned, loudly. Percy was a weak-chinned wonder, a walking advertisement for the dangers of making someone’s life too easy, while Owen and Gayle were known hedonists. It was hard to find something edgy in the Commonwealth, not without breaking laws that would see even high-ranking aristocrats in jail or facing a firing squad, but they seemed to manage it. And besides, she was in a relationship. Why her sister didn’t seem inclined to leave her to have her own life was beyond her.

“You’re an aristocrat,” Candy said. “You have that in common with them.”

Kat swung around to glower at her sister. Candy was tall and blonde, wearing a long green dress that showed off her chest to best advantage while hinting at the shape of her legs. They hadn’t gotten on since Kat had grown old enough to realise that her older sister spent more time in pursuit of pleasure than anything else … and that she would eventually grow bored of a baby sister, no matter how novel it seemed at the time. If Candy hadn’t been hosting some of the most important balls on the planet, with some of the movers and shakers invited to attend, Kat would have declined the invitation. Right now, she wished she’d declined it anyway.

“I am a serving officer in the Royal Navy,” she said, sharply. It was something she was proud of, if only because she’d achieved it on her own. “How many of them” – she waved a hand down towards the crowds – “have ever served in the navy, let alone commanded their own starship?”

“I believe that Tryon owns a pleasure yacht,” Candy said. “Would that count?”

“No,” Kat snapped. “A pleasure cruiser isn’t quite the same as a heavy cruiser.”

“Your ship crashed,” Candy pointed out. “What else do you have to do?”

Kat gritted her teeth. Lightning was being repaired after the battle, her crew was dispersed among a dozen other ships as the Commonwealth struggled to regain its balance after the war had begun … she shouldn’t be wasting time at a party. But she knew, no matter how much she wanted to deny it, that there was nothing she could do …

“Something,” she said, finally. Maybe she should have asked her father to use his influence, once again, to get her a transfer. This time, she was sure, no one could have argued that she hadn’t earned the post. The medals on her chest proved that beyond all doubt. “This party is just a waste of time.”

“It isn’t,” Candy said, as she took Kat’s arm and led her towards the stairs. “The men and women gathered here aren’t entirely useless. They represent voting blocs in family corporations – small blocs, to be sure, but not useless. Keeping them confident that our ultimate victory is assured is quite an important part of the war.”

Kat blinked in genuine astonishment. “Really?”

“Yes,” Candy said. She leaned closer to whisper into Kat’s ear. “You’re not the only one capable of thinking tactically, you know. Some of us fight battles in ballrooms and bedrooms, not in deep space.”

“Oh,” Kat said. She knew socialising was important, but she’d never been very good at it, not when she’d been the youngest of ten children. Instead, she’d been allowed to choose her own path and walked straight into the navy. It still galled her to know that her family name, curse and blessing mixed into one, had smoothed her path to command. “But surely they know they can’t escape the war?”

Candy smirked. “How many of them have never experienced the world outside the towering mansions of High Society?”

She had a point, Kat was loath to admit. She’d never really experienced hardship until she’d gone to Piker’s Peak. Even sharing a room with a single roommate had been tricky, back when she’d been used to having an entire suite to herself. And the less said about the food the better. But she’d earned her uniform and her position in the Royal Navy. The men and women on the dance floor had no idea of what life was like outside their mansions … and they wouldn’t have any real comprehension of just how horrific life would become, under the Theocracy. What they’d done to Cadiz, since driving Kat and 7th Fleet away from the planet, proved they wouldn’t even begin to hesitate in reshaping the Commonwealth’s worlds to suit themselves.

“So you go chat to them and tell them everything you saw,” Candy added. “And make it clear that victory is inevitable, if they keep pushing for it.”

Kat didn’t – quite – roll her eyes, but she saw her sister’s point. If victory was inevitable, why strive for it? But if victory was not inevitable, why not consider some form of compromise with the Theocracy? It was impossible, she knew – the only way a sheep could compromise with a wolf was from inside the wolf’s belly – but someone without direct experience of just how ruthless the Theocracy could be might think otherwise.

“I’ll do my best,” she promised, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “But the sooner I’m back on the bridge, the better.”

She groaned inwardly as the crowd surrounded them, some staring at her uniform – Candy had insisted she wear her dress uniform – others eager to chat to Candy about nothing in particular. Kat looked at them, silently grateful her father had allowed her to go to Piker’s Peak, rather than one of the finishing schools that specialised in turning young men into chinless wonders and young women into brainless beauties. If things had been different, if she’d been less driven to accomplish something for herself, she might be one of the admiring throng, rather than a starship commander. It was not a pleasant thought …

But Candy has hidden depths, she reminded herself. It was an odd thought, reminding her of exercises where she’d hunted for stealthed starships. A cloaking device could hide a starship in the vastness of space, or convince prowling hunters that it was nothing more than a small asteroid or a cloud of dust. How many of the guests have hidden depths too?

It nagged at her mind as the party dragged on. Candy had a point; the vast majority of the party-goers might be unimportant, in the grand scheme of things, but collectively they commanded huge wealth and power. She toyed with a handful of scenarios; maybe, just maybe, their influence would be sufficient to change the Commonwealth’s path, if they wished. But she found it hard to believe they had any real influence. God knew her share of the family voting stock was minimal, even though she’d proven herself at Cadiz.

“Lady Katherine,” a smooth voice said. Kat turned to see Lord Brenham, standing just behind her with a glass in his hand. “Would you care to join me on the dance floor?”

Kat bit down the reaction that came to mind. Lord Brenham was notorious, so notorious that even she had heard of him. He was an unrepentant rake, a seducer who was reputed to have slept with every girl and half the boys in High Society. And, surprisingly, he wasn’t hated by everyone else. High Society didn’t give a damn what happened, as long as it happened between consenting adults in private.

“No,” she said, flatly. She supposed she should have been politer, but she was tired and cranky. Besides, she’d never lost herself in hedonism and she wasn’t about to start now. “I’m required to mingle.”

Lord Brenham merely nodded, then walked off. He didn’t show any sign of anger at her rejection, somewhat to her surprise, but she supposed it made sense. A man so intent on chasing bright young things wouldn’t have time to get upset. All he’d need to do was find someone else …

“Great between the sheets,” Candy observed. If rumour was to be believed, her string of conquests was almost as long as Lord Brenham’s. “But personality? Skin deep.”

Kat scowled at her. “Is it wrong to want something more … personal than a quick fuck?”

“This is High Society, sweetheart,” Candy said, gently. “You know as well as I do that marriage, that intimacy, isn’t a matter of choice.”

“I know,” Kat muttered.

It wasn’t something she’d ever expected to have to handle, not when she was the tenth child of Duke Falcone. Peter, Ashley and Dolly – the three oldest – were the ones whose marriages would be determined by their father, mingling the family bloodline with partners who would bring strength and other assets to the family. Kat’s share of the family bloc was so low that she could marry for love, if she wanted. Maybe it was a flaw in her personality, but she was damned if she was entering a loveless marriage. There was something fundamentally wrong about a match where both partners knew the other was having an affair …

The smaller groups started to blur together as Candy moved her from group to group, sometimes clearly showing Kat off, sometimes just listening as the gathered aristocrats discussed the war and its implications. One elderly woman bragged about her grandchild, fighting on the front lines; one younger woman talked about her new baby and wondered out loud if he would be constricted in the military. Kat rather suspected she would wind up feeling sorry for the baby, if she ever met the child; the mother had given birth only a month ago, she gathered, and yet she’d left the baby with the servants and ventured out for a party …

At least dad spent some time with us, she thought. Duke Falcone had been a very busy man and his ten children had suffered, although he had tried to make time for them. Their mother had largely stayed at home, supervising the children as best as she could and commanding a small army of servants … which hadn’t stopped Kat and her siblings from running riot, on occasion. What will happen to the poor baby?

“But surely there would be room for peace,” a middle-aged woman was saying, loudly. Her shrill voice grated on Kat’s ears. “The galaxy is big enough for the both of us.”

Kat opened her mouth to make a sarcastic reply, but an older gentleman spoke first. “The Theocracy attacked us first, Lady Ella,” he said. “They clearly do not agree that we can co-exist; everything we know about them tells us that they cannot tolerate a different society near their own. Their expansion would inevitably bring them into conflict with us, if only because we welcome the refugees fleeing their rule.”

“Some of those refugees turned out to be spies,” another man said.

That, Kat knew, was true. The Commonwealth had taken in everyone, debriefing them thoroughly … but a number of spies and operatives had slipped through the net. After the first attacks had died down, every refugee had been hastily rounded up and interned, the innocent as well as the guilty. The innocent would be cared for, she knew, but it would also undermine their faith in the Commonwealth. And, perhaps, the Commonwealth’s faith in itself.

She pushed the thought aside, irritated. The Commonwealth Charter was many things, but it was not a suicide pact.

“You might be interested in this,” Candy said, tugging her towards another group. “And you might even have something to say.”

“Admiral Christian should have continued to press the offensive,” a man said. “In choosing to withdraw from Cadiz, he wasted a chance to smash an entire enemy fleet.”

Kat felt her heart sink as she recognised him. Justin Deveron was an armchair admiral, an amateur student of military history who had never – as far as she knew – served in the military. He was handsome, in a way; his suit was carefully tailored to look like a uniform, suggesting he had served without ever making a false claim. His brown hair was cropped close to his scalp in a spacer’s cut, adding another layer to the illusion. Kat had regrown her long hair, once she’d left Piker’s Peak, but most spacers preferred to keep their hair short. It could get in the way when they were on duty.

She groaned, again, as Deveron recognised her. He’d made a name for himself as a gadfly, questioning the Admiralty regularly and posing as an expert; indeed, the fact he’d never served allowed himself to claim to be giving disinterested advice and commentary. But it also meant that his statements, at best, were wholly theoretical …

“But I believe you were there, Captain Falcone,” Deveron said. There was an easy confidence in his voice that got on her nerves. “Do you believe that Admiral Christian passed up the chance to smash an enemy fleet?”

“Yes,” Kat said, “but …”

“The Admiralty saw fit to reward him for abandoning the fight,” Deveron said, addressing the circle. “He ran from Cadiz and they rewarded him …”

Kat felt her temper flare. She knew Admiral Christian. More to the point, unlike Deveron, she’d actually been there when he’d taken the decision. She knew his reasoning and she agreed with it. So had the Admiralty. Many people had been criticized, in the wake of the First and Second Battles of Cadiz, but Admiral Christian hadn’t been one of them.

She pulled herself to her full height, as if she was standing on her bridge in the midst of combat. “I’m afraid that isn’t quite correct, Mr. Deveron,” she said. It was easy enough to channel one of her more sarcastic tutors from Piker’s Peak. “Your analysis, while superficially accurate, fails to take a number of factors into account. This failure undermines it to the point where it loses relevancy.”

Candy shifted beside her, warningly, but Kat ignored her, never taking her eyes off Deveron.

“You see, in war, there are operational concerns, tactical concerns and strategic concerns,” she continued, speaking each word clearly. “Operationally, tactically, the combined striking power of 6th and 7th fleets could have destroyed the enemy force. Post-battle analysis suggested, very strongly, that the enemy ships had expended all of their missiles, forcing them to either force a duel at energy-range or to abandon the battlefield. Yes, there was a very good chance we could have smashed the enemy fleet or forced it to withdraw.”

She took a breath, then went on. “However, there was no way to know if that was the sole enemy fleet in the sector,” she said. “We didn’t know – we still don’t know – just how many ships the Theocracy possesses. The destruction of one enemy fleet could have led to the combined force shooting itself dry, just in time for a second enemy fleet to arrive and scatter us. Or, for that matter, to seize other worlds in the sector. The combined fleet was the only deployable mobile force available. Risking it for a dubious goal was not on the cards.

“Retreating from Cadiz was not a cowardly decision. It was a brave decision, purely because armchair experts such as yourself wouldn’t hesitate to call it cowardly. By the time the Admiralty had examined all the sensor records and collected testimonies from everyone on the scene, the opinions of you and the other armchair experts would have filled the datanet with claims that Admiral Christian fled the battlefield and that if you’d been in command no enemy ship would have escaped.”

Deveron stared at her. “But …”

“But nothing,” Kat snapped. She allowed her anger to colour her voice. “You weren’t there. You weren’t the one on the spot, with everything resting on you, when the decision had to be made. All you can do is carp and criticise, doing it from – at best – a flawed understanding of just what actually happened. He had no choice! Admiral Christian did the right thing at the right time, combining the goal of striking a blow against the Theocracy with the urgent need to preserve his command intact to hold the line. And, as the Theocracy invaded three worlds and attacked two more, in addition to Cadiz itself, we know he was right. It’s only people like you who say otherwise.”

She turned and stalked off. Candy would probably seek to smooth ruffled feathers, but she found it hard to care. The folks on Tyre had assigned Admiral Morrison to Cadiz, then chosen to turn a blind eye to his conduct, even as the storm clouds loomed over the Commonwealth. No doubt Deveron would have praised Admiral Morrison to the skies, even though he’d done more than anyone else to weaken the defences and make the Commonwealth vulnerable …

I may get in trouble for telling him the truth, she told herself as she made her way back to the waiting aircars, but it was worth it.

Review: The Antichrist Handbook: The Horror and Hilarity of Left Behind

10 May

-Fred Clark.

The people in this book are not human.

If you are genuinely interested in writing, there are few better online resources than Fred Clark’s elaborate takedown of the Left Behind books. The books fail on so many levels that it is utterly depressing to contemplate the fact that there are 11 novels and uncounted spin-offs, including three movies, based around them. Clark, however, dives into precisely why the series is so utterly awful, as well as putting forward snide comments and insights that leaves one worrying about the sanity of the writers.

Left Behind claims to be a story of Earth’s last days. God has taken his true believers to heaven, leaving everyone else … well, left behind. Centred around the main characters of Rayford Steele and Buck Williams, the series follows their adventures (and countless telephone calls) as they struggle to survive, while the Antichrist slowly takes over the entire world. Thankfully, as Clark points out, the writers have inadvertently proved that such events cannot possibly take place.

One particularly jarring example of their warped logic appears within the first few chapters. Israel, through a magical formula, has managed to make the desert bloom … which, assuming one includes both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, still gives them less productive capability than a single small US state. Wanting to claim this formula for itself, Russia (!) and Ethiopia (!!) launch a massive nuclear (!!!) attack against Israel (enough tonnage to obliterate Israel a hundred times over), which is a complete and utter failure. With Israel protected by Almighty God, the rest of the world … yawns. No one seems to take account of the sudden shift in power.

What makes matters worse, however, are the two main characters. Steele is creepy; he’s a middle-aged married man who has his eye on a pretty flight attendant, but reassures himself that he has never touched her and never will. This might have worked if his conversion had shown him what he really was, and how best to redeem himself, but he’s still a complete jerk after becoming a Real True Christian. Buck Williams, meanwhile, is supposed to be a globe-trotting reporter, yet it is painfully obvious that he lacks any real competence at his work. On one hand, he witnesses the attack on Israel; on the other, he isn’t interested in writing about it (and later his inaction will help the Antichrist rise to power). In short, both characters are Jerk Sues with paper-thin backgrounds.

For example, Steele is supposed to have served on a church board at one time, making him a hypocrite. However, as Clark points out, someone capable of faking such a role convincingly would not be bemused by relatively simple and common bible verses. He cannot be both a naïf and a hypocrite.

If this isn’t bad enough, there is a nasty streak of sexism running through the story. We are meant to regard Irene Steel as the very model of a decent woman, yet there is a strong sense that Irene isn’t (wasn’t) the sort of person anyone would enjoy knowing. It is actually quite hard to blame her poor husband for considering an affair. On the other hand, Hattie Durham (the object of Steele’s creepy lusts) is a much better person, yet the book considers her a slut and has many – many – punishments for her in store. This gets worse, as if it could, later in the series; Buck’s female boss (tagged as a lesbian, although the word isn’t said outright) is entirely correct to consider Buck a moron, but the book presents her as a villain. Her humiliation conga is the sort of thing that would only be enjoyable to watch if it happened to either Buck or Steele himself. And then there’s Chloe Steel. She starts out as a competent resourceful girl, easily the most capable character in the series, and turns into a zero-dimensional idiot at the end of the first book.

But it is in world-building where the authors show their greatest failures. At the start of the book, God defends Israel. This would be quite permission, but no one ever reacts to this. Later on, millions of people just vanish … including all of the world’s children. A few chapters after that and everything is … well, not quite back to normal, but certainly much calmer than they should be. And then there is the rise of Antichrist himself, which makes absolutely no sense at all. The authors needed to do a lot more bloody research.

Worse, they honestly can’t decide what sort of book they’re writing. It starts out as a disaster story, of sorts … and then it turns into a conspiracy novel. Apparently, a group of international financiers (think Jews) are somehow involved with the Rapture. This might not be a bad idea, if it was clear that the financiers in question had prepared for the Rapture, but none of the characters in the book seem to consider the possibility. Later (beyond the scope of Clark’s first book) it tries to turn into a romantic comedy. Trust me, it isn’t remotely romantic.

Clark believes that many of these problems grew out of the subculture itself. The Satan-figures are ones that pervade the culture, but that tends to weaken them when compared to the real Antichrist. The UN, Jewish financiers, liberals, lesbians (I can’t recall any suggestion that the authors even know that male homosexuality is a real thing), etc … they’re all nightmares haunting the authors’ minds. And their response is not warm and welcoming, nor an attempt to convert the unbelievers; it is little more than a florid “we’re right, you’re wrong, burn in hell, etc.”

The truly annoying thing about the series, although Clark doesn’t say as much, is that it had a great deal of potential. What if they’d worked to turn both of the main characters into genuine people? Or what if they’d thought through the implications of some of their concepts? A disaster on the scale of the Rapture would provide an ample opportunity for Antichrist to come to power … but that, alas, seems to be beyond the authors.

You can learn a great deal about writing by reading this book. Above all, Clark provides excellent commentary on what not to do. But you will probably also find moments to amuse you and moments to depress you. Clark notes moments where Jenkins – the prime writer – offers insights into Rayford Steele, but offers none into Buck. Could it be that he was taking a subtle shot at his co-author? There are also vast moments of infodumping – the writers seem curiously obsessed with telephone calls and the minutiae of international travel – bad science and worse.

Reading the Left Behind books is tedious …

… But reading this takedown is unashamedly fun.

UK Election Result: I See Trouble Ahead

9 May

TL:DR – The election results showcase both the strengths and weaknesses of the British political system … and highlight the risk of trouble ahead.

David and Samantha Cameron

That David Cameron emerged from Thursday’s election as the undisputed winner is … well, indisputable. Commanding a majority of seats in Westminster, the Tories can rule without needing to seek a coalition with the Liberal Democrats or anyone else. This is both good and bad for Cameron; he can be an unfettered Prime Minister, like Blair and Thatcher, but he will also be unable to fall back on the suggestion that he would take sterner measures (on anything really) were it not for the Liberal Democrats. This may seem a chance to show his mettle …

… But it also highlights risks for Cameron in the very near future.

The British political system is fairly simple. There are currently 650 seats in the House of Commons, representing 650 constituencies. The political party that commands the majority of those seats can, on the surface, run the country to suit itself. (Cameron won 331 seats; he needed a bare minimum of 323.) However, there are checks and balances written into the system. In order to rule, Cameron must avoid annoying his backbenchers – and, because he has a very small majority (the defection of 9 MPs would be enough to weaken the government severely) he cannot afford to alienate even one backbencher. Indeed, in some ways, Cameron’s position is actually weaker than it was prior to the election.

That, on the surface, makes no sense. The Tories have a solid block of seats. However, over the period of coalition government, Cameron could call on the Liberal Democrats too; dissident Tory MPs were simply less important than they would be in a purely Tory government. The growing Tory faction that wants to get tough on Europe, either to revise Britain’s relationship with the EU or simply get out altogether, is in a position to cripple Cameron’s position. In order to appease them, Cameron must … well, get tough on Europe, which will make it harder to come to any substantial agreement with the EU. Cameron may then find himself forced to back a referendum on the EU because his own backbenchers made it impossible to actually come to terms with Brussels. He’s already talking about a referendum within the next couple of years.

But the Tories have reason to celebrate. They won.

And so, unfortunately, did the SNP.

The relationship between Scotland and England has little in common with the relationships between US states and the Federal Government. Put crudely, the American Founding Fathers worked hard to shape a government out of nothing; Britain is the result of endless compromises, power struggles and divisions worked out over time. The Act of Union that united Scotland and England effectively abolished both countries, instead forging the United Kingdom out of both of them. Westminster didn’t recognise any suggestion that the UK was divided among regional lines. It simply wasn’t designed to consider Scotland a separate, but united nation. Indeed, it was a contradiction in terms to suggest so.

However, the SNP fed Scottish Nationalism – and showed a frightening lack of respect for the results of the recent referendum. The current position – the SNP holding almost all of the seats in Scotland – cannot fail, but to add more regional struggles to British politics. Westminster’s very failure to admit the existence of regions only adds to the problem. If Scottish MPs can vote on purely English issues, it might well (as was predicted before the election) have the ability to wag the dog – that is, to go into coalition with a mainstream party and use its votes to get another referendum out of Westminster. Like so many other elites – the EU, in particular – the SNP feels we voted the wrong way, so they’re happy to hold another election in the hopes we will give them the right answer this time.

I’ve listed in my earlier posts the many reasons why the SNP’s brand of independence for Scotland is likely to prove disastrous, so I will merely add one thing to the debate; the SNP lied. They lied about the promise of the UK’s oil fields. The SNP would have led us to ruin. They have also proven themselves profoundly undemocratic and, as such, should not be allowed anywhere near power.

There is, however, a potentially graver problem looming on the horizon. By number of votes cast, UKIP came third … but only won one seat in Westminster. (This is a result of the ‘first past the post’ system – a candidate for a seat can win with less than 50% of the votes if the remaining votes are distributed among his opponents.) This is both a very real set of gains for the UKIP and a minor disaster – their ability to influence politics has been sharply limited. I have a feeling this will mean trouble in the future. What is the price of democracy if a party can do very well in raw numbers and yet fail to translate this into any real political gains?

This hasn’t always been bad for Britain. The need to win seats has kept a whole set of dangerous minority parties out of power. But, in a time of change and uncertainty, what will this issue mean for the future?

There are some good things in this election result. For better or worse, we have a single party in a commanding position – and it can’t stray too far from its roots. Furthermore, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been given a great deal of incentive to clean house and redesign themselves for the future. But the combination of SNP gains and UKIP weaknesses, I suspect, will haunt us for many years to come.

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