Snippet – The Lion and the Unicorn (Ark Royal)

10 Jul

Prologue

Admiral Susan Onarina knew, without false modesty, that she’d been in some pretty uncomfortable – even hellish – places in her long career, from middy country to jail and even boarding school.  And yet, the Alpha Black facility – located on the very edge of the solar system, within an asteroid that wasn’t listed in any charts – was the worst place she’d ever been.  She tried to avoid it, as did all sensible officers.  The asteroid’s inhabitants were either servicemen on short-term deployments, medical scientists too intent on their work to notice their surroundings or infected humans who were no longer in command of themselves.  The asteroid was far worse than jail.

She squeezed her eyes shut as she stumbled through the chemical shower, feeling the acidic liquid stinging her skin.  Rays of ultraviolet light poured down on her from high above, followed by lasers that were designed to sweep her body clear of the slightest trace of bacteria.  She forced herself to keep moving, as robotic arms pressed against her arm to collect skin and blood samples.  The lights seemed to grow brighter as she passed through another series of airlocks, wondering – not for the first time – if the precautions were more than a little excessive.  Blood samples, urine samples, stool samples … she shuddered as she made her way onwards, trying to ignore her awareness that she was being probed on a molecular level.  She’d seen the virus – the virus – at work.  If anything, the facility director wasn’t being paranoid enough.

And I suppose it makes sure I don’t come out here more than once or twice a year, she mused, as she stepped through the final airlock.  Warm water – clean water – cascaded down on her, washing away the traces of chemicals that had survived the earlier showers.  The director doesn’t want anyone looking over his shoulder.

Susan breathed a sigh of relief as she dried herself, then walked into the locker room.  Her clothes were already waiting for her.  They felt like paper against her skin.  She found it hard to feel like a serious person in the outfit, even though she knew her dignity was not the important issue on the asteroid.  The garments were designed to be torn away, if the medics needed to tend to a patient.   She understood the logic.  She just didn’t like it. 

She took a long breath, then opened the door to the antechamber.  Admiral Paul Mason, Director of Alpha Black, jumped to his feet and snapped off a salute as she entered, then held out a mug of tea.  Susan took the mug and sipped it gratefully.  It was navy tea, strong and sour, but it washed the taste away perfectly well.

“You’d think we could spring for better tea,” she said, as she poured herself another mug.  “Or even proper milk.”

“You know what it’s like,” Mason said, dryly.  “Billions for untested research equipment that never does what it says on the tin, not one penny for better food and drink for the workers.”

Susan nodded, brushing her dark hair back over her shoulder.  “It’s good to see you again,” she said.  They’d been lovers, once upon a time.  “I take it you haven’t gone mad yet, trapped out here.”

“Not yet, but I’m still trying.”  Mason winked, then sobered.  “We may have had a breakthrough.”

“The beancounters will be pleased,” Susan said.  “They’re still talking about defunding this facility and spending more on warship production instead.”

“That would be a mistake,” Mason said, urgently.  “We’re not going to outproduce the virus.”

Susan nodded, curtly.  “I agree,” she said.  “The key to victory – or even simple survival – lies in pushing technological and biological research as far as possible.”

She stared into her empty mug, remembering hours after hours of endless arguments with the bureaucrats and politicians.  They felt the money would be better spent on tried and tested technology, on warships and starfighters rather than potential war-winning weapons.  Susan understood their concerns – she’d read Superiority, they’d all read Superiority –  but she also understood the virus didn’t need to concern itself with economic issues.  It’s society, insofar as it even existed, was communistic to a degree no human society could match.  It didn’t have to worry about keeping the population alive and reasonably contented.  It could simply churn out an endless series of warships and point them at its foes.  And there was no way the alliance could match the virus ship for ship.

And we have to worry about zombies within the ranks, she reminded herself.  One moment, someone is perfectly loyal and trustworthy; the next, they’re agents of an alien power.

“Like I said, we’ve made something of a breakthrough.”  Mason took her mug and put it in the sink.  “If you’ll come with me.”

Susan nodded and followed him through a maze of corridors.  The facility was almost completely barren, save for a handful of childish paintings pinned to the wall that somehow made the corridors look worse.  One of the researchers had kids, she supposed.  The poor children were probably back on Earth, perhaps in a naval boarding school.  She winced in sympathy.  It was never easy to be separated from one’s parents, even if there was no actual danger.  The parents felt the same way too.

She frowned as they stepped into a large compartment.  The rear bulkhead was transparent, allowing the guests to peer into the environmental compartment.  A handful of naked people – men and women – wandered aimlessly around the chamber, their bare skin marred with unsightly growths and protrusions.  Susan had seen horror – she’d seen people injured or killed in active service – but there was something about the scene in front of her that chilled her to the bone.  The infected were no longer wholly human.  Their will was no longer their own.  The virus had them in its thrall.  An alien intelligence seemed to beat on the air, pressing against her thoughts … she told herself, savagely, that she was imagining it.  And then the infected turned to face her.

Susan glanced at Mason.  “Can they see us?”

“They shouldn’t be able to see us.”  Mason sounded worried, a far cry from the cocky midshipman she’d known years ago.  “The bulkhead is opaque, on their side.  But they seem to know when someone is looking at them.  We don’t understand it.”

“I see.”  Susan calmed herself with an effort.  She’d faced all sorts of challenges in the past, from incompetent commanding officers to naked racism.  She’d face this one too.  “Are they secure?”

“We think so,” Mason said.  He ignored the sharp look she sent him with the ease of long practice.  “That said, they’ve been quite good at testing our defences.  A couple of bioresearchers got infected, we’re not sure how.  Thankfully, we caught it in time to flush the virus from their systems.  Others … the Russians had a breakout at their facility, one that forced them to trigger the nuke and vaporise everyone.  Apparently, one of the guards got seduced.  We don’t know how that happened either.”

Susan shuddered.  Bioweapons research was the big taboo.  The tailored biological weapons that had gotten loose during the Age of Unrest had killed hundreds of thousands before they’d been stopped.  No one, even the really weird independent asteroid colonies, cared to push the limits any further.  And yet, governments had continued research into bioweapons on the grounds it was the only way to develop defences against biological warfare.  They were right, she acknowledged sourly, but it didn’t sit well with her.  It was only a short step from defence to attack.

She turned her gaze back to the infected prisoners.  “Is there nothing that can be done for them?”

“The infection’s too far advanced,” Mason said.  “Their brains have been literally riddled with the virus’s command and control structures.  One of the zombies” – he indicated a middle-aged man – “actually has a bullet hole through his brain.  It hasn’t slowed him down any.  Sure, we could purge the infection, but we’d kill them in the process.  Once the infection reaches a certain point, it’s unstoppable and euthanasia is the only solution.”

He stepped forward until he was almost touching the bulkhead.  “We’ve had some success in slowing the infection, or even purging it, but not after the tipping point is reached.  It seems to laugh at our genetically-engineered immune systems.  We’re working on nanotech solutions, but so far we haven’t come up with anything practical.”

Susan turned as an older woman bustled into the room.  “Admiral?  I’m sorry I wasn’t at the airlock to meet you?”

“It’s quite all right,” Susan assured her.  “Doctor Velda Womack, I presume?”

“Just call me Velda,” Velda said.  “I’m the director of research in this facility.”

Susan smiled at Mason, who shrugged expressively.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, deciding not to point out that Mason was in formal command of the facility.  Velda wasn’t the first civilian she’d met with an inflated idea of her own importance.  “I understand you have a briefing for me?”

“Yes, Admiral.”  Velda walked over to the wall and tapped a console.  The bulkhead turned opaque.  A holographic image appeared in front of them.  “The face of the enemy.”

“Living cells,” Susan said.  She still found it hard to wrap her head around the idea of a sentient virus.  The alien enemies she’d faced had been humanoid, for a given value of humanoid.  “It’s almost beautiful.”

“It’s also almost certainly artificial,” Velda said.  “There’s remarkably little junk DNA in its structure.  Even the most enhanced human has a lot of junk in his generic code.  The virus was created by someone, we’re sure, and got out of control.”

“And they might be still out there,” Susan said.

“It’s possible,” Velda agreed.  “It’s also possible they were simply the first victims.  We may never know.”

She indicated the display with a single finger.  “We’ve been looking for ways to fight the virus on its own level.  It isn’t easy.  It’s capable of overwhelming most immune systems fairly quickly, unless the victim receives medical attention within the first few hours.  We think it’s actually adapted to face humans, as the time between infection and mental collapse has grown shorter.  It may not be intelligent as we understand the term, but it’s clearly very smart.  Once the air is infected with viral base cells, total infection is just a matter of time.”

“I am aware of this,” Susan said, stiffly.  “We lost a handful of colonies to biological attack.”

Velda adjusted the display.  “We’ve been experimenting with manipulating the base cells ourselves.  They’re really quite remarkable, in so many ways.  We came up with a way to use modified base cells to break down the viral … biological computer network, for want of a better term.  It would be a terminal blow to their cohesion.  We think it would shatter the infected hive mind into a collection of individuals.”

“We think,” Mason put in.  “We don’t know for sure.”

“No one ever does,” Susan said.  She looked at Velda.  “Are you sure they can’t adapt?”

“We believe they wouldn’t have time to react before the base cells die,” Velda said.  “The virus requires a high concentration of base cells within the atmosphere to maintain the hive mind.  We’d be smashing it like … like building blocks, in a manner that should make it impossible for the network to be rebuilt.  The rate of infection would be reduced sharply, if not curtailed completely.  Or so we believe.”

“It can’t be that simple,” Susan said.  “What’s the catch?”

“We can hit a planet, easily enough,” Mason said.  “Taking out a ship would be a great deal harder.”

Susan’s lips twitched.  “And they can deploy counter-infection protocols of their own,” she said.  “They may slow the spread of our infection …”

“Our BioBomb,” Velda said.  “We’d be fighting fire with fire.”

“Clever.”  Susan studied the hologram for a long moment.  “How do you know the BioBomb won’t turn into a worse threat?”

“It relies upon viral base cells,” Velda said.  “If we released it here” – she waved a hand in the air – “it would die swiftly.  It isn’t capable of infecting us, or adapting to its surroundings.  One might as well transport a human to the bottom of the sea and expect him to survive long enough to learn how to breathe water.  In a sense, we’ve actually created a predator.  It’s designed to prey on the virus.”

“I hope you’re not going to suggest we infect ourselves with a downgraded virus,” Susan said, dryly.

“That is how the first vaccines were created.”  Velda shrugged.  “No, we’re still working on medical defences.  It might be possible to turn our blood into viral poison, but doing that and keeping the infected person alive has so far proven beyond us.”

Susan nodded, curtly.  “I read the reports,” she said.  “They didn’t make comforting reading.”

“No,” Velda agreed.

“In theory, we should be able to disrupt their networks if we unleash the BioBombs,” Mason said.  “At the very least, we should be able to give them a nasty fright.”

“I’m not convinced the virus has emotions, as we understand the term,” Velda said.  “All of our attempts to communicate have failed.”

“This is a war of extermination,” Susan agreed.  She glanced at Mason.  “I’ll discuss it with the First Space Lord and COBRA, then take it to GATO if they agree.  Until then … start producing the BioBombs.  I want them ready for deployment as soon as possible.”

Mason looked disturbed.  “What has this war done to us?”

Susan nodded to the opaque bulkhead.  “We either fight, using every weapon at our disposal, or wind up like them,” she said.  She understood his fears, but … she knew she couldn’t afford to let sentiment blind her.  “There’s no other way.”

Chapter One

“Welcome to Nelson Base,” Midshipwoman Nancy Ryland said.  “Admiral Onarina is waiting for you.”

Captain the Hon Lord Thomas Hammond nodded as he stepped through the airlock.  The summons to Nelson Base had caught him by surprise, forcing him to make his excuses to his wife and board a shuttle at very short notice.  His wife hadn’t been pleased – she’d been hosting a garden party at the time – but she’d understood.  Duty came first, even if her husband had only just returned from Luna for a month of shore leave.  Thomas felt a twinge of bemusement as the midshipwoman turned and led him down the corridor.  He’d spent the last year at the academy, helping to impart lessons from previous engagements to officer cadets.  He would have preferred another ship, but the navy hadn’t bothered to take his preferences into account before assigning him.

“Please take me to a washroom first,” he said.  “I need to freshen up.”

“Yes, sir,” Nancy said.  “There’s one just outside the admiral’s office.”

Thomas sighed inwardly as he followed her, feeling old.  Nancy looked to be the same age as his daughters, give or take a year or two.  He wondered, idly, if she viewed the assignment to the admiral’s office as a reward or a punishment.  There was something to be said for endearing oneself to one’s superiors, by serving as their aides, but it wasn’t active duty.  The navy wouldn’t promote someone past a certain point unless they’d served at least a year on active duty.  Nancy would probably be assigned to a ship in a year or two, unless she had no ambitions to rise higher.  Thomas found that incomprehensible, although he supposed it was possible she was biding her time until a good match came along.  Or that she just wanted to do her bit for her country.

He put the thought out of his mind as they passed a giant viewport.  Earth floated in front of him, a blue and green marble in an endless sea of stars.  It took his breath away, even though he knew the planet was far from peaceful.  The virus had infected large swathes of the population, unleashing a nightmare that might never end.  The BBC maintained a positive outlook, as did most of the other national and international news channels, but he’d read the reports from more pessimistic analysts.  The virus was steadily grinding the human race down.  It was only a matter of time, some feared, before it broke through the defences and infected the entire planet.  There were even people talking about a mass evacuation of Earth.

Which is logistically impossible, he thought, as they stopped outside a washroom.  We’ve been shipping people off-world for the last century and we’ve barely made a dent in the global population.

Thomas took a breath and stepped into the washroom.  The summons really had caught him by surprise.  Admiral Onarina wasn’t known for being a martinet – she didn’t have a reputation for reprimanding officers who didn’t wear dress uniforms – but he simply hadn’t had time to find anything more than his academy tunic.  He splashed water on his face, then stared at himself in the mirror.  He’d had a lifetime of genetic tweaks – it was one advantage of being born into the aristocracy, then going into naval service – but he still looked old.  His brown hair was starting to turn gray, his skin looked as if it was starting to develop wrinkles.  He was almost tempted to visit a cosmetic surgeon and have everything tightened up, but he wasn’t that vain.  He’d certainly never thought well of men – and women – who made themselves look like teenagers, even though they were parents and grandparents.  They’d always seemed like people who’d never really grown up.

He dismissed the thought with an irritated shrug as he brushed down his uniform, then headed for the hatch.  Nancy looked as if she’d been waiting patiently, when he stepped into the corridor.  Thomas was mildly impressed.  It was unlikely she’d been remotely patient – he certainly hadn’t been, when he’d been at the beck and call of everyone who outranked him – but she hadn’t had a choice.  He wondered, idly, if she had orders not to leave him alone for very long.  It was unlikely – Nelson Base wasn’t a top-secret facility – but he had to admit it was possible.  These days, friend could turn to foe very quickly.  Who knew who might have been infected, without even known it?

“This way, sir,” Nancy said.  “Admiral Onarina is waiting.”

Thomas felt a little fresher as Nancy pressed her fingers against a keypad, then opened the hatch.  Admiral Onarina’s office was surprisingly small, although still much larger than the ready room on his last command.  A simple desk, a set of chairs, a comfortable sofa, a small cluster of pictures on one of the bulkheads … Admiral Onarina, it seemed, didn’t believe in luxury.  Thomas approved.  He’d met too many officers who seemed intent on turning their quarters into apartments that wouldn’t have shamed the Ritz. 

Admiral Onarina rose as he entered.  “Thank you, Nancy,” she said.  “Please bring us tea, then leave us.”

“Aye, Admiral,” Nancy said.

“Please, take a seat,” Admiral Onarina said, as Nancy left the compartment.  “We have much to discuss.”

Thomas sat, studying Admiral Onarina with interest.  She was taller than him, with dark brown skin, long dark hair and darker eyes.  The Order of the Garter was clearly emblazoned on her chest, a vote of confidence from the highest in the land.  It was unlikely she’d reach First Space Lord – she didn’t have the family connections to climb to the very top – but no one doubted her competence.  He wondered, idly, what she’d been doing since she’d reached flag rank.  He’d heard rumours, but none of them had been substantiated. 

Nancy returned, with a tray of tea and biscuits.  Thomas allowed himself a flicker of relief as the midshipwoman placed the tray on the desk, then retreated.  He wasn’t in trouble.  The admiral wouldn’t have offered him a drink if she intended to rake him over the coals.  He’d been fairly sure of it – he’d have known if he’d done something worth a bollocking from an admiral – but it was nice to have confirmation.  And yet, why had he been summoned?  He couldn’t think of a good reason.  A promotion?  It was unlikely Admiral Onarina had called to promote him personally.

“I’m sorry for cutting your leave short,” Admiral Onarina said.  She actually managed to sound regretful.  “You’re being reassigned.”

Thomas raised his eyebrows.  He’d assumed he’d be spending at least another six months at the academy, if not remaining there for the rest of his career.  It was quite possible, he’d thought, that the navy had seen the academy as the last stage of his career.  He’d probably missed the change to jump up to commodore, if not admiral.  Family connections or not, there were limits.  A stalled career might never be restarted.

Admiral Onarina leaned forward.  “The war is going poorly,” she said.  “The blunt truth is that the enemy outnumbers us.  In the last two major engagements, they brought enough ships to outnumber the defenders two-to-one.  Intelligence believes they’re planning to continue thrusting towards us through at least two tramline chains, simultaneously.  If they do, we will be unable to stop one thrust without giving the other thrust a chance to break through and wreck havoc.”

Thomas sucked in his breath.  He’d seen the reports – and he was a past master at reading between the lines, particularly when the news broadcasts were so vague it was brutally obvious they were concealing something – but he hadn’t realised it was so bad.  The naval reports hadn’t been anything like so grim.  And yet … he took a sip of his tea, trying to remain calm.  Admiral Onarina wouldn’t have summoned him, a lowly captain, to discuss the war.  She had something else in mind.

“We cannot hope to outproduce the virus,” Admiral Onarina continued.  “We’re pushing our industrial nodes to the limit, despite the risk of a general collapse, but it isn’t enough to keep the virus from crushing us through sheer numbers.  Our only edge is that our technology is slightly – slightly – more advanced.  We at Special Projects have been working hard to develop newer and better weapons systems that will give us a chance to turn the tide.  We’ve had some successes, but – so far – we haven’t developed a silver bullet.”

“I see,” Thomas said.  “We may come up with something revolutionary …”

“We may,” Admiral Onarina agreed, grimly.  “There are problems, of course.  The naval commanders don’t want to risk betting everything on an untried weapons system.  They’re concerned about discovering, the hard way, that a brand new invention works perfectly in the lab, but fails spectacularly in the real world.  Quite a few of the concepts that have come out of Special Projects – and the Next Generation Weapons program – have proven unworkable, at least until the kinks are worked out.  However, we have made a number of advances and improvements to weapons tech.”

She tapped her terminal.  A holographic starship materialised above the deck.  Thomas leaned forward, drinking in the details.  She was oddly designed, a cross between a giant battleship and a light cruiser.  Thomas frowned as his eyes traced the flattened cylinder, bristling with weapons pods and missile tubes.  The drive section looked unusually large, for a ship of her size.  He didn’t like the look of it.  The section struck him as a huge target.  They’d be drive nodes embedded into the hull itself, but if the drive section were shot off the ship would be effectively dead in space.  His eyes narrowed as he spotted the tiny gunboats clinging to the hull.  Had the designers tried to combine a carrier with a battleship and a cruiser?

“HMS Lion,” Admiral Onarina said, when he looked at her.  “Our first battlecruiser.”

Thomas blinked.  The Americans had experimented with a battlecruiser design, if he recalled correctly, but their prototype hadn’t worked out.  She hadn’t had the acceleration of a cruiser, nor the armour to fight beside the battleships.  Most navies preferred to deploy destroyers, cruisers, carriers and battleships.  Hybrid designs tended to have all the weaknesses and few of the strengths.  And …

“She carries missiles,” he said, bemused.  It made no sense.  “They’d be blown out of space before they reach their target.”

“We’ve been improving missile design and technology ever since we realised they might still have a use in modern war,” Admiral Onarina explained.  “These missiles are designed for long-range engagements, their seeker heads crammed with ECM generators and suchlike to make targeting them difficult … although, sadly, not impossible.  They carry improved warheads too, far more deadly than starfighter torpedoes or kinetic projectiles.  A battleship that took a direct hit would be seriously damaged.  A cruiser would be blown to atoms.”

Thomas sucked in his breath.  “But enemy point defence would still pick them off …?”

“Perhaps,” Admiral Onarina said.  “The missiles are designed for multiple roles, as you can imagine.  They are capable of going ballistic for a time, relying on the gunboats to provide guidance, or simply travelling at speeds that make them difficult to hit.  They’re even capable of travelling in evasive patterns, just like starfighters … expensive as hell, I have to admit, but right now expense isn’t an issue.  We’re gearing up to churn out hundreds of the missiles.”

She altered the display.  A smaller ship appeared beside the battlecruiser.  “HMS Unicorn.  Officially, she’s a corvette, although she’s actually bigger than a standard design.  She’s a combination of recon ship, sniper spotter and a few other roles.  Ideally, she’ll be providing targeting data to Lion’s missiles, allowing Lion a chance to open fire from a distance and then vanish back into stealth before the enemy can react.  She’s also capable of operating independently, if necessary.  She has shorter legs than the average destroyer, and she’s not designed to stand in the line of battle, but she does have enough point defence to provide cover for her mothership.”

Thomas nodded, slowly.  “The concept sounds good.”

“On paper,” Admiral Onarina agreed.  “Practically, we want – we need – to make sure the prototypes are tested to the limit before we commit to building more.  It took months of arguing to convince the Admiralty to assign funding and resources to construct even one, then the project was delayed twice as shipyard workers had to be assigned to other projects and then reassigned back to Lion.  Ideally, she would have left her slip six months ago.”

She met his eyes, evenly.  “I would like you to take command of HMS Lion.”

Thomas felt a thrill of excitement.  There was nothing, absolutely nothing, like starship command.  He wasn’t blind to the politics – or to the danger of being made the scapegoat for the project’s failure, if it failed – but he couldn’t resist.  If he declined the command, the navy would never offer him another.  And besides … he lifted his eyes to the hologram.  He was a conservative when it came to naval technology – most serving officers were all too aware of the risks of taking untested weapons into combat – but he had to admit the concept sounded good.  It remained to be seen just how well it would work in the real world.

“It will be my pleasure,” he said.  An untested ship, fresh off the slips … there’d be challenges galore.  It wasn’t uncommon for ships to develop problems as they were put through their paces – it was why the navy insisted on shakedown cruises before putting a ship in the line of battle – but many of those problems could be anticipated and corrected.  Lion was a new design.  It remained to be seen what would go wrong when she powered up her drives for the first time.  “Do we have a mission?”

“Not yet.”  Admiral Onarina grimaced.  “There are a handful of possibilities, and I want you ready for deployment as quickly as possible, but nothing is set in stone.  There’s some … disagreement … amongst various senior officers about just how Lion should be employed in combat.  Some of us believe she should be held in reserve until we have enough additional units to prove decisive, others feel she and her classmates will not be enough to turn the tide on their own.  Your first priority is to get Lion ready for combat.  We’ll have orders for you then, never fear.”

“Yes, Admiral.”  Thomas found himself smiling.  “It will be one hell of a challenge.”

“Quite.”  Admiral Onarina’s lips thinned, just slightly.  “You’ll be partnered with Captain Mitch Campbell, who’ll have command of Unicorn.  You may have seen him in the news reports.  He’s going to be promoted when I meet him, but you’ll have command of the two-ship flotilla and you’ll be breveted commodore for official correspondence.   I’m afraid this doesn’t come with a pay rise.”

Thomas had to laugh.  “Why am I not surprised?”

“Captain Campbell is a hard-charging young man,” Admiral Onarina said.  “He’s very good with small ships, but – so far – hasn’t served on anything larger than a destroyer.  He was also injured during the last set of engagements and spent several weeks in hospital.  I expect you to keep him under control.”

“Admiral?”

“He’s very hard-charging,” Admiral Onarina said, again.  “Aggressiveness is a useful trait, as you are aware, but there’s more at stake here than a lone corvette.  No one doubts his bravery, and his crew loves him, but – frankly – I’d be concerned about giving him anything bigger than Unicorn.  He really needs more seasoning before taking command of a cruiser, let alone a battleship or carrier.”

“And the media might make that difficult,” Thomas said.  He vaguely recalled watching broadcasts about Commander Campbell.  “They’ve been promoting him as a major hero.”

“He is a hero,” Admiral Onarina said, bluntly.  “He deserves the medal and promotion.  But he also needs more time to mature.  The media may have made that impossible.”

Thomas nodded, curtly.  Naval heroes were heroes, a tradition that stretched all the way back to Lord Nelson and Francis Drake.  The time when movie stars and football players had been regarded as heroes and role models were long gone, so far removed from the modern world that it was impossible to understand why anyone had ever taken it seriously.  Who cared when someone who’s only skill was kicking a football around a field had to say about anything?  Naval heroes – and army heroes – were far more significant.  And yet, it was easy to start turning them into icons … icons that inevitably had feet of clay.  Everyone knew Theodore Smith had been a drunkard.  It hadn’t kept him from saving the entire human race.

And it’s also very easy to get a swelled head, he thought.  This might not end well.

“I’ll keep him pointed in the right direction,” he promised.  “And we’ll be a long way from the media.”

“Always a good idea,” Admiral Onarina agreed.  She stood, signalling the interview was over.  “Nancy will escort you to your shuttle.”

“I’ll have to call my wife first,” Thomas said.  He stood, brushing down his uniform.  “She needs to know I’m going back on active service.”

“Nancy can arrange a private call,” Admiral Onarina said.   “You can leave immediately afterwards.”

“Aye, Admiral,” Thomas said.  It was inconvenient, to say the least, and his wife would not be pleased.  But he’d signed away his freedom when he’d joined the navy.  “And thank you.”

“Thank me when you come back,” Admiral Onarina said.  “A great deal is riding on this project, Captain.”

“I understand,” Thomas said.  “I won’t let you down.”

Planetary Overview: New Doncaster

9 Jul

The setting for the first of Prince Roland’s stories. What do you think?

New Doncaster

The settlement rights to the New Doncaster System remained in a curious legal limbo until roughly 500PEF, as the system was claimed by the remnants of a political faction that was steadily losing its remaining influence in the Grand Senate.  This did not, of course, stop rogue factions from settling the planet before the official colonists arrived, causing all sorts of minor problems as the newcomers asserted their claim to the planet.  There was a brief series of engagements that ended when the Imperial Navy bombarded the illegal settlements, the survivors forcibly integrated into the new power structure.  Tales of hidden settlements and rogue sailors abound, but few believe them.

Officially, New Doncaster – generally shortened to Doncaster – is a representative democracy, with a parliament composed of elected MPs.  Practically, voting rights are highly restricted and based largely – almost completely – on land ownership.  The original investors – the Landowners – own roughly 70% of the planet’s land surface (as well as the moons, asteroid belts and gas giants) and generally run the planet to suit themselves.  They have endless privileges, written into the constitution by the first legal settlers; the majority of government jobs are reserved for them.  Naturally, the parliament is little more than a rubber stamp.  Decisions are taken in private, by the dominant landowners, and then effortlessly passed through parliament.  The handful of MPs from townie factions are unable to do anything about it. 

This is bitterly resented by two of the four other factions: the townies (who form a growing business/middle class) and the debtors (who are effectively serfs, working to pay off impossible debts).  The economic slowdown that ended with Earthfall has hit the planet hard, ensuring that the debts are even more unserviceable.  The townies want more say in planetary affairs – in effect, an end to the landholding scheme – and are prepared to agitate to get it; the debtors want an end to debt and a more fair sharing of planetary resources.  The more perceptive landowners realise that they’ll have to make some concessions, sooner or later, but they’re blocked by their fellows, who feel that any concessions will come back to bite them. 

The remaining two factions – the sailors and the spacers – try to have as little to do with the other factions as possible. However, that may not be able to endure indefinitely. 

There is a surprising amount of ethnic diversity amongst the population, but the planet is resolutely monocultural.  The price of settlement – as a townie or a debtor – was abandoning one’s former culture, if it was believed to be incompatible.  Racism is thankfully rare – classism is considerably more prevalent – and it isn’t unknown for a particularly competent debtor or townie to climb the ladders.  However, this is uncommon.  There are very few slots for newcomers, no matter how talented they may be.

The planet’s military is more of a glorified police force.  The landowners disliked the idea of a standing army – particularly one drawn largely from the lower classes – and kept it as low as possible.  They preferred the idea of a volunteer force drawn from the higher classes, who were the only ones who were allowed to bear arms.  Accordingly, the army consists of little more than 10’000 infantry, with a handful of supporting aircraft and boats, backed up by volunteer posses whenever things get too far out of hand.  Logistics are minimal.  Training is very much a mixed bag, as officers are exclusively drawn from the landowners.  Some are strikingly competent, some are practically useless.

New Doncaster is unusual amongst planets, in that it has a relatively small settlement zone running around the equator.  The planetary surface is an archipelago of islands, some of which are very large indeed (think Cuba or Ireland); the waters, stocked with fish from Earth, provide more than enough sustenance for the system’s inhabitants.  (This is partly why the sailors think they can remain aloof from the power struggle, as they can feed themselves and maintain their sailing ships without much from the main islands.)  A number of islands play host to factories, farms and plantations; a cluster of mid-sized islands represent the capital of the planetary system.

The planet is orbited by a small halo of asteroid settlements and industrial nodes, with varying levels of ties to the planetary government.  Some are owned directly by the landowners, some owe formal fealty to the government but pay as little attention to it as possible.  Smuggling is big business.  Doncaster’s government will never admit it, but the planet sells a considerable amount of advanced technology on the black market.  There is a formal planetary defence network, but no one is really sure how capable it is.  The handful of outdated gunboats patrolling the system are completely inadequate for the task.

Outside the high orbitals, there are small settlements on the rocky worlds, cloudscoops orbiting the gas giants (both owned by the landowners) and an ever-increasing union of settled asteroids (some independent).

The planet’s major exports are food, rare chemicals (harvested from the plantations) and a small – but growing – trade in advanced technology and starship components.

Unsurprisingly, Doncaster has been heading steadily towards disaster.  Earthfall has ensured that the planetary government can no longer call on the Imperial Navy for help.  Worse, the steady economic collapse across the sector has brought pirates, (more) smugglers and independence activists to Doncaster.  The Secessionist League, in particular, has been trying to supply the debtors – and some of the townies – with advanced weapons, hoping the rebels can take the planetary surface and industrial nodes.  The government has reacted poorly, as it remains unwilling to make any substantial concessions to either the townies or the debtors.  Instead, it has tried to crack down – unsuccessfully – on subversion.  It’s heavy-handed tactics have only made things worse, ensuring more resentment and more recruits for the rebel factions.

It is only a matter of time until the planet explodes.

Quick Updates

1 Jul

Hi, everyone.

It’s been a pretty good week, by and large.  I finished the first draft of The Lady Heiress (Zero 7) and did the first set of edits for Oathkeeper (SIM20).  The planned publication date is early August, but we might manage to get it formatted and out sooner.  We’ll see.  The cover is great, as you can see:

We’ve also managed to publish the first volume of Fantastic Schools (see links on that post here.)  There’s a collection of stories by various authors, including Gennady’s Tale (a Schooled in Magic novella).  It adds a certain something to the universe (just don’t ask me to say what).  Reviews are, of course, very welcome. 

My current plan is to write The Lion and the Unicorn  (Ark 15) next, followed by The Right Side of History (SIM21).  I need to work out the plot, as – ideally – I want to get everything lined up for the final three books (and get Oathkeeper finalised) before I start putting hand to keyboard.

I’ve also been sketching out ideas for a new Empire’s Corps trilogy, following Prince Roland in the post-empire universe.  What do you think?

The bad news is that the COVID-19 recession is starting to bite.  Sales are down everywhere (it’s not just me).  If you’ve read a recent book – not just mine <grin> – please take the time to review it.  Every little helps.

In other news, I’ve been thinking about an article on the ongoing breakdown on the other side of the pond.  But I get depressed every time I think about it.

Sigh.

Chris

Out Now – Fantastic Schools, Volume One

26 Jun

Featuring a collection of magic school stories, including Gennady’s Tale … a whole new Schooled in Magic novella (and an introduction by yours truly).  Purchase (Amazon US, UK, CAN, AU, Draft2Digital) NOW.

Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Follow a girl trying desperately to find her place in a school of dark magic, a band of witches desperate to prove they can be as good as the wizards, a school of magical monsters standing between the evil one and ultimate power, a businesswoman discovering the secrets of darkest evil … and what happens when a magical education goes badly wrong.

Follow us into worlds different, magical …

… And very human.

Minor Thoughts on Advances

12 Jun

There’s been some chatter in various writers groups and suchlike about this article: Book Authors Are Getting Real About How Much They Are Paid.  Most of what I can say about it, in response, has been said by Larry Correia and John Scalzi, but I think there are a few minor points that bear mentioning.

One – an advance is called an advance because that’s precisely what it is.  It’s an advance on monies the publisher believes the book will earn.  If you’re just starting out, with no social profile at all, you’ll get a very low advance; if you have a well-deserved reputation as a money-maker and/or you have lots of fans, you’ll get much bigger advances.

Two – once an advance is paid, you rarely see anything more until the book recoups the publisher’s investment.  If, for example, it costs roughly £20K to publish a book, you won’t see a penny more until it earns over 20K.

Three – it can get very sticky indeed if the book fails to earn back its advance.  If your book does not earn itself out … well, best-case, the beancounters will probably refuse to greenlight publishing another book of yours.  Worst-case, they’ll demand the money back and/or refuse to release the rights so you can self-publish the book.  And the other publishers will take note too.  Put crudely, a big advance can easily become an anvil around your neck. 

Four – the big publishers can afford to take certain risks with advances that look big to the human eye, but aren’t that big relative to their budgets.  Small publishers cannot afford to take the risk, to the point they only offer small advances or none.  Even a mid-size publisher can run into trouble if they invest heavily in a flop.  Baen Books – depending on which version you believe – invested heavily in 1945 by Bill Fortschen and Newt Gingrich during the height of Gingrich’s popularity.  The book came out at a very bad moment, the company took a massive financial hit and came very close to complete collapse. 

Five – because of the previous four factors, most advances are very low.  The big figures mentioned by the article are the exception, not the rule.

Six – it’s very easy to start comparing apples to oranges.  A book that fits into a niche market (MIL-SF) may not make the jump into a genre market (SF), let alone go mainstream.  The advances for niche books are generally lower because the publishers believe, rightly or wrongly, that the pool of potential customers is smaller.  A book written by a famous name – a politician or sports star or whatever – will be seen as appealing to the name’s fans and thus garner a bigger advance.  (Note that such a personage will have more clout when it comes to demanding a bigger advance.)

Seven – and this is the controversial part – pushing authors based on anything apart from writing skill is always hazardous.  The vast majority of readers don’t care about the author; they don’t care about sex or skin colour or religion or habits or anything, beyond writing skill.  It’s very easy for a big publisher to assume a book that appeals to them will appeal to everyone, which is frankly untrue. 

Is there actually a disparity between advances paid to white authors and everyone else?  I don’t know, because it is very hard to compare two authors without eliminating all the other factors.  Did someone, for example, sell so well the first time around that the publisher hyped the next advance?  Or were sales lower than predicted and the publisher didn’t feel like taking a chance again?  For all the white authors mentioned in the article as getting huge advances, how many white authors – and POC authors – got smaller or no advances?

What do you think?

Snippet – The Lady Heiress

12 Jun

Prologue

I think about my father a lot.  Even when I’m trying not to.

I still remember the last day I saw him, six years ago.  I still remember the day he sent me away.

We’d never really been close.  He was Lord Lucas, Patriarch of House Lamplighter, and he always had something to do.  He’d always been a distant figure to me.  He’d acknowledged me as his child – it wasn’t as if I was a natural-born daughter – but he was always too busy to spend time with me.  It wasn’t uncommon amongst the Great Houses.  I was unusual in spending so much time with my mother, rather than being farmed out to a succession of governesses and private tutors.  It wasn’t until much later that I understood why.

He hadn’t sent me to Jude’s.  I should have gone when I turned twelve, like all the children of the Great Houses, but he’d insisted on keeping me at Lamplighter Hall.  I’d argued and pleaded and even resorted to screaming, to no avail.  Mother had care of my education, with my aunts and uncles filling in the blanks.  It wasn’t that they were bad at teaching – I suppose it was easier with only one student to teach – but it wasn’t the same.  Mother kept saying Father would change his mind, yet … I think she knew better.  I think she knew he’d never change his mind.

And then she died in the House War.

I don’t remember who told me.  My memories are a blur.  The only clear memory I have from that time is my father saying that he was sending me to school, that he was sending me away.  I was too dazed to care.  My mother was dead and … it wasn’t until I got to Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies that I realised he’d sent me away, that he didn’t want to see me again.  I was a reject, an outcast like all the other long-term boarders.  I was … unwanted.

I don’t know why my father sent me away.  He never said.  I used to fret endlessly over what I’d done, back before I grew old enough to realise I’d done nothing.  I used to wonder if I was – somehow – responsible for mother’s death, for my father’s constant absences … if, perhaps, my father blamed me for something beyond my control.  I wouldn’t be the first girl to be sent away because her family could no longer cope, but … why me?

He wasn’t a monster.  There were fathers who were abusive to their daughters, who shouted at them and beat them and arranged matches to men of good families … my father wasn’t like that.  And there were fathers who spoilt their daughters rotten or paid no attention to them … as if they were just little people who happened to share the house.  My father wasn’t like that either.  I didn’t know why he’d sent me away.  And I wished – more and more, as I got older – that I could remember his face.  My family were little more than shadows.  Only a couple bothered to say in touch with me and none of them told me anything useful.  None of them told me why.

I grew up at Grayling’s.  I wasn’t the only long-term boarder.  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get to go home over the summer, who grew from thirteen to nineteen without ever seeing her parents.  But I was the only one whose family lived nearby, the only one who could have gone home …

… And then I got the letter that told me my father had died. 

And then everything changed.

Chapter One

I’d always liked secrets.

It wasn’t anything bad.  Not really.  Knowledge was power in Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies.  Knowing something everyone else didn’t know – or knowing something someone else wanted to remain secret – was always advantageous in the endless struggles for social status.  I’d grown to adulthood learning to keep my ears open and my mouth closed, learning how to put the puzzle pieces together to work out what was actually going on.  I knew more about my fellow students – and the staff – than they could possibly imagine.  I knew who had a crush on who, who was sneaking out at night to see her boyfriend, who was plotting against Mistress Grayling … I knew and I kept it to myself.  Secrets were currency, as far as I was concerned.  They lost their value the moment they became public.

Grayling’s had been the making of me, for better or worse.  I’d done well in my lessons, both the formal tuition and the other – far more useful – lessons I’d learnt from the other girls.  I knew how to evade the locking charms on the dorms, how to hack through the spells on the outer doors and sneak into the gardens … or get over the walls to meet a boy.  I knew which prefects could be trusted to turn a blind eye, as long as the relationship was harmless, and which prefects would blow the whistle for the sheer pleasure of watching some hapless romantic be roasted in front of the entire school the following morning.  I’d even managed to convince some of the latter to let me go, just by telling them a tiny little secret.  They thought I’d sneak on them.  Of course they did.  It was what they would have done.

I smirked to myself as I slipped out of my bedroom and peered down the darkened corridor.  It was nearly midnight, but I could see a pair of younger miscreants standing at one end of the corridor, hands firmly charmed to their heads.  I rolled my eyes at their backs.  The sheer illogic of the system had never creased to amuse me.  If a young girl was caught out of bed, but still within the dorms, she was told to stay out of her bed … it had never really made sense.  Or maybe it did.  I’d been forced to stand in the corridor, looking like an absolute dork, often enough to learn a few basic heating charms.  I supposed it did provide a certain encouragement.

And if you get caught once you pass the doors, I reminded myself, you’ll be in real trouble.

I inched soundlessly down the corridor and round the corner.  Katie – my roommate – had stayed outside after Lights Out, planning to meet her boyfriend in the gardens.  She’d been confident she could evade discovery long enough to have her fun and sneak back inside, but I wasn’t so sure.  The Head Girl had been on the prowl over the last few days.  Marlene had always had it in for me, and Katie by extension.  I’d broken her nose when we both thirteen years old.  Mistress Grayling had been more upset about the punching – young ladies did not resort to physical violence, she’d said – than anything else.  She would have been less upset if I’d turned Marlene into a frog.

The charms on the door were complex, but not too complex.  I’d often wondered if the entire tradition of sneaking out after Lights Out was designed to encourage us to learn skills that would be useful in later life.  The staff could have kept us locked up, if they’d been willing to put some work into it.  I carefully unpicked them, then slipped through the door and into the corridor beyond.  My heart started to thump as I inched onwards.  I was committed.  If I was caught outside the dorms after Lights Out, I’d be called out during Assembly and humiliated in front of the entire school.  Not for being out of the dorms, but for being caught.

I donned a pair of charmed spectacles as soon as I was round the corner, looking around with interest.  I’d often suspected the prefects had ways to track active magic within the school, but they’d find it harder to detect and locate an active Device of Power.  The building seemed to come to life around me, flickers of magic darting through the walls as I hurried to the stairs and headed downwards.  There was something truly eerie about the school, after dark.  It was easy to believe, suddenly, that the school’s ghosts came out and danced in the darkness.  I’d heard all the stories.   They seemed very real.

The air was silent, too silent.  I kept to the side, careful not to put any weight on loose floorboards or squeaky stairs.  The prefects might be lurking in the shadows, waiting for me.  I hadn’t been fool enough to tell anyone I was sneaking out, let alone where I was going, but it was quite possible someone else had.  Stealing food from the kitchens for a midnight feast was an old tradition too.  And if someone in the lower dorms had been planning it, they might just have been overheard by one of the prefects.  They knew all the tricks.  They’d been students too, once upon a time.

Although it’s hard to believe, sometimes, I told myself.  I wouldn’t have thought Marlene had ever been young if I hadn’t grown up with her.

I smiled at the thought, then put it to one side as I reached the bottom of the stairs.  The lobby was empty, although I tensed as I spotted the line of portraits on the wall.  Rumour had it the paintings had eyes, charmed to allow Mistress Grayling to see through them.  I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I did my best to stay out of eyesight anyway.  Just in case.  The paintings were supposed to show headmistresses from the last three hundred years, but I hadn’t been able to help noticing they all looked alike.  Rumour also claimed Mistress Grayling was a vampire.  It was hard to believe she might have been young too.

The thrill of being somewhere I shouldn’t grew stronger with every passing second.  Students weren’t allowed in the lobby, unless they’d been ordered to the headmistress’s office.  It was a silly rule, one of many, but so strictly enforced that I was half-convinced Mistress Grayling really was a vampire.  Or that she was keeping something from us.  Or … I resisted the urge to snort as I crawled under the final painting, then straightened as I stared at the office door.  It was far more likely, really, that Mistress Grayling was merely exercising her authority.  I’d grown up in a Great House.  I knew it was important to use one’s authority or risk losing it.

I pressed my fingers against the doorknob, parsing out the charms.  They were complex – I’d had a look at them the last time I’d been summoned to the office – but not unbreakable.  I braced myself, then started to work.  The charms hadn’t been made that tight.  Mistress Grayling couldn’t keep us out completely without barring the staff as well.  Personally, I would have considered that a fair trade.  There were some good teachers, but also some I’d pay money never to have to see again.

The door clicked.  I froze.  The noise sounded very loud in the silent school.  If I was caught  now, I’d be a laughing stock.  Marlene – and everyone else, even Katie – would laugh like a hyena if I was caught.  The door slid open, allowing me to peer inside.  The chamber was as dark and cold as the grave. Mistress Grayling had the largest office in the school – there were classrooms that were smaller – but there was no hint of any personality.  It was as colourless as the woman herself.  No paintings, no trophies … nothing.  I was almost disappointed as I inched into the chamber, pushing the door closed behind me.  There was no other way out.  If someone came, I’d have to hide in the shadows and hope for the best.  I smiled, allowing my tension to drain away as I walked towards the filing cabinets.  I’d often wanted to take a look inside, but I’d never dared.  Not until now.  The exams were over.  Like it or not, I’d be leaving the school forever in a few weeks.  It wasn’t as anyone would care if I got expelled. 

The cabinet charms were weaker than I’d expected.  I frowned, wondering if I’d been tricked somehow.  The files – the real files – could be elsewhere.  Mistress Grayling’s rooms were on the other side of the school.  It was quite possible she kept the real files there.  I felt my heart sink as I unpicked the charms, one by one.  Surely, she wouldn’t be quite so careless about her files.  The real charms had to be elsewhere.

Magic crackled around me as I picked apart the last charm and pulled the cabinet open.  Rows of files greeted me, each one labelled with a number and nothing else.  I muttered a word that would have me going to bed on bread and water if a prefect – or the tutors – heard.  It would be difficult, if not  impossible, to figure out whose file was whose.  There had to be trick to it … I scanned the numbers, trying to think.  I didn’t have a student number, did I?  It wasn’t as if they didn’t call me by name.  Or … I smiled, suddenly, as my birth date jumped out at me.  It had to be my file.  I’d have known if someone shared my birthday.

I pulled the file free, unpicked the locking charm and opened the box.  My permanent record book sat on top.  I put it to one side and inspected the rest of the papers.  A letter from my father, pleading for Mistress Grayling to take me as a pupil … it was dated shortly after the House War, barely a day after my mother died.  My heart clenched in pain.  My father had started planning to send me away at once?  And to Grayling’s?  Tears prickled in my eyes.  I blinked them away, harshly.  Father had had a good reason.  I was sure he’d had a good reason.  But the letter merely referred to unspecified reasons …

My eyes narrowed as I skimmed the remainder of the letters and accounts.  Mistress Grayling had written to my father twice, demanding payment … payment for what?  My head spun as I tried to understand what I was seeing.  Payment … for me?  If my school fees were unpaid … I’d have been kicked out.  I was sure of it.  Mistress Grayling wasn’t running a charity.  She’d told us often enough.  But father could have paid easily … right?  I skimmed through the rest of the papers, trying to read between the lines.  It wasn’t easy.  My father – and Mistress Grayling – seemed to be committing as little as possible to paper.  The only exception was a note from my uncle, asking permission to take me out for a day … I nearly destroyed the letter as I realised it was dated five months ago.  Mistress Grayling hadn’t bothered to ask me if I wanted to go.  And I would have.  It had been too long since I’d so much as left the school.

And Uncle Jalil probably thinks I’m a rude little snob, I thought, angrily.  He wouldn’t have minded if I’d said no – my exams had been coming up – but saying nothing was dreadfully rude.  Mistress Grayling’s managed to land me in trouble.

I scowled as I carefully closed up the box, then returned it to the shelf.  I’d have to find a way to apologise without admitting what I’d done.  And to confront Mistress Grayling.  She had every right to bar me from going, if she’d thought I needed to study, but she really should have told me.  I wasn’t sure how.  The headmistress would be furious if she knew I’d pried into her private correspondence.  The rest of the staff wouldn’t be amused either.

My eyes narrowed as I spotted the account books at the bottom of the cabinet.  They were covered in charms, charms I’d learnt in class.  I picked apart the ones intended to keep unauthorised readers from opening the books, then frowned down at the figures.  Mistress Grayling’s handwriting was awful.  The charms would make it hard to deliberately miscalculate one’s sums, but they were still hard to read.  It looked as though the school was losing money.  I wasn’t too surprised.  Mistress Grayling had never struck me as a particularly good headmistress.

I tensed as I heard a sound from outside the windows.  The grounds outside were dark, but … I remembered, suddenly, how many girls might be sneaking out to see their boyfriends or catch up with their pashes.  I returned the book to the shelf, hastily repaired the damaged charms and headed for the door.  If someone peered in, they might see me.  I doubted they’d sneak – it would be instant social death, if we found out who’d done it – but they might take advantage of knowing.  Who knew what they’d demand from me if they knew what I’d done?

My heart started to pound, again, as I heard more sounds from outside.  Someone was talking … I winced in sympathy.  No one would be talking so loudly if they hadn’t already been caught, probably by one of the less amiable prefects.  They might manage to talk one of the others into letting them go, if they didn’t make it impossible by accidentally waking the whole school.  I smiled at the thought, even though I knew it wasn’t really funny.  If they got everyone out of bed, they’d have no trouble spotting my absence.  And then I’d be in trouble. 

I inched into the lobby, closing the door behind me as quietly as I could.  The outer door was already opening.  I started to move towards the stairs, then caught myself and slipped into the shadows, wrapping the strongest obscurification charm I could around myself.  The charms were subtle, so low-power they were very hard to detect …  as long as I didn’t draw someone’s attention.  I knew stronger spells, but the mere act of trying to use them might reveal my presence.  And if I was caught …

The outer door opened.  I knew who it was, who it had to be, before she came into sight.  The common or garden students were never permitted to use the front door.  Even prefects were discouraged from using the door, particularly after Lights Out.  It had to be Marlene … my heart sank as the Head Girl came into view, followed by my roommate.  Katie had her hands on her head, a clear sign she’d been caught.  I felt a stab of sympathy, mingled with fear.  If Marlene marched Katie straight back to our room, there was a good chance she’d realise I was missing too.  I wasn’t scared of being caught, not really, but … I breathed a sigh of relief as Marlene pushed Katie towards the lower door.  It looked as if she was going to wake the duty tutor.  I thought a string of uncomplimentary things as they vanished into the darkness.  Poor Katie would be in real trouble.  The duty tutor would not be in a good mood if she was woken in the middle of the night.

And Marlene might be in some trouble too, I told myself.  I clung to the thought as I started to inch back up the stairs.  The duty tutor really won’t be happy if she’s woken.

I smirked at the thought, even though I knew it was unlikely.  Marlene was the Head Girl.  She had the authority to wake the tutor if she felt it necessary.  And her family was quite well connected.  Marlene might get told off, but little more.  She certainly wouldn’t be stripped of her post.  I put the thought out of my head as I hurried back to the dorms, slipping through the doors and into my room.  The corridors were completely empty.  I was in my bed, pretending to be asleep, when Katie was thrust back into the room.  Marlene snapped something at her – I couldn’t make it out – and closed the door.  I peered out as soon as she was safely gone.

“You okay?”

Katie shook her head.  “I’ll be seeing the headmistress tomorrow,” she said.  “And Marlene has me on the detention roster for the rest of the year.”

She snickered.  “I’m not going to be here for the rest of the year.”

“How unfortunate for Marlene,” I said.  “Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah.”  Katie shrugged.  “Better than the bloke my parents wanted me to marry, I can tell you.”

I nodded.  Katie’s parents had tried to arrange a match for her.  I’d helped her break it off before it was too late.  She’d been lucky.  An aristocratic maid, even one with strong magic, might have found it a great deal harder to stand against parental pressure to marry.

“Better get some sleep,” I said.  “The morning is not going to be fun.”

“No.”  Katie made a face.  “Do you think I’ll get expelled?”

“It would be a little pointless now,” I reminded her.  “You’ve sat your exams.”

I pulled the cover over my head and closed my eyes, muttering a sleep spell.  I’d pay for it in the morning with a banging headache, but there was no choice.  There were only five hours until I was meant to get out of bed or there’d be no breakfast.  And Marlene would be watching.  If she spotted I was tired, she might deduce I’d been out of bed after Lights Out …

… And, five hours later, she tried to break down the door.

Idle Thoughts on Motives

11 Jun

Might be of interest, though more random than anything else.

Idle Thoughts on Motives

We’ve been so busy trying to work out if [the murderer] is into boys or girls that we haven’t stopped to wonder if that’s his actual motive.

-Wee Hughie (roughly paraphased)

The basic idea of The Witch of Turlingham Academy books is that Sophie, a Witch, is BFF (yes, these are kids books) with Katy, a Witch Hunter.  The first book follows the two girls becoming friends, almost despite themselves; the successive books follow them trying to conceal their friendship from their families, then convince their families to accept their friendships.  Book Four makes things more complicated when a new Witch comes to school and her parents raise concerns about Katy.  Sophie’s mother (muggle, but married to a Witch) points out, rather frostily, that Katy has every right to an education too.  The new Witch’s parents aren’t too impressed and it’s fairly clear that, if they hadn’t needed to have their daughter at the school, they would have taken her elsewhere.

Are they being discriminatory?

Katy has the same problem as a bunch of other sharp-edged characters (like Hermione Granger).  If you’re predisposed to like her, as her BFF obviously is, she’s a wonderful person.  If not … she’s rather less wonderful.  And, as much as it pains me to admit it, there are good reasons for the new girl’s parents to view Katy with a degree of wariness.  For example:

-Katy is a Witch Hunter from a family of Witch Hunters with a very bad (and very well deserved) reputation.

-Katy (and her brother) genuinely did come to school to track down and depower a witch, a process that would have been directly or indirectly fatal.

-Katy only changed her mind when she discovered the Witch in question was her BFF. 

-Katy’s brother and parents continued to pose a threat until they were forced to choose between saving their daughter and continuing the war.   For this, they have been cast out from the Witch Hunters.

Now, if you know Katy (as Sophia and her mother do), you might feel that there’s no reason to fear.  Katy has more than proved herself a true and loyal friend.  But if you don’t know Katy, you might think otherwise.  Your daughter is at stake.  Would you take the risk of allowing her to share space with a Witch Hunter?

***

Midway through Prince Caspian, as this writer reminds us, Nikabrik the Dwarf proposes summoning the White Witch to aid the Narnians in their fight against the Telmarines.  Anyone who’s read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe  or The Magician’s Nephew knows just how bad an idea this is.  The White Witch is a monster who destroyed her entire world out of spite, introduced evil into Narnia and – eventually – plunged the land into endless winter until her death.  It’s easy for the reader to understand that Nikabrik’s idea is pure madness.

Nikabrik hasn’t read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  He never saw the endless winter.  To him, the White Witch is a creature out of legend.  A threat, perhaps, but one the Narnians survived. 

And the situation is desperate.  The Narnians are losing.  The Telmarines will exterminate the talking beasts (and everyone else) if they win.  Surrender is impossible.  There’s little hope of conventional victory, let alone escape; there’s no reason to believe help is on the way.  Defeat means the end of everything. 

All of a sudden, summoning the White Witch doesn’t seem such a bad idea. 

***

Viewers of Battlestar Galactica recoiled in horror when Gaius Baltar was elected President of the Twelve Colonies (or what was left of them) at the end of Season Two.  They knew, even if the characters didn’t, that Baltar was indirectly responsible for the fall of the colonies, the effective genocide of mankind, the death of the fleet’s legitimate commanding officer and the electronic signature that eventually doomed the settlement on New Caprica.  (To be fair, unlike his original series counterpart, Baltar never meant to do any of it (with the possible exception of assassinating Admiral Cain)).  To viewers, electing Baltar seemed an utterly unbelievable mistake. 

Is it?

Baltar ran against Laura Roslin.  Again, if you are inclined to like Roslin, you’ll probably think well of her.  But if you’re not so inclined, a more disturbing picture begins to arise.

Roslin did not become President through running for election.  She became President through the death of everyone higher up the line of succession.  She was unwilling to admit this and hold new elections in season one until she had her hypocrisy pointed out to her (by Lee) and selected Baltar as her VP.  She then induced an officer to go against the chain of command, triggered a near-civil war within the fleet which risked splitting it at a crucial moment, plotted to assassinate the fleet’s legitimate commanding officer, tried to rig the election and quite a few other dubious choices.  She’s also a religious fanatic who bent the knee to other religious fanatics and, perhaps worst of all, a person with a knack for making promises and breaking them at the drop of a hat.

Now, you can argue that some of this was justified.  Admiral Cain really was a lunatic who had to be removed.  The split in the fleet led to the discovery of the way to Earth.  But many of her other decisions were not.  And not all of this was known to the average citizen of the fleet.

Baltar would not look bad, from the average citizen’s point of view.  He’s a legitimate war hero.  He’s a man of science, not a religious nut.  He doesn’t have a record of making bad and/or dubious decisions, as far as the average citizen knows.  And Roslin picked him as her VP, which suggests she – at least – was happy to run the risk of Baltar being her successor.  In short, he might not seem such a bad choice.

But Baltar isn’t the only issue.  The colonials have a choice between settling New Caprica and continuing on a desperate quest to find Earth.  The fleet leadership believes that settling on New Caprica is asking for disaster, rightly so.  But consider it from the point of view of the average citizen.  You’re trapped on a fleet that is under constant attack.  Supplies are constantly on the brink of running out.  You’re living under martial law.  You’re either sitting around doing nothing, defending the fleet or working in dangerously unsafe conditions to keep the fleet going (and, all the time, resenting the officers on Galactica and Colonial One, who don’t find it so bad because they have private cabins and suchlike.)  Moving to New Caprica suddenly seems like a very good idea, all the more so as the planet is practically impossible to find (no one knows the detonation will eventually lead the bad guys to the colony). 

Sure, there are risks inherent in settling on New Caprica.  But there are also risks in not settling on New Caprica.

All of a sudden, the idea of electing Balter – the man who pledged to set up a colony on New Caprica – doesn’t seem quite so insane.

***

Now, you can reasonably argue that the people in all three examples above were dangerously ignorant, at the very least.  This would be true.  They don’t know things they need to know to make a proper judgement, they don’t know that Katy is a good friend, that the White Witch is a terrible menace and that it’s only a matter of time before New Caprica is discovered and occupied.  But, based on what they actually know (and their past experiences), they’re making good decisions.

The problem facing the good guys, in all three examples, is a certain reluctance to admit the other side has a point, let alone try to deconstruct it.  It’s very easy to refuse to recognise that the other side has legitimate arguments, as – in this day and age – merely considering their arguments seriously runs the risk of being accused of agreeing with those arguments.  It’s also possible that the weight of those arguments is so strong that they simply cannot be deflected, even if they’re wrong.  The colonials of Battlestar Galactica are in such dire circumstances that even clear proof of Balter’s failings would not change the simple fact that settling New Caprica looks like a very good idea. 

And yet, deconstructing the other side’s arguments is the only way to progress.

People have feelings.  They have needs and fears and a certain degree of self-interest.  If you dismiss those feelings as foolish or wrong or whatever, even if they are objectively so, you’ll harden their hearts against you.  They will reach a state where throwing the baby out with the bathwater seems a very good idea.  However, if you recognise that they consider their arguments to be legitimate and engage with them, you may convince them to recognise that your feelings are also legitimate.  For example:

Sophia’s mother could have stood up for Katy and pointed out that there’s no reason to think that either Katy or her family pose any threat to the new Witch.  She could even have offered to ensure the girls slept in different dorms, limiting the contact between them as much as possible.

Prince Caspian could have pointed out that the war is not completely lost.  They can make preparations to summon the White Witch, but refrain from actually doing so until they are on the brink of total destruction.  Caspian would have looked more reasonable and, as help was already on the way (IIRC, in the next room), there’d be no need to take the risk.

Roslin could have proposed a compromise.  The fleet would lurk in interstellar space while slowly and steadily developing New Caprica.  The planet would be turned into a source of food, with the long-term intention of eventually settling the world completely.  In the meantime, one of the battlestars could have continued the search for Earth.  When the bad guys turned up and invaded New Caprica, Roslin would have looked very far-sighted indeed. 

I don’t pretend that listening to the other side would solve all of our problems.  But refusing to accept that they have legitimate points – or think they do – will only make our problems worse.

Musings on Emergencies

10 Jun

When in danger, When in doubt,

Run in circles, Scream and shout!

-Original Source Unknown

As a writer, I am used to receiving criticism.  It’s part of the job.  People point out everything from spelling mistakes to factual inaccuracies all the time.  It happens.  I don’t mind it.  But one comment that stuck in my mind came from a review of The Cowards Way of War.  The United States Government I painted, the reviewer pointed out, was too efficient.  Faced with a national – global, really – crisis, the government acted with stunning competence.  The real government would be nowhere near as capable.  It would be rather more like The Last Centurion.

It’s interesting to compare my fictional crisis with the COVID-19 epidemic, but also pointless.  They’re not the same.  The fictional crisis involved a weaponised bioweapon with known – and very lethal – qualities.  COVID-19 was an unknown quantity, as far as the vast majority of people knew.  It was hard to say just how bad it would be, at least at the start; a problem made worse by China and the WHO downplaying the crisis until it was too late to keep it confined to China.  In hindsight, a great many mistakes were made.  This is undeniable.  But it is also undeniable that the decision-makers at the time did not have the advantage of hindsight.  They had to make decisions based on what they knew at the time.

The problem with emergency planning – and emergency drills – is that they always leave out the emergency.  There’s always a sense the drill isn’t real, no matter how intense it seems; there’s always an awareness the drill can be halted if something goes really wrong.  You don’t set fire to a building to carry out a fire drill, for example; you don’t injure a patient to force a trainee doctor to make life-or-death decisions.  Worse, perhaps, the drills are often deliberately slanted to make the participants look good.  They assume that everyone will know what to do, that senior officers – however defined – will be there, that the chain of command will be clearly understood by everyone.  This is unrealistic.  There’s no guarantee that the senior officer will be there, let alone that he’ll make the right call.

And, of course, there’s no way to predict how people will react until they actually face a real emergency.  Will they panic?  Will they freeze?  Will they go too far or will they not go far enough?  Will they actually know what’s going on?  Will they make the right call?  There’s no way to know.  Emergency drills can teach people what they should do in a crisis, but it’s never easy to tell if people are actually learning the right lessons.  Even the most chaotic emergency drill is far more organised than a real emergency.

The problem facing decision-makers is two-fold.  First, they must balance a set of competing requirements.  Second, they must perform this balancing act while trying to ignore everyone who is trying to make political hay out of the crisis.  The person on the spot does not have the luxury of  doing nothing.  He must make a decision, even though it may be the wrong decision.  And he must be prepared to change his decision if new evidence suggests he made the wrong call, despite the certainty his enemies will mock him for changing his mind.  It is simply not easy to realise what someone knew and didn’t know, even without the temptation to turn the disaster to political advantage.  The seemingly-irrational decisions made by the Soviet Government shortly after the Chernobyl Disaster began make a great deal more sense if you realise the Soviet Government was seriously misinformed about the scale of the crisis.

The cold reality of emergency planning is that there is no way to do it perfectly.  There will be problems caused by a lack of knowledge and resources.  Even if the decision-makers have both, it will take time to get organised and actually put them to work.  There will be losses.  Whatever decision the decision-makers take, there will be serious consequences.  People will die.  And then the armchair generals, the people who don’t have the responsibility for dealing with the crisis, will point out – with the advantage of hindsight – how it could have been done better. 

It is never easy to balance competing requirements.  On one hand, putting the entire world into lockdown and ordering everyone to stay indoors would have stopped COVID-19 in short order.  It made cold-blooded sense.  The infected would either die or get better, but they wouldn’t spread the disease any further.  However, on the other hand, this would utterly destroy the global economy and condemn millions of people to starvation.  How many people keep even a week or two’s worth of food in their houses?  If you refuse to let people leave the house for any reason at all, they’re going to starve.  And this would lead, rapidly and inevitably, to a serious breakdown of law and order.

Governments needed, therefore, to strike a balance between closing everything down and keeping everything open, between running the risk of infecting everyone and ruining the economy beyond repair.  This would not have been easy, even with perfect foresight.  It wasn’t clear just how dangerous the virus truly was – and yes, this is still hotly debated – or what would need to be done to tackle it.  And we had the sheer bad luck that this crisis exploded at the same time the media and large numbers of the political class were suffering from Trump/Boris Derangement Syndrome.  Whatever Donald Trump and/or Boris Johnston did, it was going to be branded a mistake.  Worse than a mistake (Trump’s early concern over the virus was branded racism).  They would make the best calls they could, with the data they had on hand, only to be attacked for not knowing things they couldn’t know.  This made it much harder to come to grips with the real crisis.

The sheer scale of the lockdown was beyond any emergency drills.  Some effects were predictable, but were very much second-order priorities.  Others didn’t make themselves apparent until it was too late to change course.  The knock-on effects have been staggering and continue to be so.  If businesses are not making money, they’re not paying wages; if workers are not getting paid, they’re not able to pay their rent; if landlords are not getting rent, they’re unable to pay their debts (mortgages) themselves; if mortgages are not getting paid, the banks might start to totter too.  Governments have run around, trying desperately to fix the first set of problems … and then the problems caused by the first set of solutions.  It’s easy to say that governments did mindlessly stupid things, or were guided by malice, but the blunt truth is that the scale of the crisis was so big that a lot of issues got overlooked until they bit.  Hard.

And some of the problems were so big that they literally could not be handled.

It is not surprising that cracks started to appear very quickly.  The lockdown depended on a great deal of public trust.  This was lacking in both Britain and America.  In Britain, the government’s response to the crisis appeared first lacklustre, then extreme.  In America, the long-standing media war against President Trump ensured that, as I said above, whatever decisions he made would be the wrong decisions.  The fact an election was brewing didn’t make life any easier for Trump, as it would be easy to blame him for every negative effect of the virus.  (The constant lists of politicians from just about everywhere flouting the rules didn’t help.) 

Worse, perhaps, the lockdown caused a great deal of stress for people.  Being trapped in the house, unsure of where one stood … it can be maddening.  People ask “do I still have a job?  Will the landlord kick me out if I can’t make rent?  Will I still go to college?”  And then there’s the constant fear of neighbourhood snitches making a false – or inaccurate – report and getting someone in trouble.  I’m not remotely surprised there’s been a string of incidents as stress and frustration starts to get out of hand.  People who feel forced to bottle up their feelings can explode.  The protest marches/riots following George Floyd’s death don’t really help.  If protesting is perfectly fine, as politicians suggest, then so is reopening businesses and getting back to normal.  If protesting is not fine, then why aren’t the protesters being stopped before they infect themselves and others?  The damage this has done to their long-term credibility cannot be understated. 

The blunt truth is that there probably wasn’t a good – i.e. perfect – way to handle this crisis.  Whatever decisions were made, people were going to die.  There were going to be a string of blunders that ensured more people would die – and yes, many of those deaths could have been avoided.  And I think it is important that politicians – particularly the ones who want my vote – have to bear that in mind.  It’s very easy to point and laugh from the sidelines, to pass judgement on someone when you’re not the one in the hot seat.  It’s a great deal harder to handle a crisis when you’re the one in the hot seat.

Musings on the Future of British Politics (1)

6 Jun

Musings on the Future of British Politics

As requested … normal commenting rules apply.

Part One – How Did We Get Into This Mess Anyway?

I suck at drawing diagrams, but I’ll do my best.  This is an obviously simplistic view of the British electorate – it ignores the other parties and independent voters completely – but it will do for the moment.  Note that Q1 and Q2 are solidly Tory, Q3 and Q4 are Labour.

It looks as if the electorate is 50/50,right?

Now, we add the BREXIT voters to the diagram.

You’ll notice that Q1 is Tory Europhile, Q2 is Tory Euroskeptic, Q3 is Labour Europhile and Q4 is Labour Euroskeptic.  The electorate appears to be divided evenly amongst the four factions.  Right?

What this means is that the BREXIT vote cut across party lines.  There were Labour voters who loathed David Cameron, but voted for BREXIT; there were Tory voters who thought highly of Cameron, but voted against BREXIT.  Both political parties, therefore, were caught in a bind.  If the leadership stood strongly for Leave, they’d lose Remain voters (and vice versa).  Indeed, the reason we got the election in the first place was that David Cameron needed to placate the Tory Euroskeptics (who would have made him pay a price for not holding the referendum).  His calculation was that Remain would win and the Tory Euroskeptics would shut up for a while.  This would have been dangerously optimistic – the SNP has yet to shut up about Scottish Independence – even if Remain had won the vote.

It lost.

This presented the political establishment with a serious problem, because the political divide I described above was still in effect.  Large numbers of both politicians and voters were firmly convinced that leaving the EU would be a mistake.  They argued that the voters had been misinformed or misled and therefore it would be better to quietly put the vote to one side.  Their arguments effectively boiled down to “[we] recognize the electorate has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-ass decision, [we’ve] elected to ignore it.”  They were basically trapped between two fires.  There was no decision they could make that would please everyone.  Worse, because it was unsure if the results would ever be implemented, and there was a chance the result might simply be ignored, the EU had no reason to take the outcome seriously.  Instead of recognising that Britain was going to leave and coming to terms that would minimise the pain on both sides, Brussels chose to play hardball. 

The combination not only alienated the voters from the political classes – both Leave and Remain voters – it confirmed the worst fears and preconceptions about both London and Brussels.  There was simply no way Prime Minister May could make a decision, let alone a deal, without getting stabbed in the back by one side or the other.  Her political weakness emboldened her enemies, her inability to choose a side and stick to it saved Labour from having to make a stand of its own.

Enter Boris Johnston.  Johnston understood a fundamental truth that far too many modern-day politicians forget.  People want clear and decisive leadership.  Johnston became PM and called an election, pledging that he was solidly for Leave.  Labour should, perhaps, have stood for Remain at that point, trying to counter Johnston.  This was impossible.  A sizable number, perhaps even a majority, of the Labour voters wanted to Leave.  Labour ended up looking neither hot nor cold but lukewarm.  (The suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn was a terrorist sympathiser didn’t help.)  The voters saw Johnston as the guy who was actually trying to get something done and flocked to him.  And so Johnston won one of the most decisive victories in modern history.

The core of the problem was that the various political parties were being torn into different factions.  Europhobes and Europhiles were the least of them.  Labour had long since lost touch with its original base – the British working class – and was reeling from a series of scandals that made it difficult to campaign effectively.  The Liberal Democrats were weakened by their alliance with the Tories.  The SNP unable to square the circle between Scottish Independence and membership of the EU.  People wanted good solid leaders who did good solid work for their constituents.   The blunt truth is that issues such as transgender bathroom rights are of no concern to the vast majority of the population.  They want – they need – jobs, law and order and to feel, perhaps most of all, that London is listening to them. 

It says a lot about how far we’ve fallen, even before COVID-19, that Boris Johnston is the best of the bunch.

***

But how did we get into this mess in the first place?

It is often said, by Tories, that Margaret Thatcher was the last Prime Minister with any actual balls.  This remark often draws scorn, or the usual accusations designed to deflect attention from the real point, but there’s a grain of truth in it.  Thatcher was the last major political figure to take a stand and challenge people to either stand beside her or oppose her.  The lady was not for turning.  Thatcher made it clear where she stood, for better or worse.  This was not always an advantage – she made mistakes, including one that eventually ended her career – but it made things simple.  The issues were always clear.  People were always with her or against her.

However, her worst mistake was not truly hers.  Her successors drew the wrong lessons from her career.  To take a stand and stick to it, to be strident in the defence of one’s country and one’s party, was a mistake … or so they thought.  They chose to believe that Thatcher had effectively sunk her own party, destroying it for a generation.  But if this was true, why did John Major – her handpicked successor – win re-election in 1992?  Sure, Major was no Thatcher.  But if Thatcher had been as lethal to the Tories as her enemies insisted, he should have lost.  Why?

It was true that the Tories were going through a period of soul-searching.  Thatcher’s resignation undermined others, including the ones who’d put the knife in her back.  Even the ones who disliked Thatcher found it hard to respect people they considered traitors. But it is also true that politics does not take place in a vacuum.  Major won, at least in part, because he faced no serious opponent.  Neither Neil Kinnock nor Paddy Ashdown possessed the appeal necessary to lure voters away from the Tories.  Indeed, Major won the popular vote (although he did suffer a reduced majority (MPs in the House)).

This changed in 1997.  Tony Blair rose to power on a campaign that could basically be defined as ‘all things to all men.’  Blair had star power.  He promised a new world – he even rebranded Labour as New Labour – and reached out to factions that felt marginalised by the Tories.  In doing so, he laid the groundwork for long-term disaster.  By papering over the cracks within the Labour Party, and failing to tend to Labour’s base, he slowly alienated voters and fellow politicians.  Worst of all, Blair was unable to focus on making decisions and getting things done.  He wanted to be popular and therefore found it hard to commit himself to anything.  (For American readers, Blair and Obama have an awful lot in common.) In short, Blair had a wonderful opportunity to do whatever he wanted – more or less – and threw it away.

The War on Terror actually illustrated Blair’s weaknesses as a politician.  On the home front, Blair was unable to take decisive steps against terror, as he was torn between the need to do something and fear of being called a racist.  The results were predictable.  The terrorists and their supporters grew bolder, while attitudes hardened on the other side.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair committed troops to battle without either thinking about the end game or ensuring they had the manpower, supplies and political backing to do their job.  Blair was lucky, in a way.  He benefited from a political oddity in that the Tories also supported the war – or at least the troops.  It made it harder for anyone to oppose him successfully. 

Perversely, this just made the disaster worse.  Blair was allowed to look away, to pretend the war wasn’t happening as the successful invasion gave way to a brutal insurgency.  He became obsessed with spin, to the point a Labour aide – Jo Moore – was able to say that 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news.  Blair was unable to get to grips with the problems facing the UK because he wanted to be popular, because he didn’t seem to be able to deal with criticism.  He preferred to kowtow to the media rather than make hard choices.  He was not, and never was, a Churchill, a Pitt or even a Thatcher. 

I’m not going to go into detail of what happened as Blair gave way to Brown and then to Cameron, but I think the outline is clear.  British politics had become increasingly factionalised, British politicians becoming more beholden to interest groups than the British public.  Brussels was increasingly seen (not entirely fairly) as the villain, as a politically-correct force more interested in wishy-washy statements than the interests of the population.  Those who dared to raise local issues were smeared by politicians – remember how Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a bigot? There was no longer any trust between voters and politicians, no longer any sense the politicians put voters first.  Indeed, there was a sense the country was decaying from within.  The jobs were going, once-prosperous towns were crumbling, crime and terrorism was on the rise, police and military forces were being cut, political correctness was tearing away at Britain’s guts .. people were growing desperate.  People wanted a change.

And so we saw a rise in fringe parties like UKIP.  Why should voters vote for parties that don’t represent them?

Why indeed?

Cameron’s failure lay in misreading the mood of the country.  He thought he could silence his critics and reunite the Tories under his banner.  He was wrong, because his interests – and those of the political class – had diverged from those of the voters.   The faith that politicians would do the right thing – or at least what they thought was the right thing – was gone.  And Brussels didn’t make it any easier.  It was a serious mistake to refuse to grant Cameron any concessions at all (although that is said with the benefit of hindsight).  Dislike of the EU crossed party barriers, making it impossible for any of the major parties to take a strong stance.  Cameron resigned, May was left to square the circle.  She too could not commit herself.  And so Johnston became Prime Minister.

The mood of the country was murderous.  Johnston sought to prorogue Parliament, at least in part to ensure that his opponents could not scupper the deal and/or give the EU the impression they might.  This may or may not have been a legitimate tactic.  (It’s debatable.)  What was not debatable was that the legal bids against prorogation, which succeeded, were seen as backstabbing by the public.  They were a tactical success at the cost of strategic defeat, as it was yet another reminder that the interests of politicians and their constituents had diverged.  Johnston called an election in December 2019 and won handily. 

So, we’re back in 2020.  Where do we go from here?

The Demon Headmaster Reboot Review

4 Jun

“Look into my eyes …”

I have grown to hate reviewers and critics calling books, films and television programs ‘timely,’ ‘relevant,’ and ‘what we need to see,’ over the past few years.  It isn’t just that buzzwords imply a certain lack of clarity, confidence and/or self-awareness, although that definitely is a major problem; it is that storytelling exists, first and foremost, to tell a story and if it fails to tell a story it will also – inevitably – fail to tell a message.  The vast majority of the audience will not listen to your message, no matter how important it is, if you are unable to tell a story or – worse – undermine your own message.  Indeed, whenever I read a review that is not focused on the novel (or whatever), I instantly decide the reviewer has nothing useful to tell me.

And yet, The Demon Headmaster – rebooted by CBBC – actually is ‘timely,’ ‘relevant,’ and ‘what we need to see.’

I went back and forth on actually watching the show.  The Demon Headmaster, both the books and the TV series, were part of my childhood.  Dinah Hunter was the first true heroine I liked.  The show managed to adapt the novels and expand them without actually losing the thread, giving a greater role to the titular Headmaster than the novels could allow.  I was not impressed, however, when I heard of the reboot.  Too many rebooted shows have failed, in my view, because the people who rebooted them didn’t realise what made them popular in the first place.  And I didn’t really enjoy the latest novel, the one the new series is (partly) based upon.  Much to my surprise, however, I did enjoy the series.  The link to the older series – it’s really more of a sequel, rather than a direct reboot – seals the deal.  The producers are to be commended for taking a lacklustre novel and turning it into a workable show.

Lizzie Warren, and her younger brother Tyler, have been away from Hazelbrook School for six months after Lizzie was suspended for fighting with Blake, the school bully.  The two return to Hazelbrook with a complete lack of enthusiasm, only to discover that the once-failing school has been turned around completely.  The teachers are stern, the students are well-behaved … even Blake is well-behaved.  Increasingly creeped out, Lizzie and Tyler discover that the source of the change is the new headmaster, a man who exerts control over every aspect of the school.  They rapidly discover the headmaster has hypnotic powers and that they too are not immune.  The headmaster casts a spell over everyone who encounters him.  Their lives are torn apart to suit him.

Realising the headmaster is drawing everyone into his orbit, they start trying to resist.  But the headmaster is ahead of them at every turn, alternatively holding out the promise of a better world and manipulating them so they expose the flaws in his scheme before he takes it national.  Their first acts of resistance only make things worse, even though they find allies amongst the student body; it isn’t until they find clues leading them to the headmaster’s old school – from the original series – that they find a powerful outside ally.  Dinah Hunter.

But even then, the headmaster is ahead of them.  Dinah falls back under his spell, as does Lizzie’s mother … now revealed to be the missing Rose Carter, the headmaster’s servant from the original series.  Realising the sole gap in the headmaster’s plans, knowing he has to be stopped before he hypnotises the Prime Minister himself, they launch a final desperate gambit.  But even that seems to fail … until the original headmaster arrives, proclaims the project a failure and orders the new headmaster to shut down the school and retreat.  And he’s still out there somewhere …

The reboot gives us, in Lizzie Warren, a very different heroine to Dinah Hunter.  The young Dinah was a quiet girl with a genius mindset, who became friends with the kids who were immune to the headmaster’s powers.  Lizzie, by contrast, has anger issues … not, it should be said, without reason.  Her temper drives her on, but also leads her to make mistakes.  Dinah’s plan to stop the headmaster fails, at least in part, because Lizzie – under the impression that Dinah has betrayed them – accidentally blows the surprise too early.  She does learn from this and manages to recover, barely.  Tyler, Angelika and Ethan are very different characters too, struggling to keep their thoughts their own as they try to find a way to resist.  Indeed, all three of them serve as examples of how creepy the headmaster’s power truly is.  They are reshaped to suit him.

Blake is, in many ways, the most impressive character.  He starts the show as a bog-standard school bully.  I hated him on sight.  And yet, he manages to grow and develop – partly through an odd friendship with Tyler – into one of the most persistent thorns in the headmaster’s side.  It is Blake, dismissed as fit only for menial work, who has the bright idea of locking the headmaster up; it is Blake, caught in an endless struggle between the headmaster’s commands and free will, who frees the others and gives them their last chance to stop the headmaster. 

The headmaster himself is cool, collected and always in control, even when he’s scrambling to patch up the holes in his plan.  He never loses his cool, he never raises his voice … he has an odd verbal tic of addressing people by both names – “Lizzie Warren,” “Dinah Hunter” – if they’re interesting to him.  (He always addresses Blake as simply “Blake.”)  He’s always firm, lacking any of the weaknesses other evil characters have.  There’s no sense he’s got any interests or lusts beyond command and control.  His sheer confidence is as unnerving as his hypnotic powers.  He’s smart enough to round up the troublemakers, even the ones who stayed under his control, before his plan goes into the final stage.  His only real mistake is underestimating Blake.  This is a (sort of) recast that works. 

The show also reintroduces three characters from the original series.  Rose Carter has little impact on the plot, beyond providing more tension for Lizzie.  It’s not even clear if the headmaster knew – or cared – who she was, before she became useful again.  Dinah Hunter comes across as very different from her past self (not helped by both her and Rose being recast); it’s hard to draw a line between the two.  And the original headmaster steals the show, even though he only appears for a few minutes.  He’s as creepy as ever, but with a very different edge.  His mission statement is terrifying.  The only lighter moment is that he also cracks a very black joke that’s slightly out of character.

It’s rare for a show largely dependent on child and teenage actors to do well, in my view, but most of the child and teenage actors put on a convincing performance.  They come across as largely convincing personalities, particularly Lizzie and Blake.  And the headmaster is superbly recast.  Indeed, of all the major characters, Dinah is the only one who isn’t wholly convincing.  It might have worked better if they’d hired the original actor or simply designed a new character.

The reason this show is timely, however, is two-fold.  On one hand, it illustrates just how much power lies in control of security and surveillance systems.  The headmaster’s hypnotic powers may be out of this world, but everything from CCTV cameras to internet censorship and deepfakes are not.  The characters find themselves caught in a web that is horrifyingly real, where information can be scrubbed and rewritten to suit their enemy’s implacable will.  The headmaster’s plan to destroy the library is very far from (just) petty spite.  It’s a great deal easier to rewrite history online, particularly if you refuse to allow anyone to engage in honest debate.  I’m actually surprised they got away with it.

And, on the other, the sheer folly of the headmaster’s plan.  Programming students with knowledge is good for creating drones, but useless for original thinking.  That’s what does him in, at the end; hypnotic tapes are switched around, ensuring the students don’t know how to do what they’re supposed to do.  This has uneasy resonance in the real world, in that students are rarely taught critical thinking and parents are discouraged from supervising their children’s education.  The headmaster’s plan was doomed well before it ran into people willing to resist.

The resistance was dangerous too.  They came up with plans, or adapted themselves to fit an ever-changing situation, but never thought about the endgame.  Blake is the only one who tries to confine the headmaster, thus giving the group a moral dilemma about what to do with him, while Dinah is the only one who outright tries to kill him.  (Of course, none of them knew there was more than one headmaster.)  Most protestors don’t think about what they actually want, even though it should have been simple here.  Get the headmaster out.

As always, these days, the show nods towards wokeness.  The cast is fairly diverse – it’s made clear that Angelika’s mother is either bisexual or lesbian (her former girlfriend is black), raising the question of who fathered her – but this is mostly a second-order issue.  It does, however, run into a major headache.  At one point, to give Ethan a family, the headmaster convinces everyone that he’s Lizzie and Tyler’s brother.  This simply won’t last, once he steps out of the headmaster’s zone of control.  Ethan is black.  There’s no way he’s their real brother.  The headmaster seems to have overlooked this entirely. 

Overall, The Demon Headmaster works fairly well.  It does feel a little extended – apparently, the plan for five episodes became ten – and there are a handful of little nits, but it tells a fairly coherent story.  (And the headmaster’s powers ensure that any discrepancies have a fairly simple explanation.)  It presents a creepy mystery, a battle against a seemingly overwhelming force and a promise the story will be continued.  And it raises points that need to be addressed.  How much do you trust your child’s teachers?  Really?

I look forward to the next one.

“Until we meet again, Lizzie Warren …”