Archive | February, 2018

OUT NOW–The Promised Lie (The Unwritten Words I)

25 Feb

promised lie

The Bookworm successor series begins here …

The Golden City has fallen. The Grand Sorcerer and Court Wizards are dead. The Empire they ruled is nothing more than a memory, a golden age lost in the civil wars as kings and princes battle for supremacy. And only a handful of trained magicians remain alive.

Isabella Majuro, Lady Sorceress, is little more than a mercenary, fighting for money in a desperate bid to escape her past. But when Prince Reginald of Andalusia plots the invasion of the Summer Isle, Isabella finds herself dragged into a war against strange magics from before recorded history …

… And an ancient mystery that may spell the end of the human race.

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It’s been a bit of a frustrating week.

24 Feb

It’s been a bit of a frustrating week.

For some reason, my health decided to have a collapse on Monday evening, so I basically wound up taking Tuesday off. I wasn’t in a good state on Wednesday and Thursday, so I wrote only four chapters of Invincible (and a further two on Saturday.) I’m hoping to finish the first draft by the end of next week, but we will see – I have some other work to do on Wednesday.

On the plus side, I wrote out the plot for The Family Shame, a story that basically follows Isabella’s life after the events of The Zero Equation. I’m thinking that will be the next Zero book, instead of The Alchemist’s Apprentice, but we will see. I’ve also sketched out the plot ideas for The Long-Range War, which will be A Learning Experience 5. It will draw on characters from pretty much every previous book (rather than being stand-alone) and may be the first part of a two-parter. I’ll finish that soon, I hope.

I’ve also been writing more Heinlein reviews, as you can see if you check out my Facebook page, and a handful of articles. I’ve actually been giving some thought to turning them into a small work of literary criticism – Heinlein for a New Century or something along those lines. It’s astonishing how many canards about Heinlein’s work – particularly the ones put forward in the last twenty years or so – simply don’t stand up to examination. Would anyone be interested in reading such a book?

It’ll be a very long term project, I think. I’ll have to finish reviewing most of his work first, which will mean rereading some of his older books … it sounds like a chore, doesn’t it? <grin>. It won’t interfere with the rest of my schedule, I think.



The Reasonables and the Extremists

20 Feb

So … my health went downhill yesterday, leaving me depressed, cranky and unable to concentrate on the current story, so I decided to write a political post when I finally managed to drag myself out of bed. This is my take on what’s gone wrong over the last two decades of political discourse.

Take a political issue. Any issue. It doesn’t matter what it is. Gay marriage, gay scoutmasters, transgender bathrooms, gun control, immigration, abortion … anything you like, as long as it’s controversial.

Now, for each and every one of these ideas, there will be opposition. There will be people who will dislike the issue, and/or the steps proposed to tackle it; people who are unwilling to let other people dictate how they should feel about the issue.

And this opposition can be divided into two subcategories: the Reasonables and the Extremists.

The Extremists are the bad guys. They’re the ones who are adamantly opposed to any change and will fight tooth and nail to prevent it. They’re homophobes, transphobes, racists, sexists, you name it. Extremists and SJWs have an awful lot in common, but neither one will admit it.

On the other hand, the Reasonables have reasonable reasons for being concerned. They’re the ones who don’t want to ban abortion completely, for example, but also don’t want to see it used as a form of birth control. They’re the ones who aren’t adamantly opposed to immigration, but want to keep it under control (and keep undesirables – criminals, terrorists, etc – out of the country.) The important point to bear in mind about the Reasonables is that they are often prepared to compromise; sure, you can allow immigration, provided you vet the immigrants beforehand and evict them, later, if it turns out they actually do have criminal tendencies.

Now, imagine that a democracy is a car driving down an icy road. It hits a patch of ice and starts to skid right. Now, the instinctive reaction is to yank the wheel left. But this tends to make things worse. Counter-intuitively, the real answer is to turn into the skid, regain traction and then return the car to the centre of the road. Put bluntly, if voters don’t like your policies, they will tell you so at the ballot box … and, if you want to stay in power, you should adapt your policies accordingly. Democracy is a crude, but effective feedback system.

From a political point of view, you turn into the skid by addressing – effectively addressing – the concerns of the Reasonables. This keeps them from siding with the Extremists, which – in turn – keeps the Extremists out of government. It also has the added benefit of keeping the other set of Extremists – yes, your extremists – out of government too.

But this requires, among other things, a willingness to accept that the Reasonables are not evil, at least in their own minds.

This sort of willingness has been lacking over the last two decades. Instead of accepting that the Reasonables are reasonable people, the Reasonables and the Extremists have been blended together. Anyone who is opposed to uncontrolled immigration, for example, is smeared as a racist, instead of someone who has reasonable concerns. There is no acknowledgment that the Reasonables might have a point, which drives them towards the Extremists. If you want to know why the Far Right is on the rise across the West, you just have to understand that the Traditional Right has proved itself unable or unwilling to accommodate the concerns of the Reasonables.

The problem is deeper than you might suppose. The charge the Alt-Right levels against the Traditional Right is that the Traditional Right has been unable or unwilling to either pour water on the flames (by making it clear that such political tactics will get their users nowhere) or fight fire with fire (by giving the people who use such tactics a taste of their own medicine). And while this may sound absurd, there is a considerable amount of truth in it. The Alt-Right is gaining in power because the Traditional Right has abdicated its responsibilities to its reasonable voters, which drives its voters to the Extremists.

Why does this happen? Well, it’s easy to smear someone. It’s certainly easier than proving them wrong or accepting their point of view. Shout “RACIST” and win the argument. It works! But it also alienates people from you. It convinces them that you are not only incapable of playing fair – i.e. by treating people with respect – but that you are fundamentally wrong. If you are right, prove it. And if you can’t prove it, maybe you’re not right. But this sort of conduct has smashed the middle ground.

Extremists make people nervous. They make me nervous. But if the alternative to taking an Extremist’s hand is death, which one would you choose?

OUT NOW–The Zero Equation (The Zero Enigma III)

12 Feb

Zero Equation cover FOR WEB

Caitlyn Aguirre is no magician …

… But she’s still at the centre of the storm.

Caitlyn and her friends have returned to Jude’s Sorcerous Academy, but all is not well in the school. The Great Houses of Shallot are on the verge of going to war and the conflict is spilling into the school, while – in the background – powerful and secretive forces prepare to finally reveal their plans to reshape the world. Caught in the middle, torn between her family and her friends – and burdened with a secret she dares not share – Cat must unlock the secret of the Zero Equation …

… Or watch helplessly as her family, friends and school are destroyed by war.

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The future …

12 Feb

Hi, everyone

Good news first – The Zero Equation has been uploaded to Amazon and should be available for purchase within 48 hours. I’ll put up another blog post and update the site when I get the notification from KDP, but it may be available earlier.

Zero Equation cover FOR WEB

Bad news – I’m not sure what my schedule will look like over the next few months.

I’m currently writing Invincible in February, with the intention of following up with The Princess in the Tower in March. After that … it gets a little confused. I want to write a self-published book between Princess and Embers of War (Kat 6), but I’m not sure which one yet.

I’ve got several options. First, there’s the homeschooled magic kids idea, which grew out of a discussion about the relative lack of such stories. It’ll be urban fantasy – basically, a father took his twin children away from the magical community after his wife died in childbirth and his kids appeared to have no magic of their own. However, he was wrong about that, forcing him to teach them himself (as he doesn’t want to go back home.) And there’s a long shadow cast over their lives from the past …

It will be set in its own universe, which does offer the prospect of breaking into trad-publishing (for what it’s worth, these days.)

Second, there’s The Alchemist’s Apprentice, which is basically a stand-alone set in the Zero Universe.

Third, there’s The Pen and the Sword, which is Book 15 of The Empire’s Corps. It’s another stand-alone, but it’s also meant as a lead-in to the storyline following the Slaughterhouse Marines, who remained in the core worlds as the empire started its final collapse.

I may also do Learning Experience 5, provisionally entitled The Long-Range War.

What do you want to see?


Invincible (Ark 12, Trilogy 4)–Snippet

7 Feb



It was trite but true, Doctor Dora Fayette had often thought, that in space no one could hear you scream. And yet, space was noisy to those with the right sort of ears. Stars, pulsars and even black holes produced radio noise, bursts of high-intensity energy that – once upon a time – had been mistaken for signs of intelligent life. It was hard, so hard, to pick out the faint hints of what might be radio signals from undiscovered civilisations against the towering waves of background noise, a task made harder by the radio signals put out by the ever-growing number of human colonies. And yet, it was a task that needed to be done.

Dora had never doubted it. Indeed, it was something of her calling, the only job she’d found that she’d ever considered remotely comfortable. She was a slight woman in her early thirties, although she looked younger, the result of a combination of rejuvenation treatments and a simple reluctance to take time away from her studies to eat. Living practically alone – there were five naval crewmen on Wensleydale Station, but they knew better than to disturb her – hadn’t done much for her appearance, but she didn’t care. She’d never liked being around other people anyway. Even videoconferencing was a strain.

There wasn’t much to Wensleydale Station. It was nothing more than a handful of prefabricated modules that had been shipped to Wensleydale – a human-compatible planet on the edge of the Human Sphere – and put together to produce an orbital station and listening post. But then, there wasn’t much to Wensleydale either. It would be a great colony one day, Dora had been assured, but right now there were only a couple of hundred colonists on the ground, breaking the soil and turning Wensleydale into a world that could actually host a far larger colony. Dora knew she wouldn’t be around to see it. She’d be shipped further away from Earth well before the first large colony ship arrived.

She sat within her nest on the station and studied the latest set of read-outs. The combination of orbital and radio telescopes, long-range passive sensors and deep-space gravimetric monitors continued to insist that the Wensleydale System was as empty as her departmental head’s brain, but she didn’t care about local events. That was the Royal Navy’s concern, although she’d been warned, when she first arrived, that if they did run into something they couldn’t handle, they were in real trouble. Wensleydale Station was armed, technically, but it wouldn’t take more than a single gunboat to turn the entire stricture into vapour. It was one of the reasons Dora had been sent to Wensleydale in the first place. If there was a threat lurking in the unexplored regions further away from Earth, the Royal Navy wanted advance warning.

Dora rather suspected the Royal Navy was wasting its time, although she had no intention of pointing it out to them. Humanity had believed it was alone in the universe until it had encountered the Tadpoles and part of the reason humanity had believed it was alone was that a dazzling array of sensors had failed to pick up even the slightest hint that the Tadpoles existed. Dora had seen the exhaustive reports, compiled after the war. There hadn’t been any clue, not in the official reports or buried somewhere in the raw data, that suggested the human race was not alone. Nor had humanity detected the Foxes or the Cows until their star system had been probed. And the Vesy hadn’t developed technological civilisation by the time they too were discovered. Dora might be wasting her time too …

… But she doubted it. Let the military worry about undiscovered threats. She was more interested in exploring the mysteries of the universe. And the equipment at her disposal was better than anything she’d used during her stint at the Luna Telescope. It was worth any discomfort, even having to share a station with five naval crewmen, to have access to the navy’s tools. They might be largely wasted, but not completely.

A box blinked up in her headset. One of the naval crewmen had sent her a message, inviting her to dinner … such as it was. She shook her head, dismissing the note with a shrug. She was far too agoraphobic – and asexual – to risk spending time with any of them. Besides, didn’t they have their own work to do. Little happened on Wensleydale Station – she knew that for a fact – but there was always something to do. The station required constant maintenance to keep it functioning …

… And then her console chimed an alert.

Dora leaned forward, puzzled. It wasn’t the near-space proximity alarm. That would have set sirens howling all over the station. And it wasn’t the alert she’d set to go off if there was even the slightest hint of alien transmissions, dozens of light-years way. It was … her lips thinned as she realised that the computers hadn’t been able to neatly catalogue the signal. It was too close to be interesting to her, yet too far away to alarm the naval crew. Except … it was right at the edge of the system.

“Curious,” she muttered. Wensleydale had been surveyed, although – reading between the lines – she had the feeling the naval crew who’d discovered the system had skimped on the survey. A human-compatible world was more interesting than the comets and asteroids lurking at the edge of the system. “What is it?”

She keyed a switch, unlocking the computer’s free-association modules. She’d never trusted them – even the smartest computers couldn’t think like humans, which meant they had a tendency to forget or ignore valuable pieces of data – but she had a feeling that they might be necessary. The computer hummed as it scanned the databanks while she scrutinised the live feed from the long-range sensors. It was odd, very odd. The … the event, whatever it was, was nearly a quarter of a light-year from Wensleydale. It almost looked like …

The computers blinked up an answer. Fusion-drive flare.

Dora stared. She’d studied the records. A number of asteroids had been converted into starships and launched into interstellar space before the tramlines had been discovered, over a hundred years ago. None of them had reached their destinations yet … come to think of it, none of them had aimed themselves at Wensleydale. The system’s primary star would have been in their records, of course, but they hadn’t had any reason to think they might have found a human-compatible planet at the far end. And even if they had, it would have taken them thousands of years to reach their destination. Ice ran down her spine. The ship – it had to be a ship – couldn’t be human.

She took a long breath, then keyed her console, sending an alert to the naval crewmen. The ship – the slower-than-light ship – was still a very long way away, but it was heading directly towards Wensleydale. The aliens would know there was a planet, waiting for them. It was impossible to imagine a race that had fusion drives, but not basic telescopes. And yet … they might not realise that Wensleydale was already occupied. A society that had to rely on STL ships presumably didn’t know anything about the tramlines.

A face blinked up in front of her. Dora fought down the urge to flinch away. Commander Haircloth wasn’t a bad man – none of the naval crewmen were bad – but he was a person, intruding into her world. He looked to have let himself go, a little. Faint stubble lined his cheeks. He and his crew rarely bothered to make themselves look shipshape and Bristol fashion unless Wensleydale Station was having visitors.

His voice was sharp. “Is … is that thing real?”

“Yes,” Dora said, turning her head so she wouldn’t have to look at him. It was easily to pretend that he was just a voice if she couldn’t see his face. “It’s a genuine interstellar colony ship.”

Haircloth took a long breath. “Where from?”

Dora checked her console. “Assuming a straight-line flight, it came from USS-38202,” she said. “A G2 star, fifteen light-years away. There’s no direct tramline route to that star.”

“It might not have any tramlines at all,” Haircloth mused.

“Perhaps,” Dora said.

She considered it for a moment. Gravimetric science wasn’t her field, but she was fairly sure that every star had at least one or two tramlines. But there was no guarantee that any tramline reaching USS-38202 would intersect with a tramline human starships could access. There was a way to create an artificial tramline, long enough for a starship to jump across interstellar space, but it had its limitations. Whoever they sent might find themselves trapped, unable to return.

Haircloth had his mind on more practical concerns. “How long until it enters orbit?”

Dora shrugged – interplanetary mechanics weren’t her field either – then keyed the computer console again, letting it do the work. It threw up a wide range of possible scenarios, ranging from several months to a year or two. Too much depended on just what the aliens could actually do. If they had drive fields, they might start deploying them once they entered the system. They’d reach Wensleydale in less than a month.

“It depends,” she said, finally. She sent him the projections. “What now?”

“They won’t have drive fields,” Haircloth said. “They could have made the crossing far quicker if they had … unless they feared burning out the drive in interstellar space. That would be bad.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ll alert the crew, then pass a message up the chain,” he said. “It’ll be taking my career in my hands, but I’m sure the Admiralty will agree that launching the drone is necessary.”

“No doubt,” Dora agreed, dryly. The Royal Navy Admiralty and her former University’s finance department had at least one thing in common. They were prepared to waste money on fripperies, while penny-pinching on important matters. Haircloth would be in real trouble if the Admiralty decided that launching an extremely expensive messenger drone up the tramline was a waste of money. It cost more than the average gunboat. “Good luck.”

Haircloth smiled, rather wanly. “Thank you, Dora,” he said. “Can you detail at least two of the sensor platforms to keep an eye on our visitors?”

Dora felt a hot flash of resentment, which she quickly suppressed. They already had answers, didn’t they? The flare was artificial and therefore nowhere near as interesting as the quasar she’d been watching. But she knew it was a childish thought. That quasar wasn’t going anywhere.

“Yes,” she said. She ran her hand over the console. “Done.”

“Very good,” Haircloth said. His voice was tinged with excitement. “And now, we wait.”

Dora sighed to herself as she closed the connection. She could understand why Haircloth would find the prospect of alien contact – another alien contact – exciting, but it wasn’t an excitement she shared. It wouldn’t be long before everything from naval gunships to Foreign Office First Contact teams started to arrive, probably followed by representatives from the other human and alien powers. And planetary developmental money would follow in their wake. Wensleydale would rapidly become as cramped and unbearable as Earth or Terra Nova. She would have to go somewhere else, if there was somewhere else. The Royal Navy might not be so obliging next time.

Joy, she thought. She looked at her consoles for a long moment. But at least we just proved that the millions of pounds they spent on deep-space monitoring systems wasn’t wasted.

Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the quasar. Commander Haircloth and his men could monitor their visitors as they made their final approach. She had better things to do with her time …

… And besides, she acknowledged quietly as she went back to work, if the visitors were hostile there was nothing she could do about it anyway.

Chapter One

“Captain on the bridge!”

Captain Sir Stephen Shields stepped through the hatch and onto the bridge, taking time to note the crewmen who acknowledged his arrival and the crewmen who knew better than to take their eyes off their console, even to greet their commanding officer. Stephen had served under enough commanding officers who’d demanded respect from everyone – and left him with a complete lack of confidence in their leadership abilities – to know better than to demand such respect for himself. A helmsman should not look up from his console, whatever the reason.

He acknowledged Commander Daniel Newcomb’s salute as the XO stood, vacating the command chair. Stephen sat down, sucking in his breath. HMS Invincible still smelled like a new ship, even though she had been on her shakedown cruise for the last six months. She wouldn’t smell any better until she’d actually been to war. But then, he knew he should be grateful for the chance to work out the kinks in the assault carrier’s design. Invincible was the first of her class and had had more than her fair share of problems. None of them had been anything more than mildly embarrassing – no ship ever went through her shakedown cruise without encountering problems – but they’d proven annoying.

And the press is being unusually pugnacious, he thought, crossly. The media was rarely openly friendly to the Royal Navy, but over the last year they’d started to blow the navy’s problems out of all proportion. We have a backed-up toilet and they start saying the entire ship is a waste of money.

It wasn’t a pleasant thought. HMS Invincible was the first major combatant in the Royal Navy to put appearance before functionality, despite protests from both serving naval officers and shipyard engineers. The bridge looked to have been copied directly from one of the BBC’s dramas on naval life, right down to the consoles that looked absurdly fragile, as if they would explode if someone looked at them funny. It wasn’t that bad a design, he admitted privately, but it was annoying. Stephen would have preferred something that could be repaired on the fly if necessary.

He glanced at his XO. “Status report?”

“Enemy target has just come into range, sir,” Newcomb reported. “She doesn’t seem aware of our presence.”

“Very good,” Stephen said. A red icon glowed on the display, beating a steady path towards the nearest tramline. Text bubbles scrolled up beside the icon, calculating vectors and offering prospective interception windows. It looked very neat. “And the masking field?”

“Ready for activation, sir,” Lieutenant-Commander David Arthur said. The tactical officer looked tanned, despite six months onboard ship. “We can slip under it at any moment.”

“Then do so,” Stephen ordered.

He sucked in his breath as the lights dimmed, slightly. The masking field wasn’t a full cloaking device, not in the sense that it would hide Invincible from all sensors, but it would make it harder for any enemy ships to get a solid lock on her position. He hoped. The technology had been copied from the Foxes and Cows in the wake of the Second Interstellar War and, so far, it was proving hard to adapt to human ships. Invincible was the first starship designed to carry a masking field and even she had problems. The only saving grace was that the other Great Powers had the same issues with the system.

Or so we are assured, he reminded himself. Great Britain had plenty of secret installations, some in the Home System and some orbiting Britannia, where research could be conducted far from prying eyes. America, France, China and Russia had facilities of their own, he was sure. They won’t share any real breakthroughs with us unless we run into a third hostile alien power.

“Field engaged, sir,” Arthur said. “We should be beyond detection.”

Stephen nodded, curtly. “Helm, move us into intercept position,” he ordered. “Sensors, keep watching them. I want to know the second they detect us.”

“Aye, sir.”

The display updated rapidly, looking curiously bloodless as Invincible slipped after her lone target. It was easy to forget that the red icon represented a real starship, carrying real people … or that the distances between the ships were hard for groundpounders to comprehend. Or, for that matter, that appearances could be deceiving. Stephen hadn’t been told the precise details, of course, but he was sure a surprise was waiting for him. The enemy wouldn’t go down without a fight.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Alison Adams said. The Sensor Officer looked perturbed. “I’m picking up a number of spacecraft leaving the asteroid belt and heading for Terra Nova.”

Stephen’s eyes narrowed as he keyed his private console, bringing up the live feed from the long-range passive sensors. There was a surprisingly large amount of traffic in the Terra Nova System, despite the simple fact that Terra Nova’s Provisional Government was about as powerless as Earth’s International Green Party. Perhaps that was why there was so much activity, he reflected wryly. Sol’s asteroid belt was supervised by the Great Powers and the Belt Federation, but no one policed Terra Nova’s outer system. The whole region was a lawless mess, populated by independent colonies, smugglers and rogue political factions. He dreaded to think what would happen if Terra Nova ever developed the will to impose itself on the asteroid belt. It would be bloody.

He looked at Newcomb. “Assessment?”

Newcomb frowned. “It’s odd, sir,” he said. “There’s no reason to take so many ships to the planet. Unless they’re planning something.”

Stephen nodded, slowly. Terra Nova had very little worth mentioning, certainly nothing that would attract independent shippers. A handful of shore leave facilities existed, he supposed, yet none of them could be considered safe. It wasn’t as if it would be difficult to hop through Tramline Alpha and visit Sol. And there was enough orbiting firepower to make life dangerous for any merchant ship. Terra Nova’s factions had often resorted to taking pot-shots at passing freighters when the world’s politics became particularly nasty.

“Communications, pass the alert to the embassy,” he ordered. “Warn them that they may have incoming.”

He gritted his teeth in annoyance as Invincible closed in on her target, unsure what to do. If something was about to explode in the system, he had a responsibility to protect British interests … such as they were. It wasn’t as if there were many, save for a handful of corporate-owned asteroid facilities. Britain had sold her shares in the Terra Nova Colonisation Consortium nearly a century ago. They’d gone for a song, to all intents and purposes. The seeds of disaster had already been clearly visible. And yet, he had a duty …

“Continue to monitor the situation,” he ordered. “Tactical?”

“We will be in interception position in two minutes, sir,” Arthur reported. “The dropships and starfighters are primed and ready to go.”

“Good,” Stephen said. “Prepare to launch …”

The display flashed red. “They got us, sir,” Alison reported. “I don’t know how, but they got us. We just got swept!”

Stephen made a mental note to have a long chat with the boffins. The target ship had known she was being hunted, but still … they were, theoretically, too far from the target for the enemy to burn through the masking field. There must have been a flicker of turbulence, a faint glimmer of energy that had been unmistakably artificial against the inky blackness of space. Not, he supposed, that it mattered. Their target was already ramping up her drives.

Not that they have a hope of evading us, he thought. The target ship was smaller than Invincible, but there was no way her drives could produce enough speed to outrun the assault carrier. Even if they’d replaced her entire rear hull with drive nodes … he considered it for a moment, then shook his head. She’d rip herself to bits if she ever ramped her drives up to full power. They let us get too close.

“Drop the masking field,” he ordered. His heart started to race. There was no point in trying to hide now. They’d been spotted. “Launch the starfighters, then the dropships. And then order our target to surrender.”

“Fighters away, sir,” Arthur reported. New icons appeared on the display: one squadron holding position near Invincible, just in case the carrier required support, while a second was racing towards its target. “Dropships deploying … now!”

“No response, sir,” Lieutenant Thomas Morse said. The Communications Officer worked his console for a long moment. “They should be getting our signal.”

“One would hope so,” Stephen agreed, dryly. “Repeat the signal.”

He waited, keeping his face under tight control, for the enemy ship to respond. Very few spacers allowed their communications systems to get broken. A working radio might make the difference between life and death if the ship ran into real trouble. He’d seen quite a few civilian ships where basic maintenance was deferred, for a time, but most of them had been heavily over-engineered. A crew too stupid to keep up with their maintenance in the long run would soon be a dead crew. Space was an unforgiving environment. It simply didn’t tolerate carelessness.

And we have a squadron of starfighters bearing down on them, he thought. There was no way that even civilian-grade sensors could miss the starfighters. No one could hope to hide their power signature. That should force them to pay attention …

The display sparkled. New red icons flashed into existence, glowing with deadly purpose. Stephen cursed under his breath. Starfighters. Three squadrons of starfighters. The enemy ship was an escort carrier, then. And not a conventional design. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to disguise her true nature.

“Captain,” Alison said. “The enemy starfighters are deploying in attack formation.”

Ballsy, Stephen thought, feeling a flicker of wry admiration. Going on the offensive was about the only chance the enemy had, given just how badly Invincible outclassed their ship, but it still required nerve. I wonder if they thought to load their starfighters with torpedoes?

He pushed the thought aside. “Launch the remaining starfighters,” he ordered, “and then bring the point defence online.”

“Aye, sir.”

“The dropships are moving aside,” Newcomb added, “Their CO is suggesting a forced-boarding.”

Stephen shook his head. The Royal Marines had unlimited confidence in themselves – and he’d seen them in action enough to know that their confidence was justified – but he couldn’t authorise a suicide mission. And it would be suicide. An escort carrier normally didn’t carry much in the way of point defence – it wasn’t as if their hulls were designed to stand up to plasma fire or nuclear-tipped torpedoes – but he had a feeling that this escort carrier was cannoned to the gunwales. Whoever had designed her was a devious bastard. His sensor crews and tactical analysts had been completely fooled.

Something to analyse thoroughly later, he thought, as the enemy starfighters rocketed towards Invincible. Right now, we have other concerns.

“Charlie Squadron is out,” Arthur reported. “Delta Squadron is launching now.”

“The CSP is moving to intercept,” Newcomb added. “Point defence is standing by.”

Stephen braced himself as the enemy starfighters blew through the first squadron and continued their mad rush towards Invincible. A handful of starfighters on both sides greyed out, indicating that they’d been hit … the losses were bad, but better than he’d feared. The enemy might have enjoyed a slight numerical advantage, yet they were too smart to be lured into a dogfight. Crippling or destroying Invincible was their only hope.

“Enemy starfighters are entering point defence range,” Newcomb reported. “Guns are engaging … now.”

And they’re smart enough to keep moving randomly, Stephen thought. It wasn’t a surprise, not after the horrific losses during the early stages of the First Interstellar War, but it was still annoying. We’re not hitting many of them.

“Incoming torpedoes,” Alison snapped. “They’re targeting our drives!”

“Switch point defence to concentrate on them,” Stephen snapped. The enemy didn’t seem to want to destroy Invincible, but they were sure as hell trying to cripple her. And the Royal Navy really didn’t need the embarrassment of a multi-billion pound assault carrier being crippled by a ship that had probably been pulled out of a junkyard. “And order Alpha to target the enemy carrier.”

“Aye, sir!”

Stephen gritted his teeth as the torpedoes rushed towards his ship. They flew straight-line courses, which were easy to track, but their penetrator warheads made it harder to get a solid lock on them. Sensor ghosts and shadows bedevilled his sensors, forcing him to expend thousands of plasma bolts on a single target. He was lucky, he supposed, that the enemy hadn’t deployed many starfighters. A full barrage of torpedoes would have done serious damage.

And they would have practically been guaranteed to score a handful of hits, he thought, grimly. The drive section is heavily armoured, but a couple of nukes could really mess us up.

Red lights flared up on the status display. “Direct hit, lower drive node,” Newcomb reported, sharply. “Damage control teams are on their way!”

“Order Charlie and Delta to join the attack on the enemy carrier,” Stephen snapped. It was hard to keep his irritation under control. They’d been luckier than they deserved and he knew it. “Damage assessment?”

“The node is powering down now,” Newcomb said. “But we can still make full speed.”

Stephen allowed himself a sigh of relief. It wasn’t good, but at least they were still alive and fighting. Invincible wasn’t one of the fragile carriers that had been slaughtered during the Battle of New Russia. Her armour could absorb more damage than the legendary Ark Royal, while her drives could propel her forward at speeds that would have stunned Theodore Smith and his officers. Invincible couldn’t go toe-to-toe with a battleship, or a dreadnaught, but she could outrun anything strong enough to tear her apart.

“We’ll have to reassess the point defence programs,” he said. The point defence systems hadn’t done badly, but they could have done a great deal better. “And allow more room for random firing.”

He shook his head in frustration. The boffins kept promising, but so far no one had been able to produce a piece of predictor software that actually did what it was supposed to do, at least when facing human opponents. There was just too much room for random decisions to interfere with the software’s targeting matrix. The only real way to defend a starship against enemy starfighters was to fill space with plasma bolts and hope for the best. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.

“The enemy ship is engaging our starfighters,” Arthur reported. “She’s carrying quite a lot of point defence.”

“Communications, repeat the surrender demand,” Stephen ordered. The enemy CO had played his sole card and lost. It wasn’t as if his crew were going to be executed the moment they surrendered. Nor, for that matter, were they being taken into captivity by aliens who might not have the slightest idea how to look after human prisoners. “And this time wide-band it.”

“Aye, sir.”

There was a long pause as the starfighters closed in on the enemy ship. Stephen braced himself, silently resolving not to attempt to force-board the escort carrier. There was too great a chance of the enemy CO simply waiting for the marines to dock, then hitting the self-destruct. It would break the laws of war, but no one had paid much attention to them since 2025. Even Theodore Smith had been unable to impose real change before his final desperate battle.

And aliens often have different ideas of what is acceptable in wartime, Stephen reminded himself. The Tadpoles had fought under one set of rules, the Foxes and Cows had fought under another. Their technology might be comparable to humanity’s, but their mindsets were very different. They might embrace suicide attacks with a will.

“Picking up a signal from the enemy ship,” Morse reported. “Sir, they’re trying to surrender.”

Stephen allowed himself a moment of relief. “Order them to power down – their starfighters too,” he ordered. “And then tell the marines they can board.”

“Aye, sir.”

Newcomb grinned. “Can I resurrect the dead pilots now?”

“We may as well,” Stephen said. The dropships had docked, allowing the marines to swarm the enemy ship. “Send the ENDEX signal.”

“Aye, sir,” Newcomb said.

Stephen leaned back in his chair as the ‘dead’ starfighters came back to life. The exercise had been relatively simple, but unscripted. There had been room – plenty of room – for surprises, and embarrassments. And there had been too many watching eyes in the system. An exercise designed to show the locals that the Royal Navy still had teeth – and a willingness to bite – could easily have ended badly.

“Contact the enemy ship,” he ordered. “Invite Captain Crowe to dine with me before they return to Sol.”

“Aye, sir,” Morse said. “I …”

He broke off as his console chimed an alert. “Sir, I’m picking up a FLASH signal from Terra Nova,” he said. “Sir … the embassy is under attack. All hell is breaking loose!”

Stephen swore. In hindsight, perhaps he should have terminated the exercise and set course for Terra Nova. It had been the right decision, given what he’d known at the time, but he was grimly aware that not everyone would agree with him. Hindsight was always cleared than foresight, particularly when applied by an armchair admiral twelve light years away.

He shook his head. “Helm, set course for Terra Nova,” he ordered. The escort carrier would have to accompany them. He didn’t think there was enough firepower orbiting the planet to stop him from entering orbit, if necessary, but he knew better than to take unnecessary risks. God alone knew what was going on down there. “And ramp up the drives as much as possible.”

“Aye, sir.”

Retro Review: To Sail Beyond the Sunset

3 Feb

-Robert A. Heinlein


I cannot help, but wonder if Heinlein knew that To Sail Beyond The Sunset would be his last completed novel before his untimely death.

He must have done, I think. Taken as a story, To Sail Beyond The Sunset is a very strange book. Taken as one final chance to outline his philosophy – and address some of the obvious issues with his thinking – it makes a great deal more sense. To Sail Beyond The Sunset is both story and semi-dramatised lecture, construction and deconstruction … a final grim look at the state of the world and a paean to how technology can make everything better (as well as bringing new problems of its own). It reads as much more of a dramatised autobiography than anything else, in my opinion, but there is enough meat in it to get one thinking, even if one doesn’t agree with Heinlein and/or his characters. As such, like so many of Heinlein’s books, To Sail Beyond The Sunset is worthy of respect.

That said, it does have issues that should be addressed up front. To Sail Beyond The Sunset is divided into two interlocking sections and, while the first can be read alone, the latter practically requires you to have read the other books Heinlein wrote in his final years. Too much of the latter section of the book makes no sense at all without prior knowledge – and even with that knowledge, there are sections which are somewhat incoherent. It also ties into some of Heinlein’s earlier books – as he tried to retroactively establish his future history – and while this served as an effective (if flawed) narrative device in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) it reads as somewhat clunky here. Hazel Stone’s cameo in TMIAHM is sweet, if ill-fitting, but linking To Sail Beyond The Sunset to The Man Who Sold The Moon devalues the latter. YMMV, of course.

The story opens with Maureen Johnston waking up to discover that she’s in bed with a cat and a corpse. Completely bemused, as one might expect, Maureen calls for help … only to rapidly find herself accused of murder and locked in a prison cell. This is merely the opening stage of an adventure that ties into a war between the time-travelling corps – led by Lazarus Long, of whom you may have heard – and a mysterious force of revisionists. (Heinlein never really had the chance to develop this aspect of his universe any further, I think.)

However, this is merely the framing device for Maureen to think back to her childhood, growing up the daughter of a doctor in Missouri. Maureen’s father, a deep thinker in many ways, teaches his daughter to both think about the fundamental reasons behind social and religious laws and how to break them, when necessary. As Maureen grows to adulthood, she turns into something of an ethical slut, enjoying sex and yet being careful not to run into real trouble through mistakes. Her father tells her about the Howard Foundation, which will pay Maureen and her future husband (eventually Brian) for having babies … babies with the potential for a very long life. Maureen eventually marries, has children (including Woodrow Smith, who grows up to be Lazarus), divorces, reinvents herself as a successful businesswoman and eventually gets hit by a truck …

… And wakes up to find herself in the far future, where she meets her son and joins the time corps. At this point, the two storylines converge and turn into a rescue mission, dedicated to saving Maureen’s father from death in World War Two. And then they all live happily ever after.

In some ways, that is a very poor summery. A great deal happens to Maureen and her family that should be mentioned, but – at the same time – not all of it is important. The recounting of her life is entertaining, yet it also strips out doubt … will she survive? Yes, obviously. Like I said above, To Sail Beyond The Sunset is really more of a philosophical work. Maureen gives us her opinions, based on her life in a rapidly-changing country, and invites us to question them. I have a feeling that too many later readers will focus on the questionable parts of her life, rather than the philosophical thoughts. And that is a shame, because there are aspects of To Sail Beyond The Sunset that have striking relevance – and importance – today.

Heinlein does a very good job of bringing the world of 1882-1970 America to life, showing both the joys and sorrows of growing up in an era without the technology we take for granted today. There are many nice touches that show, not always clearly, how people’s lives are restricted, both openly and covertly. ‘Mrs Grundy’ – the woman who peeps from being curtains, just waiting for a chance to spread nasty rumours about young girls – is an ever-present threat, as is the danger of an accidental pregnancy. Maureen learns to embrace the hypocrisy of being a picture-perfect girl in the open, then being something else altogether in complete privacy. For all the claims that Heinlein was a sexist, he is far more understanding of the limits placed on young women of that era than many modern writers. (Maureen cannot go study at a nearby (by our standards) college because it isn’t a safe trip for a young woman.) And he also attempts to explain why they exist in the first place.

He also had a very good understanding of male psychology, something often lacking in modern-day works. A man takes pride in being a good provider, in putting food and drink on the table for his wife and kids. Attacking that pride is often taken far harder than a physical attack – and doing it in public can destroy a marriage for good. (That said, Maureen has no qualms about disagreeing with her husband – calmly and reasonably – in private.) Men need applause and emotional reassurance, particularly when they’re feeling vulnerable (such as when they’re having sex.) There are elements here that, in the wake of sexual liberation, should be studied. Maybe men – and women too – should be something, but they’re often not. Understanding why is the key to longer-lasting change. One can easily read Maureen as being submissive, but one can also read her as being practical. She doesn’t waste her time tilting at windmills when she can find a way to go around them.

Indeed, it is clear that Heinlein had a deep respect for traditional ‘women’s work.’ He makes no bones about how hard it can be to bring up children and keep house, particularly in an era where so much was lacking. Maureen may not be a strong woman in the sense she goes out and kicks ass, but there is no doubt she’s strong-willed and very clever. Seeing her develop as a person is genuinely fascinating, particularly for that era; she switches roles without ease, perhaps, but with a determination that keeps her going.

That said, her character is slippery at times. She is smart, but careful not to appear too smart; she is capable of educating people, yet works to convince them to follow her covertly, instead of positioning herself as a teacher … in some ways, she’s a little manipulative, although that isn’t always a bad thing. Convincing someone to learn on his own can be more effective, in the long run, than handing down advice and orders from on high. And yes, she is intensely sexual from an early age. By modern standards – save for a point I will discuss later – To Sail Beyond The Sunset is remarkably clean, but it was no doubt incredibly shocking for its era. Maureen acts – in her own words – like a cat in heat.

On a personal level, To Sail Beyond The Sunset touches on many important truths of how to make a relationship – even an idealised semi-open marriage – work. Good communication is important, but so too is allowing the other party some room to retreat. Maureen enjoys a semi-open marriage with her husband for quite some time, including a handful of gay and lesbian trysts, before Heinlein deconstructs it by pointing out one of the more obvious dangers. Your partner might (eventually) decide to marry the other woman.

The book also – and this is the dubious part, even today – is somewhat approving of incest, providing that all partners take precautions. (Maureen has a very secret affair with her cousin – and, unknowingly, her time-travelling son – as a young woman; she also has an ill-disguised crush on her father.) Heinlein may have been looking to shock, as well as inviting us to question our assumptions; he makes no bones about the dangers of inbreeding and other entanglements that can have baleful effects many years into the future. And, indeed, he deconstructs such a relationship by using Maureen’s youngest children to showcase the dangers. Call me a prude if you wish, but the idea of incest revolts me. Real-life communities that practice second-cousin marriages have immense problems with inbreeding. The science, at least in this case, is settled.

Part of the problem – both on a local and global level – is that, as Maureen notes, society changed during the course of her life. The old model – traditional households – had become outdated to many, but the new model had yet to sort out the teething problems that always come with the birth of a new order. (Many people would argue that we haven’t solved them either.) Traditional religion was having problems – Heinlein predicted a religious dictatorship after Maureen’s era (Revolt in 2100 predated The Handmaid’s Tale by quite some time) – and it was apparently incapable of solving its problems. People were, as now, torn between the old and the new, between a comforting repressing and a terrifying freedom. The world seems incapable of balancing itself between the two.

On a greater scale, To Sail Beyond The Sunset touches on issues that people on both sides of the culture wars would be well-advised to study. On one level, you need to break ideas down to basics for greater understanding – and to explain them to people who don’t share your experience. And, if you can’t break your ideas down so that anyone can understand them, there’s a very good chance that there’s something wrong with them. An unspoken – and thus unchallenged assumption – that brings the whole edifice crashing down. Maureen sets out to explain stock-broking to her readers – just as Heinlein himself explained politics in Take Back Your Government – and succeeds, at least in part, because she’s good at relating financial concepts to the real world.

More seriously, it is easy to alter laws (relatively speaking), but harder to alter cultural attitudes. The modern-day Mrs Grundy, decked out in Social Justice Bully garb, should be aware of how hard it can be to get everything ‘now.’ Naming and shaming ‘call-outs’ – or even simple bullying – might win the battle, but it doesn’t win the war. Indeed, such tactics only strengthen hatred and power the eventual backlash. Does this mean turning a blind eye to injustice? No, but it does mean accepting that someone who trespasses against the new order may not be irredeemable evil.

Maureen herself showcases it when she becomes a director on a corporate board; she asserts herself, but she doesn’t use her momentary advantage to destroy her opponents. Nor does she turn into a bully, the sort of person who will (hopefully verbally) castrate a man for daring to hold the door open for her. A radical feminist may take some satisfaction in lashing out at what she may see as condescension, but her poor victim will remember it – and not open doors (literally and figuratively) for women in future. Activists who go out of their way to alienate potential allies will look up, one day, and discover that the world hates them. And while that may well be deserved, the world will also hate their cause.

Heinlein also briefly discusses the concerns and fears of people faced with migration, although he talks in terms of the American black population. As I noted before, in Farnham’s Freehold, Heinlein was far more understanding and sympathetic to black people than many other people of his era, but he also understood the concerns of whites as well. One might well understand why someone would want to leave a shithole, to borrow Trump’s crude but accurate remark, but others might fear that the newcomers will bring the shithole with them. Modern experience tells us that this is a valid concern.

The book also takes the chance to outline some of Heinlein’s darker predictions for the future, many of which were trends in his day. Revisionist history – in the sense that the US was responsible for all the evils of the world – is a plague on our society, made all the worse by the simple truth that a small degree of revision is required as new research is carried out or documents are declassified and released to the public. The willingness to coddle childish behaviour from grown adults – and even countries – has led to more of it; surprise, surprise. Maureen had no tolerance for emotional blackmail, which may make her seem harsh at times, but more practical than many modern day politicians and teachers. Worse, perhaps, is the growing belief that celebrities are somehow important and their opinions are more relevant than the average person’s. But this may have taken a hit even before #METOO, as there is a wry argument to be made that celebrity endorsements may actually have cost Hilary Clinton the election. What does the average Hollywood starlet know about the real world?

Like he does in Take Back Your Government, Heinlein also proposes solutions. Local control of schools can keep them from being destroyed by bureaucrats so far away that they have no real concept of what is happening at ground zero. Ruthless enforcement of drug laws and a willingness to expel students who don’t qualify for higher education or break the rules can make life better for everyone else. He also believes that the government should be as limited as possible, with good reason. The larger the government becomes, the more it works in its own favour, rather than that of the average citizen. Precisely how well these solutions would work in the real world is open to debate, but many of his ideas are worth trying.

Part of the problem, of course, is that society is endlessly balanced between Conservatism and Liberalism. Both sides have their extremes – too much of one without the other is bad for society – but they also have their good points. Heinlein tried to find a way to strike a balance between the two, a balance we must also find. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ is on one end of the spectrum of bad parenting advice, but ‘be your child’s best friend’ is on the other. Rejecting one rule – one means of social control – doesn’t mean we should reject them all. That way leads to chaos or tyranny.

In the end, it’s difficult to rate To Sail Beyond The Sunset. It is good – very good – in places and weak in others. It has insights, but also moments of iconoclastic delight – smashing icons and taboos for the sake of smashing them. Heinlein glosses over many of Maureen’s problems, while lingering on points that would be better glossed over. And yet, it cannot be rejected or praised. Heinlein’s greatness is still present, but so too are the weaknesses that plagued his later writings. His star was in decline and I think he knew it.

And yes, there are people who will read this book out of context – and with little appreciation for either Heinlein’s era or the time span of Maureen’s life – and declare it problematic. And yes, there are moments that even I would declare problematic. Heinlein was a man of his era and, in many ways, he never quite grew out of it. He was trying to ask questions that needed answers, but the answers he came up with weren’t always correct. In some ways, he was ahead of his time … and then, suddenly, he was behind his time. He never had a time of his own.

But as I reread the closing section of the book for the last time, it struck me that – in some way – Heinlein was making a droll point of his own. Maureen and many of his other characters doubt the existence of God, choosing to regard religion as a means of social control rather than a pathway to heaven. And so – aided by super-advanced technology – they built a heaven of their own, where they are forever young and no one ever dies. And they all lived happily ever after.

To Sail Beyond The Sunset is a strange book. It isn’t one I will reread time and time again. But, like all of Heinlein’s works, it is worthy of respect.