Archive | December, 2018

Out Now – The Alchemist’s Apprentice (The Zero Enigma V)

14 Dec

A Stand-Alone Novel set in The Zero Enigma Universe …

Five months after the House War, the city of Shallot is on edge. The Great Houses plot and plan against one another, while the magicians rebuild and the common folk fear another outburst of fighting. And one young nobleman has a plan.

Rebecca is a half-caste shopgirl in an apothecary, dreaming of an apprenticeship that will allow her to rise out of poverty and finally make a name for herself in a city that has no use for her kind. But when her master undertakes a commission for an enigmatic young nobleman, she finds herself drawn into a maelstrom of criminals, ambitious nobles and a plan that may shake the foundations of the Great Houses themselves …

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Snippet – Cry Wolf (The Empire’s Corps 15)

9 Dec

Formerly The Pen and the Sword

Prologue I

From: The Death Agonies of Empire. Professor Leo Caesius, Avalon University, 46PE.

As we have seen in previous volumes, the Fall of Earth managed to surprise nearly everyone within the Core Worlds, save for a handful of far-sighted visionaries. Earth had been the centre of human civilisation for centuries, the cradle of the human race and the heart of the Empire itself, that there was a permanence about Earth that seemed … well, permanent. It was almost impossible to grasp the fact, intellectually as well as emotionally, that Earth was gone. The core of the Empire could not be gone.

But it was.

Earth’s significance did not just lie in sentiment alone. Earth was the home of the Grand Senate and, thanks to the presence of hundreds of interstellar corporations, the heart of the Empire’s economy. It is literally impossible to estimate just how many billions of credits passed through the Solar System each day, nor how many trillions had been spent on the system’s vast industrial base. Nor was Earth insignificant in other ways. The naval presence alone – and its support system – cost millions of credits every year. Every element of the Empire’s military might had its HQ on Earth – even the Imperial Marines were formally based on Earth – and no officer could be truly said to be going places unless he’d served a term on the homeworld. And, of course, the endless stream of immigrants to newly-settled colony worlds came, by and large, from Earth.

And now it was gone.

It took time, perhaps longer than many people realise, for word to spread. When it did, when it reached the rest of the Core Worlds, people were disbelieving. Earth could not be gone, they told themselves. It took time for understanding to arrive and, when it did, it brought terror in its wake. Love it or hate it, Earth was gone. And it had taken the core of the Empire with it. Planetary governments – and governors – awoke to the fact that they were on their own, corporations realised that vast amounts of money and assets had simply vanished, naval units realised they would never get orders from home – they would never get orders again – and independence movements across what had once been the Empire took heart. Their prospects for gaining their freedom had never been better.

The chaos was not long in following. A handful of unpopular governors fell, only to be replaced by governors who could no more handle the crisis and calm the chaos than their predecessors. A handful of ambitious naval officers declared themselves warlords, only to discover that ruling a vest-pocket empire was nowhere near as easy as they’d believed. And others, seeking stability, found that there was none to be found in the ruins of empire. It truly seemed like the end of times. It was no surprise that radical religious factions, some old and some new, spread like wildfire. The people wanted hope. It was hard to find as the madness gripped the remnants of a once-great civilisation.

But, even during the darkest days of the Fall, there were some who were trying to bring back the light …

Prologue II

Tarsus was dying.

It was not, the man in the dark suit mused, a quick death. There was no fleet of angry starships preparing to scorch the entire planet, no giant asteroid on its way to strike the surface with the force of a million nukes, no dread disease steadily working its way through the population and killing everyone it touched … no, it was the slow death of economic collapse. The men and women below didn’t realise it, not yet, but the Fall of Earth had done immense harm to Tarsus and the remainder of the sector. They simply couldn’t grasp that things had changed. How could they? There had been economic downturns before – the man in the dark suit owed his position to the previous downturn – but nothing so drastic. The Empire had seemed immortal …

… Until it was gone.

He stood at the window and peered at the streets below. It was near midnight, but the city was still humming with life. The men and women hurrying up and down the streets didn’t understand the new reality, not yet. They didn’t believe what had happened. Earth was hundreds of light years away. They didn’t understand that Earth was – that Earth had been – the core of an economic system that covered thousands of light years, nor did they realise that its absence meant utter chaos. The man had seen the reports, the ones his political enemies had tried to hush up. No one really knew what would happen when reality finally hit the population. It was so utterly unprecedented.

And yet, there was a twinge of fear running through the air. People knew that something was wrong, even if they couldn’t put a name to it. The smarter ones were already hoarding food and fuel, something that was technically illegal … the dumber ones were flocking to the entertainment complexes, trying to forget about the shadow looming over the city. They tried to close their eyes to the steadily-growing signs of decline – businesses closing, banks calling in loans, hundreds of thousands already out of work as the economy contracted – even though it was an exercise in futility. If a rising tide lifted all boats, as the finest economic theorists asserted, what happened when the tide was receding? The man didn’t want to admit it, not even in the privacy of his own head, but he knew the truth. There was nothing to be gained by trying to hide from it. The wealthy and powerful would be the last to fall, perhaps … but they would fall. It was the end of the world.

He turned his eyes towards the distant Government House, where the First Citizen and his cronies were trying to find something – anything – that would save their bacon when the population realised just how thoroughly screwed they were. The man admired their determination to blind themselves to inconvenient facts, even as he held them in utter contempt for their failure. They’d built their system on the assumption that nothing would ever change, although everyone knew that change was the only universal constant. They simply didn’t have the determination to do what needed to be done. They were weak when they needed to be strong and strong when they needed to be weak. The man rolled his eyes in disgust. They gave the population what they wanted, but not what they needed.

His eyes sought out the distant spaceport, half-hidden in the darkness. The police and security forces were already rounding up the Forsakers, preparing to deport them to … the man didn’t know where they were going, let alone when. No one did. All that mattered was getting rid of them. But the man knew it was an exercise in populist pointlessness. The Forsakers might be a drain on society, but deporting them wouldn’t solve anything. They weren’t that big a drain on society. The whole thing was nothing more than a desperate bid to win approval from a population that was about to discover that it had bigger things to worry about than the wretched Forsakers. The government might see a blip in its approval ratings, for a day or two, and then reality would assert itself once again. And Tarsus would continue her slow slide into chaos.

But chaos brings opportunities, the man thought. Who knows what the future may hold?

He smiled, coldly. He was a popular man – and his party was a popular party – but they had been deprived of real power. They’d won enough of the popular vote to be included in government, yet the governing coalition had successfully blocked any of their proposed legislation. It was maddening – the man knew his party would share the blame for mistakes that were none of their doing – but it could not be helped. The party structure that had governed Tarsus for over two thousand years was almost impossible to change. And yet, it was based on an economic system that no longer existed. It was dead. It just didn’t know it.

Not yet, the man told himself. In some ways, the government’s refusal to face up to facts worked in his favour. Let them exchange worthless favours for a few more weeks. Let their promises be exposed as worthless. Let them thoroughly discredit themselves. And then, we can take over and put the world to rights.

He poured himself a drink, then turned back to the window. A shuttle was taking off from the spaceport, the twinkling lights vanishing in the cloudy skies. A storm was brewing. The man could feel it in his bones. He raised his glass in a silent toast to the future and took a single sip. The wine was worth savouring. He had a handful of bottles, locked away for special occasions, but once they were gone they were gone. There would be no more scotch from New Aberdeen until someone rebuilt the interstellar economy from scratch. The man doubted he’d live to see it. His projected lifespan was over two hundred years, but rebuilding the Empire would take thousands.

But I can start the process, he thought. Tarsus wasn’t a bad place to be, if one happened to have ambition. The planet was close enough to Earth to maintain valuable links, both with the homeworld and the other important worlds, yet far enough from the centre of power to be relatively safe. There is opportunity here, for the man who dares to reach out and take it.

His intercom pinged. “Mr. Secretary, the First Citizen requests your presence at the cabinet meeting tomorrow.”

The man smiled. “Does he indeed? How nice of him.”

It was not, he knew, a request. He’d be expected to rubber-stamp a decision made by the First Citizen’s inner circle. There was no point in trying to object, not now. But – in time – he would avenge every humiliation the wretched ruling class had inflicted upon him and his supporters. The rulers had thought their position unchallengeable. They’d certainly sealed up all the normal avenues to power. But the Empire was gone. Who knew how far an ambitious man could go?

He took another sip of his wine. “Inform the First Citizen that I would be deeply honoured to attend his meeting,” he ordered, dryly. “And tell my wife I will be leaving the house early tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

The man finished his drink, then took one last look at the streets below. They were still brightly lit … that was going to change. The man had no illusions about just what would happen when the truth finally slammed home. Tarsus, one of the most stable worlds in the sector, was about to undergo a massive shock. The wildfire sweeping over the once-great Empire would burn the planet to ashes.

But we will rise from the ashes, he told himself. He silently catalogued his plans and preparations, reassuring himself that he’d covered all the bases. There was a certain element of risk, of course, but he’d minimised it as much as possible. And we will build a better world.

Chapter One

It will come as no surprise that the single most distrusted entity within the Empire, from the moment the decline began to Earth’s finally collapse into madness, was the media. It is difficult to say for sure, but it seems unlikely that many people believed what they were being told.

– Professor Leo Caesius. Crying Wolf: The Media and the Fall of the Empire.

It was a dark and stormy night, Clarence Esperanza narrated to himself, as he surveyed the chain-link fence between him and the dark industrial estate. It was a dark and stormy night, damn it!

He smiled – white teeth flashing in a dark face – as he looked for an easy way to get over the fence. He’d always enjoyed adding little flourishes to his work, even if half of them were gleefully stolen from ancient writers hardly anyone – and certainly none of his readers – had heard of. It wasn’t theft, not really. It was … all right, maybe it was a kind of theft, but it was in a good cause. Clarence knew, without false modesty, that he was no writer. He lacked the skill to string words together in a manner that would comfort the powerless and afflict the powerful. Whatever skill he’d had in writing, once upon a time, had been ground out of him by a creative writing course and ten years as a reporter. It was no comfort to know that everyone else had the same problem.

An aircar flew overhead, heading north towards the spaceport. Clarence glanced up at it, then returned his attention to the fence. The estate had been abandoned two years ago, according to the city files, but someone had taken precautions to make sure that no one could get in or out of the massive complex without going through the gates. Clarence had expected to find a whole string of holes in the wire – cut by the homeless, looking desperately for somewhere to sleep that wasn’t damp and cold – but there was nothing. Gritting his teeth, he checked his gloves and started to scramble over the fence. It was harder than it looked and he nearly fell twice before he got over the wire and landed on the far side. The sound of his feet hitting the ground was terrifyingly loud in the silent night air. He ducked down, expecting to see a night-watchman heading towards him. The estate was certainly large enough to merit someone on duty at all times.

And my press pass probably won’t be enough to spare me a night in jail, Clarence thought, as he listened for the sound of approaching footsteps. The watchman might show him the door or he might call the cops. There was no way to know how the cops would react. They wouldn’t risk abusing a journalist, but a night in the cells was hardly abuse. And the editor will give me hell for being caught.

He smiled at the thought. The tip-off had been vague, but it had come from a trustworthy source. Something was going to happen tonight, in the vast industrial estate. Clarence would have preferred more details, particularly a clear idea of precisely what was going to happen, but his source had gone silent. That wasn’t uncommon, in a world where talking to the media could get a source fired and blacklisted … he shook his head. The risk of getting caught was high – press pass or no press pass – but it had been a long time since he’d done anything worthy of the great reporters of the distant past. He’d spent the last five years taking official statements and trying, desperately, to put his own spin on bland pap. One might as well add spice to fried mush. No matter how much spice one used, it was still mush.

His smile grew wider as he stood and slipped further into the industrial estate. A chunk of it, according to the files, had been turned into living space for the Forsakers, but the remainder was still empty and cold. He glanced into a giant warehouse as he passed the door, seeing absolutely nothing inside. The building itself was designed to survive everything the planet could throw at it, but the owners had declined to turn it into a homeless shelter. Clarence snorted in disgust as he took a quick snap of the interior, then resumed his walk into the estate. It hadn’t escaped his notice that the number of homeless camps – and beggars on the streets – had been increasing recently. There was probably a good human interest story in there, somewhere. And perhaps a story asking precisely why the estate had been abandoned when it could be turned into a homeless shelter.

He walked around another warehouse and stopped, dead, as he saw the second fence. The owners might have deeded part of their territory to the Forsakers, willingly or not, but they’d clearly been determined that the Forsakers would not leave the handful of warehouses that had been put aside for them. This fence was even newer than the last one, with barbed wire on the top. Clarence wouldn’t have cared to bet that it hadn’t been electrified, if not alarmed. The owners looked to be selfish bastards. They probably wouldn’t give a damn if some poor hobo touched the fence and got a nasty shock …

Wankers, Clarence thought.

He put the thought aside as he peered into the semi-darkness. Nothing was happening, as far as he could tell. A small fire burned merrily outside one of the closer warehouses – a handful of people clearly visible in the light – but little else. It looked like a homeless camp, not … he shook his head. It didn’t look as if anything important was happening within the darkness, certainly nothing demanding his attention. Shaking his head, he walked over to the nearest abandoned warehouse and scrambled up a ladder onto the roof. The air felt colder, somehow, as he lay on the rooftop and looked towards the Forsaker camp. Nothing was happening.

Waste of time, he thought, as the cold started to seep into his bones. I should have stayed in bed with my wife.

He allowed himself a moment of irritation, then reminded himself to be patience. The really great reporters didn’t sit in their offices and wait for someone to bring them the news. No, they went out and got the news. Sometimes, it went badly wrong and then they were the news … Clarence shook his head, again. Nothing was going to go wrong. He was just going to wait a few hours and see what happened, then sneak back over the fence, call a hovercab and go home. His editor would have a few nasty things to say if Clarence turned up at the office without a story – or hopped up on stims – but he’d understand. It wouldn’t be the first time a tip had turned into a giant waste of time. Clarence reached into his pocket, produced his recording spectacles and placed them on his nose. They were a pain in the ass to wear, but their recordings had saved his bacon more than once. If nothing else, they’d prove he hadn’t been doing nothing at the dead of night.

Although I am doing nothing, he thought, silently starting to compose his latest story for the newspaper. I’m lying on my chest on a freezing cold rooftop when I could be having naked time with my wife.

Another aircar flew overhead, lights flickering in the darkness. Clarence did his best to ignore it, telling himself that the aircar wasn’t looking for him. It wouldn’t take military-grade sensors to pick him out on the rooftop, but who would give a damn? He looked like a hobo himself – he’d been careful to dress as a dockyard worker, rather than a flashy reporter – and it was unlikely that anyone would care about a hobo in an abandoned estate. It wasn’t as if there was anything worth stealing … not really. The only thing of any value within the estate was the buildings themselves. It wasn’t as if a small army of hobos could pick them up and carry them away.

Which won’t stop the police chasing the hobos out if someone makes a fuss, he thought, grimly. There was another human interest story there, he was sure. The homeless simply want a roof over their heads when they sleep, just like the rest of it.

It was nearly an hour – and he was on the verge of giving up – when he heard the faint sound of engines. He tensed, peering into the darkness. A small handful of trucks were pulling up at the distant gate. Were they coming for him? He silently calculated a handful of ways to get out of the estate in a hurry, although – as policemen started spilling out of the trucks – he had a nasty feeling that there would be no way out. It looked as if the police had arrived in force, ready for war. He could see men wearing helmets and body armour, carrying shockrods and neural whips in the foreground, with others – armed with real weapons – hung back. They looked ready to intervene at any moment.

His blood ran cold. This was wrong. The police did not come at the dead of night, certainly not to a harmless estate. It was hard enough to get them to come out when one lived in a middle-class estate in the heart of the city, let alone the homeless camps and ghettos along the edge. But now … a shiver ran down his spine as the policemen moved forward in eerie silence. He tapped his spectacles, making sure they were recording the scene. The policemen moved through the gates and straight towards the warehouses …

Someone shouted. A handful of men appeared, carrying makeshift weapons. Clarence winced, unsure if he should laugh or cry. The Forsakers were carrying baseball bats and iron rods, nothing really dangerous to a man in body armour. They didn’t even have a chance to try before a flurry of stun bolts left them lying on the ground, twitching helplessly. The policemen marched over them, abandoning all pretence at stealth. Clarence covered his eyes as the policemen turned on the lights. The estate was suddenly bathed in brilliant white light.

“ATTENTION,” a voice boomed. The warehouse seemed to shake with every word. “COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!”

Clarence covered his ears, a fraction of a second too late. He couldn’t help thinking, as he turned his head to capture as many details as possible, that half the city had been awoken by the racket. The warehouse district was large, but it wasn’t that large. He watched, feeling a twinge of sympathy, as dazed Forsakers stumbled out of the warehouses. The policemen grabbed them, male and female alike, and snapped on the cuffs before forcing them to lie on the ground and wait. Clarence made sure to record it all. The public wouldn’t be sorry for the Forsakers unless they saw the poor bastards being made to suffer.

And it is so pointless, he thought, as a crying child was made to sit next to her mother. What does it matter?

He shuddered, helplessly. The Forsakers had a bad reputation. They were lazy and arrogant beggars, walking around in their traditional clothes as if the world owed them a living, utterly unwilling to abandon their primitive culture and join the mainstream. Everyone knew the Forsakers were a drain on the planet’s public funds … until they actually ran the figures for themselves. Clarence had, more out of curiosity than anything else. The Forsakers weren’t draining the planet dry. They weren’t even claiming a percentage point of a percentage point of the government’s budget. The government spent more on bureaucracy than it did on public aid.

A scream rent the night air. Clarence scanned the scene before him, then zoomed in on a young girl who was being harassed by two policemen. One of them was holding her, the other had his hand up her dress … Clarence shuddered again, as a senior officer marched over and rebuked the two coppers, who didn’t look remotely repentant. Clarence wasn’t really surprised. The news file in the office contained lots of stories about policemen who abused their powers, stories that the editor had killed on the grounds they’d incite social unrest. And some of the stories had been a little hard to believe … Clarence swallowed. It was clear, now, that the stories had some basis in truth.

But that doesn’t mean they’re true, he thought. The poor girl, crying silently, had been dumped with her fellows. Just that they could have happened.

The dreadful night wore on. Clarence watched, helplessly, as the policemen stripped everything out of the warehouses and piled them up in the trucks, then marched the prisoners to the gate. He filmed everything, from the crying children to the broken spindles and other primitive tools that were part of the Forsaker heritage. The policemen seemed to take an unholy delight in breaking things, although it was nothing but spite. There was certainly nothing to be gained by smashing tools the Forsakers would need …

It hit him in a moment of insight. Dear God, he thought. They’re deporting the bastards!

Clarence swallowed, hard. It couldn’t be true, could it? There was nothing to be gained by shoving the Forsakers on a starship and tell them never to come back. He ran the calculations in his head and scowled. It would probably cost the government more, in the long run, to deport the Forsakers than to keep them. Hell, there was no reason the Forsakers couldn’t be given land and told to farm it if they wanted to stay alive. But they’d already been evicted from lands they’d held for generations. The big farming corporations had wanted the land for themselves and the government hadn’t had the will to say no. Who cared about a bunch of weirdoes in outdated clothes when there was money to be made?

Not that the price of food went down, Clarence thought, coldly. He made a decent living, but even he had noticed that the cost of living was steadily inching upwards. God alone knew what was really happening in the countryside. The Forsakers were evicted for nothing.

He looked towards the spaceport in the distance as the rest of the pieces fell into place. The Forsakers were easy targets. Harmless, by and large; unarmed, certainly. And easily demonised by radical politicians. The pressure to do something about them was overwhelming … no, had been overwhelming. It was clear the government had decided that deporting the Forsakers was a concession they could afford to make, although it was pointless. Clarence hoped, in a moment of naked horror, that the government actually was deporting the Forsakers. There were nastier things that could happen …

This will not stand, he promised himself, as the police started to drive away with their prisoners. They were heading towards the spaceport, at least, although he knew that proved nothing. There was plenty of room for a mass grave in the wastelands beyond the spaceport complex. I’ll tell the world.

Clarence rolled over and stood, hurrying back towards the ladder. The show was over, as far as he could tell. He had to get his story out before the Forsakers were actually loaded onto a starship – or sold into slavery or whatever other horrible fate the government might have in mind for them – and deported forever. He’d make sure the people knew what was being done in their name. He silently reviewed the footage he’d recorded as he slipped down the ladder and ran towards the fence. The Forsakers weren’t popular, but the right footage – carefully chosen – would change that. He’d have the entire population shouting in outrage by the time he was done.

Scrambling over the fence, he fled into the darkness. There was no sign of anyone on the streets, not even a handful of homeless or a patrolling police car. It was easy to believe that he’d imagined everything, he thought, as he reached a diner and called a hovercab. If he hadn’t had the footage, it would have been hard to convince anyone that it had really happened. It was so unthinkable that … it was unthinkable. The government was harsh, at times, but it wasn’t monstrous …

Hard times make people do monstrous things, he thought, as the hovercab dropped him off outside his apartment. And people who think they cannot be called to account can be the worst of all.

Clarence allowed himself a tight smile as he sat down in front of his terminal – his wife had long since gone to bed – and started to review the footage and write the story. It would make his career, he was sure. Every reporter yearned for something that would make him famous, something that would change the world. The truly great reporters had been household names, once upon a time. They’d exposed corruption, they’d caught criminals … a couple had even had flicks made of their lives. Clarence wanted that kind of fame for himself. And he would have it …

He finished writing the story, uploading it and the footage to the newspaper’s server, then went to bed. His wife shifted uncomfortably as he climbed under the sheets, but otherwise didn’t moved. Clarence didn’t really blame her. She’d been up for most of the day, first taking their son to nursery and then handling her job. Clarence would have liked to be the sole breadwinner – he didn’t like the tired look in his wife’s eyes – but there was no alternative. He simply didn’t bring in enough money to ensure a good start in life for his son.

Things will be different, he silently promised his wife. And they start from tomorrow.

And he was right. The following morning, he received an email that told him he’d been fired.

The Future of The Zero Enigma

5 Dec

The Alchemist Cover FOR WEB

First, The Alchemist’s Apprentice is starting the first set of edits now. Hopefully, I will be able to publish it by the end of the month.

I’ve got a handful of ambitious plans for the universe. First up is The King’s Man, a story about a young magician who joins the Kingsmen and finds himself battling a plot to bring his country crashing down. Then … well, I’m not sure. I have a plan for a story following a young sailor who sails to Hangchow and finds herself caught up in a civil war, as well as one following an older teacher who gets assigned to Jude’s (with a secret mission to catch a spy), and one following a young woman who wants to kill the sorcerer who murdered her family … (actually, I’m not sure if the last one would fit into the Zero Universe, but we will see.)

And then I have a grand plan for a crossover featuring Cat, Isabella, Rebecca (TAA) and the hero of The King’s Men. I’m still trying to decide how it should go and, more importantly, how it should be formatted. I wrote the first books in first-person, but it might be better – with multiple characters – to go for third. My basic idea is … there are a lot of ‘magic goes away’ plots, but what about a ‘magic gets more powerful’ plot? Cat and her friends – and enemies, etc – find themselves dealing with an incredible crisis and great secrets from the past. And war, ghosts and a lot of other things that happen when society starts to fray …

I’m not sure how many of the earlier books will be written first, however. I do need The King’s Men and perhaps the sailor book, but otherwise … we shall see. I may also need to separate out the Isabella side of the story from the others.

What do you think?

Chris

Rough Planned Schedule

2 Dec

Hi, everyone

This is my very rough plan for the next few months … which is subject to change without notice <grin>

December – The Pen and the Sword (The Empires Corps 15)

January – Cursed (Schooled in Magic 17).

February – The Right of the Line (Invincible 3, Ark 14).

March – The Ancient Lie (The Unwritten Words II)

April – (unsure as yet, perhaps A Learning Experience 6 or Zero 6)

May – Debt of War (Kat Falcone.)

Thoughts?

Chris

Tarsus Background

2 Dec

Rough notes for The Pen and the Sword …

Tarsus was originally intended to be the sector capital of the Allston Sector – and was only deprived of the title by what was considered, even at the time, to be pretty blatant bribery by New Samos’s planetary government. Tarsus’s government did not take the slight calmly – and indeed, a sense that the planet was cheated pervaded politics for centuries after settlement – but the affair has largely faded from the public eye.

The planet itself lies in a rich system that was extensively developed over the last two thousand years. Tarsus itself is the only Earth-compatible world, but the three rocky worlds – Argil, Agatha and Wormwood – and four gas giants provide a sizable base for industrial development. During its glory years, Tarsus supported the massive colonisation effort that settled sector after sector, but – as the frontier moved further and further from the Core Worlds – it started to enter a slow recession. A planet as dependent on interstellar investment as Tarsus – it’s industrial base was far larger than it needed to be to support the planet’s own requirements – could not help but suffer, even before the Fall of Earth. Successive planetary governments have been unable to boost the lacklustre economy.

Tarsus’s original settlers were quite selective in who was allowed to settle on their new homeworld, with the net result that the planet’s population is racially-mixed but ethnically and culturally homogenous. (Intermarriage has ensured that most of the population is dark-skinned.) By the time the settlement corporation gave way to a democratic government, the planet’s course was fixed. A handful of later settlement populations caused problems for the original settlers, particularly expats from the Core Worlds, but most of them were eventually assimilated into the mainstream. The handful of exceptions were either marginalised or ‘politely’ invited to leave. This did not make Tarsus and its government popular outside the system limits. There were, in fact, a number of cases being brought against the planetary government when the Empire collapsed and the issue became moot.

Technically, Tarsus is a democracy. Practically, matters are a little more complex. Seats in the Hall of Representatives are doled out according to proportional representation – if a political party wins 10% of the vote, they get 10% of the seats – which makes it impossible for independent candidates to make much headway against powerful political parties (and, perhaps more importantly, breaks any ties between the representatives and the people they claim to represent). Seats on the planet’s executive council (the secretaries) are divided up by backroom dealing, much of which remains out of the public eye. It isn’t impossible for the First Citizen – the planet’s chief executive – to have to reckon with a secretary from a different political party. It is actually quite difficult to get things done, not least because each successive secretary shakes things up to ensure that his clients get the best jobs. The only way to gain political power is to join one of the parties and work your way up the ladder.

That said, there is a strong streak of authoritarianism that runs through the planet’s political environment. It is very difficult to live without leaving a paper trail (despite this, there is an underclass of immigrants and people who have dropped out of the system.) The government, whatever party seems to be in formal control, does not like being questioned. People who step outside the limits of acceptable discourse, including political independents, find themselves struggling against a system designed to push them back down. The police have wide powers to question, arrest and sentence (without public trial) dissidents; the security services take full advantage of their own powers to watch for potential threats to their masters.

Unsurprisingly, corruption is an epidemic problem. The planet’s civil servants, for example, are quite capable of demanding bribes – or, for that matter, making life difficult for reform politicians. It isn’t really a surprise that assaults on government workers have been steadily rising over the past few years.

During the years between settlement and the long decline of empire, two main political parties – the Empire Loyalists and the Corporatists – dominated. There was very little difference between them, keeping the planet on an even kneel. The decline of empire changed things, with the rise of both the Rebirth Party and the Socialist Party, both of which were effectively chapters of interstellar political parties trying to take advantage of the Empire’s problems. Their rise shocked the political establishment, but they were – to some extent – absorbed into the political mainstream. Their ability to exercise real power – and change the planet – is very limited.

Despite this, Tarsus is on a knife-edge. The collapse of the interstellar economy has already sent the planetary economy into freefall, although the government has done its best to hide the worst effects of the crash (for example, corporations have been ordered not to lay off employees even though they cannot afford to keep paying them). Other steps – the expulsion of the Forsakers in particular – have raised hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Street violence is on the rise, as is unemployment. It is only a matter of time before the government can no longer paper over the cracks …

Oddly, Tarsus has only one continent of any real size (roughly the size of North America). The remainder of the planet is oceans and (relatively) small islands. The global planetary population is estimated as being around two-three billion, although activists suggest the real figure is much higher. (Off-planet, the population is estimated at seventy million.) Tarsus’s capital city – Adana – is one of the largest in the sector, although still far smaller than one of Earth’s megacities.

Given its industrial base, and pretensions to greater power, it is no surprise that Tarsus maintains a powerful Orbital Guard. Seventeen cruisers and thirty-seven destroyers (often deployed on convoy escort missions) are backed by a formidable array of system patrol craft, gunboats and orbital battlestations. The system also houses an Imperial Navy base, which was put into mothballs twenty years prior to the Fall of Earth.

Review: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power

1 Dec

Eric and I went binge-watching <grin>

The writers and producers of She-Ra: Princess of Power had one great advantage over their modern-day successors. They were not, on one hand, besieged by shrieking social justice warriors demanding ‘representation,’ ‘diversity’ and a great many other buzzwords that detract from the all-important requirement to tell a good story. And, on the other hand, they didn’t have to contend with whiny man-children of both genders moaning about how changes to a much-loved show ruined their childhood forever. One might note, as I do, that most of the complainers on both sides have nothing at risk, while those who have to listen to them do.

But I digress.

She-Ra: Princess of Power worked, as a show, for much the same reason as both He-Man and Thunderbirds. It was unashamedly a kids show, with a surprising amount of limits on what could be shown, but it rarely talked down to kids (apart from those wretched morals tacked on to the end). Nor did it play gender politics; it’s largely female cast (villains as well as heroes) did well on their own merits, rather than at the expense of the men. It really should have been studied by whoever wrote The Last Jedi.

It also managed to assume an identity of its own, separate from He-Man. Where He-Man defended a kingdom and a planet against a would-be evil overlord, She-Ra’s evil overlord had already effectively won the war. She-Ra was the figurehead of a resistance movement, not the defender of an established order. And, while the show did pull in a great many details from its brother (hah) series, it also managed to be just different enough to be more than just another spin-off. Boys came to watch because of He-Man; they stayed watching because of She-Ra. She had the unfortunately rare talent among action heroines of appealing to both genders.

It was something of a shame, I thought, that the revitalised 2002 series of Masters of the Universe didn’t last long enough to reintroduce She-Ra. (The comics did try to fill this hole, with mixed results.) By and large, the 2002 series fixed many of the problems with the original He-Man series – if nothing else, He-Man faces a great many challenges he actually has to use his brain to defeat – and it would have been interesting to see another spin-off (even if part of the backstory would have to be changed). Instead, there was a dearth of He-Man related material until it was revealed that She-Ra would be rebooted as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Reactions to everything from the changed backstory to She-Ra’s very appearance were … somewhat mixed. (And Netflix managed to mess up Death Note …) I withheld judgement until I had a chance to actually watch the series.

TL:DR – There’s a lot to like in the series, but also a few things to dislike. YMMV.

She-Ra-and-The-Princesses-of-Power-Princess-Alliance-Netflix

The basic plot is fairly simple. Adora and Catra are (apparently) orphans, cadets raised by Shadow Weaver to serve Hordak’s Horde. They know nothing about the outside world, save for what the Horde taught them. On the eve of Adora’s promotion to Force Captain, the two girls escape the Fright Zone and enter the mysterious Whispering Woods, home of the last remnants of the Great Rebellion. Lost, Adora discovers a sword that seems to be calling to her. Unable to resist the call, she sneaks back to the woods and encounters Glimmer and Bow, both members of the Rebellion. In the ensuring chaos, Adora finds the sword and discovers it allows her to turn into She-Ra, a superpowered princess. Worse, to her horror, Adora discovers she’s been fighting on the wrong side. The Horde is evil. Swearing never to go back, Adora leaves Catra and joins the rebellion herself.

Bow: Your army is called the Evil Horde.

Adora: Who calls us that?

Bow: EVERYBODY!

Learning that She-Ra is just one of many superpowered Princesses, Adora and her new friends set out to reunite the Princess Alliance, a defence force that stood against the Horde until they were defeated and shattered by Hordak. In the meantime, Hordak promotes Catra to Force Captain and charges her with waging war on the rebellion. This she does with brutal efficiency, first successfully capturing Glimmer and Bow, then seducing Entrapa to join the Horde, displacing Shadow Weaver from her position and – finally – leading an assault on Bright Moon (the home of the rebellion) that comes within a hairsbreadth of success. The season ends with She-Ra and her new comrades preparing to take the war to the Horde, while Catra – now promoted to Hordak’s second-in-command – starts planning her next step …

There’s a great deal I like about the series. The show’s designers did an excellent job of displaying a fantasy world, from the industrial nightmare of the Fright Zone to the creepy Whispering Woods. They picked and mixed some of the best elements from the original show, while stripping out some of the sillier (and weaker) elements. There are plenty of grounds for a crossover between this show and Masters of the Universe, although there would be problems making the 2002 series interact with this one. They also depicted relationships that strengthened and weakened as time wore on, while including plenty of action and adventure. The only real weak point in the show’s production is that it’s a long story, rather than an series of stand-alone episodes. It can become confusing if you watch such episodes out of order.

The core of the new series, for better or worse, is the complex relationship between Adora and Catra. Adora and Catra were both abused by Shadow Weaver, but Catra got the worst of it; they grew up together as adopted sisters, yet were fragmented by Adora’s defection (made worse, perhaps, by the fact Adora was completely blind to how Catra was abused until it was too late.) The writers did a good job of representing their relationship – and how it went sour – in a manner that reminds me of Thor and Loki’s relationship from the MCU. It’s definitely worth nothing that, for all of Shadow Weaver’s favouritism towards Adora, Catra was the better student. Her attack on Bright Moon fails through bad luck, not a failure on her part.

Catra-and-Adora

Adora herself comes across as a tomboy, of sorts; an understandable development given that she was raised in a military academy. This is in stark contrast to just about all of the other Princesses, all of whom display a certain degree of immaturity. She’s a likable character, but she is hampered by her self-doubts and guilt over believing the Horde’s lies for so long. The three-way friendship between Glimmer, Bow and Adora gives her balance, which works very well. In some ways, they complement each other. Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be any personality change when Adora becomes She-Ra. He-Man and Adam often came across as two different people.

The writers did a reasonably good job of depicting the other princesses on the show, giving them all distinct personalities as well as strengths and weaknesses. They are a diverse group – and not just in skin colour – although this is something of a weakness in its own right. One princess spends her time pretending that nothing is wrong, another traps herself in her own castle … and one, the youngest, is so much of a stickler for the rules that she practically gives the Horde a free shot at her kingdom.

Indeed, one thing that grates is a definite lack of maturity. It’s hard to say how old some of the princesses are – Adora herself comes across as sixteen, barely – but they are almost completely immature. It’s hinted that most of them lack parents, perhaps because of the defeat that ended the last Princess Alliance. Glimmer, the only one who does have an on-screen parent, is no better. Her arguments with her mother are absurd, from an adult point of view; her mother grounding her comes across as ridiculous. But then, her mother is pretty immature herself. So are most of the Hordesmen. And the less said about Sea Hawk the better.

Hordak, curiously enough, is an exception. He’s definitely evil and intimidating, to the point that even Catra fears him, but he’s not a bad leader. He promotes Catra, over Shadow Weaver’s objections; later, he rewards Catra for her plan, despite its failure, on the grounds that Catra got far closer to outright victory than anyone else. And when Shadow Weaver steals the credit for Catra’s first plan, he makes sure Shadow Weaver gets the blame when the plan goes south in the very next episode. He’s a far more complex (and less humorous) character than the original and the show is all the stronger for it.

The vast majority of the episodes also work fairly well. The Sword manages to introduce everyone important (except Hordak) and generally showcase the show’s world. Flowers for She-Ra is perhaps the weakest, suggesting that the writers weren’t quite sure where they were going when they penned it, although it does have its moments. Princess Prom is the sort of episode, from the blurb, that I would have hated … but, as a matter of fact, it’s one of the strongest episodes in the season. The Battle of Bright Moon works up until the final moments, when the rebels are saved by good luck. Catra did not deserve to lose.

Much – not all – of the online debate over the show was misguided. She-Ra does look strange when she first appears, but that vanishes fairly quickly. It’s possible that there might be a male and female version of the superpowered form, with a man transforming into He-Man if he wielded the sword. The show does not indulge in much – if any – male-bashing: the closest it ever comes to anything of the sort is Sea Hawk confessing he acts like an ass to cover up his insecurities, something that could also be said of Glimmer. (Kudos to the writers for recognising that and using it.) And let’s face it; none of the female characters are remotely perfect either. (Shadow Weaver is far less intelligent and cunning than her original series counterpart.) My childhood has not been ruined <grin>.

That said, the show does have weaknesses. One of them is that She-Ra is simply too powerful. The writers had to bend over backwards to keep her from winning the war single-handedly. Adora is weakened by her insecurities and, later, by a simple lack of knowledge.

A more curious weakness is a strong streak of elitism that runs through the Great Rebellion – but not, oddly, the Horde. The Princesses are in power because they have power (one of them is eleven, someone who would not be allowed to rule in the real world until she came of age) and pretty much everyone involved is strikingly pretty and human, rather than a crossbreed and/or ugly. There’s no sense that merit is involved at any point, which is rather disappointing for Bow and the other mere humans. Bow is perhaps the most competent character in the Rebellion, but he’ll never match a Princess. There’s a sense that some people are just better, which is a pretty poor Aesop.

The Horde, by contrast, is an equal-opportunity employer. Not all of its ranks are filled with power-mad tyrants like Shadow Weaver. Force Captain Scorpia is a Princess – and a surprisingly decent person, unlike the original – but she’s also monstrous and there’s a strong hint she isn’t welcome at the Princess Prom. Catra is allowed to climb in the ranks, rather than being permanently held back; later, when Entrapa joins the Horde, Hordak welcomes her too. I’d be curious to know if this was deliberate or not.

I’ve noticed that most Social Justice Bullies will notice the near-problem (Donald Trump was rude about women) and ignore the far-problem (the treatment of women in Third World countries). Adora ignores Shadow Weaver’s near-constant abuse of Catra, but puts her life on the line to fight for people she doesn’t know. It’s not hard to blame Catra for resenting this, nor for realising well before Adora that the Horde was evil. But then, people do tend to be blind to something that appears usual to them.

The writers also attempted a great deal of inclusion. This works better than most, at least, because the script doesn’t call attention to it. No one mentions skin colour (although discrimination against ‘monsters’ is mentioned; no one makes an issue of body-shape or anything else that might prove controversial. There’s a great deal of room for plausible deniability. Indeed, while one can argue that Adora and Catra have romantic feelings for each other, one can also argue that they’re really sisters (if from other mothers). There’s no more homoerotic subtext than there is in Thor.

Overall, as a kids show, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power works fine. It lacks the semi-grittiness of the 2002 Masters of the Universe reboot (and a crossover might be awkward, although doable), but it also lacks the weaknesses of both the original He-Man and She-Ra shows. I think it will probably manage to appeal to both boys and girls. However, an adult might notice – and wonder – at some of the unfortunate implications.

It isn’t the sort of show I’ll watch time and time again. But you know … it isn’t Netflix’s Death Note either.