Archive | February, 2020

Musings on the Future of the Republican Party

27 Feb

When I wrote my post on the Democratic Party’s problems and possible futures, I was asked to write one on the Republicans as well.  Here you are <grin>.

Two points first – I live in the UK.  I’ve written this based on outside observations, comments from my American friends and a handful of visits to the US.  If I’m wrong … I’m sure someone will tell me

Second, I’ve noted particular views of the world that are sometimes, in my opinion, either objectively or subjectively wrong.  I did that in an attempt to present someone’s else view to you.  You may feel that some (or all) of what I’ve posted is wrong, stupid, or completely insane.  You might be right.  Others, however, will not agree with you.  Please bear that in mind.

As always, remember to be polite while you pour scorn on me <grin>.  And if you want thoughts on Labour’s future, let me know.

It’s the economy, stupid.”

-James Carville (often credited to Bill Clinton, 1992).

A few weeks ago, when Trump was being impeached, a friend of mine on Facebook bemoaned the unwillingness of Republican senators and congressmen to demand Trump’s impeachment.  A handful of Republicans voting with the Democrats, he reasoned, would be enough to sink Trump’s presidency once and for all.  A sorry chapter in America’s history would be closed.

They didn’t.  Trump remains President.

Leaving aside the question of Trump’s general suitability to be POTUS, why would hardly any Republicans even give lip service to impeachment?  Why was Mitt Romney the sole Republican senator to vote to convict Trump?  The answer is simple.  It would be political suicide.  The Republican Base chose Trump above all others, from Jeb Bush to Ben Carson.  Anyone who collaborated in Trump’s impeachment would be branded a Judas and face the wrath of their constituents at the ballot box.  There was not, in the view of the average voter, anything like enough reason to impeach Trump.  Anything less than a solid pro-impeachment case would backfire on anyone fool enough to vote for it.  It would require a handful of senators or congressmen to fall on their swords for impeachment to go ahead.

And really, why should they take the risk?  What would they get out of it?

If you hew to the belief that Trump is uniquely bad for the role, you might expect a degree of self-sacrifice.  It would be the right thing to do.  However, absent a clear and inarguable reason to push for impeachment, it would be personally disastrous.  No one would ever trust them again.  They’d be kicked out of office very quickly.  And with Trump gone, perversely, it would be easier to get rid of them.

This creates an interesting situation for the Republicans.  On one hand, Donald Trump is their greatest assert.  He’s done more for the GOP than anyone since Reagan.  On the other hand, Trump is also their greatest liability.  He’s under immense pressure, with hordes of vultures (some of them Republicans), waiting for a chance to strike at him.  His style is dramatically off-putting to vast numbers of people.  Sooner or later, he’s going to tweet something that will wind up being utterly disastrous.  Or something he does – or he can be blamed for – will blow up in his face.  And if that happens, the GOP may go down with him.

Why did this happen?

I think it’s fairly safe to say that the modern-day Republican Party is effectively divided into three factions.  (As with the Democrats, these factions have no formal existence and a considerable amount of overlap.)  At the top, we have the elite; career politicians, effectively an aristocracy that has more in common with the Democratic elite than the Republican base.  In the middle, we have the thinkers; a loose gathering of writers and commenters who attempt to shape opinion.  (These range from people like Max Boot and Ann Coulter to more individualistic bloggers/talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, Kurt Schlichter and The Z Blogger; they also include writers like Jordon Peterson, Ayn Rand and Matt Bracken.  They tend to veer between sensible commentary and bat-shit craziness, sometimes in the same article.)

At the bottom, we have the base.

The vast majority of the Republican base is generally composed of middle and lower-class whites.  There is a growing number of non-whites, but not – yet – enough to be significantly important.  They are rarely wealthy; they tend to range between small business owners and farmers to military personnel and the very poor.  The group is really too large to say anything more than a generalisation or two; they are suspicious of government and bureaucracy, strongly favour gun rights, often proudly religious and thoroughly fed up.  And smooth-talking politicos, reporters, film stars and child activists are their least-favourite people.

There is, in short, a major cultural gap (see this and this too) between the base and the elites (Democrat as well as Republican.)

It’s important to bear in mind that the base is vastly greater than both the elite and the thinkers combined.  It was the base that put Donald Trump in office.  It was the base that demanded that its elected representatives no longer kowtow to progressive/liberal bullying.  No GOP candidate can succeed without the support of the base.  And now, after Trump, the base knows its strength.  It can no longer be easily appeased.

The GOP’s current problems, I think, stem from George HW Bush’s first and only term in office.  They saw Bush, at least in part, as a betrayer.  “Read my lips, no new taxes.”  Bush raised taxes and lost to Clinton in 1992.  This would have been bad enough, but things rapidly grew worse.  The GOP base saw itself under constant assault, while Washington was dominated by Bill and Hillary Clinton and rapidly lost touch with the average American (or at least the average Republican).  Neither Bush nor Obama did much to fix this problem.  It is easy to argue they didn’t even try.  And so the sense of betrayal deepened with every broken promise, with every sneer emanating from Washington.  Why should the base trust an elite that had – in their view – betrayed them time and time again?

There were three factors, in particular, that should have been taken seriously.  First, there was growing economic insecurity.  Jobs were vanishing, dependent businesses were shutting down, opportunities were fading and the victims of this devastating tidal wave were shunned and mocked by the elite.  “Learn to code” was a stupid thing to say to people who were too old to be easily retrained.  It bred resentment, then hatred. 

Second, there was growing cultural insecurity.  This ranged from resentment at how flyover country was portrayed in Hollywood to a steady wave of lies and insults from the media and elites.  Famous institutions like the Boy Scouts came under attack, followed by threats to churches, attacks on gun rights and a steady stream of constant – maddening – nagging.  They concluded that, quite reasonably, every concession they made to progressive thinking rapidly led to more demands and more concessions.  Political correctness, for example, became a weapon to hammer the base.  And progressive unwillingness to confront – let alone share in – the darker effects of their polices only spurred hatred. 

Third, there was a growing hatred of the traitor elites and liberals/progressives.  The former were not representing the people who’d elected them.  Instead, they were growing fat on the gravy train.  The latter were – it seemed – constantly attacking the base.  When the people spurred themselves to act, they were pushed down.  The Tea Party movement was branded racist and grossly weakened.  People who had reasonable objections to social change were simply branded bigots and shouted down.  That did nothing for social harmony.

As Kurt Schlichter put it, ‘ Liberals Are Shocked To Find We’re Starting To Hate Them Right Back:’

“The left is shocked that the right has now stopped caring about the old rules, since for so long the left relied on the right to subordinate its human instincts and conform to those rules even when the left ignored them. We refused to stoop to their level, and for a long time, we were “better than that.” But you can only have one side being “better than that” for so long before people get sick of being the butt of the hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is poison not because it makes people stop knowing right from wrong, but because it makes its victims stop caring about right and wrong. Ben Jacobs got smacked around, and millions of us just don’t give a damn.”

Or, from a more thoughtful source:

We parents tell our children that when you know you’ve lost an argument or a race, the right thing to do is to be a good sport and to “get ’em next time.” But if there is no next time, or you know that every next time you are going to be in the loser’s lane again, what’s the use of being a good sport? It would make you look even more ignorant, and more like a loser, to pretend like you think you have a chance.  The game has been rigged against you. Why not piss on the field before you storm off? Why not stick up your finger at the whole goddamned game?”

It’s difficult to overstress just how bad things had become, by the time Donald Trump told the world he was going to stand for President.  The charge the Alt-Right levelled at the Trad-Right was that the Trad-Right had neither fought fire with fire or water.  There was enough truth in this for the movement to gain power.  Lack of faith in the media ensured that conspiracy theories took root and flourished.  Obama was a Manchurian Candidate!  He wasn’t an American citizen!  Vaccinations cause autism!  The government is going to take your guns!  Epstein didn’t kill himself!  If you don’t trust the media, why on earth would you trust what you were being told?

And if this wasn’t bad enough, you could be sure the craziest of the crazies would be the one on the nightly news, making the rest of you look crazy by association.

The three factors, and many others, led to a wave of frustration, desperation and a sense of bitter helplessness.  These emotions can be dangerous.  People who are dangerously frustrated (rightly or wrongly) can do stupid things.  The base was primed for a hero.  It wanted – it needed – someone who would lead it to power (or at least revenge).  It was prepared to overlook just about anything if it got it’s leader.  And it did.  Donald Trump.

These people weren’t evil.  They weren’t racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or whatever.  They were just fed up of being bombarded with emotional blackmail, of being told they were worthless, of being told they didn’t matter, of watching helplessly as their way of life died around them.  The relationship between the base and the elite was already dead.  Trump was merely the first person to understand it.

Trump’s genius lay in understanding the base’s legitimate aspirations and effectively pledging itself to them.  Trump stood up and said things the base knew to be true, even if it also knew anyone who tried to say them would be thumped by the media.  He promised them what they wanted – jobs and security, in particular – and they made him President.  Indeed, the more the media and political elites attacks Trump, the tighter his base clings to him.  Perversely, they have given Trump a ready-made excuse for failure.  If he succeeds, well and good; if he fails, he can blame traitor elitists like Nancy Pelosi, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  The fact that neither of the latter two are elitists is neither here nor there; they’re both anthemia to the base. 

This has interesting implications for the party’s future. 

The power shift to the base means that every GOP candidate, for the foreseeable future, will have to be populist.  This is not a bad thing, but – like everything else – populism can be dangerous if allowed to grow out of hand.  This may be good or bad for the rest of the United States.  The base is no longer interested in what it sees as pandering to minority interests and foreigners (a completely predictable result of identity politics).  

This will ensure, in some ways, that the GOP must fight tooth and nail to resist further progressive encroachment.  The base will argue that compromise merely begets surrender and it will have a point.  However, this will also lead to serious injustices; the natural result of one or both sides choosing to fight the culture wars to the bitter end.  It may also lead to serious mistakes.  The base was not prepared to tolerate weakness over the Brett Kavanaugh affair (particularly given how the charges were presented against him) and that could easily have gone badly wrong if Kavanaugh had been proven guilty.

And, of course, there will be the question of just what happens when Trump leaves office, either in 2021 or 2025.

The GOP needs to consider its future, not an easy task when there is so much distrust between the different factions.  In my view, the GOP must push for massive decentralisation of power; the giant federal education infrastructure, for example, must be dismantled and real power returned to local schools.  It must also work to get the base more politically involved, something that will be good for the party as a whole but very bad for the elite.  (Trump’s success threatens them as much as his failures.)  This will probably require term limits for politicians, which will – I think – prove massively popular. 

There are a number of other pieces of low-hanging fruit the GOP could pick up and use to aim for re-election.  A proud and unashamed defence of institutions like the electoral college.  Firm support for the rule of law, for example; a clear understanding that people should not be punished because of a social media storm, but actual proven criminal misdeeds.  Harsh sentences for ‘hate crime hoaxers.’  Strong opposition to censorship, in all shapes and forms; social media companies can either stay neutral or face the full weight of the law for anything illegal that slips through their filters.  A statue of limitations for social media posts.  Focus on Americans and unity, rather than Hyphenated-Americans and identity politics.  A strong stance towards integrating immigrants and immediate deportation of immigrant criminals. 

I think these will give the GOP an excellent chance of reshaping itself and remaining relevant after Trump’s departure, in 2021 or 2025.  But it will require the GOP to think about the future, to brave the wrath of the social media and commit itself to a whole new world. 

Trump is not the cause of the GOP’s problems.  He is not the cause of America’s problems.  He is the symptom of a problem that has not, as yet, been addressed.  How we cope with this problem may determine the future of far more than just the GOP – or America itself.


23 Feb

Hi, everyone

Good news first – I’m currently thirteen chapters into The Artful Apprentice (Schooled in Magic 19), in which Emily starts her long-awaited apprenticeship with Void.  I’m hoping to get the first draft completed by the first week of March, health permitting.  No cover yet, but it’ll be posted when I have it.

In related news, Alassa’s Tale will be released in audio on March 3rd.  I’ll post a link on the Facebook pace when it comes out.

Bad news – I’ve managed to cough my way into a sore throat.  It feels like I’ve damaged something at the back of my mouth … sigh.  Thankfully, it’s a relatively minor problem compared to the others I’ve had over the last two years.

Anyway, this is my planned schedule for the next few months.  No promises, as always.

March – Cast Adrift (new universe, yet another try to break into the higher levels of publishing.)

April – Knife Edge (The Empire’s Corps 17).  I decided on a direct sequel to Favour The Bold and do the side story later.

May – Oathkeeper (SIM20).  Emily will still be in her apprenticeship at this point.

June – Ark Royal 15.  The Lion and the Unicorn.

July – not sure – probably SIM21.



Musings on the Democratic Party’s Future

19 Feb

Musings on the Democratic Party’s Future

This is written from the other side of the pond, so feel free to tell me I’m wrong (as long as you say why I’m wrong.)  It was also written in a hurry so sorry for any mistakes.

If you lose at something – anything, from a football game to a war – and there are serious consequences for failure, you must hold a post-mortem inquest into why you lost, what mistakes you made and what you can do to fix them for next time.  You cannot lie to yourself.  You cannot afford to be blinded by your preconceptions when you’re picking up the pieces after a disastrous defeat.  You cannot allow yourself any sacred cows.  Everything you did – and failed to do – must be considered; your weaknesses, whatever they are, must be removed as quickly as possible.  If that means, for example, firing the person who bears the blame for the disaster, that is what you do.  You cannot allow sentimentality or self-interest to stand in your way.

It has been nearly four years since the Democratic Party lost an election it’s candidate – Hillary Clinton – was heavily tipped to win.  The defeat was shocking, unanticipated by the political and media elite.  (Those who did predict Trump’s victory were often shunned for daring to suggest things weren’t as rosy as they seemed.)  It should go without saying that the Democrats should have taken a good hard look at themselves, worked out what they did wrong and set out to fix the problems before 2020.  They did not.  Instead of an admission they screwed up, they have indulged in a three-year-long temper tantrum, a desperate series of attempts to blame Trump on everything from deeply-racist countrymen to the Russians, a pointed attempt to delegitimize Trump’s government and, most recently, an attempt at impeachment that anyone with a hint of political awareness knew wouldn’t do more than waste time.  In the wake of endless slanders and conspiracy theories, it was unlikely that anyone outside the echo chamber would be convinced.  Thanks to the Democrats, Trump has become immune to almost any charge that can reasonably be levelled at him.

And yet, the failure to consider what they what they might have done wrong in 2016 is entirely understandable.  Hillary Clinton was merely the tip of an iceberg of dysfunction, a political party that cannot admire fault – let alone failure – and is utterly incapable of reforming itself.  The Democratic Party is steadily tearing itself apart, even as it careens towards another general election.  2016 was Hillary Clinton’s to lose.  2020 is Donald Trump’s.

The root of this dysfunction, as I see it, is that the Democratic Party is divided into a number of de facto factions.  These factions are not, by and large, enshrined within the party’s formal structure.  There is a great deal of overlap between the groups.  That does not make them any less real, unfortunately, and it doesn’t stop them from casting a baleful shadow over the party’s proceedings.  Put crudely, they both hate each other and need each other.  As the cracks in the party grow bigger, the factions are starting to forget that they need each other, spurring what is – to some extent – a civil war.

The factions do not, as I have said above, exist as formal structures.  The ‘Elitists’ see themselves as a political and media aristocracy, positioned at the top of the system and in position to rule the rest.  (Their preferred candidate is Joe Biden.)  The Corporatists/Wall Street want stability above all (Bloomberg).  The Socialists want massive wealth redistribution (Sanders/Warren).  The Minorities want a bigger piece of the pie (uncertain – Yang or Warren?).  What complicates this is that the each of the four factions regards the others as its ideological enemies and, perhaps just as dangerous, the factions are not united themselves.  The Minorities are the most scattered of the four; African-Americans have different priorities to Asian-Americans, let alone homosexuals and transgenders.

This may require a little explanation.  The Elitists hate the Corporatists for wanting a say in how the money is spent, the Socialists for wanting redistribution and the Minorities for wanting to join the elite.  The Corporatists hate the Elitists for being massively out of touch (i.e. pushing for laws that harm the Corporatists), the Socialists for wanting redistribution and Minorities for demanding diversity and otherwise impeding corporate paradise.  The Socialists hate the Elitists for not delivering on their promises, the Corporatists for being money-grubbing capitalists and the Minorities for disuniting the faction.  The Minorities hate the Elitists because of years of broken promises, the Corporatists for doing as little as possible for minorities and the Socialists for not focusing on Minority interests. 

This would be bad enough, but it gets worse.  The Socialists believe – rightly or wrongly- that Bernie Sanders was cheated out of the nomination in 2016.  They’re on the alert for any signs of a second rigged nomination – and Iowa provided all the proof they could want.  Maybe it was a genuine stroke of bad luck.  It still looked bad.  (One of the weaknesses of the Elitists is that they honestly don’t understand how their actions are seen by people outside their bubbles.)  There are good reasons to be suspicious of the outcome, whoever wins the nomination.  The Socialists will probably not move to support anyone other than their preferred candidate if they think he’s been cheated again.

I’m not saying that any of them are right to feel this way.  I’m just saying that many of them do.

We might, therefore, end up with a situation like this:

  • If Biden wins the nomination, the Socialists will assume they were cheated and refuse to turn out for him.
  • If Bloomberg wins the nomination, ditto (only worse, perhaps, because of the money Bloomberg has been tossing around.)
  • If Sanders or Warren win the nomination, the Corporatists will probably throw their support to Donald Trump.
  • If there is no clear winner, the party will probably fracture.

This tends to lead to a bigger problem.  The Democrats are increasingly out of touch with the mood of the nation.  They’ve already lost most of the white working class.  They’re certainly losing a number of African-American and Hispanic voters, the former because of the broken promises and the latter because not all Hispanics are in favour of illegal immigration.  (The Elitists prefer to listen to academics and radicals.)  They propose projects that will give far more power to the government, while being both incredibly expensive and largely ineffective.  The only real winner out of Iowa is Donald Trump because he can say, quite rightly, that if they can’t program a simple app how can they govern the entire nation?

And even without that problem, none of the candidates appear to be remotely capable of bridging the gap and speaking to the entire nation.  They all have more baggage than an army of holiday-makers heading to Rome.  There isn’t one of them who’s invulnerable to all sorts of charges, all of which will be true (or at least true enough.)  Trump will have a field day when the candidate is finally selected.   He doesn’t have to be super-president to win.  He just has to be better than his opponent.

Because of this, they’ve resorted to slander instead of understanding.  They’ve blasted Trump’s voters as racists, sexists, etc.  That does nothing for their standing amongst those voters.  It also increases frustration amongst undecided voters who dislike Trump, but have to admit he’s better than whoever – finally – wins the nomination.  The simple truth is that people are tired of broken promises and endless insults.  They want change, real change.  And the Democrats are no longer capable of realising they have to change.

It’s not easy to see where the party can go from here.  The cracks in the edifice are growing larger.  They may be impossible to patch, even with an Obama-level candidate.  The denial there is a problem is making them worse.  Worse, perhaps, some of their ideas are dangerously unrealistic.  The suggestion that demographic change will create a permanent Democratic majority is probably untrue.  Indeed, it reflects the blindness of the elites:

            First, if the Republicans fear demographic change, they’ll push for steps to counter it.

            Second, as the newcomers integrate and grow more prosperous, they may no longer           give their vote to the Democrats.

            Third, as the newcomers get more numerous, they’ll start asking precisely why they            should support a political elite that isn’t them?

The crux of the problem is that the Democrats have lost touch with the majority of their voters (and undecided voters).  They don’t understand the challenges facing people who aren’t part of the elite.  They don’t grasp that vast numbers of Americans view socialism as a cancer.  They don’t realise that their actions are driving countless undecided voters to Trump – he may be a rump, but he’s better than the alternative.  And they don’t realise that they’ve lost most of their credibility in the last four years.  They have no room to claim there was a mistake, when something goes wrong.

And something will go wrong.  It always does.

The Democrats need to rejuvenate their party.  This means, at a minimum, discarding ancient elites and socialists and going back to the little men, pushing for localised social programs, improved schools and hundreds of other small projects that might improve their lives.  It means accepting, right from the start, that things have changed.  It means cutting down on government power.  It means giving the culture wars a rest and embracing, once again, calm and rational debate.  It means learning to accept that disagreement is part of life and people who disagree with you have a right to do it.

But I don’t think they will.  Because that would mean admitting that they were at fault and, perhaps worse, giving up their stranglehold on the party. 

And yet, the more they tighten their grip, the worse things will become.

(I can do one on the Republicans too if anyone’s interested.)

Snippet – The Artful Apprentice (Schooled in Magic 19)

17 Feb


“I don’t like it.”

Sergeant Miles resisted the urge to say something cutting as Lady Barb paced the office, her footsteps wearing a groove in the carpeted floor.  Lady Barb had always been the one to take action, the one who’d been prepared to do anything – no matter how dangerous – to accomplish her goals.  It was something they had in common.  Neither of them were the kind of person who’d be happy sitting back and doing nothing, even if it was the smartest thing to do.  They had to be doing something

But now, there was nothing they could do.

He watched as Lady Barb paced, finding himself – for once – at a loss for words.  He knew Lady Barb disliked – hated – Void.  She’d been his apprentice, once upon a time.  Miles wasn’t sure of the details, or why she’d left so abruptly, but no one would leave such an apprenticeship unless they had no other choice.  Lady Barb was neither incompetent nor stupid nor lazy.  She couldn’t have been dismissed for any of the usual reasons.  He didn’t think he wanted to know the truth.  It had to have been something bad.

“Emily shouldn’t be going to him,” Lady Barb insisted.  She turned to face him, her long blonde hair fanning out as she moved.  “There are others …”

“Like whom?”  Miles met her eyes, evenly.  “There are few others teachers who can prepare her for mastery.”

You could,” Lady Barb snapped.  “Or I could.  Or Irene or …”

Miles shook his head, curtly.  “I could make a combat sorcerer out of her,” he said.  “So could you.  But she wants to be more than just a combat sorcerer.  She hasn’t peaked yet.”

“There are others,” Lady Barb insisted.  “Hasdrubal is dead, but there are others.”

“Maybe,” Miles said.  “Hasdrubal would have been ideal.”

“And safer,” Lady Barb said.  “For everyone.”

Miles rubbed his forehead.  “Do you have the power to stop her from going to him?”

Lady Barb shot him a sharp look.  “Who’s side are you on?”

“Yours.  Emily’s.”  Miles looked back at her, calmly.  He loved her.  He really did.  But training and inclination forced him to state the facts as he saw them.  “The blunt truth is that there are few others who can prepare her for the future.  You can’t do it.  I can’t.”

“You took her to war,” Lady Barb reminded him.

“I know.”  Miles shook his head.  “The fact remains …”

“It isn’t safe,” Lady Barb insisted, cutting him off.  “And you know it as well as I do.”

Miles knew, without false modesty, that he was a patient man.  He’d schooled teenagers who thought they knew everything through the long and painful process of discovering they didn’t.  He’d handled aristocrats with egos the size of Whitehall itself; he’d dealt with commoners who barely had the self-confidence to raise their voices when confronted with their social betters.  He knew when to be stern and when to be encouraging.  It was more an art than a science and he knew he was good at it.  But there were limits.

“Emily doesn’t have any parents here,” he pointed out, calmly.  “Your … authority … over her vanished the moment you stepped back from teaching.  Her formal – legal – guardian is Void himself.”

“She’s more than old enough to put that aside,” Lady Barb snapped.  “It was a legal fiction from the start.”

“And one that’s proven damn convenient over the last six years,” Miles pointed out.  “How many people left her alone because they thought she was Void’s daughter?”

He pressed on before Lady Barb could try to answer.  “There’s no one, not even Void himself, who can tell her not to take the apprenticeship and make it stick.  And … who would?”

“Me,” Lady Barb said.

“You’re advising her not to take an apprenticeship that could turn her into one of the most powerful sorceresses in the world,” Miles said.  “This is an apprenticeship she wants to take.  She could have had her pick of masters, if she wished.  There isn’t a sorcerer who’d refuse to take her.  She’s chosen to study under Void and we need to respect that choice.”

“It could get her killed,” Lady Barb said.  “Or changed.  The person who emerges at the far end may not be the person we know and love.”

Miles cocked his head.  “Do you have so little faith in her?”

“You know as well as I do that he’ll put her in danger, just to see how she copes,” Lady Barb said.  “Void cannot be trusted.”

“There are people who say the same of you,” Miles said.  “And me.”

Lady Barb snorted.  “Absurd.”

“But true.”  Miles stood.  “I understand your concerns.  I’m sure you’ll ensure that she knows about your concerns.  But there’s nothing we can do.  She wants to study under him.”

“Hah,” Lady Barb said.

Miles nodded, curtly.  He’d known Emily for six years.  She’d been an odd student, even by Whitehall’s standards.  Miles hadn’t understood Emily until he’d learnt the truth about her origins.  No wonder she was a little strange.  And yet … there was no doubting her bravery, her skill at magic and, perhaps most importantly of all, a sense of simple human decency.  Miles had met many magicians he’d thought were going to go mad, getting themselves and others killed as they pushed the limits until they snapped.  Emily wasn’t one of them. 

“We can’t stop Emily from going to him,” Miles said.  “And if you push too hard, you may drive her away from you. She’s old enough to rebel against her parental figures.”

Lady Barb gave him a sour look.  “Do you have sisters?”

“I’ve taught students for over a decade,” Miles reminded her.  He’d never had many girls in his classes.  The ones who had studied under him had been so driven that they’d often outshone the boys.  “I am not entirely deprived of powers of observation.”

He smiled at her.  “Didn’t you rebel against your parents?”

“No.”  Lady Barb shook her head.  There was a hint of pain in her eyes.  “My father never said …”

She met his eyes.  “So … what do we do?”

“Be there for her,” Miles said.  He hugged her, tightly.  “That’s all we can do.”

“Yes.”  Lady Barb pulled back.  “And I’ll warn her to watch her back.”

“She can’t distrust her master,” Miles said.

“She must.”  Lady Barb reached for her cloak and pulled it on.  “You mark my words.  Void isn’t tutoring her out of the goodness of his heart.  He has an agenda.”

“You don’t know that,” Miles said.

“I do,” Lady Barb said.  “He’s up to something.  And Emily may find herself in serious trouble.”

Chapter One

“Welcome to Zugzwang,” Lady Barb said, as the teleport field faded.  “We’re only a short walk from the tower.”

Emily glanced at her, sharply.  The older woman had been unusually short-tempered as they’d travelled from Zangaria to Zugzwang, barely saying anything beyond commands and vague descriptions that meant nothing to her.  Emily could tell that something was bothering Lady Barb, but what?  She wasn’t sure she wanted to pry.  It could be anything from something simple to something life-threatening.

She looked around with interest as Lady Barb led her through the town.  It was the sort of place she’d have loved, if she had time to explore.  A cluster of shops – bookshops, apothecaries, general stores – dominated the centre, surrounded by a number of smaller houses and a single giant inn.  The people on the streets looked prosperous and happy, unlike so many other places she’d visited.  She smiled as she saw the schoolchildren heading to school, looking surprisingly enthusiastic.  The schoolmaster, standing by the door, nodded to them.  He looked more competent – and decent – than any teacher she’d known on Earth.

And the New Learning has made it here, she thought, as she spotted the letters and numbers carved into the wall.  Who knows where the children will go?

She said nothing as they kept walking, passing a single pub and a stagecoach centre.  Lady Barb hadn’t been entirely clear on how Zugzwang related to the local aristocracy, or even if there was a local aristocracy, but Emily could tell the townsfolk enjoyed a hearty degree of independence.  They wouldn’t have worked so hard if they thought there was a risk of being taxed into destitution at an aristocrat’s whim.  She looked towards the distant mountains, noting the absence of any large castles.  Here, so far from civilisation, the commoners could assert themselves.  She wondered if that would change over the next few years.  A dozen kingdoms were already building railways to link their towns and cities together.

Lady Barb pointed towards a handful of houses, slightly larger than the rest.  “There’s a small number of magicians here,” she said.  “You’ll probably meet some of them.”

Emily nodded.  Zugzwang wasn’t their final destination, but she’d been told it was traditional – Lady Barb had said it with a pronounced sneer – for apprentices to approach their master’s home on foot.  She suspected Void didn’t care about tradition any more than herself, but … she wondered, suddenly, if Lady Barb was deliberately wasting time.  They could have teleported a lot closer to the tower without ignoring tradition.  It was unlikely anyone would have noticed, let alone cared.

She said nothing as they left the town and headed up a stony path.  The landscape changed rapidly, becoming a valley heading further towards the mountains.  She could feel wisps of wild magic in the air, brushing against her senses.  The path didn’t look particularly well-trodden.  The more she looked at it, the more she thought it was a water-cut gully that could turn nasty if the rain started to fall.  She glanced at the clear blue sky, wondering just how often it rained.  She’d been caught in enough rainstorms, in the Cairngorms or along the Craggy Mountains, to know not to take them lightly.  It was very easy to get lost – or worse – in the gloom.

“The locals never come up here,” Lady Barb said.  “The mountains” – she jabbed a finger towards the distant peaks – “are forbidden.”

Emily took a breath.  “Forbidden?”

“There’s a lot of wild magic there,” Lady Barb said.  Her voice was curt, hard.  “Anyone who walks into the region doesn’t come out again.”

“I can imagine.”  Emily ran a hand through her long brown hair.  “Why does he live here?”

“You’ll have to ask him,” Lady Barb said, shortly.  “A person like him could live anywhere.”

She kept walking, forcing Emily to hurry after her.  It grew warmer as sunlight poured into the valley.  Emily felt sweat beading on her back, turning her dress into a sticky nightmare.  She cursed the lack of warning under her breath, wishing she’d had time to wear something a little more practical.  Void wouldn’t care if she turned up in trousers and a shirt, instead of a thoroughly impractical dress.  But he had made it clear he wanted her now.  She was mildly surprised he’d let her take the time to establish Heart’s Eye before summoning her.

And I had to leave it behind, Emily thought.  She trusted her friends to handle the university, as it started to grow into something real, but she wanted to be part of it.  Will I be able to go back for a visit?

She sighed, inwardly, as she mentally reviewed the notes on apprenticeships.  There were few hard and fast rules.  A master was supposed to give his apprentice a through grounding in his subject, but little else.  There were apprentices who were treated as children, she’d read, and apprentices who were treated as slaves.  There were masters who were kind and caring and masters who had no qualms about beating their apprentices bloody.  And there were no guidelines on just how long an apprenticeship should take.  Jade had completed his apprenticeship in a year.  Others … had taken five to ten years to graduate.

A prickle ran down her spine as she felt the background magic field grow stronger.  It felt oddly like the tainted sandstorms around Heart’s Eye, but far – far – kinder.  She felt almost as if she’d come home.  And yet, something was missing.  She looked around, trying to work out what wasn’t there.  It took her longer than it should have done to realise there were no animals shifting though the undergrowth, no birds flying through the sky, no insects buzzing from flower to flower.  There was no animal life at all.

“Nearly there,” Lady Barb grunted.  “Are you ready?”

Emily caught her breath.  “Yeah,” she managed.  She’d gotten a little out of shape over the past month.  Sergeant Harkin would have laughed at her – and then insisted on forced marches until she regained her muscle tone.  She promised herself, silently, that she’d exercise more over the coming months.  “I think so.”

“Good.”  Lady Barb stopped as they reached the top of the gully.  “Can you see the tower?”

She stepped aside to allow Emily to peer into the valley below.  It was immense, a green sea surrounded and concealed by towering mountains.  The sight took her breath away.  It was a whole secret valley, hidden from prying eyes.  A single tower stood in the exact centre of the valley, surrounded by rings of green.  Emily stared, trying to understand what she was seeing.  The tower was surrounded by grass, then a ring of trees, then more grass, then … her eyes narrowed as she saw the runes.  Void – or whoever had designed and built the tower – had landscaped the surrounding environment to create a web of subtle magic.  The tower might be completely invisible to anyone who hadn’t been invited.  She understood, now, why the locals had never discovered the valley.  It had been carefully hidden from them.

The tower itself looked … odd.  Emily couldn’t help thinking of a rook.  It seemed to vary in size, being both large enough to hold a small army and small enough to let her pick it up with her bare hand.  She’d seen the towers within the forests of Zangaria, the tiny fortresses designed to give the gamekeepers somewhere to rest their heads when they weren’t harassing poachers, but this … she frowned, trying to see though the haze.  The tower was impossible to see properly.  It looked as if part of the building existed in another dimension, somewhere the eye couldn’t see.

Which isn’t impossible, she reminded herself.  She’d been in plenty of buildings that were bigger on the inside.  He could build himself an entire TARDIS if he had the power and time.

Lady Barb stepped back, leaning against the stone.  “I can’t come any further,” she said, pointing towards a path leading down into the valley.  “You have to proceed alone.”

She sounded so curt that Emily knew something was wrong.  “Lady Barb …”

“You can call me Barb now, if you wish.”  Lady Barb smiled, but it didn’t touch her eyes.  “I’m no longer your tutor.”

Emily met the older woman’s eyes.  She’d never been the most sensitive to people emoting, but … she knew Lady Barb well enough to know she rarely shied away from anything.  There wasn’t much that could bother her, let alone stop her.  She practically defined ‘stiff upper lip.’

“Barb,” she said, carefully.  “What’s bothering you?”

Lady Barb said nothing for a long moment.  That was worrying.  Lady Barb had given Emily – and a number of other students – the talk without hesitation.  She’d had no trouble talking about subjects that would – and did – make Emily blush.  And she’d rushed into battle without hesitation.  No one became a combat sorceress unless they were brave.  Emily felt her heart sink.  Anything that could bother Lady Barb to the point she started to act like a surly teenager had to be bad.

“You shouldn’t be going to him,” Lady Barb said, finally.  “I don’t trust him.”

Emily bit her lip, lightly.  “Because of what he did to you?”

“He said, back when I was his student, that the ends justified the means.”  Lady Barb’s face went carefully blank.  “I’ve always found that the means make the ends.  You might start with noble intentions, you might think you’re doing the right thing, but – in the end – you jump right off the slippery slope.  It helps” – she smiled, sardonically – “if you’re not the one doing the bleeding.  Or the dying.”

“The path to hell is paved with good intentions,” Emily said, quietly.

“Yes!”  Lady Barb met her eyes.  “There aren’t many people out there who dance in glee at their own evilness.  There aren’t many people who openly rejoice at being bad people.  But there are millions of people who will cheerfully do something evil for their cause, telling themselves – all the time – that it’s perfectly fine.  Because it’s in a good cause.”

Emily wasn’t sure that was true.  She’d met a lot of people who seemed to be unpleasant merely for the sake of being unpleasant.  But … she scowled.  Many of them had thought they were entitled to take whatever they wanted, to loot, rape and kill to their heart’s content.  Or simply to be in charge because of who their parents had been.

“He’s one of them,” Lady Barb said.  “He thinks he’s doing the right thing.  He might even be right, from his point of view.  But he’s prepared to do awful things for his mission.  Missions.  He doesn’t let anything get in his way.”

She met Emily’s eyes.  “I know you like him.  I don’t blame you.  He saved your life.”

“He sent me to Whitehall,” Emily pointed out.

“Yes,” Lady Barb agreed.  “Now tell me … was he doing what was best for you, at the time, or merely getting you out of his hair?”

Emily felt a hot flash of anger.  “He didn’t have to send me to Whitehall.”

“No,” Lady Barb said.  “He didn’t.  But it got you out of his hair.”

“He could have done anything to me,” Emily said.  She owed Void for sending her to Whitehall.  “He could have left me to die.  Or thrown me out.  Or sold me to the slavers.  Or turned me into a … into anything.  He didn’t have to do anything.  But he sent me to Whitehall.”

“And it worked out for him,” Lady Barb said.  “Everyone thinks he has a daughter who’s changed the world.”

“It worked out for me too,” Emily said.  She’d felt sad, at the time, when Void had told her she had to go.  But, in hindsight, it had worked out perfectly.  “I can live with it.”

“I know.”  Lady Barb shook her head.  “Emily, I understand.  I know he did something good for you.  I know you want to think the best of him.  But I also know he moves people around like pieces on a kingmaker board.  He used me.  He might use you.  I’d be surprised if he hasn’t already used your reputation for advantage.  Having a daughter who killed one necromancer would be a huge asset.  How many necromancers have you killed again?”

“Too many,” Emily said.

“And everyone else would say not enough,” Lady Barb said.  She let out a heavy sigh.  “He taught me a lot.  I won’t deny it.  But he also used me.  He also put me in terrible danger.  And, in the end, he didn’t even fight to keep me.  He didn’t even care enough to badmouth me to everyone else.”

Emily blinked.  “Is that a bad thing?”

“Not for me.”  Lady Barb snorted.  “But … if a master-apprentice relationship fails, it isn’t uncommon for each of them to blame the other.  I certainly expected him to tell the world what a bad student I was.  Or, if the master is honest enough to admit it wasn’t the apprentice’s fault, I would expect him to say so.  Void said nothing.  No praise, no slander, no nothing.  I don’t think he really cared enough to bother.”

She held up a hand.  “I think he can do a good job, if he’s prepared to engage with you.  But I also expect him to have his own agenda.  You’re a priceless asset – far more than I ever was – and I expect him to find ways to use you.  And you may not like what he does.  And you may not like his arguments, afterwards.  And you …”

Her voice trailed off.  Emily said nothing.  She understood Lady Barb’s anger.  She would have found it hard to forgive if she’d been used as the bait, particularly if she hadn’t been told about and consented to the plan in advance.  And yet, Void had been nothing but good to her.  He’d saved her life, sent her to Whitehall, given her a chance to stand on her own two feet … he’d even saved her life again, back during the Tarsier War.  Dua Kepala would have killed her – or worse – if Void hadn’t intervened.  She had every reason to be grateful.

And I want to know what he can teach me, she thought.  She’d met hundreds of powerful magicians, from maddened necromancers to the Grandmasters of Whitehall and legendary figures from the past, but Void was in a class of his own.  He was practically a power in his own right.  There were nations that lacked his power.  I saw him using magics I can’t even begin to match.

“You’re terrifyingly innovative,” Lady Barb said, after a moment.  “And he’ll find a way to use that too.”

Emily nodded, stiffly.  The nuke-spell alone would be utterly disastrous in the wrong hands.  It was sheer dumb luck that no one had managed to work out what she’d done, let alone duplicate it.  And then there were the batteries, or the portable portals … her counterpart from the alternate dimension had even managed to create a portable teleport.  Emily knew it could be done, even if she didn’t know how.  She’d crack that problem eventually.  In a sense, she already had.

“He doesn’t have any right to demand my innovations,” she said, carefully.  “The Sorcerers Rule …”

“Doesn’t apply to anything you devise while you’re an apprentice,” Lady Barb warned her.  “He’ll want to know what you did, believe me.  And … there have been cases of masters stealing ideas and credit from their students.  Maybe you’ll be safe from that – everyone knows you’re brilliant – but you should still be careful.”

And half the ideas they credit me with inventing came from Earth, Emily thought.  Too many people already know there’s something odd about them.

She put the thought aside, meeting Lady Barb’s eyes.  “Do you want me to turn and walk away?”

“If it were up to me, then yes.”  Lady Barb looked back at her calmly.  “I don’t think this is going to end well.  I don’t think he can be trusted to put your safety first.  And … given the impact you’ve already had on the world, there’s a strong case to be made that he really shouldn’t.  You need to watch your back.”

Emily shivered.  “I know you don’t trust him …”

“I don’t,” Lady Barb said.  “He was a poor master.  His track record with apprentices is not great.  He has power and skill enough to awe anyone, even me, but … it isn’t that he’s a bad teacher.  It’s that he might well put you at risk for his own purposes.  Or worse.  You cannot afford to assume he has your best interests at heart.”

“I’ll be careful,” Emily promised.  “And I’ll keep in touch.”

“If you have the time.”  Lady Barb smiled.  “Apprentices are traditionally kept very busy.  I won’t be surprised if you don’t write to me.  But that won’t keep me from worrying.”

Emily reached forward and gave the older woman a tight hug.  “Thank you for caring, really.”

Lady Barb hugged her back.  “I do care,” she said.  “If things were different …”

She shook her head.  “I can’t take you any further,” she repeated.  “Go down the path, approach the tower and … good luck.  And watch your back.  Please.”

“I will.”  Emily let go of Lady Barb and stepped back.  “I’ll see you soon.”

“Yes.”  Lady Barb stepped back.  Magic gathered around her.  “I’m sure you will.”

There was a flash of light.  When it faded, Lady Barb was gone.

Emily stared at where she’d been for a long moment, her stomach churning.  She didn’t know what to make of the older woman’s warning, even though she knew it had been delivered in good faith.  She’d watch her back, but … she sighed.  There was no more time.

Turning, she started to make her way down the path and into the valley.

OUT NOW: The King’s Man (The Zero Enigma VII)

15 Feb

The City of Shallot is on the verge of revolution.  The Great Houses are mustering their forces, readying themselves for a shift in the balance of power.  The poor have found a new leader and are – finally – demanding their rights.  Shadowy figures and old ghosts are prowling the streets.  It is only a matter of time before the unease and unrest explodes into violence, as the wealthy and powerful seek to secure themselves in a changing world.  And dark forces are laying plans to take advantage of the chaos …

A newly-graduated student, the son of a proudly independent merchant, Adam Mortimer is recruited into the Kingsmen and charged with helping to track down the anarchists and terrorists before they trigger an explosion.  But, as he delves into the mystery, he finds himself caught between the scars of his childhood and his hopes for the future, loyalties tested as he finds himself caught between old friends and new.

And, as infernal devices begin to terrorise the city, Adam must risk everything to save the people he loves …

Download a FREE SAMPLE. then purchase here: Amazon USUKCANAUSBOOKS2READ

And read the Afterword (with links) here.

Start Small

14 Feb

Written in a moment of introspection

Start Small

If you read the Baen edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones, which I highly recommend, you will come across an afterword by Mike Williamson.  It’s well worth a read even if you don’t want to read the entire book, but I’m going to focus on a single paragraph:

Not every problem has to be solved right this moment, nor even within a given book or series, or in forty-two minutes plus commercials on the idiot box. Some issues are too large for an individual, and it really isn’t kind to whip up that kind of hope in a fragile youth, only to toss them into the depths or jadedness or despair too soon, when they realize it’s just not that easy in the real world.”

Now, there are people who will argue that a book should end with all the problems solved and the characters walking towards a new heaven and a new earth.  But that is unrealistic.  Small problems can be fixed relatively quickly.  Bigger problems take time, time and effort and understanding.  And if you give someone the impression that they can be fixed quickly, as Mike points out, they’re going to become angry when it turns out you’re wrong.

Society is the way it is because of a series of interlocking factors.  Some of those rest on human nature.  Others reflect economic or technological realities.  The underlying factors can be quite resistant to change, at least partly because things are relatively stable and altering the factors could lead to a rapid collapse into instability.  It is obviously difficult to effect any sort of positive change if you don’t understand the realities – or the point of view of someone who might resist you.  One might as well give a sick patient a series of random pills and expect him to get better.  He’ll probably die.

Over the last few years, there’s been an increasing number of people swearing to fight racism, sexism, economic inequality and other concepts that are often increasingly ill-defined.  I don’t fault anyone for being idealistic enough to want to make the world better, but how do they intend to do it?  Colin Kaepernick, for example, wanted to draw attention to racism in society.  It was a powerful statement, at least partly because he destroyed his career in order to do it, but what was his endgame?  How did he intend to translate his protest into something effective?  Did he accomplish anything at all?

This is true of many other protesters, all of whom seem to have embraced ‘underpants gnomes’ logic:

Step One – Call Attention To [Social Problem]

Step Two – ???

Step Three – Victory!

Many of these social problems are too big for individuals to tackle effectively.  Many of them have far more complex causes than the idealists think.  And so their efforts are – at best – useless and – at worst – counterproductive.  Kaepernick’s enemies had no trouble making the case that Kaepernick was an ungrateful so-and-so.  Fair or unfair, it lingered.

This leads to several problems.  Some people simply give up.  Others turn to political candidates who promise they can solve the problems if they’re given supreme power, blithely ignoring the simple fact that their programs will often cause more problems than they’ll solve (and that assumes they’re not just making promises to get into power).  And others just lose themselves in frustrated screaming, turning everyone else against them. 

But there’s a more practical approach to such problems.

You cannot solve a giant problem all by yourself.  You probably cannot solve a giant problem if you have an entire movement behind you.  But you can start small.  You can work to fix schools, you can work to fix social attitudes, you can work to fix your presentation so you don’t come across as a threat, a loon, a hypocrite or anything else that might turn people away from you.  You can open a food bank and help people who need it.  You can tackle the smaller problems and discover, perhaps, that some of the bigger problems simply go away.

Quick Update

9 Feb

Hi, everyone

Good news first – I’ve finished the first draft of The King’s Man.  There will be a degree of heavy editing – some betas didn’t like the main character so much, so I’ll be doing a little fiddling to soften him – but hopefully I should have it up for purchase in a week.  No promises, but … I’ll try.  

I’m operating on a reduced schedule for this week, editing aside.  I’m still coughing even though I’ve got rid of the flu.  It’s my son’s half-term so I’ll be spending a lot of it with him (and my other son.)  I hope to start The Artful Apprentice (SIM 19) on Monday. 


Cast Adrift: A Brief Outline of Alphan Earth

7 Feb

A bit of background material for an upcoming book …

From the point of view of the Alphans, the invasion and occupation of Earth was a relatively minor affair.  Nothing larger than a frigate was required to put down the first – and pitiful – bout of resistance the human race could muster, while there was no need to deploy a truly massive army to garrison every city and village on the planet.  The vast majority of the human race never saw an alien – outside information broadcasts – for decades after the invasion.

From the point of view of the human race, it was the greatest disaster since World War Two.  Humanity’s isolation from the universe – and conviction that it was effectively alone in the universe – ended in a single night of terror.  The utter futility of resistance left a scar on the human mindset for generations to come.  Pre-invasion governments might survive, in some shape and form, for nearly two centuries after everything changed, but they were subservient to alien viceroys.  The human race might have had new and seemingly boundless opportunities, as the invasion receded further and further into the past, yet they came at a price.  Humanity was nothing more than a subject race to alien masters.

Earth had been lucky, in a sense, that the solar system rested within a previously-impassable region of multispace.  It was not until two decades before the invasion that Alphan scoutships finally found a way to traverse the region, eventually emerging into realspace near Earth and surveying the planet.  Noting that Earth’s space program was too primitive to count as a real space program – which would have given the human race some rights, by galactic law – they spent twenty years quietly drawing up plans for the invasion.  The combination of hyper-advanced surveillance technology and a simple lack of awareness of their mere existence gave them an unbeatable edge.  By the time the invasion itself began, the Alphans knew the precise location of the vast majority of humanity’s nuclear weapons.  Microscopic bugs had been attached to humanity’s submarines, serving as targeting beacons for KEW strikes.  The invasion had been won well before the first shot was fired.

The invasion itself began at midnight, Washington time.  The handful of Alphan warships decloaked and systematically destroyed humanity’s network of orbital satellites.  (The ISS was spared as a museum piece.)  Even as the governments of the world screamed for information, the first KEW strikes were already inbound.  Humanity’s nuclear deterrent was effectively obliterated before missiles could be retargeted on orbital threats.  The handful of missiles that were launched – with one exception – were useless.  The orbiting warships were used to handling missiles that moved at a respectable percentage of the speed of light.  The incoming missiles simply couldn’t compete.  Finally, clean fusion devices were used to destroy a number of capital cities around the globe.  The Alphans intended to make it clear that humanity was effectively defenceless.

It worked.  There was little effective resistance as alien troops landed in the remains of the destroyed cities and established fortifications.  The handful of attacks mounted by human stragglers were rapidly and cheaply beaten off, sometimes smashed from orbit well before they reached their targets.  The lone human success – it was later established – was an accident.  A Pakistani submarine, operating on the assumption that Pakistan was fighting a nuclear war with India, launched its missiles at Delhi.  The aliens were unprepared for the attack and their foothold was effectively destroyed.  It was a tiny bright spot in a day of devastation and defeat.  (The Pakistani Captain would later become a hero to the Humanity League, even though it was clear he hadn’t known what he was doing.)

Despite this, it rapidly became clear to the surviving governments that further resistance was futile.  There was no hope of winning any significant victories, let alone driving the aliens back into space.  Chaos was already spreading as people fled the remaining cities, the economy collapsing into rubble.  Reluctantly, a string of governments accepted the alien demand for surrender.  The terms weren’t that bad, they told themselves.  They would still maintain a great deal of autonomy.  But Earth itself belonged to the Alphans.

They wasted no time in exploiting the planet.  Human tech couldn’t reach orbit, but it could function in space.  The Alphans funded settlements right across the solar system – they started terraforming Mars and Venus – in hope of turning the system into an economic asset.  Humans were recruited to work for their alien masters, both within the solar system itself and outside.  A surprising number of humans left the system entirely during the first century after the invasion.  There was no shortage of steady employment – at high wages, by human standards – right across the empire.  If nothing else, it rapidly became clear that humans were good at war.  Human sepoys started to appear on alien battlefields.

Earth itself was a mess during this period.  The vast majority of governments had either been significantly weakened or effectively destroyed.  Some parts of the planet did very well, particularly when they integrated alien technology into their societies.  Others collapsed into chaos.  The Alphans were largely unconcerned, unless it interfered with their goals.  They didn’t need to worry.  There might be millions of humans who hated them, but they couldn’t do much harm.  The Vichy governments – the name stuck – took the brunt of their hatred.

There were, in fact, four major rebellions over the first two centuries.  The first two – the Minuteman Rebellion in America and the Islamist Uprising in the Middle East and Central Asia – were driven by resentment at the changes the aliens brought in their wake.  It didn’t help that traditional societies were changing as the aliens insisted on modern education and other innovations.  Both uprisings failed, at least in part because they didn’t grasp just how advanced the alien surveillance technologies actually were.  The third rebellion was a bid by sepoy troops to seize control of an alien warship and vanish into multispace.  It remains unclear precisely what happened to them.  (The Alphans claimed the ship was destroyed before it could escape.)

The forth rebellion was a great deal more serious.  Humanity’s sepoy regiments were – technically – under alien command.  Those officers ranged from very competent to grossly incompetent, mingled with outright racism against their human (and other) subordinates.  The mutiny started as a spontaneous protest and rapidly grew into something nastier.  It was eventually put down, through a combination of savage fighting and a handful of concessions, but it left scars on both sides.  The Alphans were not prepared to give up Earth, but they had come to realise that humanity was more than just another client race.

They handled the situation by making a series of changes.  The Vichy governments were swept away, to be replaced by local councils and a planet-wide assembly.  Humanity would have a degree of say in its future, at least on Earth.  (Naturally, they rigged the selection process to ensure their loyalists had more say.)  The military was reformed, with sepoy regiments reorganised to ensure their officers were more aware of their subordinates.  This was not wholly successful – the Alphan Empire was more ossified than anyone cared to admit – but it was so much better than anything they’d had before that everyone was delighted.  Best of all, from humanity’s point of view, Earth was permitted to develop a defence force.  It was the dawn of a new age.

In some ways, it was.  Humanity moved further into the galaxy.  Human corporations flourished.   A surprising amount of GalTech was reverse-engineered and installed in human ships, which were often cruder but more efficient than their alien counterparts.  In others, it was deeply frustrating.  The Alphans continued to hold the reins of power.  Worse, there were technologies they were unprepared to share with their subordinates.  The enigmatic ‘black boxes’ – advanced navigational systems that made it easier to enter and leave multispace – remained a mystery.  Humanity, it seemed, would always be at a disadvantage.  That didn’t sit well with a growing number of humans.

Politically, things changed.  The local councils were dominated by local issues, but the assembly rapidly became something more.  Two political parties – the Empire Loyalists and the Humanity League – rose to power.  They were led by men who’d studied Alphan Law and knew how to manipulate it, allowing them to steadily carve out more power for themselves.  This didn’t sit well with the Earthers – Alphans and other Galactics living on Earth – and eventually led to a crisis.  Did humans have the right to serve as judges when Galactics were involved?   There was no good answer and the outcome – the answer was no – led to a rise in support for the Humanity League.  The Viceroy viewed this unwelcome development with alarm, but there was nothing he could do about it.  Earth was growing far too important to the Alphan Empire.  The Assembly kept growing – or mutating – into something new.  The only thing keeping the reformers in check was fear of a violent reaction.  The Alphans still had the legal right to intervene if they thought things were getting out of hand.

Unknown to most of the human race, the ‘human problem’ had already started a considerable amount of debate on the Alphan homeworld.  Humans were just too important.  They made up a sizable percentage of the empire’s groundpounders.  Worse, there were millions of humans scattered across the empire, many of them second- or third-generation immigrates.  It was certain they would eventually start to chaff at the limited opportunities and start demanding more.  And while they could – in theory – be deported, it wouldn’t be easy.  There were so many of them that trying to remove them all, or even a majority, would start a full-scale civil war. 

The matter was put to one side when the First Lupin War broke out.  It was, at least on the surface, nothing more than a series of tiny border skirmishes.  The Alphans regarded the conflict as a minor headache, unaware that their opponents were testing them.  Once they’d learnt what they wanted to learn – the weaknesses in Alphan warcruisers, the most powerful warships in the known galaxy – they pulled back and signed a peace treaty, then started to make their preparations for a more serious offensive.  The Alphans, with too many other problems to worry about, let the matter lie.  It was a deadly – near-fatal – mistake.

The peace lasted twenty years, long enough for the Lupines – as humans came to call them – to build up a new fleet and deploy more advanced weapons.  There were no skirmishes this time.  The war started with a sneak attack on an Alphan fleet base, followed by strikes deep into Alphan territory.  The first counterattack ended in disaster, with no less than forty warcruisers destroyed.  It looked as if the Alphans were going to lose a war for the first time in over a thousand years.  In desperation, they threw their human sepoy – and the ever-growing Earth Defence Force – into combat.  The humans held the line long enough to let the Alphans get back on their feet and prepare a final counter offensive.  Five years of hard fighting followed, but the outcome was no longer in doubt.  The Lupines lost.  Their empire was shattered beyond repair.

But the war had done immense damage to Alphan-Human relations.  The humans knew their masters were no longer invincible.  The hulks of destroyed warcruisers had proved that beyond all doubt.  Worse, they knew that they had won the war.  They wanted – they needed – to stand tall.  The Alphans found themselves unsure how to react.  They had authority, but not power.  They could crack down, yet find themselves fighting another war.  It slowly sank in – as they considered the situation – that they were in no state to fight even a short war.  They’d lost too many ships.  They didn’t have the time to rebuild.  And even if they fought and won, it could cost them everything.  They didn’t want to let go, yet – at the same time – they couldn’t afford to hang on.

Three hundred years after the invasion, Earth is still something of a patchwork world.  There are regions that have done very well out of the invasion, economic boom and so on.  There are also regions that are poor, with very little hope of dragging themselves up.  (A problem made worse by a brain-drain to space, deliberately encouraged by the government.)  GalTech has made things better, at a price (for example, everyone knows that every message sent through the datanet is subject to examination).  People have been studying the pre-invasion world, learning about history that is purely human.  (This has been something of a mixed bag.  The Alphans never carried out anything akin to the Holocaust, something they have never hesitated to point out.)

Ethnic tension remains a problem, although the Alphan willingness to crush ethnic and religious movements with extreme force has kept most of the tension underground.  (It helped that the Alphans blatantly didn’t care who was right or wrong.  They applied the same rules to everyone.)  Many pre-invasion societies have been disrupted beyond repair, at least in part to the education system teaching everyone the same set of rules.  Others have been making a comeback, at least in the more isolated regions of the planet.  No one is quite sure what to make of them – or what to do, if they become a serious problem.

The Assembly remains dominated by the Empire Loyalists and the Humanity League, although there are a handful of smaller parties that might shift the balance of power if the bigger parties find themselves in desperate need of votes.  The Empire Loyalists want to remain part of the Alphan Empire (although many of them think humanity should have a bigger say in the empire’s government).  The Humanity League wants independence, though it is prepared to compromise to some degree.  The Empire Loyalists have a slight edge – their supporters fear the consequences if Earth leaves the Empire – but it isn’t solid.  There are too many people who want humanity to be rewarded for its services in the war.

The Solar System is densely populated, with massive settlements on just about every body of significant side.  Humanity’s industrial base may be crude, but huge.  Outside the solar system, humans are the majority on seven worlds in a loose cluster surrounding Earth; there are also major human populations on numerous worlds in and out of the empire.  Human traders can be found everywhere within explored space, although they are not always welcome.  There are persistent rumours of human mercenaries working for other alien races, even suggestions that there are human ships heading into unexplored space or setting up hidden colonies a long way from their masters.  The truth of such rumours has never been established.

And now, three hundred years after the invasion, humanity sits on a knife edge …

The Readers Want To Read

6 Feb

The Readers Want To Read

A bit of a ramble, but I think it’s a valid point.

One of the things I have given some thought to, as my career has developed, is ways of increasing reader participation.  I’d like to have a self-sustaining community of readers following me – I can dream, can’t I?  What do you mean, no?  <grin>.

It isn’t easy.  Most of the things I could do to improve reader interaction would require me to take time away from actually writing.  I could name a couple of authors who spent more time writing articles than developing their work, finishing their ongoing novels and suchlike.  It works in the short term – sometimes – but readers slip away when they decide the writer isn’t going to finish the much-promised book.  And the days when I could afford to spend all of my time on the internet are long gone.  I have family responsibilities now.  Someone being wrong on the internet is no longer a world-class emergency <grin>.

The more practical problem, however, is that the vast majority of readers don’t want to do anything more than read.  They don’t want to do anything more.  My most successful book – Ark Royal – has sold over 120K copies.  However, it only has around 2000-3000 reviews on Amazon US/UK.  (I say around because the system doesn’t seem to draw any line between ratings and actual reviews.)  The reviews range between ‘great book’ to ‘what was Nuttall drinking when he wrote this piece of crud?’  But only a small percentage of readers bothered to leave any sort of review at all.

By my estimate, only 1-10% of readers leave a review (positive or negative).  Smaller percentages follow me on Amazon, or Facebook, or my blog. The percentage of people who engage with my posts is a tiny fraction of my readers.  And I think this is true for the really big authors too.  The Harry Potter community fandom is huge, but it’s only a tiny percentage of people who actually bought and read the books.  There’s a vast number of people who don’t want to write fan fiction, argue over Rowling’s politics … or do anything, really, beyond reading the books.

This has led me to a conclusion that flies in the face of common wisdom amongst the chattering (and shouting) classes.  The woke throw fits at the merest hint of cultural appropriation, characters who don’t match the author’s race/religion/nationality/whatever.  Judging by the amount of shouting on the internet, every time one of these teapot-tempests arises to poison the well still further, this is deadly important.  The merest hint of cultural appropriation – or whatever – is a crisis.  The author has committed an unpardonable sin.

Really?  I think – based on my experiences as both a reader and a writer – that the vast majority of the readers simply don’t care.

Think about it for a moment.  You go to a bookshop – or a library or Amazon or wherever – and you find a neat-looking book.  The cover could be anything from exploding starships to magic girls in fancy outfits.  The blurb promises action and adventure (or whatever floats your boat.)  And the author … you’ve never heard of him.  You don’t know anything about him.  Are you going to spend an hour researching him on the net, tracking down his bio and tweets and whatever?  Or are you just going to take the book home and read it?

The vast majority of readers will take the book home and try it.  I don’t think there are many readers, relatively speaking, who will waste time trying to decide if the author is worthy of their time.  Believe me, anyone who does that isn’t a true reader.  The readers will read the book and decide if they like it.  If they do, they’ll keep an eye out for more books by that author.  If they don’t … no harm, no foul.

This has implications that go a lot further than one might suppose.  Fiction is, by definition, fiction.  The average reader does not care if the writer of a book set in Imperial China – with or without the serial numbers filed off – is Chinese.  They don’t care if the writer visited China and researched extensively, or used the internet, or simply made his facts out of whole cloth.  They just ask to be entertained.  They don’t particularly care about accuracy.  Indeed, in some ways, excessive accuracy can detract from the story.  A massive infodump can break up the flow of the story.

Right now, there are people making a fuss about a novel called American Dirt.  Much of the fuss about it, as far as I can tell, rests on the fact the author isn’t Mexican herself.  I don’t believe the vast majority of readers care about the author.  They don’t care about her personally; they don’t care where she was born, or where she was raised, or practically anything about her.  The only thing they care about is the story itself.  Is it any good?

I keep hearing about writers being declared ‘problematic’ for one reason or another and it always makes me roll my eyes.  I am a reader.  I’ve read – and enjoyed – books by authors who disagree with me about politics, religion and just about everything else.  I don’t care about an author’s politics (or whatever).  If I like their books, I read them.  If not … there are plenty more books on the shelf.

And when someone comes to me and says ‘this author is bad, you shouldn’t read them and no one else should either’ my hackles rise.

Everyone is entitled to their opinions.  They’re not entitled to have their opinions treated as gospel truth.  (If you want to convince me of something, you actually have to convince me).  I know a gay man who complains about women writing slash fiction.  He claims the women – who aren’t gay men – keep getting it wrong.  Is he right?  I don’t know.  Maybe someone from a minority community can do a better job of writing a character from such a community than an outsider.  There’s a strong case to be made that that is actually true.  But trying to ban outsiders from writing such characters merely poisons the well.

Remember what I said about the readers not caring?  They don’t, by and large, know if there’s any author-related controversy unless someone points it out.  They might not take the controversy very seriously, even if someone does point it out.  What looks serious to the woke might be pointless to everyone else.  Or they might reason that they learned to love the author before the truth came out and they can hardly be blamed for not knowing something that was common sense at the time.  Or they might see the controversy as an unwelcome intrusion into their reading time and ignore it.  Why should they not?

The readers just want to read.  And they’ll pay no attention to someone who presumes to scold them.  And that, if you ask me, is a good thing.

Review: Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter

4 Feb

Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter

The key to understanding the popularity of graphic novels like Asterix and TinTin – and also books like the Hardy Boys – is that they combine characters who are largely kids themselves with an adult world that takes them (more or less) seriously.  On one hand, Asterix is clearly drawn to resemble a child in his early teens – he’s easily the shortest character in the series who isn’t an actual child – but, on the other hand, he’s the foremost warrior in the village, a guile hero who outsmarts his enemies as much as he beats them with his fists and a member of the village council.  TinTin is drawn to look like his in his mid-teens – he’s often referred to as the ‘boy reporter’ – yet he’s treated as an adult by just about everyone.  Such characters work, at least in part, because they combine adulthood with childhood.  Children can pretend to be them without any adult issues to gross them out.

This leads to some awkward issues when the opposite sex is introduced.  Sex itself does not feature in such books.  The main characters either shun female company – the relationship between TinTin and Captain Haddock is a male friendship, not a romance – or find it unwanted.  In TinTin, the only female character of note is Bianca Castafiore and she is a guest star rather than one of the main characters.  In Asterix, the hero finds himself locking horns in one story with a female bard (who, if the genders were reversed, would certainly be guilty of sexual harassment at the very least.)  The story highlights double-standards and the general unfairness of life, tropes that would have been very important to the target audience in many ways.  People outside the target audience tended to accuse the writer of sexism.

But, generally speaking, romance doesn’t really exist within the series.  The characters, whatever their actual age, remain suspended in early adolescence.  It’s why they appeal to preteen boys.

Asterix and the Chieftain’s Daughter turns all that on its head.

The basic plot is fairly simple.  The remnants of the Gaullist resistance have been sheltering Adrenalin, the daughter of Vercingetorix, ever since the disastrous defeat at Alesia.  Now, the Romans are closing in on her and there’s only one place she can be safe.  Britain?  America?  No, the unnamed village that plays host to Asterix and his friends.  The problem, however, is that Adrenalin doesn’t want to be a figurehead for the resistance.  She wants to run away, which is fraught with danger as the Romans, the pirates and a small horde of traitors want her for themselves.  Asterix is assigned to look after her, a mission that rapidly turns sour when Adrenalin befriends the other teenagers in the village and they try to help her escape.

On the face of it, the story has potential.  There are many funny moments and a handful of new characters (including the teenage sons of the village fisherman and blacksmith, neither of whom were mentioned before).  However, it falls apart when Asterix is used as a wholly adult character.  His role in the story is to be both adult and child.  Here, he’s the old fogy, the stick-in-the-mud, the person who tries to keep the kids from doing what they want to do.  It’s not a good role for him and it weakens the story.

The story also suffers because of Adrenalin herself.  It’s entirely understandable why she wants to run away – everyone treats her as a thing, rather than a person – but she also comes across as a selfish little brat.  She doesn’t want to carry on her father’s legacy, either with the resistance or by joining Julius Caesar’s family (Brutus gets a nice line about not being one for families … while sharpening a dagger, naturally).  The story even implies the resistance won’t have any trouble finding another figurehead, which suggests they didn’t need to bother with Adrenalin.  But, at the same time, the Romans were hardly going to let her travel freely.  The resistance leaders had a very good point when they insisted she needed to be protected. 

The story might have worked better, I suppose, if Adrenalin had talked Asterix into waging war on Rome, leaving the older villagers to be the voices of adult reason.  But this would have required Asterix to be separated from the adults … again, weakening the character. 

Overall, the story is definitely a mixed bag.  There are plenty of good moments.  It’s amusing to see the two teenage boys insisting on swapping roles and apprenticing with each other’s father, rather than carrying on the family trade.  The artwork is good, although not perfect.  But the overall story weakens the main characters and has too many references to modern-day things that will leave the story outdated fairly quickly.  It isn’t as bad as Asterix and the Falling Sky, but it’s no Asterix in Britain either.