Archive | March, 2020

Quick Update – and Cover Reveal

31 Mar

Hi, everyone

It’s been a maddening couple of weeks.  You never quite realise what you have until it’s gone – in this case, the freedom to walk around, send the kids to school, etc.  I’m not supposed to go out unless it’s really urgent – as I’m immunocompromised – so really I’ve been stuck inside for the last few days.  A sizable number of medical appointments that would have been important last month have now been cancelled.

On the plus side, I’ve completed 31 chapters of Cast Adrift and approved the cover for The Artful Apprentice.  It’s currently being edited, so I’m hoping to do the edits next week and then have it in your hands.  I’m going to write a short story next – Nanette’s Tale – that will fill in some of the blanks in Schooled in Magic, without – hopefully – throwing off the story too much if the next volume of Fantastic Schools is delayed. 

I hope you’re all keeping well.


SIM: The Spread of the New Learning

25 Mar

A couple of people insisted that the new technology introduced by Emily, the New Learning, had advanced and spread faster and further than it should have realistically done.  Obviously, there’s plenty of room for debate here, but there’s quite a few factors powering the New Learning that may not have been taken into account.

One – The Nameless World is not full of medieval morons.  The cities – and the city-states – attracted vast numbers of runaway serfs and peasants who were willing to work hard to build lives for themselves that didn’t include toiling in the field for minimum reward.  There was a reservoir of highly-intelligent people, many of whom became craftsmen, merchants and even accountants/scribes.  The guilds did try to keep certain items of knowledge to themselves, particularly the various forms of writing, but their system was always leaky.  Ironically, many of the people they deprived of learning had to stretch their muscles to keep up – if you are forced to remember thousands of characters, remembering 26 is a snap. 

Two – Emily’s innovations did not come from her mind.  She didn’t invent them.  She knew how to use a mature system consisting of 26 letters and 10 numbers (plus various signs and marks).  The system had already had most of the kinks worked out by the time she learnt to read <grin>.  She had no trouble, therefore, teaching the system to her friends; people who wanted to copy it had no trouble stealing the system and spreading it far and wide.  The local rulers couldn’t do anything to stop it before it was already too late. 

Three – Emily ‘designed’ items she could either remember how to make in rough form or reason out the basic principles.  These ideas were forwarded to the reservoir of highly-intelligent craftsmen – see point one – who took the concepts and worked hard to make them work.  Unlike the inventors in our world, who had no way to know if they were heading towards something workable or simply wasting their time, they knew – through Emily – that there was something waiting for them at the far end.  The early steam engines were leaky jokes, for example; they knew to keep working until they had far more effective systems.

And none of these inventions could be effectively copy-righted.  A smart apprentice could memorise the design, then go elsewhere and start churning them out for himself. 

Four – Emily ‘accidentally’ triggered off something of an arms race, when gunpowder was developed and the first basic gunpowder weapons were demonstrated.  Again, the inventors knew there was something to find if they worked hard to develop new weapons.  Kingdoms that refused to experiment with firearms knew they’d lose out, when their rivals developed firearms for themselves; city-states knew that failing to develop firearms might lead to destruction when the nearby monarchs declared war.  There was no hope of putting the genie back in the bottle – states that tried simply lost inventors to other states. 

The combination of the four factors sparked off a whirlwind of innovation, an endless series of competitions to devise the next great thing before it was rendered obsolete.  

Don’t make of this more than it is.  There are railways, but it will be years before the Allied Lands are linked together as comprehensively as Britain or Europe.  There are places that have not – yet – been touched by the New Learning.  The really interesting developments are yet to come. 

Updates – And Stuff

22 Mar

Hi, everyone

Bad news first – I attended a scan on Friday and it turns out I have gallstones.  This is, of course, a very galling development <groan>.  But at least I know the cause.  It could be a lot worse – I was afraid the cancer might be coming back.

Good news – I’ve just done the first set of edits for The Artful Apprentice, which is Schooled in Magic 19.  It should be on the way to the other editor right now, so hopefully it won’t be long before you can download it. 

I’ve also got a short story in When Valor Must Hold, set in an unexplored section of the Zero universe.  

Speaking of which, I’ve worked out the rough outline of The Family Name, a story that concludes Akin and Isabella’s storylines and sets the groundwork for the really big trilogy.  I’m planning to alternate between two POVs, which I’ve never tried before.  We’ll have to see how it works.  And I’ve sketched out an updated outline of Oathkeeper (SIM20). 

And tomorrow’s my birthday.  What a shame we can’t go out.

Edinburgh is eerie at the moment.  The schools are closed (except for key workers – my son’s school seems to keep changing its mind about having the kids tomorrow.)  The supermarket was depleted rather than emptied completely, but there were people on the streets and suchlike.  Sigh.  And I was treated to yet another display of why people hold the government bureaucrats in total contempt – the supermarket wouldn’t let me buy both baby-medicine and adult medicine, even though they were clearly for different people.  Limits on painkillers made very little sense before the crisis – seriously, I could just walk up the street and buy enough to do very real harm if I wanted – and even less now.  And then people wonder why no one takes the bureaucrats seriously.

But that’s something to consider at a later date.

I hope you’re all keeping well. 


Snippet – Cast Adrift

16 Mar

Hi, everyone

Cast Adrift is, in one sense, a new universe.  In another, it’s a reprise of a far earlier trilogy I wrote – When The Empire Falls – which I thought wasn’t worth the effort of rewriting when I started to break into writing.  The basic idea is that, 500 years or so ago, Earth was conquered by an alien empire and forcibly integrated into the galactic mainstream … an occupation that is now coming to an end, as the overlords simply can’t afford it.  (Think Roman Britain or British India rather than Vichy France or Vietnam.)  Earth is given its independence and cast out to do whatever it likes, unaware that there are predators waiting in the shadows …

You can find the original (very different plot) here –

Prologue I

Washington was burning.

The President of the United States gritted his teeth in helpless humiliation as Marine One skirted the edge of the disaster zone, heading remorselessly towards what remained of Andrews Air Force Base.  Giant pillars of eerie yellowish smoke rose from the ruined city, casting a sinister light over the countryside.  The haze was so thick he couldn’t see the heart of the city, although he knew it was nothing more than a blackened ruin.  The White House was gone.  The Pentagon was gone.  Congress and the Senate and everything else within five miles of the White House … all gone.

His stomach churned.  A day ago, he’d been the most powerful man in the world.  His country had been the most powerful country in the world.  He’d looked to a future of boundless optimism, a chance to make his legacy as one of the great presidents of his century … he’d even regretted, deep inside, that he wouldn’t face a crisis that would ensure his name was forever praised or damned.  The world had seemed safe and predicable …

… Until the aliens arrived.

The President still couldn’t believe it.  He’d been lucky – or unlucky – enough to be out of the city when the aliens had announced their presence, when they’d systematically wiped out the satellite network, dropped kinetic projectiles on most of the navy and, just to make it clear the planet had new masters, nuked Washington DC.  International communications had been shattered, practically effortlessly, but intelligence reports suggested the aliens had also nuked London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing and five or six other cities.  Not knowing burned at him as much as anything else.  He’d grown far too used to having information permanently at his fingertips to make it easy to handle the fog of war.

And the nukes are gone, he thought.  It was brutally clear that the US nuclear deterrent was no more.  The ground-based missiles had been hammered from orbit, the nuclear-capable aircraft had been wiped out and the submarines were out of contact, presumed sunk.  What few missiles they’d been able to fire at the orbiting spacecraft had been swatted down so casually that it was clear the aliens were used to much faster missiles.  There’s no way we can hit back.

Marine One shuddered, again, as it started to descend.  The aliens hadn’t landed everywhere, if the reports were to be believed, but they’d dropped troops around Andrews AFB and set up defences.  The hastily-organised counterattack, drawing on a combination of soldiers, marines and national guardsmen, had been effortlessly smashed.  The President wanted to believe that armed civilians and the remnants of the military would be able to wear the aliens down, but the surviving joint chiefs had made it brutally clear that further resistance would be utterly futile.  The aliens controlled the high ground.  They could bombard humanity into submission, while remaining outside the range of humanity’s remaining weapons.  They’d shown a frightening – utterly terrifying – lack of concern for human casualties.  Millions of people had already died, all over the globe.  They could simply keep dropping nukes until the human race surrendered.

The President stared, feeling too numb to care as he saw the alien shapes orbiting over the airfield.  Alien fighters … he’d seen the reports.  The USAF had sent F-22s and F-35s against the alien craft, only to watch the jets casually blasted out of the sky.  There had been no survivors.  His eyes narrowed as he saw armoured shapes – armoured combat suits and small hovertanks – moving around the edge of the base.  The nearby civilian housing had been turned into rubble.  He thought he saw refugees heading south, trying to reach a safety that no longer existed.  The country was steadily sinking into chaos.  It had only been a day – a day, his mind screamed – and America was already damaged beyond repair.  He shuddered to think how long it would take to restore some semblance of normality …

His skin crawled as he saw the figures gathered by the runway.  No, things would never be normal again.  It wasn’t just a crisis, not any longer.  It was the new reality.  The human race had believed, truly believed, that it was alone in the universe.  The President had read the reports dismissing the very concept of alien life, insisting that even if aliens existed they’d never be able to reach Earth.  There had been no truth, he’d been told, in any of the UFO reports.  Grey-skinned aliens did not abduct humans for anal probing.  The witnesses were hoaxers, or drunk, or simply misunderstood what they saw.  Aliens simply did not exist.

And yet, they did.  The figures weren’t human.  They were … just wrong.

The helicopter touched down with a bump.  The President watched the crew spin down the rotors before they opened the hatch.  He wanted to draw a gun and open fire, he wanted to carry a nuke into the very heart of alien power … he knew, all too well, that it was impossible.  The aliens would shoot him down in seconds and go on to make their demands to his successor.  He wasn’t even sure who that was.  The Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives had both died in Washington.  There had been no reason to think the United States needed a designated survivor.  The Secret Service was working frantically to discover who was alive, let alone where they stood in the line of succession.  Too many government officials had been in Washington when the bomb fell.  They were missing, presumed dead.  The President had a nasty suspicion the aliens had planned it that way.

He stood, feeling his legs shake.  He’d made innumerable diplomatic visits, during the course of a long career, but this was different.  This was surrender.  The President’s heart wanted to fight to the last; the President’s head knew a prolonged conflict would end in the destruction of the human race.  He felt a wave of heat brush across his face as he clambered out of the helicopter.  The aliens watched him, silently.  He stared at them.  All, but one were concealed behind powered armour.

The unarmoured alien was … alien.  The President shivered.  The alien was slightly taller than himself, with reddish-orange skin, bulbous eyes and a mouth that was curved in something that looked like a faint sneer.  He – the President assumed the alien was a he – had no hair, no ears.  He wore a blank tunic that seemed completely unmarked.  He …

“Mr President,” the alien said.  His English was oddly-accented.  “Have you accepted our terms?”

At least they’re not making me wait, the President thought, savagely.  Damn them.

“Yes,” he said.  The shame of surrender washed down on him as the words hung in the air.  “We do.”

“Then we bid you welcome to the galactic community,” the alien said.  “Come.  We have much work to do.”

 Prologue II

No human had ever set foot within the council chambers.  No human ever would.  They were reserved for the Alphans and the Alphans alone, for the very highest of their species.  Even the servants were Alphans, a sign of wealth and power on a scale most sentient beings would have found unimaginable.  No aliens – not even the few races the Alphans considered their equals, or their servants – were ever invited into the chamber.  It was the very core of Alphan power.

Yasuke, Viceroy of Earth, took a deep breath as he stepped into the chamber.  The invitation would normally have been the very pinnacle of his career, a promise – in so many words – that the ruling elite respected and trusted him.  He had never had any doubt they cared for him – the core council cared for everyone – but respect and trust?  That had been denied, until his invitation to visit the elite in the seat of his power.  There was no greater honour for someone who hadn’t climbed to the very top of the ladder. 

There was no formal protocol for greeting the core councillors.  He bowed once, in salute, then looked around the chambers as the councillors studied him thoughtfully.  Massive holodisplays dominated the room, showing a mixture of views from the tower to live feeds from right across the empire.  A newscaster was babbling about something in tones of great excitement, as if the broadcast was live.  Yasuke knew better.  The news broadcasts would have been cleared through a dozen different committees before going live.  Events had probably already moved on.  He made a mental note to check the government network before he boarded his ship.  He’d need to know if something – anything – had happened that might change the core council’s policies before he could put them into practice.

He kept his face impassive as the live feed panned across a gleaming white tower.  The city was dominated by white towers, each one housing hundreds and thousands of Alphans from birth to death.  Their every need met by the government, they lived and died without ever making an impression on the universe.  Even now, even after the empire had come closer to defeat than ever before, the population seemed unmoved.  They didn’t realise – not yet – that they’d built their towers on sand.  They didn’t realise that the servile population was no longer content to be servile.  None of them even understood how close they stood to total disaster.

We built our empire on alien labour, Yasuke thought.  And now those aliens want a piece of the pie for themselves.

He turned his attention back to the councillors as the chairman called for attention.  There were nine in all, nine people who controlled the destiny of the entire empire.  They were wealthy and powerful beyond compare, yet – now – there were limits to their power.  It had always been true, he admitted in the privacy of his own mind, but the vast majority of the population preferred to believe in the council’s omnipotence.   There were very few races that would have stood in the way, if the council decided it wanted something.  But now, the empire was tottering and the scavengers were gathering.  The war had smashed forever the perception of invincibility.  It had been won, but the cost had been far too high.

The chairman’s voice echoed in the silence.  “Viceroy.  You wished to speak to us about the humans.”

“Yes,” Yasuke said, flatly.  “The human problem is growing out of hand.”

He waited for the nod, then proceeded.  “Five hundred years ago, we invaded and occupied Earth.  We assimilated the humans into our empire.  Humans worked for us – work for us – on almost all of our worlds.  We trained them to fight for us, we taught them to use modern technology, we encouraged them to build up a sizable industrial base of their own.  They are no longer a first-stage race, if indeed they ever were.  There is a strong case to be made that, five hundred years ago, they were actually a second-stage race.”

“Absurd,” a councillor snapped.  “They had barely even reached their moon!”

Yasuke frowned, inwardly.  He’d spent much of his adult life on Earth, climbing until his word was law right across the Sol System, but he couldn’t say he truly understood his human subjects.  It baffled him that the humans, given rockets and surprisingly advanced computer technology, hadn’t settled their star system by the time the first explorer vessel popped out of the crossroads and advanced on Earth.  If they had, they would have qualified for a certain degree of respect.  They certainly wouldn’t have been summarily crushed and assimilated, weather they liked it or not.  Instead, they had been too primitive to offer meaningful resistance when the invasion force arrived.  Galactic Law was clear.  Primitives had no rights.

And yet, they’d been strikingly advanced in other ways.  Their computer technology had been second-stage, at the very least.  They’d envisaged uses for GalTech long before they’d realised they weren’t alone in the universe.  Their political systems and philosophical background had been astonishingly advanced, in some respects.  It was almost as if they’d started advancing to a post-scarcity level without truly being a post-scarcity society.  And then their development had come to a screeching halt.  The invasion had ensured they no longer controlled their world.

“The fact remains, honoured councillor, that the situation is getting out of hand,” Yasuke said, coolly.  “If you’ll permit me to elaborate …

“The humans have been growing restless over the last hundred years.  They increasingly see themselves as our partners, not our subjects.  They have been offended, massively, when we have moved to put them back in their box.  The rise of human political parties demanding equality, or even independence, is a direct result of our meddling.  And now, without them, we would have lost the war … and they know it.  Their demands for greater autonomy can no longer be denied.”

“Of course they can,” the councillor insisted.

“My staff believe the Humanity League will win a majority in the Sol Assembly, displaying the Empire Loyalists,” Yasuke stated.  “The Empire Loyalists themselves are demanding some form of reward for their loyalty.  If we fail to come through, their assemblymen may defect to the Humanity League.  That might well trigger an early election or a series of by-elections that will put power in the wrong hands.  And if that happens, honoured councillor, we will have the flat choice between agreeing to concede independence and risking a war that will rip the empire apart.”

A ripple of disbelief ran around the chamber.  Yasuke understood, better than he cared to admit.  The councillors might never have laid eyes on a human, even one of the uncounted millions who lived and worked on Capital itself.  They’d certainly never studied the human race.  Why should they?  There was no one on Capital who cared about human history, beyond a handful of dusty academics?  But Yasuke couldn’t allow himself the luxury of ignorance.  Human history was astonishingly violent.  The longer they managed to keep the lid on, the greater the explosion when they finally – inevitably – lost control.

“The Earth Defence Force is more powerful, I think, than you realise,” he said.  “The humans control most of the military installations within their system.  Titan Base is the only real exception and even that installation has a major human presence.  They might be able to liberate themselves, if they wished.  That’s not the real problem.  There are millions of humans scattered across our worlds.  What will they do when they see us move to crush their dreams of equality or independence?  We will find ourselves fighting a war on our homeworlds!”

“We have them under tight control,” another councillor said.  His skin was blotchy, suggesting he was starting the transition from male to female.  “Rig the election.”

“That’s no longer possible,” Yasuke said.  “They use exit polls to gauge the electorate’s views – and votes.  They’ve been strikingly accurate, over the last two decades.  They’d have good reason to think we rigged the election if there was a sizable discrepancy between their results and ours.  And that might trigger off the insurrection we hoped to avoid.”

“You paint a grim picture,” the chairman said.  “How do you propose we proceed?”

Yasuke took a breath.  They weren’t going to like what he had to say.  He didn’t like it himself.  But there was no choice.  The empire itself was at stake.  They had to make concessions now or risk an explosion that would destroy everything they’d built over the last ten thousand years.  And yet … they wouldn’t want to believe him.  They had good reasons not to want to believe him.

“I propose we start granting Earth, and the other human worlds, an increased level of autonomy,” he said.  “There will be a steady transfer of powers, and an acknowledgement of human equality on their homeworld, over the next two decades.  This will, hopefully, satisfy them without risking total collapse …”

“Out of the question,” the first councillor snapped.  “They’ll be passing judgement on us!”

Yasuke kept his face impassive, somehow.  The councillor’s corporation had run into trouble, forty years ago, when a human judge had ruled against them.  They’d honestly never realised that – technically – a human judge did have authority, if only because he’d studied and qualified on Capitol itself.  And they’d used their immense clout to not only override the judge’s decision, but insist that human judges were to have no authority over Alphans.  And that had turned the most intelligent and capable human lawyers into independence and equality activists.

“On their homeworld, quite probably,” Yasuke said.  “But if you treat them as Alphans, you should be fine.”

“And how do you know it will be fine?”  The councillor glared at Yasuke.  “What if this is just the beginning of a human takeover?  Or …”

The chairman held up a hand.  “I think we must consider the issue carefully,” he said.  “You ask us to fly in the face of all precedent.”

“Yes,” another councillor said.  “A committee must be appointed to consider all the ramifications!”

“With all due respect,” Yasuke said, “we don’t have time for a committee.”

“Really?”  The chairman didn’t sound convinced.  “How long do we have?”

“The elections are due in thirteen months,” Yasuke said.  The humans had a superstition about the number thirteen.  He didn’t believe it himself, naturally, but he had to admit it was an disquieting omen.  Thirteen months … the committee probably couldn’t come to any conclusions in less than thirteen years.  “That’s our deadline.  If the Humanity League wins, they will start pressuring us for immediate independence.  And then we will have to decide how far we’re willing to go to keep them in the fold.”

“We could lose the war,” the chairman said.

“Or weaken ourselves to the point one of the other third-stage races can overwhelm us,” Yasuke said.  “The Pashtali, for example.  They’ve already been fishing in troubled waters with the Vulteks.  It’s only a matter of time before they start supporting human rebels.  They could win the galaxy without firing a shot.”

The chairman silently canvassed his fellows.  “I believe we have no choice, but to proceed with your plan,” he said.  “If nothing else, it will allow us to limit the pace of change.”

“Unless something unpredicted happens,” Yasuke warned, tightly.  He knew better than to think they all supported the plan.  “Here, things change very slowly.  On Earth, the pace of change is a great deal quicker.”

But he knew, as he bowed his way to the exit, that they didn’t really believe him.

Chapter One

James Bond, Gammon System

Captain Thomas Anderson tried not to grimace as James Bond shuddered and groaned her way through the crossroads and back into realspace.  The modified freighter had passed through so many refits that hardly anything, save perhaps for the hull and some of her bulkheads, could be said to be truly original.  Her engineers had spliced components from a dozen different races into the ship, turning her into a patchwork mess that defied the best efforts of the certification board.  It was a minor miracle, outsiders had noted, that James Bond was even allowed to exist.  She should have been scrapped hundreds of years ago.

And we should probably work on that, Thomas thought.  The display blinked, then started to fill with a handful of icons.  Sooner or later, someone’s going to start wondering where we got the money to bribe the inspectors.

“I’m picking up a dozen contacts, Dad,” Lieutenant Wesley Anderson said.  Thomas’s son never looked up from his console.  “They’re heading in all directions!”

“I’m sure they are,” Thomas said, dryly.  There was much to be said for raising a family on the tramp freighter, rather than trusting them to the schools, but there were downsides too.  The crew knew what they were doing, but none of them were particularly professional.  “Are any of them close enough to prove a problem?”

“I don’t think so,” Wesley said.  “None of them are within weapons range.”

“Good,” Thomas said.  “Sarah, set course for the planet.  Best possible speed.”

Commander Sarah Anderson, his wife as well as his first officer, nodded curtly.  “Yes, sir,” she said.  A low shiver ran through the tramp freighter as her drives came online.  “We’ll be entering orbit in roughly eight hours.”

Thomas nodded.  “No hurry,” he said.  “We’ll be there when we’ll be there.”

He leaned back in his chair and brought up the live feed from the sensor suite.  The inspectors – if there had been any inspectors – would have raised their eyebrows if they’d seen the military-grade sensors concealed within a civilian chassis.  Anyone on the far side of the border would have been seriously concerned, assuming – correctly – that James Bond was a spy ship.  It would be more accurate, Thomas considered privately, to class his ship as an intelligence-gathering ship, but it would make no difference to anyone who caught them.  The ship and crew would never be seen again.

The system sat on the border between the Alphan Empire and the Vultek Hegemony, itself a semi-client state of the Pashtali Consortium.  Thomas didn’t pretend to understand the alien politics.  The Pashtali didn’t precisely rule the Vultek Hegemony, but – if the intelligence reports were accurate – they had enough influence to steer the Vulteks in whatever direction they preferred.  Thomas suspected that was bad news for the Alphans – and Earth.  The Second Lupine War had been incredibly costly.  The Alphans were in no state to fight another war with two interstellar powers.

He frowned as he watched the ships heading in and out of the system.  Gammon was technically independent, if only because the system was of limited value.  Too many crossroads to be easily secured, a barely-habitable planet without a single gas giant for HE3 … there was little in the system to interest any of the interstellar powers.  There were no intelligent inhabitants, nothing that might convince someone to take the system and keep everyone else out.  It was lawless, to all intents and purposes.  No one, not even the Vulteks, had bothered to stake a claim to the system.

And yet, there were more ships moving in and out of the system than he’d expected.  The dregs of the galaxy might have made the system their home, but … he shook his head as more and more data flowed into the datacores.  It was quite possible that the planet was seeing an influx of newcomers.  Refugees from the wars, religious migrants hoping to find a homeworld well away from any of the interstellar powers, mercenaries and smugglers conducting their business … it was someone else’s problem.  As far as anyone outside the crew, and the EDF were concerned, James Bond was a tramp freighter moving from one isolated system to another.  His superiors would assess the data he brought them and decide what, if anything, should be done about it.

He unbuckled himself and stood.  “Sarah, you have the bridge,” he said, calmly.  “I’m going to check on our supplies.”

His wife nodded, tightly.  “Have fun.”

Thomas concealed his amusement as he turned and stepped through the hatch.  James Bond was surprisingly large, for a tramp freighter, but most of her bulk was devoted to cargo.  The family itself lived in cramped accommodation, so cramped that he was uneasily aware that any dispute could blossom out of control very quickly.  It was only a matter of time before Wesley and his siblings decided they wanted to transfer to a different ship … something that might get awkward, if they joined the wrong crew.  He reminded himself, sharply, that Wesley was a grown man.  He was old enough to make his own mistakes.

And it isn’t as if you haven’t made your own mistakes, his thoughts mocked him.  You fucked up your life good and proper, when you were his age

He put the thought out of his head as he opened the hatch into the cargo hold and walked past the heavily-secured pallets.  The weapons were primitive, by Galactic standards, but they were very useful.  No one ever asked questions of gunrunners, in his experience; no one wanted to deter them from bringing more guns.  And while there were people who would look askance at a gunrunner, they might not realise there was something more to Thomas than a man who profited from war and someone else’s misery.  Better to have them look down on you for something, Thomas had always thought, than have them trying to get too close to you.

The intercom bleeped.  “Captain to the bridge!  Captain to the bridge!”

Thomas blinked as he hurried back through the hatch, slamming it firmly shut behind him.  Sarah – like the rest of the family – enjoyed command.  She wouldn’t call him to the bridge unless it was urgent.  His mind raced, trying to determine what had happened.  A distress call?  A systems failure?  James Bond was in better condition than she looked – and she looked alarmingly like a derelict from a bad horror flick – but something could easily have gone wrong.  And yet … he dismissed the thought.  The alarms would have sounded if something had failed spectacularly.

And if it failed so spectacularly that the alarms failed to sound, he told himself, we’d all be dead.

He stepped onto the bridge and retook the command chair.  “Report!”

“Unknown warship on approach vector,” Sarah said.  Her voice was very cold.  She’d never been comfortable with their work for the EDF, even though she’d grown up on a freighter herself.  The risk of death might have been a constant companion, but there were limits now she was a mother herself.  “She’ll be within weapons range in twenty minutes.”

Thomas nodded as he pulled up the sensor report.  The warship was a light cruiser, origin unknown.  That meant nothing, he reminded himself.  James Bond wasn’t the only ship that had passed through dozens of hands since she’d come off the slipway.  The Galactics had no qualms about selling their older and outdated ships to the younger races, who would do their level best to refit them with newer technology.  The ship angling towards them might have been refitted so extensively her original builders had been lost in the mists of time.  Or … she could just be a pirate ship.  Gammon played host to pirates and their fences too.

And if she was on a legitimate mission, she would have hailed us by now, he thought.  A chill ran down his spine.  We might be in some trouble.

“Send a standard greeting,” he ordered.  “If they don’t respond, send a wide-band distress call.”

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said.

Thomas forced himself to consider their options.  There weren’t many.  James Bond carried two plasma cannons … they might as well be peashooters, for all the damage they’d do to the enemy hull.  She could alter course and try to evade, perhaps even double back and retreat to the crossroads … no, that wasn’t going to work.  The warship would have no trouble running them down before they could jump into multispace.  They could prolong the chase, perhaps long enough to convince the enemy ship to go looking for easier prey, but it wouldn’t last very long.

“No response,” Sarah said.  “And they’re picking up speed.”

“Transmit the distress signal,” Thomas said.  “And then alter course to evade.”

He gritted his teeth.  Pirates … they had to be pirates.  And that meant … he hoped, grimly, they weren’t human pirates.  The crew might survive long enough to be ransomed if they were captured by non-humans.  Humans, on the other hand … Sarah and his daughters would be brutally raped to death.  Pirates were pathologically insane.  They’d kill the males, then torture the females to death.  Thomas thought cold thoughts about the ship’s self-destruct system.  It would be relatively simple to lure the pirate ship into point-blank range and deactivate the antimatter containment chambers.  The resulting explosion would destroy both ships.  It wasn’t ideal, but what was?

“They’re angling to remain on intercept course,” Sarah said.  “They’ll be within weapons range in ten minutes.”

“And no response to our distress call,” Thomas said, sourly.  He wasn’t surprised.  Gammon had no navy.  The Galactics didn’t bother to patrol the system.  And it was unlikely the mercenaries would drop everything to come to their aid.  Who cared about a tramp freighter in the middle of nowhere?  “Divert emergency power to the drives.”

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said, in a tone that told him she knew it was futile.  He knew it too.  There was no way they could do more than delay matters.  “I …”

She broke off as her console chimed.  “They’re hailing us.”

“Put it through,” Thomas ordered.

He tried not to show any reaction as a bird-like alien face materialised in front of him.  It wasn’t the first Vultek he’d seen, and he’d spent most of his life around non-humans, but the aliens always left him feeling a little uneasy.  It was the way they looked at him, he thought; it was the way they always looked as if they were considering when and where to pounce.

“This is Captain Anderson,” he said.  “I …”

“The Vultek Hegemony has assumed control over this system,” the alien said.  It spoke Galactic with a faint whistling accent.  “You have intruded upon our territory without permission.”

Thomas blinked.  The Vulteks hadn’t occupied Gammon … not as far as he knew.  Why would they bother?  And … they were risking a confrontation with the Alphans and at least two other powerful races.  And humanity, of course.  There were three human-dominated worlds bare days from Gammon, linked by the tangled thread of safe routes through multispace.  Interstellar powers that had been content to leave Gammon independent would be concerned, very concerned, if one power took control and drove everyone else out.  The Vulteks were risking a major conflict …

Unless they’ve decided the Alphans are too weak to push the issue, Thomas thought, coldly.  It was possible.  Everyone knew the Alphans had lost hundreds of their prized warcruisers during the war.  They could trash the Vulteks in a few days, if they massed their surviving ships, but at what cost?  They might just get away with it.

“We were unaware of any change in power,” he said, carefully.  “In any case, under the Convocations …”

The Vultek cut him off.  “You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded,” he said.  “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

Thomas forced himself to think.  The Vulteks were signatories to the standard interstellar conventions.  In theory, there shouldn’t be any trouble.  The ship would be searched, then returned to the crossroads or simply interned.  In practice … who knew?  The courts might take years to decide if James Bond was trespassing or not, particularly if one or more interstellar powers decided to dispute the Vultek claim to the system.  He shuddered as a deeper implication struck him.  If the Vulteks discovered the sensor suite, they’d realise the ship’s true nature.  And who knew what they’d do then?

Make us vanish, Thomas thought.  We dare not let them board us.

He glanced at the display, already knowing they were trapped.  They could neither outrun nor defeat their enemy.  And triggering the self-destruct might start a war.  The EDF – and the Alphans – wouldn’t know what had happened, but that wouldn’t stop the Vulteks from using the incident as an excuse for war.  And yet … he couldn’t let his ship fall into their hands either.

“In line with the Convocations, I cannot allow you to search my ship,” he said.  “However, as a gesture of good faith, we will return to the crossroads and …”

The display bleeped an alert.  “Missile separation,” Sarah said, quietly.  “They’re aiming to miss, but not by much.”

“You will power down your drives and prepare to be boarded without further delay,” the Vultek said, coldly.  “Resistance will result in the destruction of your vessel.”

So you said, Thomas thought.  His thoughts ran in circles.  Earth couldn’t push the issue.  It wasn’t clear if the Alphans would push the issue.  And there’s no way out.

He keyed his console, bringing up the limited destruct program.  The sensor suite could be reduced to dust with the push of a button, once he inserted his command codes.  In theory, there would be no proof that James Bond had ever been anything other than a simple tramp freighter.  In practice, he simply didn’t know.  The Vulteks might search the ship so thoroughly they turned up proof … if, of course, they didn’t simply destroy the ship in a bid to secure their new holdings.  And if they swept the datacore …

“We understand,” he said.  “We’ll deactivate our drives as ordered.”

“Good,” the alien said.  “And …”

Thomas glanced up as the proximity display flashed another alert.  A gravimetric distortion had appeared out of nowhere, a bare three kilometres from their position.  He let out a sigh of relief as the distortion became a crossroads, which opened to reveal a warcruiser.  The giant warship glided into realspace, its sensors already searching for targets.  The Vultek ship didn’t move, but Thomas liked to think he saw it jump.  Warcruisers were the most powerful warships in the known galaxy.  The Alphans would have no trouble blowing the Vultek ship out of space if they so much as looked at them funny.

“They’re ordering the Vulteks to leave,” Sarah said.  She let out a sound that was half-giggle, half-sob.  “That was really too close.”

Thomas nodded, watching as the Vulteks reversed course and headed straight for the nearest crossroads.  They didn’t have the technology to create their own, not yet.  The Alphans were the only race known to possess such technology, although Thomas wouldn’t have cared to bet the other Galactics didn’t have it.  The technology offered too many advantages to whoever held it. 

“Reverse course,” he ordered, firmly.  “We’ll pass through Gammon, then head home.”

Sarah gave him a sharp look.  “And you don’t think we should head home now?”

“I think we have weapons to sell,” Thomas said.  “And we need to know what’s happening on the surface.”

And see who’s really in control of the system, he thought, grimly.  He understood his wife’s point.  They’d pushed their luck dangerously close to the limits.  But they also needed to find out what was actually going on.  If the Vulteks landed a major ground force, digging them out might take a full-scale war.

“Aye, sir,” Sarah said.  They were going to have a screaming match as soon as they were alone.  Thomas was sure of it.  “We’ll enter orbit in five hours.”

“Keep monitoring local space,” Thomas ordered.  He didn’t relax  He wouldn’t until they had completed their mission and left the system safely behind.  “I want to know the moment the Vulteks show up again.”

He sucked in his breath.  The Vulteks weren’t stupid enough to pit an outdated light cruiser against a warcruiser, but they wouldn’t like being told to leave at gunpoint.  They might assemble their fleet, if they had a fleet within the system, and gamble the Alphans wouldn’t want to start another war.  Or try something, hoping their patrons would come to their aid if things got out of hand.  The crisis might have only just begun.

His eyes slipped to the display.  The warcruiser was moving ahead of then, gracefully displaying her power – and her masters’ resolve – to the entire system.  He felt a sudden stab of envy that surprised him with its intensity.  Humanity had advanced far in the last five hundred years, learning from its masters and even improving – in some respects – on their technology.  But they didn’t have anything to match the warcruiser.  The ship was so advanced that it she been designed for aesthetics, not practicality.  There was no way anyone could mistake her for a human ship.

Wesley had the same thought.  “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed.  He’d seen the recordings.  And read the secret files, the ones that officially didn’t exist.  The fact the EDF kept a wary eye on humanity’s masters, as well as its enemies, was a closely-guarded secret.  “But she also took five years from her builders laying down her spine to her crew activating the ship’s drives and deploying her for the first time.”

And if the Alphans hadn’t had us fighting by their side, he added silently, they might just have lost the last war.

SIM: The Blighted Lands

13 Mar

Background for a later book …

The Blighted Lands

Unlike the Allied Lands, the Blighted Lands have no formal existence.  The necromancers who rule the lands wage war on each other with a terrifying frequency, to the point that borders – insofar as they exist at all – shift so rapidly that it is different to parse out the true size of any single necromancer’s domains.  The landscape itself is mutable, depending on how much wild and/or tainted magic runs through the ground.  It is a dangerous region to visit even if one should not encounter a necromancer or his servants.  A person caught in a storm of magic might end up wishing he was dead.

The history of the Blighted Lands is not, in broad strokes at least, in dispute.  Prior to the Faerie Wars, the Blighted Lands were part of the Empire.  The names of long-gone kingdoms and city-states might have been forgotten over the years, but they existed.  The wars, however, smashed the pre-war order beyond repair.  The combination of wild magic, enemy intrusions and – eventually – the necromancers was simply too much to handle.  The lucky ones managed to flee.  The unlucky ones were killed, sacrificed or simply enslaved. 

Despite their shifting nature, certain things are beyond dispute.  The high-magic zones within the Blighted Lands, particularly the ones that play host to Faerie structures are far more dangerous than their northern counterparts.  Even necromancers tend to give the dangerous ruins a wide berth.  Storms of wild and tainted magic ravage the land, killing or transforming anyone unlucky enough to be caught in their grip.  The lower-magic zones play host to everything from giant monsters, warped and mutated by the magic storms, to orcish settlements and human villages.  The necromancers themselves tend to inhabit abandoned fortresses or cities, turning them into giant abattoirs.  Even the smarter necromancers, the ones capable of understanding that killing all their slaves means depriving themselves of future slaves, can become lost in their lust for power.  Most visitors to their lands never return.

Orcs are, as far as can be established, the most numerous race in the Blighted Lands.  Shambling parodies of humanity, created by the Faerie; orcish males are incredibly strong, incredibly fast and almost mind-numbingly stupid.  They are literally incapable of building a workable civilisation, if only because they fight each other for dominance.  The only thing that keeps them in line is power.  The necromancers have no trouble battering obedience into their heads (although even obedient orcs can’t follow complex orders, or indeed anything much more difficult than “charge”).  Orcish women are supposed to be smarter, but very rarely seen.  In theory, orcish women are grossly outnumbered by the males; in practice, despite the lopsided birthrate (ten males for every female), the high level of attrition amongst the male population keeps the gender balance remarkably even.

The human settlements within the Blighted Lands are nightmarish.  Necromancers don’t need anything beyond magic and life force, so they rarely bother to encourage farmers to grow crops or craftsmen to produce much of anything.  The settlements are more like plantations, with a goal of producing as many humans as possible.  The inhabitants are effectively slaves, forbidden from leaving and striking out on their own (although the dangers surrounding the settlements are often enough to keep the inhabitants in place without fences and chains).  Each settlement has a headman, who serves as liaison between the inhabitants and the local necromancer, and thugs, who serve as basic enforcers.  (They often have some magic, although never enough to threaten the necromancer.)  The arrangement is permanently unstable, if only because the necromancers are dangerously insane.  A headman can be killed at a moment’s notice, on a whim or if he angers his master (regardless of how well he serves).  Accordingly, none of the settlements are nice places to live … but some are worse than others.

The necromancers themselves have no formal structure.  They do not ally with each other, save for a handful of very rare alliances that don’t last beyond one partner seeing advantage in betraying the other.  Their society, such as it is, is ruled by force and force alone.  A newcomer who overthrows a necromancer and takes his place is, insofar as the rest of the necromancers are concerned, the legitimate ruler.  The smarter necromancers realise that fighting another necromancer is often dangerous – the loser will be dead, the winner will be so weakened that a third necromancer could jump him – but, given the nature of necromancy, it can be difficult to avoid a challenge.

The Blighted Lands do not have any formal relationships with outside powers, diplomatic or otherwise.  The necromancers simply do not have the long-term focus to try to build relationships, even if they wanted to.  There is very little trade between the Blighted Lands and the Allied Lands, almost all of it thoroughly illegal.  A handful of merchants do move back and forth, at severe risk of their lives (particularly if they’re caught trafficking in illicit substances or simply anger a necromancer).  Refugees are not unknown, but given the dangers of travel and the difficult terrain, rarely seen. 

Draft Afterword – Knife Edge

13 Mar

This is the draft of an afterword for the next TEC book. As always, comments and suchlike are very welcome.


But anything can happen, things can go wrong;

One minute you’re up then you’re down and you’re gone.

-Huw and Tony Williams

It is a curious historical fact that Osama Bin Laden was on the verge of moving from one hideout to another when SEAL TEAM SIX came calling.  Bin Laden – through a combination of selfishness, arrogance and simple idiocy – had managed to alienate his keepers, a serious misstep when they were all that was standing between him and a weighty helping of justice for a tiny fraction of his misdeeds.  After he pushed them too far, they snapped and ordered him to leave … unaware that time was already running out.  The hunters were already closing in.  If Bin Laden had left a week earlier, the SEALs would have crashed into an empty home that – on the surface, at least – would have appeared to belong to a perfectly innocent family.  Instead of a glorious victory, the US would have wound up with egg on its face and further cross-border raids would have been strongly discouraged.

The American hunters, of course, had no way to know what was actually happening inside the Bin Laden household (although it has been strongly suggested that Bin Laden was betrayed by one of his minders, or more distant partners in terror.)  They had no way to know that Bin Laden was on the verge of leaving.  Nor, for that matter, did Bin Laden have any way to know the Americans were closing in.  If either party had known that time was running out, they would have moved quicker.  The US got very lucky.  The raid could easily have turned into a minor disaster.

It is difficult to exaggerate the role that simple random chance plays in human affairs.  If the weather had worsened early, during the invasion of Normandy, D-Day would probably have failed.  If General Lee hadn’t lost a copy of his orders prior to the Battle of Antietam, it’s possible the Confederate States could have won the day.  If Benedict Arnold’s plot to surrender West Point hadn’t been uncovered, he might have delivered a fatal blow to the American cause.  If … I could give an endless list of battles and wars that were decided by sheer random chance, by the weather or a single incident that could easily have gone in the opposite direction.  The blunt truth is this: things can and do go wrong.

It’s easy to say, as we have been increasingly wont to do over the past few decades, that there must be someone to blame.  That person screwed up, either by accident or through cold-blooded malice.  We have given birth to a culture that makes endless recriminations and files lawsuits – some sensible, some absurd, some seemingly absurd – in response to things that don’t go our way.  And yet, this is growing increasingly dangerous.  The sad fact is that, sometimes, you can do everything right and still lose. 

In 2003, for example, it was commonly believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.  This was an entirely reasonable belief, based on a decade of Iraqi lies, misinformation, reluctant confessions and a humanitarian crises that was created and exploited for political ends.  There was a strong tendency for analysts to assume the worst, because experience had taught them to assume the worst.  The US Government wasn’t inclined to listen to analysts who suggested otherwise because they’d noted a pattern of behaviour that suggested that nothing that came out of Iraq could be trusted.  It was a mistake to base the rationale for invasion on a cause that demanded the US uncover a massive stockpile of WMD (instead of a dismantled WMD program that could easily be rebuilt), but it was an understandable mistake. 

If something – a military operation, a new product rollout, a political campaign – succeeds, people will generally overlook its flaws.  It isn’t commonly understood that Donald Trump make mistakes during the 2016 campaign, at least partly because Trump won.  The victory overshadows the errors.  Hillary Clinton’s mistakes loom large because she lost.  And indeed, part of the problem facing the Democratic Party – as we move towards the November 2020 election – is that the party is reluctant to face up to its mistakes, let alone point the finger at the guilty people. 

But why should it?  We live in a society where admitting a mistake is tantamount to confessing guilt.  Who wants to be the scapegoat?  Who wants to have their life destroyed by a simple mistake?  If the price of admitting fault is utter (personal) disaster, who in their right mind will admit fault?  There is a strong case to be made that the last politician to admit responsibility for a mistake and resign was Lord Peter Carington, who took responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failure to foresee the 1982 Falklands War.  How many modern-day politicians would make the same decision?

And yet … Carington was lucky.  He would go on to serve as Secretary General of NATO and play a major role in the diplomacy surrounding the Balkan Wars.  Would this happen today?  I doubt it.  Someone who made a serious error would be lucky if they were ever entrusted with a sensitive role again.

The problem has been growing steadily worse, in matters military, social and political.  In 2020, the Iowa Democratic Party spent a considerable sum of money on developing a app to manage the caucus and report the results.  The app was a disaster, which sparked conspiracy theories and suggestions the party had rigged the results.  (It didn’t help that several candidates declared victory prior to any official results.)  There was, it seemed, a great deal of evidence to suggest the developer wasn’t unbiased. 

Was it a mistake?  It could have been.  The app was rolled out too quickly for proper stress tests.  Coding errors and other problems that should have been noted and solved in beta-testing weren’t noticed until they tried to use the app.  It’s the sort of issue one gets when one tries to do something too quickly.  A mistake creeps in and passes unnoticed until it’s too late to easily resolve. 

But was it conspiracy?

The problem with our ‘someone must be blamed’ mentality is that it is very easy to believe that yes, it was conspiracy.  If you don’t accept that mistakes happen, and some of them can have awful consequences, you’ll start looking for someone to blame.  (It didn’t help that this wasn’t the first time the DNC was accused of rigging the nomination process.)  Instead of learning from the mistake – next time, stress-test the app before you rely on it – it’s easy to start looking for a scapegoat.  And then everyone in your sights switches to full cover-your-ass mode and any prospect of genuinely learning from the mistake is lost.

Things can and do go wrong.  Sometimes, like I said above, victory or defeat hinges on sheer random chance.  Sometimes, the intelligence is faulty or misinterpreted (in 1979, the CIA missed the Russian plan to intervene in Afghanistan because the Russians themselves didn’t know they were planning to do it until they felt themselves pushed into a decision).  Sometimes, what works on a small scale fails badly when tried on a larger scale (communism can only work on a small scale, when everyone knows everyone else).  Sometimes, the story is simply too good not to be true, thus due diligence is left undone (A Rape on Campus, a thoroughly-discredited story published in Rolling Stone).  And sometimes, yes, you can do everything right and still lose.

Mistakes happen.  There were hundreds of mistakes made during the lead-up to World War Two.  Some of those mistakes occurred because of stupidity, some because politicians feared the consequences of fighting another war, some because of sheer random chance.  (Somewhat akin to Lee’s Lost Order, the 1940 Mechelen Incident may have forced the Germans to change their invasion plans for France.)  And yet, it isn’t just the mistakes that matter.  The outcome matters more.

I’ve been accused of saying this too often, but it’s true.  War is a democracy.  The enemy, that dirty dog, gets a vote.  And his vote may be enough to counteract yours. 

We can learn from our mistakes.  We can work to overcome them while keeping our eyes on the prize.  Or we can allow ourselves to get bogged down in bitter, useless and ultimately destructive recriminations.

Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2020


12 Mar

All things considered, it’s been a fairly lazy week <grin>. 

I’ve finished the first draft of The Artful Apprentice and completed the first set of edits.  The text is on its way to the second editor, while the cover artist is finishing the cover.  I’ll post it when the design is finalised and all the ducks are in a row.  I don’t have a publication date yet, but I’m hoping to have a release midway through April.

You’ll be pleased to hear, I hope, that I’ve sketched out plots for Oathkeeper (SIM 20)¸The Lion and the Unicorn (Ark 15) and Knife Edge (The Empire’s Corps.)  There may be some changes along the way, but I think the three books exist in outline.  The mid-sized story in The Dogs of God serves as a semi-prequel to The Lion and the Unicorn

I’ve also done a short story for Chris Kennedy’s latest collection.  I’ll say more about that when the collection is released.

The Fantastic Schools request for submissions managed to bring in enough stories to fill two collections.  We’re planning to publish the first one in May, including the second Schooled in Magic novella, and bring out the second one later in the year.  I’m planning to do another story for that collection, probably Barb’s Tale or another SIM-based story.  But it may also be a Royal Sorceress spin-off instead.  We’ll see.

Side note – I plan at least three more spin-off novellas; Cat’s Tale (what happens after he leaves in Cursed), The Musketman’s Tale (a volunteer in the wars) and Frieda’s Tale (in which she goes home and discovers she can’t go home again.)

Health wise, I’m still coughing.  I had terrible pains three weeks ago and the doctor suspected gallstones, but I won’t be scanned for another week.  I had the same pains last Sunday, so I’m a little more panicked now.  And I just feel tired and drained at the moment.

Musings on Cancel Culture

12 Mar

The episode “The Great Wife Hope” features yet another attempt by Marge to stop everyone’s fun. Nelson inadvertently gives her great advice on how to get together other pissy moms, clergymen, etc. He claims this is because he secretly enjoys event planning, but the real more subtle joke is that what Marge wants to do is essentially bullying.

-TV Tropes

I won’t make any bones about it.  Cancel culture is one of the most evil and dangerous trends to develop over the last decade, evil and dangerous because (on the surface) it can be so easily justified.  It’s easy to argue that someone deserves punishment for an act that may not be, legally speaking, a crime; it’s easy to say that some degree of mob justice is justified if the law refuses to act.  But cancel culture has long-term effects that can often defeat the objective.  For one thing, an argument that boils down to ‘SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP’ is not a convincing argument.  For another, if you enjoy cancel culture, you might discover – as Will Wheaton did – that cancel culture can easily turn on you

And that’s not even getting into the fact that your target won’t be the only one hurt by your acts.  The guy who shot Cecil the lion may or may not have deserved punishment.  I’m certainly no fan of big game hunting.  But what about his family?  His employees?  If his practice went out of business, did his employees deserve to lose their jobs?  Did his clients deserve to lose their dentist?  These are the questions cancel culture has steadfastly refused to acknowledge.  If you hurt innocents … tell me, what do you deserve?

My concerns about cancel culture were neatly summed up by Itchy and Scratchy and Marge, an early episode of The Simpsons that showed just how well the show could work when given a meaty subject and competent writers.  Not coincidently, it was also the first of two episodes that convinced me to dislike Marge.  Marge gets up on her high horse, not without cause I’ll grant, and does a great deal of damage that thoroughly discredits her cause.  Cancel culture has the same problem in spades.

The basic plot is relatively simple.  Itchy and Scratchy, a show within a show, features a cartoon cat and mouse inflicting horrific injuries upon each other.  Maggie is inspired by the show to hit Homer with a hammer, leading Marge to ban Itchy and Scratchy from their house and lead a crusade against the producers.  She eventually gets Itchy and Scratchy banned, only to discover that her fellow moral guardians want to ban Michelangelo’s David too … something she finds outrageous.  Caught in the trap of her own hypocrisy – “What do you have to say to all them Marge Simpson wannabes out there who wish to suppress David’s doodle?” – Marge’s campaign collapses and Itchy and Scratchy goes back on the air. 

Leaving aside the obvious fact that Marge is clearly spoiling for a fight – starting a letter “dear purveyors of senseless violence” is not the sort of thing you say if you’re genuinely interested in a dialogue, although it doesn’t justify a response of  “… and the horse I rode in on!?!” – there are two fundamental problems with Marge’s actions that stuck in my craw.

First, she sought to impose her tastes on everyone else.

Second, she was blind to the precedents she was setting.

As a parent myself, I fully agree that Marge had every right to tell her kids they couldn’t watch Itchy and Scratchy.  There are TV shows and programs I don’t let my kids watch, for various reasons.  Marge even had the right to ask her friends not to let Bart, Lisa and Maggie watch Itchy and Scratchy at their houses and, if they rebuffed her, to tell her kids that they weren’t allowed to go there any longer.  It was her duty, as well as her right, to keep an eye on what her kids were watching and make sure it was age-appropriate.

Marge did not have the right to make those decisions for others.  She is not everyone’s mother.  It is not her place to decide if Bart and Lisa’s friends are allowed to watch Itchy and Scratchy.  She could certainly try to convince other parents to ban the show from their homes, if she wished, but she couldn’t force them to comply.  In trying to do just that, Marge stepped well over the line.  She did not have the right to impose her tastes on others.

Worse, in getting Itchy and Scratchy actually taken off the air, Marge ensured that no one could watch it.  I’d happily agree that there are plenty of adult movies and suchlike that are not suitable for children – Game of Thrones, for example – but that doesn’t mean that adults aren’t allowed to watch it.  Marge didn’t just take Itchy and Scratchy away from the children.  She took the show away from everyone

And that is, let us be blunt, the sort of behaviour that gets someone a bad rep.

But the second problem is worse.

By pushing for a show to be cancelled – and suceeding – Marge set a nightmarish precedent.  If one show can be cancelled, why not another?  Pick a show, any show.  I guarantee you that someone will find something to complain about, something they can use as an excuse to demand the show be banned.  And Marge discovered this, the hard way, when her fellow censorship-happy busybodies demanded she lead them in a campaign against Michelangelo’s David.  Marge is caught in a trap.  Either she supports censorship, even when she doesn’t agree with it, or she is exposed as a hypocrite.  Once the precedents are set, once you let the censorship demon out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put it back in.

One can argue, of course, that context is important.  Michelangelo’s David is a work of art.  Itchy and Scratchy is simple-minded TV mayhem.  Marge could have tried to argue that there was a world of difference between the two – and she wouldn’t have been wrong.  But this was a point that was lost on her fellow busybodies.  Once you create an emotional storm, once you ensure people can no longer think with their heads, context goes out the window.  And indeed, with Marge exposed as a hypocrite on live TV, the pendulum swings back.  The kids are going to be exposed to David, like it or not, because the schools are going to be forcing them!

Cancel culture itself is based on a social fallacy.  As the writer of Five Geek Social Fallacies explains:

Social fallacies are particularly insidious because they tend to be exaggerated versions of notions that are themselves entirely reasonable and unobjectionable. It’s difficult to debunk the pathological fallacy without seeming to argue against its reasonable form; therefore, once it establishes itself, a social fallacy is extremely difficult to dislodge.

The reasonable form of this particular social fallacy can be summed up as ‘you find something offensive, so you don’t have to watch it.’  No one could reasonably object, as I said above, to Marge refusing to allow her kids to watch Itchy and Scratchy.  Indeed, Marge has a point; Itchy and Scratchy is shockingly unsuitable for children.  The social fallacy in this case is that finding something offensive and/or objectionable gives you the right to demand it be denied to everyone.  You may feel, for whatever reason, that something should be cancelled.  Plenty of other people will not agree with you.  And if you try to ban it anyway, those people will view you as the villain of the piece.

This is more pervasive than you might suppose.  A person who dislikes stand-up comedy and wouldn’t visit a comedy club if you paid him might still find it offensive – and dangerous – to have an unfunny comedian driven off the stage.  The precedent is too dangerous to be allowed to go unchallenged.  Today, someone with terrible jokes; tomorrow, someone [person] actually likes.  One can stand up for freedom of speech without enjoying or agreeing with whatever the speaker is trying to say.  In the immortal words of Patrick Henry (or Voltaire or Evelyn Hall) “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it, to the death

The blunt truth is, people don’t like being told what they can and cannot watch (or read or whatever.)  This spurs resistance – the Soviet Union had a thriving trade in illicit literature – and pushback.

The more serious problem, however, was neatly illustrated in a Supergirl comic.  A white racist comes to town, leading to protests led by black students and a riot.  The comic makes the subtle point that one good example is better than a lifetime of nagging, but it also points out that the students have set a dangerous precedent.  The black students association wants to invite a black activist and speaker, who also happens to be a notorious anti-Semitic and the Jewish students are planning to protest …

A different take on the problem comes from Footfall, where the alien attempt to understand humanity through watching Deep Throat leads to a debate on censorship between American farmers, Russians astronauts and an American congressman.  The Russians point out that they are in favour of banning the film, while the congressman does not.  The congressman misses the opportunity to point out the fundamental problem with all forms of censorship – where does it stop?  Where do you say enough

The sad truth is that there are people who will never say ‘enough.’  They will keep going, asserting their power – the power they’ve bullied others into giving them – until they’ve either erased everything (including the bible) or taken complete control.  Cancel culture represents nothing more than an attack on freedom of speech and human liberty itself, disguised as decency and wholesomeness.  And the question the cancellers never seem to ask, until it’s too late, is where will they hide?

If you find something offensive, you don’t have to watch.  No one is forcing you to watch.  If you want to tell the world you find it offensive, by writing a review, you have every right to do it.  Write a review, tell everyone your opinion … let them make up their own minds!  But if you seek to cancel something, to damage or destroy careers and lives, the vast majority of people will see you as a monster!  Your valid point – Marge was quite right to condemn Itchy and Scratchy – will be lost in a sea of seething resentment and hatred.

If someone’s being an ass on social media, block them.  Think no more about them.  No one will think any less of you if you decide that some halfwit troll isn’t going to say anything interesting and block him.  Or, if someone is wrong, calmly and reasonably point out what’s wrong.  You really don’t want to accidentally give someone credibility, do you?  But that’s what you’ll do if you cancel them.  People will think you can’t actually answer their claims and they’ll be right.  As I said before, King Arthur’s attempt to silence Dennis makes Dennis’s claim more creditable. After all, if Arthur had a good answer to Dennis’s question, wouldn’t he have given it?

The price we pay for freedom of speech is … well, freedom of speech.  Everyone has the right to say things and yes, many people will find some things offensive.  And the mature response is to remember that you don’t have to listen.

But wait, you say.  Some people deserve to be cancelled!

Well, maybe they do.  But are you prepared to take the risk of setting a dangerous precedent?

I’d like to close this essay with a look-back at one of the most interesting trials in the last couple of decades.  The case of David Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt is illustrative because it’s a demonstration of how such matters should be handled.  In this day and age, I have no doubt Irving would receive the full cancel-treatment.  His speeches would be hounded by protesters, his publishers would be pressured into withdrawing his books and his supporters would be attacked on the streets.  And you know what?  This would give credence to Irving’s views!  People would believe Irving was right!  They would be wrong – as Richard Evans makes clear – but they would have good reason to think otherwise.

Penguin Books, faced with a lawsuit for libel (Irving filed suit; he was not, in any legal sense, on trial), took a different tack.  They hired historians to go through Irving’s work and access its value, then – when it became clear that the vast majority of Irving’s mistakes went in one direction – prove that Irving genuinely was a Holocaust Denier.  This actually forced them to prove that the Holocaust took place, which they did.  Irving, given a fair trial (that was, in some senses, weighted in his favour), lost and lost badly.  And it was all perfectly fair and reasonable.  There were no grounds for any reasonable person to think Irving had been steamrolled for wrongthink. 

Our society can only work if we allow free expression and speech.  And yes, some of that speech will be offensive or libellous.  In the case of the former, we can choose not to listen; in the case of the latter, we can prove it to be so. 

Or we can just keep tearing down legal protections until the devil turns round on us.

Musings on Inclusion

11 Mar

One does not join a community by loudly and obnoxiously demanding entrance.  One joins by sharing the community’s goals and working with others to achieve them.

-Jay Maynard

One of the persistent problems with left-wing solutions to social problems is that their solutions are based on a sense of what humanity should be, rather than what it is.  Communism and suchlike require humans not to be humans to work … and, as humans are humans, they fail spectacularly.  Diversity and Inclusion, one of the current left-wing bugaboos, tend to hit the same problem when left-wingers try to devise solutions; their Diversity and Inclusion educational sessions (nagging sessions, to everyone else) are based on faulty understanding of humans, so they fail.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the results of Diversity and Inclusion lectures are almost always less Diversity and Inclusion.

This would be bad enough, but what makes it worse is the fact they are unable to acknowledge the flaw within their understanding.  It is unthinkable, for them, that they might be wrong.  Instead, they seek to devise theories that transfer the blame elsewhere – ‘white fragility,’ for example.  This further weakens Diversity and Inclusion, not least because it is obvious to the targets of their nagging that they simply don’t know what they’re talking about.  An obvious show of ignorance is not conductive to respect, let alone agreement.  Instead, people pay as little lip service to Diversity and Inclusion concepts as they can get away with and then conduct themselves as they see fit.

I do not claim to be a social psychologist.  However, in the course of my life, I have transferred between multiple schools, colleges, a lone university and several workplaces, as well as attending a number of conventions.  I know more than I want to think about social exclusion because, not to put too fine a point on it, I was one of the excluded.  I feel more than words can say for the victims of social exclusion, simply because I’ve been through it myself.  But I also understand – as a member of groups that have been regularly marginalised – that social inclusion and exclusion issues are both surprisingly simplistic and yet strikingly hard to overcome.  Counterproductive social engineering techniques are not the solution.

And I don’t stand to gain by prolonging the problem, so that’s another mark in my favour <grin>.

It’s easy to say that social exclusion is the result of racism, sexism, whatever-phobia or something along those lines.  However, this cannot be true.  If it was, I wouldn’t have had any problems finding acceptance in groups that matched me.  But I did …

There are, essentially, four ironclad rules of social acceptance:

1) It takes time for people to accept you, particularly if the social groups are already established by the time you arrive.

2) The more different you are from the group, the longer people will take to accept you.

3) The more you push for inclusion, the more people will push back and exclude you.

4) Some people will never accept you at all, no matter what you do.

Pretend, for the sake of argument, that you’re a teenager who’s just transferred from one school to another.  You don’t know anyone at your new school.  Worse, everyone else has spent the last few years building friendships and relationships that don’t have any room for you.  They may not deliberately exclude you, but – to all intents and purposes – that’s what they’ll do.  They simply won’t be used to having you around.  You won’t get invites to parties, you won’t make easy friendships … etc, etc.  I’ve been there.  Believe me, it’s thoroughly unpleasant. 

If you happen to be a great footballer, for example, you’ll probably find acceptance very quickly.  Social groups are organised about core purposes and the footballers will be delighted to have a new player who loves to play (although if you displace someone else, as Harry Potter did, beware of the knife in the back.)  However, if you happen to be someone different – a nerd or geek, or a transgender – expect to find it harder to gain widespread acceptance.  The more you focus on what makes you different, the more you’ll be pushed away.

It can be painful – oh yes, it can be painful – to be excluded.  It’s easy to lose one’s cool and demand inclusion, either by forcing one’s way into the group or appealing to authority to order the group to let you in.  And yet, it doesn’t work.  The child who forces someone to play with him gets pushback, hard pushback, as soon as the teacher is looking away.  It gets worse when kids become teens (and later adults, even though they’re meant to be grown-ups) and they demand inclusion.  People will resent you and resist you even though you just want to be friends.  And if you want the group to change, that will be a thousand times worse. 

And yes, some people will never accept you.  They may be scared to change – if they had problems getting accepted, they’ll fear what’ll happen when someone new joins the group.  Or they may be afraid of what you’ll bring in your wake, rightly or wrongly; they may fear that you will demand changes after changes until they’re kicked out or simply made permanently uncomfortable.  Or they might be just jerks.  <grin>.

It takes time for people to accept change, to accept someone or something new in their life.  I know, it isn’t easy for the person who wants – who needs – to be accepted. Why, their leftist allies demand, should they wait?  Why shouldn’t they be accepted at once?  It isn’t fair … yes, it isn’t fair.  But it’s very human.  And pushing someone too hard often makes them push back.  Hard.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating.  Groups exist to work towards common goals, from military teams to bible study clubs and fandoms.  Social groups, in particular, are organised around something the members have in common.  A Superhero Movie Club, for example, will welcome someone who wants to watch superhero movies.  Someone who praises romance movies and insists the group should watch them will raise eyebrows, then incur dislike and hatred.  And why not?  They’re trying to change the group!

The more you focus on something irreverent to the group – Diversity and Inclusion, for example – the more the group pushes back.  Of course it does.  The group does not want a diverse membership.  It wants a particular lack of diversity – it wants, to use the movie club I mentioned above, its members to love superhero movies.  If you do, you’re in; if you don’t, why would you want to join?  It isn’t unreasonable to be suspicious of someone who clearly doesn’t love superhero movies and yet wants to join.  What do they really want?

Diversity training fails for a number of reasons, but the most important – in my opinion – is that it draws attention to diversity.  The more people become aware of diversity, the more it overshadows their thoughts; the more they dwell on it, the more they mentally edge away from the other.  There’s nothing wrong with a co-worker who happens to be [whatever]; there’s a great deal wrong with a [whatever] co-worker.  And if it looks as if someone had an unfair advantage because they were [whatever], expect bitter resentment and (eventually) outright hatred. 

People want to feel comfortable.  They don’t want to live and work in a place where the slightest thing, taken out of context, can lead to accusations of microaggressions and career destruction.  And if you don’t even know where the landmines are, how can you guarantee you won’t step on one?  Simple – you keep your distance from them.  You exclude them because inclusion might come with a cost.  This is human nature.  If you make someone uncomfortable, they will exclude you for their own peace of mind.  And where Diversity and Inclusion, a single bad example somewhere else can lead to the entire group being regarded with extreme suspicion. 

It can get even worse.  If Alice’s ‘safe space’ comes at the price of Bob losing his ‘safe space,’ why would Bob not resent it?  Why would Bob be happy about losing something precious to him?  Why would others not fear the same happening to them?  The problems damaging fandom happen everywhere. 

I don’t pretend there’s an easy solution to any of the problems posed by the push for Diversity and Inclusion.  But we can at least start by recognising the truth behind human nature – and how it drives us to reject diversity and exclude those we see as potential threats.

Book Review: Heroine Complex

10 Mar

Heroine Complex

Sarah Kuhn

A while back, there was a kerfuffle over what was true science-fiction storytelling.  Was it hard science-fiction, with the story grounded in hard science, or was it anything with a futuristic spin?  Could science-fiction include a love subplot, could it include a love story with science-fiction trimmings?  There was no good answer, as one might expect, which is probably why the debate was so tedious.  But it is true that if you write a romantic novel in a science-fiction guise, you might alienate readers who wanted a true SF novel rather than Gone With The Wind In Space.

Heroine Complex tries hard to combine a superhero story with what can best be described as a cross between a coming of age story and a romantic story.  It manages to be more of the coming of age story than either of the other two, but there’s too much focus on the other aspects for the story to be truly satisfactory.  The decent aspects of the plot – and the world the author created – are often overshadowed by the storyline itself. 

Several years ago, there was a demonic intrusion in San Francisco.  The aftermath of the invasion left a number of people with superpowers … relatively minor superpowers.  There are only two true superheroes in the universe, Aveda Jupiter and someone who’s name I’ve forgotten.  Aveda is more of a slightly enhanced ninja than anything else, a woman who combines demon-fighting with celebrity. 

The story isn’t about Aveda.  It’s about Evie Tanaka, Aveda’s former childhood best friend and current personal assistant.  Unlike Aveda, who loves the limelight, Evie tries to stay in the shadows, patiently handle her boss’s tantrums and raise her teenage sister Bea.  She is, sadly, very bad at standing up for herself.  She isn’t best pleased when Aveda is injured and she has to stand in for her boss.  Worse, she has a superpower of her own that might be the most dangerous one of all.

My feelings about the story are a little complex.  There are aspects I liked and aspects I disliked, some more than others.  Let me see if I can put them into words.

Right from the start, I simply didn’t like Aveda.  She’s a spoilt little diva, to say the least; she’s a user and, to some extent, an abuser.  The relationship between Aveda and Evie started out well – the childhood flashbacks are surprisingly sweet – but went downhill as they started their shared careers.  By the start of the story, it’s clear they’re heading for a rocky breakup even before Aveda is forced to step back to recover from an injury.  The writer tries hard to justify it – Aveda’s parents regret she isn’t a doctor, which comes across as absurd given how many lives Aveda has saved – but my tolerance for such behaviour is very limited.  She’s the type of person who gets on my nerves very quickly.

Evie is a lot more likable, but – at first – her passivity is just annoying.  Again, there are good reasons for her cramming her emotions into a tight little ball at the back of her mind, but I grew tired of it fairly quickly.  She – and Aveda – read more like schoolgirls than mature women.  Unlike Aveda, however, she develops into a stronger person as the story moves along.

(The writer comments on the relationship between the two here.)

The storyline itself is fairly one-dimensional.  It’s clear how things will develop as the players take their places on the storyboard.  The lover hiding a dark secret, the bratty teenage sister developing a little more common sense (although making bad calls on a regular basis), etc, etc.  There are a bunch of oddities that don’t quite make sense, although not really enough for me to throw up my hands in horror.

Heroine Complex is widely praised for starring Asian-American characters, as opposed to white or black characters.  (It also includes a considerable number of LGBT characters.)  It genuinely does let us see inside their heads, for better or worse, although it does focus on stereotypes more than I would have preferred.  (Aveda’s problems with her parent’s expectations, for example.)  It also manages to remind us that the two main characters are people, with all the wonders and follies of everyone else.  Neither Evie or Aveda is remotely perfect and the book is all the stronger for it. 

That said, the book does touch upon the representation trope.  Aveda was inspired to become a superhero, before she actually got powers, by watching a movie with Asian-American characters.  I’ve never been sure that actually works.  Watching a movie representation of yourself – your race, your class, your water – doesn’t translate into becoming … well, whatever you’re watching.  The characters on scene have a friendly scriptwriter to smooth out the bumps.  One of the reasons I hated Wesley Crusher so much was that he was a staggeringly unrealistic character – he was rewarded for the traits that got me beaten up when I was his age.  Frankly, one should be less concerned with the race (or whatever) of the character or actor and more concerned with how the character works

Overall, Heroine Complex suffers from many problems shared by other first novels.  The author tells a fairly coherent story, but there are mistakes and missteps that suggest she isn’t quite there yet.  Characters act like children – Aveda worries about a zit – or make dumb decisions in the interests of the plot.  It isn’t exactly the superhero or humorous story I was led to expect.  But she’s on the way. 

It wasn’t my cup of tea – I would have preferred more action and adventure to interpersonal activities – but you might like it.  Try the sample here or on the author’s site.