Archive | March, 2020

Cast Adrift: The Alphans

9 Mar

Some more background material.

Cast Adrift: The Alphans

The Alphans claim to be the oldest Galactic-level species in known space, a claim that few – if any – can openly challenge.  It is certainly true that they are the oldest race currently active within the quadrant, with an empire that – at their height – controlled thousands of star systems, multispace crossroad chokepoints and wealth beyond measure.  Even now, even after the Second Lupine War, they remain a force that cannot be challenged lightly.  Their influence on galactic affairs cannot be understated.  Their claim to have been the original writers of the Convocations may actually be true (although it has never actually been confirmed, one way or the other). 

Physically, the Alphans are orange-skinned hairless humans with giant bulging eyes and muscular frames.  (Their human subjects nicknamed them bemmies, from Bug-Eyed Monsters.)  Technically, they have two genders; practically, their bodies automatically transition from male to female and back again on a regular schedule between puberty and death.  Unsurprisingly, gender dimorphism and sex-based oppression is almost unknown amongst them; they tend to be a little bemused by sexism and suchlike when they encounter it in other races.  The idea of deliberately remaining one gender, without transitioning, is seem as a little weird.

Mentally, the Alphans are generally no more or less smarter than the average human (or any other sentient race).  They do, however, have an extreme superiority complex and tend to look down on other races, with the possible exception of their fellow Galactics.  They might adapt themselves to handle other races, but they never truly convert.  Nor do they let alien sensibilities stand in the way when they want something.  They had no qualms about imposing their rules on Earth, after they overran the plans, and crushing anyone who dared resist.  Lacking a religion themselves, for example, they saw human religions as nothing more than foolish superstition.  They certainly didn’t think about converting.

The Alphan Government is confusing, by Earthly standards.   It is dominated by the Core, a council formed of the various clan leaders and their advisors, but each of them are elected by a complicated system that they rarely even try to explain to outsiders.  Their government relies on a degree of cooperation and collaboration that would probably fail completely, if humans tried to make it work.  Outsiders speculate that, at least prior to the war, the Alphans were so satisfied, as a species, that there was little to fight over.  There was no need for conflict, at least amongst themselves, so they could collaborate in the certain knowledge that none of them would really lose.

It is probably best to think of their society as a cross between an aristocracy and a corporatocracy.  Their society is dominated by giant organisations that serve as both clans and corporate interests, with the majority of youngsters either devoting themselves to climbing the ladder to the top or dedicating themselves to pure pleasure.  The sheer wealth of their society allows them to create and maintain a social welfare state on a truly staggering scale.  A young Alphan need never work, if he does not wish to.  In a sense, the Alphans devised a system that allowed people to rise on merit without actually threatening the status quo.  They claim their welfare system allows people to sow their wild oats, then take up their place within the clan.  They may well be right. 

An Alphan who does not want to climb the ladder, or give himself wholly to pleasure, has a number of other options.  The military is always desperately short of manpower, particularly after the war.  If that isn’t exciting enough, an Alphan can take command of an alien-crewed vessel or military formation, serve as a trader or even go into deep-space exploration.  The Alphan Government is always on the lookout for youths who can serve in such roles, particularly as it keeps them out of trouble.

The system only works because it rests on a base of (effectively) slave labour.  The scutwork is done by alien immigrants, from Earth and a dozen other worlds, who are treated poorly by Alphan standards.  They have no hope of climbing the ladder, something they’ve found increasingly onerous as the small colonies of immigrants became ghettos and small communities that are both part of the planetary system and apart from it.  The ghettos are heavily policed, but the combination of manpower shortages and low-tech answers to advanced technology makes it harder for the Alphans to keep an eye on what’s going on.

The Alphan military is divided into three subsections.  The Capital Fleet – often called the Showboat Fleet by its human detractors – is a stately formation where spit and polish is more important than competence, dash or tactical skill.  The Outer Fleet patrols the borders and is generally more competent and open to new ideas, not least because it is generally the Outer Fleet that meets enemies for the first (and often the last) time.  The Elitists are ground-combat troops, intensely augmented and trained for meeting their enemies on even terms.  They are regarded as extremely dangerous, unlike the Capital Fleet, but they are very few in number, a problem that worries their more thoughtful commanders.  They get few volunteers, unlike the fleets, and most of the volunteers don’t pass the training course.

It is not uncommon for outsiders to underestimate the Capital Fleet.  It is true that the fleet’s officers are trained more for formation flying than actual fighting.  It is also true that their exercises are predictable, with the winners and losers determined well in advance.  They would be in deep trouble if they had to fight an enemy on equal terms.  However, their technical prowess gives them the edge against almost any foe.  Their weapons, sensors, armour and starfighters are vastly superior to the vast majority of their potential enemies, their giant warcruisers almost untouchable …

This led to overconfidence.  The belief they could not be challenged in open battle became a certainty they would never be challenged.  The Alphans allowed their industrial base to atrophy, weakening their ability to fight a long and costly war.  They turned their ships – their warcruisers, the mainstay of their fleet – into works of art, while cutting the number of support ships to the bone.  It took five years, by the time war broke out, to build a new warcruiser from scratch.  They didn’t see the problem with this until it was far too late.

Unsurprisingly,  the Alphans had a nasty shock when the Lupines proved capable of touching the giant warcruisers.  The Lupines had planned the war carefully, deducing the weaknesses within the Alphan and calculating how best to take advantage of them.  They traded hundreds of ships for each warcruiser they took down, but they had hundreds of ships to spare.  If the human sepoys – and human-manned ships – hadn’t held the line, the Alphan Empire might have been crushed.  The shockwaves nearly brought the whole system crashing down.  The simple act of building up their industry and rebuilding their fleet was almost too much to bear. 

And even victory, when it came, brought its own challenges.

A New Ark Royal Novella – and More!

7 Mar

So … I was working on the plot for the next – and possibly final – Ark Royal trilogy when I realised that one aspect of the plot would seriously unbalance the rest of the novel.  It would have to come too early, pushing everything else to the rear, or be hurriedly compressed in a way I wasn’t sure I wanted to do.  So I separated the story and turned it into the very first Ark Royal novella, Life During Wartime, in which … well, you’ll have to read the story …

… Which is included in The Dogs of God: Science Fiction According to Chris, published by Theogony Books.

But wait!  It isn’t just my story.  There are sixteen writers called Chris who’ve contributed stories to this anthology, from Chris Kennedy to Chris Maddox.  Even the cover was designed by a Chris – but not me, I hasten to add.

Download from Amazon using these links: US, UK

Musings on Weinstein

3 Mar

Musings on Weinstein

Normal commenting rules apply.

Over the weeks prior to Harvey Weinstein’s conviction, there were – I noticed – roughly two fields of thought online.  One insisted that Weinstein would skate, that his years of building up influence with political leaders, reporters and editors and suchlike would pay off; he’d get a slap on the wrist, nothing more.  The other insisted that Weinstein would be convicted, regardless of the legalities of the case; Weinstein had become so hated, so much the poster child for the METOO movement, that no one would dare to vote for acquittal.  (It won’t surprise you to hear that both sets of arguments veered towards misogyny and misandry.)  Thankfully, Weinstein’s conviction – in my opinion – upheld the rule of law.

Weinstein faced five separate charges.  It is telling, I think, that he was only convicted on two of them.  This is not the complete sweep his opponents wanted – although, given his age, it is fairly certain he will die in prison – but, at the same time, it is not a complete disregard for the legalities that others feared.  The prosecutors could only prove two sets of charges.  They were enough to convict Weinstein without destroying the legal framework and the rule of law.

And yet, it cannot be denied that Weinstein’s lawyers faced an uphill battle.  Weinstein was famous, then notorious.  His lawyers are – no doubt – already planning an appeal on the grounds Weinstein could not possibly be given a fair trial.  He was, in a way, tried and convicted by social media a long time before his case was brought before the court.  It was vanishingly unlikely that anyone could approach the case without at least some awareness of who Weinstein was and what he’d done.

The prosecution – too – faced an uphill battle.  In one sense, Weinstein’s behaviour was common knowledge well before 2017.  Hollywood made jokes about it (which tells you everything you need to know about Hollywood).  In another, it can be difficult – very difficult – to prove rape, particularly a rape that took place years before it became public.  A woman who goes straight to the police has a credibility that a woman who says nothing for years, or exchanges flirty emails with her rapist for years, simply lacks.  Weinstein was practiced at covering his tracks.  We simply don’t know how many prospective actresses he victimised before he was finally exposed.  The combination of a vast level of clout, non-disclosure agreements and a simple reluctance to look facts in the face provided all the cover a predator could possibly want.  Weinstein’s victims were not always convincing.  A young wannabe actress, all too aware that a word from Weinstein could ensure her career never got off the ground, cannot be faulted for keeping her mouth firmly shut.  Famous actresses like Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd and Gwyneth Paltrow have far less excuse. 

The blunt truth, in these cases, is that establishing truth beyond all shadow of a doubt is not easy.

And yet, the affair has uncovered two deeper – darker – truths about both Hollywood and human nature.

First, those who live and work in a toxic environment rapidly become toxic.  Their sense of normal practice, of where the lines are drawn, becomes blurred … then fades altogether.  It is quite possible that Weinstein discovered, quite early on, that he could push the limits about as far as they could go – and, as he pushed them, realised he could simply keep going.  His behaviour, to an outside eye, is beyond appalling.  To people on the inside, it was simply a part of doing business.  Weinstein did not invent the ‘casting couch.’  The concept of would-be actresses trading sex for roles was well-established long before Weinstein came on the scene

The blunt truth is that, when there is such an immense imbalance of power, that ‘consent’ can be a very slippery thing indeed.  (This is why the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky relationship was so inappropriate.)  Weinstein did not need to say, bluntly, “have sex with me or you’ll never work in this town again.”  He had enough power to make the threat implicit without ever having to make it explicit, without ever crossing a line that his enemies could use to bring him down.  The disparity in power was so great that, regardless of what the actresses claimed, no one could consider consent to be wilfully given.  A relationship between someone who was, effectively, ‘the boss’ and someone far junior should have ended in the boss being unceremoniously terminated.  Instead, far too many people just smiled weakly and took it.

I don’t know why Weinstein chose to act in such a fashion. I’ve seen no shortage of speculation, ranging from ‘creepy male feminist’ to ‘long-standing hatred and resentment against women’.  The point is that he lived and worked in an environment where such behaviour tended to go unnoticed (or at least unpunished) until it was far too late.

And this leads, neatly, to the second point.  The dirty secret of Hollywood – of big business and politics and just about everywhere else – is that wealth and power excuses anything and everything.  As long as he was powerful, as long as he made money, people would make excuses for him.  And Weinstein’s connections reached very far indeed.  Hillary Clinton might have taken more cash from Weinstein’s coffers than anyone else, if the New York Post is to be believed, but she was far from the only Democrat to take his money.  The First Daughter, Malia Obama, interned for Weinstein!  The Secret Service must have been asleep at the switch. 

Hollywood chose to cover up Weinstein’s perversions as long as he made money.  He was allowed to do whatever he liked; his accusers were pushed into signing NDAs as a condition of their payouts. (Weinstein can spend the rest of his life suing anyone who broke one of those NDAs, if he wishes.)  Brad Pitt deserves credit for threatening Weinstein after Weinstein harassed Gwyneth Paltrow, but it didn’t seem to occur to him that a man who was prepared to threaten a world-famous actress might have a string of less prominent victims.  It wasn’t until Weinstein started losing his power that people started speaking out about his behaviour.  And then it was far too late.

Weinstein was not the only one.  Woody Allen remains honoured in Hollywood, despite sexual abuse allegations.  Roman Polanski likewise, despite a conviction for child-rape.  (Whoopi Goldberg, of all people, tried to defend him.)  And how many others remain unknown?

The blunt truth is that Hollywood has become a cesspit (if indeed it was ever anything else).  Dozens of famous names had been named and shamed, their careers damaged or destroyed over the past few years.  Right now, there are damaging rumours about a producer who might be a very big name indeed … although I have no confirmation one way or the other.  And it has become clear that, for all their claims to ‘wokeness’, the big-wigs have been very ‘unwoke’ indeed.  It is no longer possible to take Hollywood’s moralising seriously.  Why on Earth should we take heed of people who closed their eyes to monsters in their midst?  And why should we listen to them about Donald Trump?

Hollywood praises itself on its ‘bravery’ in ‘speaking truth to power’ (i.e. constantly assaulting Donald Trump/Republicans/Conservatives).  This has now been exposed as a lie. Hollywood is brave as long as the target is easy – and safe.  When faced with harder targets, targets that can and will push back, Hollywood chooses not to fight.  No one takes actors and actresses seriously any longer and why should they?  It isn’t just that the stars of stage and screen enjoy a lifestyle well above the average.  It is that they’re hypocrites.

In fact, the worst thing Hollywood could do to Trump would be to endorse him.

The broader implications for the future may bear contemplation.  METOO has exposed the festering cesspit of Hollywood.  It has delivered a certain, if limited, justice to some of the worst people on the planet.  At the same time, however, it has flip-flopped on many important issues.  It has not, as Spiked pointed out, done anything about working-class girls abused by grooming gangs in England.  Nor has it realised the limits of social media outrage, that it runs the risk of both giving the guilty an ironclad defence and doing irreparable damage to innocent men.  Indeed, there is a very good chance that, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, ‘Ban-The-Box’ and innumerable diversity and inclusion ‘educational’ sessions, METOO will do considerable harm to the people it claims to help.  If the risk of being accused – and of being simply thrown under the bus without a fair trial – is deemed too high, why should anyone take the risk?  Apparently, women are already losing mentorship opportunities that should otherwise be theirs.

But these are matters for a later essay.  For the moment, let us be happy that Weinstein is facing justice for at least some of his misdeeds.