Archive | June, 2020

Out Now – Fantastic Schools, Volume One

26 Jun

Featuring a collection of magic school stories, including Gennady’s Tale … a whole new Schooled in Magic novella (and an introduction by yours truly).  Purchase (Amazon US, UK, CAN, AU, Draft2Digital) NOW.

Have you ever wanted to go to magic school? To cast spells and brew potions and fly on broomsticks and—perhaps—battle threats both common and supernatural? Come with us into worlds of magic, where students become magicians and teachers do everything in their power to ensure the kids survive long enough to graduate. Welcome to … Fantastic Schools.

Follow a girl trying desperately to find her place in a school of dark magic, a band of witches desperate to prove they can be as good as the wizards, a school of magical monsters standing between the evil one and ultimate power, a businesswoman discovering the secrets of darkest evil … and what happens when a magical education goes badly wrong.

Follow us into worlds different, magical …

… And very human.

Minor Thoughts on Advances

12 Jun

There’s been some chatter in various writers groups and suchlike about this article: Book Authors Are Getting Real About How Much They Are Paid.  Most of what I can say about it, in response, has been said by Larry Correia and John Scalzi, but I think there are a few minor points that bear mentioning.

One – an advance is called an advance because that’s precisely what it is.  It’s an advance on monies the publisher believes the book will earn.  If you’re just starting out, with no social profile at all, you’ll get a very low advance; if you have a well-deserved reputation as a money-maker and/or you have lots of fans, you’ll get much bigger advances.

Two – once an advance is paid, you rarely see anything more until the book recoups the publisher’s investment.  If, for example, it costs roughly £20K to publish a book, you won’t see a penny more until it earns over 20K.

Three – it can get very sticky indeed if the book fails to earn back its advance.  If your book does not earn itself out … well, best-case, the beancounters will probably refuse to greenlight publishing another book of yours.  Worst-case, they’ll demand the money back and/or refuse to release the rights so you can self-publish the book.  And the other publishers will take note too.  Put crudely, a big advance can easily become an anvil around your neck. 

Four – the big publishers can afford to take certain risks with advances that look big to the human eye, but aren’t that big relative to their budgets.  Small publishers cannot afford to take the risk, to the point they only offer small advances or none.  Even a mid-size publisher can run into trouble if they invest heavily in a flop.  Baen Books – depending on which version you believe – invested heavily in 1945 by Bill Fortschen and Newt Gingrich during the height of Gingrich’s popularity.  The book came out at a very bad moment, the company took a massive financial hit and came very close to complete collapse. 

Five – because of the previous four factors, most advances are very low.  The big figures mentioned by the article are the exception, not the rule.

Six – it’s very easy to start comparing apples to oranges.  A book that fits into a niche market (MIL-SF) may not make the jump into a genre market (SF), let alone go mainstream.  The advances for niche books are generally lower because the publishers believe, rightly or wrongly, that the pool of potential customers is smaller.  A book written by a famous name – a politician or sports star or whatever – will be seen as appealing to the name’s fans and thus garner a bigger advance.  (Note that such a personage will have more clout when it comes to demanding a bigger advance.)

Seven – and this is the controversial part – pushing authors based on anything apart from writing skill is always hazardous.  The vast majority of readers don’t care about the author; they don’t care about sex or skin colour or religion or habits or anything, beyond writing skill.  It’s very easy for a big publisher to assume a book that appeals to them will appeal to everyone, which is frankly untrue. 

Is there actually a disparity between advances paid to white authors and everyone else?  I don’t know, because it is very hard to compare two authors without eliminating all the other factors.  Did someone, for example, sell so well the first time around that the publisher hyped the next advance?  Or were sales lower than predicted and the publisher didn’t feel like taking a chance again?  For all the white authors mentioned in the article as getting huge advances, how many white authors – and POC authors – got smaller or no advances?

What do you think?

Snippet – The Lady Heiress

12 Jun


I think about my father a lot.  Even when I’m trying not to.

I still remember the last day I saw him, six years ago.  I still remember the day he sent me away.

We’d never really been close.  He was Lord Lucas, Patriarch of House Lamplighter, and he always had something to do.  He’d always been a distant figure to me.  He’d acknowledged me as his child – it wasn’t as if I was a natural-born daughter – but he was always too busy to spend time with me.  It wasn’t uncommon amongst the Great Houses.  I was unusual in spending so much time with my mother, rather than being farmed out to a succession of governesses and private tutors.  It wasn’t until much later that I understood why.

He hadn’t sent me to Jude’s.  I should have gone when I turned twelve, like all the children of the Great Houses, but he’d insisted on keeping me at Lamplighter Hall.  I’d argued and pleaded and even resorted to screaming, to no avail.  Mother had care of my education, with my aunts and uncles filling in the blanks.  It wasn’t that they were bad at teaching – I suppose it was easier with only one student to teach – but it wasn’t the same.  Mother kept saying Father would change his mind, yet … I think she knew better.  I think she knew he’d never change his mind.

And then she died in the House War.

I don’t remember who told me.  My memories are a blur.  The only clear memory I have from that time is my father saying that he was sending me to school, that he was sending me away.  I was too dazed to care.  My mother was dead and … it wasn’t until I got to Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies that I realised he’d sent me away, that he didn’t want to see me again.  I was a reject, an outcast like all the other long-term boarders.  I was … unwanted.

I don’t know why my father sent me away.  He never said.  I used to fret endlessly over what I’d done, back before I grew old enough to realise I’d done nothing.  I used to wonder if I was – somehow – responsible for mother’s death, for my father’s constant absences … if, perhaps, my father blamed me for something beyond my control.  I wouldn’t be the first girl to be sent away because her family could no longer cope, but … why me?

He wasn’t a monster.  There were fathers who were abusive to their daughters, who shouted at them and beat them and arranged matches to men of good families … my father wasn’t like that.  And there were fathers who spoilt their daughters rotten or paid no attention to them … as if they were just little people who happened to share the house.  My father wasn’t like that either.  I didn’t know why he’d sent me away.  And I wished – more and more, as I got older – that I could remember his face.  My family were little more than shadows.  Only a couple bothered to say in touch with me and none of them told me anything useful.  None of them told me why.

I grew up at Grayling’s.  I wasn’t the only long-term boarder.  I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get to go home over the summer, who grew from thirteen to nineteen without ever seeing her parents.  But I was the only one whose family lived nearby, the only one who could have gone home …

… And then I got the letter that told me my father had died. 

And then everything changed.

Chapter One

I’d always liked secrets.

It wasn’t anything bad.  Not really.  Knowledge was power in Grayling’s Academy for Young Ladies.  Knowing something everyone else didn’t know – or knowing something someone else wanted to remain secret – was always advantageous in the endless struggles for social status.  I’d grown to adulthood learning to keep my ears open and my mouth closed, learning how to put the puzzle pieces together to work out what was actually going on.  I knew more about my fellow students – and the staff – than they could possibly imagine.  I knew who had a crush on who, who was sneaking out at night to see her boyfriend, who was plotting against Mistress Grayling … I knew and I kept it to myself.  Secrets were currency, as far as I was concerned.  They lost their value the moment they became public.

Grayling’s had been the making of me, for better or worse.  I’d done well in my lessons, both the formal tuition and the other – far more useful – lessons I’d learnt from the other girls.  I knew how to evade the locking charms on the dorms, how to hack through the spells on the outer doors and sneak into the gardens … or get over the walls to meet a boy.  I knew which prefects could be trusted to turn a blind eye, as long as the relationship was harmless, and which prefects would blow the whistle for the sheer pleasure of watching some hapless romantic be roasted in front of the entire school the following morning.  I’d even managed to convince some of the latter to let me go, just by telling them a tiny little secret.  They thought I’d sneak on them.  Of course they did.  It was what they would have done.

I smirked to myself as I slipped out of my bedroom and peered down the darkened corridor.  It was nearly midnight, but I could see a pair of younger miscreants standing at one end of the corridor, hands firmly charmed to their heads.  I rolled my eyes at their backs.  The sheer illogic of the system had never creased to amuse me.  If a young girl was caught out of bed, but still within the dorms, she was told to stay out of her bed … it had never really made sense.  Or maybe it did.  I’d been forced to stand in the corridor, looking like an absolute dork, often enough to learn a few basic heating charms.  I supposed it did provide a certain encouragement.

And if you get caught once you pass the doors, I reminded myself, you’ll be in real trouble.

I inched soundlessly down the corridor and round the corner.  Katie – my roommate – had stayed outside after Lights Out, planning to meet her boyfriend in the gardens.  She’d been confident she could evade discovery long enough to have her fun and sneak back inside, but I wasn’t so sure.  The Head Girl had been on the prowl over the last few days.  Marlene had always had it in for me, and Katie by extension.  I’d broken her nose when we both thirteen years old.  Mistress Grayling had been more upset about the punching – young ladies did not resort to physical violence, she’d said – than anything else.  She would have been less upset if I’d turned Marlene into a frog.

The charms on the door were complex, but not too complex.  I’d often wondered if the entire tradition of sneaking out after Lights Out was designed to encourage us to learn skills that would be useful in later life.  The staff could have kept us locked up, if they’d been willing to put some work into it.  I carefully unpicked them, then slipped through the door and into the corridor beyond.  My heart started to thump as I inched onwards.  I was committed.  If I was caught outside the dorms after Lights Out, I’d be called out during Assembly and humiliated in front of the entire school.  Not for being out of the dorms, but for being caught.

I donned a pair of charmed spectacles as soon as I was round the corner, looking around with interest.  I’d often suspected the prefects had ways to track active magic within the school, but they’d find it harder to detect and locate an active Device of Power.  The building seemed to come to life around me, flickers of magic darting through the walls as I hurried to the stairs and headed downwards.  There was something truly eerie about the school, after dark.  It was easy to believe, suddenly, that the school’s ghosts came out and danced in the darkness.  I’d heard all the stories.   They seemed very real.

The air was silent, too silent.  I kept to the side, careful not to put any weight on loose floorboards or squeaky stairs.  The prefects might be lurking in the shadows, waiting for me.  I hadn’t been fool enough to tell anyone I was sneaking out, let alone where I was going, but it was quite possible someone else had.  Stealing food from the kitchens for a midnight feast was an old tradition too.  And if someone in the lower dorms had been planning it, they might just have been overheard by one of the prefects.  They knew all the tricks.  They’d been students too, once upon a time.

Although it’s hard to believe, sometimes, I told myself.  I wouldn’t have thought Marlene had ever been young if I hadn’t grown up with her.

I smiled at the thought, then put it to one side as I reached the bottom of the stairs.  The lobby was empty, although I tensed as I spotted the line of portraits on the wall.  Rumour had it the paintings had eyes, charmed to allow Mistress Grayling to see through them.  I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I did my best to stay out of eyesight anyway.  Just in case.  The paintings were supposed to show headmistresses from the last three hundred years, but I hadn’t been able to help noticing they all looked alike.  Rumour also claimed Mistress Grayling was a vampire.  It was hard to believe she might have been young too.

The thrill of being somewhere I shouldn’t grew stronger with every passing second.  Students weren’t allowed in the lobby, unless they’d been ordered to the headmistress’s office.  It was a silly rule, one of many, but so strictly enforced that I was half-convinced Mistress Grayling really was a vampire.  Or that she was keeping something from us.  Or … I resisted the urge to snort as I crawled under the final painting, then straightened as I stared at the office door.  It was far more likely, really, that Mistress Grayling was merely exercising her authority.  I’d grown up in a Great House.  I knew it was important to use one’s authority or risk losing it.

I pressed my fingers against the doorknob, parsing out the charms.  They were complex – I’d had a look at them the last time I’d been summoned to the office – but not unbreakable.  I braced myself, then started to work.  The charms hadn’t been made that tight.  Mistress Grayling couldn’t keep us out completely without barring the staff as well.  Personally, I would have considered that a fair trade.  There were some good teachers, but also some I’d pay money never to have to see again.

The door clicked.  I froze.  The noise sounded very loud in the silent school.  If I was caught  now, I’d be a laughing stock.  Marlene – and everyone else, even Katie – would laugh like a hyena if I was caught.  The door slid open, allowing me to peer inside.  The chamber was as dark and cold as the grave. Mistress Grayling had the largest office in the school – there were classrooms that were smaller – but there was no hint of any personality.  It was as colourless as the woman herself.  No paintings, no trophies … nothing.  I was almost disappointed as I inched into the chamber, pushing the door closed behind me.  There was no other way out.  If someone came, I’d have to hide in the shadows and hope for the best.  I smiled, allowing my tension to drain away as I walked towards the filing cabinets.  I’d often wanted to take a look inside, but I’d never dared.  Not until now.  The exams were over.  Like it or not, I’d be leaving the school forever in a few weeks.  It wasn’t as anyone would care if I got expelled. 

The cabinet charms were weaker than I’d expected.  I frowned, wondering if I’d been tricked somehow.  The files – the real files – could be elsewhere.  Mistress Grayling’s rooms were on the other side of the school.  It was quite possible she kept the real files there.  I felt my heart sink as I unpicked the charms, one by one.  Surely, she wouldn’t be quite so careless about her files.  The real charms had to be elsewhere.

Magic crackled around me as I picked apart the last charm and pulled the cabinet open.  Rows of files greeted me, each one labelled with a number and nothing else.  I muttered a word that would have me going to bed on bread and water if a prefect – or the tutors – heard.  It would be difficult, if not  impossible, to figure out whose file was whose.  There had to be trick to it … I scanned the numbers, trying to think.  I didn’t have a student number, did I?  It wasn’t as if they didn’t call me by name.  Or … I smiled, suddenly, as my birth date jumped out at me.  It had to be my file.  I’d have known if someone shared my birthday.

I pulled the file free, unpicked the locking charm and opened the box.  My permanent record book sat on top.  I put it to one side and inspected the rest of the papers.  A letter from my father, pleading for Mistress Grayling to take me as a pupil … it was dated shortly after the House War, barely a day after my mother died.  My heart clenched in pain.  My father had started planning to send me away at once?  And to Grayling’s?  Tears prickled in my eyes.  I blinked them away, harshly.  Father had had a good reason.  I was sure he’d had a good reason.  But the letter merely referred to unspecified reasons …

My eyes narrowed as I skimmed the remainder of the letters and accounts.  Mistress Grayling had written to my father twice, demanding payment … payment for what?  My head spun as I tried to understand what I was seeing.  Payment … for me?  If my school fees were unpaid … I’d have been kicked out.  I was sure of it.  Mistress Grayling wasn’t running a charity.  She’d told us often enough.  But father could have paid easily … right?  I skimmed through the rest of the papers, trying to read between the lines.  It wasn’t easy.  My father – and Mistress Grayling – seemed to be committing as little as possible to paper.  The only exception was a note from my uncle, asking permission to take me out for a day … I nearly destroyed the letter as I realised it was dated five months ago.  Mistress Grayling hadn’t bothered to ask me if I wanted to go.  And I would have.  It had been too long since I’d so much as left the school.

And Uncle Jalil probably thinks I’m a rude little snob, I thought, angrily.  He wouldn’t have minded if I’d said no – my exams had been coming up – but saying nothing was dreadfully rude.  Mistress Grayling’s managed to land me in trouble.

I scowled as I carefully closed up the box, then returned it to the shelf.  I’d have to find a way to apologise without admitting what I’d done.  And to confront Mistress Grayling.  She had every right to bar me from going, if she’d thought I needed to study, but she really should have told me.  I wasn’t sure how.  The headmistress would be furious if she knew I’d pried into her private correspondence.  The rest of the staff wouldn’t be amused either.

My eyes narrowed as I spotted the account books at the bottom of the cabinet.  They were covered in charms, charms I’d learnt in class.  I picked apart the ones intended to keep unauthorised readers from opening the books, then frowned down at the figures.  Mistress Grayling’s handwriting was awful.  The charms would make it hard to deliberately miscalculate one’s sums, but they were still hard to read.  It looked as though the school was losing money.  I wasn’t too surprised.  Mistress Grayling had never struck me as a particularly good headmistress.

I tensed as I heard a sound from outside the windows.  The grounds outside were dark, but … I remembered, suddenly, how many girls might be sneaking out to see their boyfriends or catch up with their pashes.  I returned the book to the shelf, hastily repaired the damaged charms and headed for the door.  If someone peered in, they might see me.  I doubted they’d sneak – it would be instant social death, if we found out who’d done it – but they might take advantage of knowing.  Who knew what they’d demand from me if they knew what I’d done?

My heart started to pound, again, as I heard more sounds from outside.  Someone was talking … I winced in sympathy.  No one would be talking so loudly if they hadn’t already been caught, probably by one of the less amiable prefects.  They might manage to talk one of the others into letting them go, if they didn’t make it impossible by accidentally waking the whole school.  I smiled at the thought, even though I knew it wasn’t really funny.  If they got everyone out of bed, they’d have no trouble spotting my absence.  And then I’d be in trouble. 

I inched into the lobby, closing the door behind me as quietly as I could.  The outer door was already opening.  I started to move towards the stairs, then caught myself and slipped into the shadows, wrapping the strongest obscurification charm I could around myself.  The charms were subtle, so low-power they were very hard to detect …  as long as I didn’t draw someone’s attention.  I knew stronger spells, but the mere act of trying to use them might reveal my presence.  And if I was caught …

The outer door opened.  I knew who it was, who it had to be, before she came into sight.  The common or garden students were never permitted to use the front door.  Even prefects were discouraged from using the door, particularly after Lights Out.  It had to be Marlene … my heart sank as the Head Girl came into view, followed by my roommate.  Katie had her hands on her head, a clear sign she’d been caught.  I felt a stab of sympathy, mingled with fear.  If Marlene marched Katie straight back to our room, there was a good chance she’d realise I was missing too.  I wasn’t scared of being caught, not really, but … I breathed a sigh of relief as Marlene pushed Katie towards the lower door.  It looked as if she was going to wake the duty tutor.  I thought a string of uncomplimentary things as they vanished into the darkness.  Poor Katie would be in real trouble.  The duty tutor would not be in a good mood if she was woken in the middle of the night.

And Marlene might be in some trouble too, I told myself.  I clung to the thought as I started to inch back up the stairs.  The duty tutor really won’t be happy if she’s woken.

I smirked at the thought, even though I knew it was unlikely.  Marlene was the Head Girl.  She had the authority to wake the tutor if she felt it necessary.  And her family was quite well connected.  Marlene might get told off, but little more.  She certainly wouldn’t be stripped of her post.  I put the thought out of my head as I hurried back to the dorms, slipping through the doors and into my room.  The corridors were completely empty.  I was in my bed, pretending to be asleep, when Katie was thrust back into the room.  Marlene snapped something at her – I couldn’t make it out – and closed the door.  I peered out as soon as she was safely gone.

“You okay?”

Katie shook her head.  “I’ll be seeing the headmistress tomorrow,” she said.  “And Marlene has me on the detention roster for the rest of the year.”

She snickered.  “I’m not going to be here for the rest of the year.”

“How unfortunate for Marlene,” I said.  “Did you have a good time?”

“Yeah.”  Katie shrugged.  “Better than the bloke my parents wanted me to marry, I can tell you.”

I nodded.  Katie’s parents had tried to arrange a match for her.  I’d helped her break it off before it was too late.  She’d been lucky.  An aristocratic maid, even one with strong magic, might have found it a great deal harder to stand against parental pressure to marry.

“Better get some sleep,” I said.  “The morning is not going to be fun.”

“No.”  Katie made a face.  “Do you think I’ll get expelled?”

“It would be a little pointless now,” I reminded her.  “You’ve sat your exams.”

I pulled the cover over my head and closed my eyes, muttering a sleep spell.  I’d pay for it in the morning with a banging headache, but there was no choice.  There were only five hours until I was meant to get out of bed or there’d be no breakfast.  And Marlene would be watching.  If she spotted I was tired, she might deduce I’d been out of bed after Lights Out …

… And, five hours later, she tried to break down the door.

Idle Thoughts on Motives

11 Jun

Might be of interest, though more random than anything else.

Idle Thoughts on Motives

We’ve been so busy trying to work out if [the murderer] is into boys or girls that we haven’t stopped to wonder if that’s his actual motive.

-Wee Hughie (roughly paraphased)

The basic idea of The Witch of Turlingham Academy books is that Sophie, a Witch, is BFF (yes, these are kids books) with Katy, a Witch Hunter.  The first book follows the two girls becoming friends, almost despite themselves; the successive books follow them trying to conceal their friendship from their families, then convince their families to accept their friendships.  Book Four makes things more complicated when a new Witch comes to school and her parents raise concerns about Katy.  Sophie’s mother (muggle, but married to a Witch) points out, rather frostily, that Katy has every right to an education too.  The new Witch’s parents aren’t too impressed and it’s fairly clear that, if they hadn’t needed to have their daughter at the school, they would have taken her elsewhere.

Are they being discriminatory?

Katy has the same problem as a bunch of other sharp-edged characters (like Hermione Granger).  If you’re predisposed to like her, as her BFF obviously is, she’s a wonderful person.  If not … she’s rather less wonderful.  And, as much as it pains me to admit it, there are good reasons for the new girl’s parents to view Katy with a degree of wariness.  For example:

-Katy is a Witch Hunter from a family of Witch Hunters with a very bad (and very well deserved) reputation.

-Katy (and her brother) genuinely did come to school to track down and depower a witch, a process that would have been directly or indirectly fatal.

-Katy only changed her mind when she discovered the Witch in question was her BFF. 

-Katy’s brother and parents continued to pose a threat until they were forced to choose between saving their daughter and continuing the war.   For this, they have been cast out from the Witch Hunters.

Now, if you know Katy (as Sophia and her mother do), you might feel that there’s no reason to fear.  Katy has more than proved herself a true and loyal friend.  But if you don’t know Katy, you might think otherwise.  Your daughter is at stake.  Would you take the risk of allowing her to share space with a Witch Hunter?


Midway through Prince Caspian, as this writer reminds us, Nikabrik the Dwarf proposes summoning the White Witch to aid the Narnians in their fight against the Telmarines.  Anyone who’s read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe  or The Magician’s Nephew knows just how bad an idea this is.  The White Witch is a monster who destroyed her entire world out of spite, introduced evil into Narnia and – eventually – plunged the land into endless winter until her death.  It’s easy for the reader to understand that Nikabrik’s idea is pure madness.

Nikabrik hasn’t read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  He never saw the endless winter.  To him, the White Witch is a creature out of legend.  A threat, perhaps, but one the Narnians survived. 

And the situation is desperate.  The Narnians are losing.  The Telmarines will exterminate the talking beasts (and everyone else) if they win.  Surrender is impossible.  There’s little hope of conventional victory, let alone escape; there’s no reason to believe help is on the way.  Defeat means the end of everything. 

All of a sudden, summoning the White Witch doesn’t seem such a bad idea. 


Viewers of Battlestar Galactica recoiled in horror when Gaius Baltar was elected President of the Twelve Colonies (or what was left of them) at the end of Season Two.  They knew, even if the characters didn’t, that Baltar was indirectly responsible for the fall of the colonies, the effective genocide of mankind, the death of the fleet’s legitimate commanding officer and the electronic signature that eventually doomed the settlement on New Caprica.  (To be fair, unlike his original series counterpart, Baltar never meant to do any of it (with the possible exception of assassinating Admiral Cain)).  To viewers, electing Baltar seemed an utterly unbelievable mistake. 

Is it?

Baltar ran against Laura Roslin.  Again, if you are inclined to like Roslin, you’ll probably think well of her.  But if you’re not so inclined, a more disturbing picture begins to arise.

Roslin did not become President through running for election.  She became President through the death of everyone higher up the line of succession.  She was unwilling to admit this and hold new elections in season one until she had her hypocrisy pointed out to her (by Lee) and selected Baltar as her VP.  She then induced an officer to go against the chain of command, triggered a near-civil war within the fleet which risked splitting it at a crucial moment, plotted to assassinate the fleet’s legitimate commanding officer, tried to rig the election and quite a few other dubious choices.  She’s also a religious fanatic who bent the knee to other religious fanatics and, perhaps worst of all, a person with a knack for making promises and breaking them at the drop of a hat.

Now, you can argue that some of this was justified.  Admiral Cain really was a lunatic who had to be removed.  The split in the fleet led to the discovery of the way to Earth.  But many of her other decisions were not.  And not all of this was known to the average citizen of the fleet.

Baltar would not look bad, from the average citizen’s point of view.  He’s a legitimate war hero.  He’s a man of science, not a religious nut.  He doesn’t have a record of making bad and/or dubious decisions, as far as the average citizen knows.  And Roslin picked him as her VP, which suggests she – at least – was happy to run the risk of Baltar being her successor.  In short, he might not seem such a bad choice.

But Baltar isn’t the only issue.  The colonials have a choice between settling New Caprica and continuing on a desperate quest to find Earth.  The fleet leadership believes that settling on New Caprica is asking for disaster, rightly so.  But consider it from the point of view of the average citizen.  You’re trapped on a fleet that is under constant attack.  Supplies are constantly on the brink of running out.  You’re living under martial law.  You’re either sitting around doing nothing, defending the fleet or working in dangerously unsafe conditions to keep the fleet going (and, all the time, resenting the officers on Galactica and Colonial One, who don’t find it so bad because they have private cabins and suchlike.)  Moving to New Caprica suddenly seems like a very good idea, all the more so as the planet is practically impossible to find (no one knows the detonation will eventually lead the bad guys to the colony). 

Sure, there are risks inherent in settling on New Caprica.  But there are also risks in not settling on New Caprica.

All of a sudden, the idea of electing Balter – the man who pledged to set up a colony on New Caprica – doesn’t seem quite so insane.


Now, you can reasonably argue that the people in all three examples above were dangerously ignorant, at the very least.  This would be true.  They don’t know things they need to know to make a proper judgement, they don’t know that Katy is a good friend, that the White Witch is a terrible menace and that it’s only a matter of time before New Caprica is discovered and occupied.  But, based on what they actually know (and their past experiences), they’re making good decisions.

The problem facing the good guys, in all three examples, is a certain reluctance to admit the other side has a point, let alone try to deconstruct it.  It’s very easy to refuse to recognise that the other side has legitimate arguments, as – in this day and age – merely considering their arguments seriously runs the risk of being accused of agreeing with those arguments.  It’s also possible that the weight of those arguments is so strong that they simply cannot be deflected, even if they’re wrong.  The colonials of Battlestar Galactica are in such dire circumstances that even clear proof of Balter’s failings would not change the simple fact that settling New Caprica looks like a very good idea. 

And yet, deconstructing the other side’s arguments is the only way to progress.

People have feelings.  They have needs and fears and a certain degree of self-interest.  If you dismiss those feelings as foolish or wrong or whatever, even if they are objectively so, you’ll harden their hearts against you.  They will reach a state where throwing the baby out with the bathwater seems a very good idea.  However, if you recognise that they consider their arguments to be legitimate and engage with them, you may convince them to recognise that your feelings are also legitimate.  For example:

Sophia’s mother could have stood up for Katy and pointed out that there’s no reason to think that either Katy or her family pose any threat to the new Witch.  She could even have offered to ensure the girls slept in different dorms, limiting the contact between them as much as possible.

Prince Caspian could have pointed out that the war is not completely lost.  They can make preparations to summon the White Witch, but refrain from actually doing so until they are on the brink of total destruction.  Caspian would have looked more reasonable and, as help was already on the way (IIRC, in the next room), there’d be no need to take the risk.

Roslin could have proposed a compromise.  The fleet would lurk in interstellar space while slowly and steadily developing New Caprica.  The planet would be turned into a source of food, with the long-term intention of eventually settling the world completely.  In the meantime, one of the battlestars could have continued the search for Earth.  When the bad guys turned up and invaded New Caprica, Roslin would have looked very far-sighted indeed. 

I don’t pretend that listening to the other side would solve all of our problems.  But refusing to accept that they have legitimate points – or think they do – will only make our problems worse.

Musings on Emergencies

10 Jun

When in danger, When in doubt,

Run in circles, Scream and shout!

-Original Source Unknown

As a writer, I am used to receiving criticism.  It’s part of the job.  People point out everything from spelling mistakes to factual inaccuracies all the time.  It happens.  I don’t mind it.  But one comment that stuck in my mind came from a review of The Cowards Way of War.  The United States Government I painted, the reviewer pointed out, was too efficient.  Faced with a national – global, really – crisis, the government acted with stunning competence.  The real government would be nowhere near as capable.  It would be rather more like The Last Centurion.

It’s interesting to compare my fictional crisis with the COVID-19 epidemic, but also pointless.  They’re not the same.  The fictional crisis involved a weaponised bioweapon with known – and very lethal – qualities.  COVID-19 was an unknown quantity, as far as the vast majority of people knew.  It was hard to say just how bad it would be, at least at the start; a problem made worse by China and the WHO downplaying the crisis until it was too late to keep it confined to China.  In hindsight, a great many mistakes were made.  This is undeniable.  But it is also undeniable that the decision-makers at the time did not have the advantage of hindsight.  They had to make decisions based on what they knew at the time.

The problem with emergency planning – and emergency drills – is that they always leave out the emergency.  There’s always a sense the drill isn’t real, no matter how intense it seems; there’s always an awareness the drill can be halted if something goes really wrong.  You don’t set fire to a building to carry out a fire drill, for example; you don’t injure a patient to force a trainee doctor to make life-or-death decisions.  Worse, perhaps, the drills are often deliberately slanted to make the participants look good.  They assume that everyone will know what to do, that senior officers – however defined – will be there, that the chain of command will be clearly understood by everyone.  This is unrealistic.  There’s no guarantee that the senior officer will be there, let alone that he’ll make the right call.

And, of course, there’s no way to predict how people will react until they actually face a real emergency.  Will they panic?  Will they freeze?  Will they go too far or will they not go far enough?  Will they actually know what’s going on?  Will they make the right call?  There’s no way to know.  Emergency drills can teach people what they should do in a crisis, but it’s never easy to tell if people are actually learning the right lessons.  Even the most chaotic emergency drill is far more organised than a real emergency.

The problem facing decision-makers is two-fold.  First, they must balance a set of competing requirements.  Second, they must perform this balancing act while trying to ignore everyone who is trying to make political hay out of the crisis.  The person on the spot does not have the luxury of  doing nothing.  He must make a decision, even though it may be the wrong decision.  And he must be prepared to change his decision if new evidence suggests he made the wrong call, despite the certainty his enemies will mock him for changing his mind.  It is simply not easy to realise what someone knew and didn’t know, even without the temptation to turn the disaster to political advantage.  The seemingly-irrational decisions made by the Soviet Government shortly after the Chernobyl Disaster began make a great deal more sense if you realise the Soviet Government was seriously misinformed about the scale of the crisis.

The cold reality of emergency planning is that there is no way to do it perfectly.  There will be problems caused by a lack of knowledge and resources.  Even if the decision-makers have both, it will take time to get organised and actually put them to work.  There will be losses.  Whatever decision the decision-makers take, there will be serious consequences.  People will die.  And then the armchair generals, the people who don’t have the responsibility for dealing with the crisis, will point out – with the advantage of hindsight – how it could have been done better. 

It is never easy to balance competing requirements.  On one hand, putting the entire world into lockdown and ordering everyone to stay indoors would have stopped COVID-19 in short order.  It made cold-blooded sense.  The infected would either die or get better, but they wouldn’t spread the disease any further.  However, on the other hand, this would utterly destroy the global economy and condemn millions of people to starvation.  How many people keep even a week or two’s worth of food in their houses?  If you refuse to let people leave the house for any reason at all, they’re going to starve.  And this would lead, rapidly and inevitably, to a serious breakdown of law and order.

Governments needed, therefore, to strike a balance between closing everything down and keeping everything open, between running the risk of infecting everyone and ruining the economy beyond repair.  This would not have been easy, even with perfect foresight.  It wasn’t clear just how dangerous the virus truly was – and yes, this is still hotly debated – or what would need to be done to tackle it.  And we had the sheer bad luck that this crisis exploded at the same time the media and large numbers of the political class were suffering from Trump/Boris Derangement Syndrome.  Whatever Donald Trump and/or Boris Johnston did, it was going to be branded a mistake.  Worse than a mistake (Trump’s early concern over the virus was branded racism).  They would make the best calls they could, with the data they had on hand, only to be attacked for not knowing things they couldn’t know.  This made it much harder to come to grips with the real crisis.

The sheer scale of the lockdown was beyond any emergency drills.  Some effects were predictable, but were very much second-order priorities.  Others didn’t make themselves apparent until it was too late to change course.  The knock-on effects have been staggering and continue to be so.  If businesses are not making money, they’re not paying wages; if workers are not getting paid, they’re not able to pay their rent; if landlords are not getting rent, they’re unable to pay their debts (mortgages) themselves; if mortgages are not getting paid, the banks might start to totter too.  Governments have run around, trying desperately to fix the first set of problems … and then the problems caused by the first set of solutions.  It’s easy to say that governments did mindlessly stupid things, or were guided by malice, but the blunt truth is that the scale of the crisis was so big that a lot of issues got overlooked until they bit.  Hard.

And some of the problems were so big that they literally could not be handled.

It is not surprising that cracks started to appear very quickly.  The lockdown depended on a great deal of public trust.  This was lacking in both Britain and America.  In Britain, the government’s response to the crisis appeared first lacklustre, then extreme.  In America, the long-standing media war against President Trump ensured that, as I said above, whatever decisions he made would be the wrong decisions.  The fact an election was brewing didn’t make life any easier for Trump, as it would be easy to blame him for every negative effect of the virus.  (The constant lists of politicians from just about everywhere flouting the rules didn’t help.) 

Worse, perhaps, the lockdown caused a great deal of stress for people.  Being trapped in the house, unsure of where one stood … it can be maddening.  People ask “do I still have a job?  Will the landlord kick me out if I can’t make rent?  Will I still go to college?”  And then there’s the constant fear of neighbourhood snitches making a false – or inaccurate – report and getting someone in trouble.  I’m not remotely surprised there’s been a string of incidents as stress and frustration starts to get out of hand.  People who feel forced to bottle up their feelings can explode.  The protest marches/riots following George Floyd’s death don’t really help.  If protesting is perfectly fine, as politicians suggest, then so is reopening businesses and getting back to normal.  If protesting is not fine, then why aren’t the protesters being stopped before they infect themselves and others?  The damage this has done to their long-term credibility cannot be understated. 

The blunt truth is that there probably wasn’t a good – i.e. perfect – way to handle this crisis.  Whatever decisions were made, people were going to die.  There were going to be a string of blunders that ensured more people would die – and yes, many of those deaths could have been avoided.  And I think it is important that politicians – particularly the ones who want my vote – have to bear that in mind.  It’s very easy to point and laugh from the sidelines, to pass judgement on someone when you’re not the one in the hot seat.  It’s a great deal harder to handle a crisis when you’re the one in the hot seat.

Musings on the Future of British Politics (1)

6 Jun

Musings on the Future of British Politics

As requested … normal commenting rules apply.

Part One – How Did We Get Into This Mess Anyway?

I suck at drawing diagrams, but I’ll do my best.  This is an obviously simplistic view of the British electorate – it ignores the other parties and independent voters completely – but it will do for the moment.  Note that Q1 and Q2 are solidly Tory, Q3 and Q4 are Labour.

It looks as if the electorate is 50/50,right?

Now, we add the BREXIT voters to the diagram.

You’ll notice that Q1 is Tory Europhile, Q2 is Tory Euroskeptic, Q3 is Labour Europhile and Q4 is Labour Euroskeptic.  The electorate appears to be divided evenly amongst the four factions.  Right?

What this means is that the BREXIT vote cut across party lines.  There were Labour voters who loathed David Cameron, but voted for BREXIT; there were Tory voters who thought highly of Cameron, but voted against BREXIT.  Both political parties, therefore, were caught in a bind.  If the leadership stood strongly for Leave, they’d lose Remain voters (and vice versa).  Indeed, the reason we got the election in the first place was that David Cameron needed to placate the Tory Euroskeptics (who would have made him pay a price for not holding the referendum).  His calculation was that Remain would win and the Tory Euroskeptics would shut up for a while.  This would have been dangerously optimistic – the SNP has yet to shut up about Scottish Independence – even if Remain had won the vote.

It lost.

This presented the political establishment with a serious problem, because the political divide I described above was still in effect.  Large numbers of both politicians and voters were firmly convinced that leaving the EU would be a mistake.  They argued that the voters had been misinformed or misled and therefore it would be better to quietly put the vote to one side.  Their arguments effectively boiled down to “[we] recognize the electorate has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-ass decision, [we’ve] elected to ignore it.”  They were basically trapped between two fires.  There was no decision they could make that would please everyone.  Worse, because it was unsure if the results would ever be implemented, and there was a chance the result might simply be ignored, the EU had no reason to take the outcome seriously.  Instead of recognising that Britain was going to leave and coming to terms that would minimise the pain on both sides, Brussels chose to play hardball. 

The combination not only alienated the voters from the political classes – both Leave and Remain voters – it confirmed the worst fears and preconceptions about both London and Brussels.  There was simply no way Prime Minister May could make a decision, let alone a deal, without getting stabbed in the back by one side or the other.  Her political weakness emboldened her enemies, her inability to choose a side and stick to it saved Labour from having to make a stand of its own.

Enter Boris Johnston.  Johnston understood a fundamental truth that far too many modern-day politicians forget.  People want clear and decisive leadership.  Johnston became PM and called an election, pledging that he was solidly for Leave.  Labour should, perhaps, have stood for Remain at that point, trying to counter Johnston.  This was impossible.  A sizable number, perhaps even a majority, of the Labour voters wanted to Leave.  Labour ended up looking neither hot nor cold but lukewarm.  (The suggestion that Jeremy Corbyn was a terrorist sympathiser didn’t help.)  The voters saw Johnston as the guy who was actually trying to get something done and flocked to him.  And so Johnston won one of the most decisive victories in modern history.

The core of the problem was that the various political parties were being torn into different factions.  Europhobes and Europhiles were the least of them.  Labour had long since lost touch with its original base – the British working class – and was reeling from a series of scandals that made it difficult to campaign effectively.  The Liberal Democrats were weakened by their alliance with the Tories.  The SNP unable to square the circle between Scottish Independence and membership of the EU.  People wanted good solid leaders who did good solid work for their constituents.   The blunt truth is that issues such as transgender bathroom rights are of no concern to the vast majority of the population.  They want – they need – jobs, law and order and to feel, perhaps most of all, that London is listening to them. 

It says a lot about how far we’ve fallen, even before COVID-19, that Boris Johnston is the best of the bunch.


But how did we get into this mess in the first place?

It is often said, by Tories, that Margaret Thatcher was the last Prime Minister with any actual balls.  This remark often draws scorn, or the usual accusations designed to deflect attention from the real point, but there’s a grain of truth in it.  Thatcher was the last major political figure to take a stand and challenge people to either stand beside her or oppose her.  The lady was not for turning.  Thatcher made it clear where she stood, for better or worse.  This was not always an advantage – she made mistakes, including one that eventually ended her career – but it made things simple.  The issues were always clear.  People were always with her or against her.

However, her worst mistake was not truly hers.  Her successors drew the wrong lessons from her career.  To take a stand and stick to it, to be strident in the defence of one’s country and one’s party, was a mistake … or so they thought.  They chose to believe that Thatcher had effectively sunk her own party, destroying it for a generation.  But if this was true, why did John Major – her handpicked successor – win re-election in 1992?  Sure, Major was no Thatcher.  But if Thatcher had been as lethal to the Tories as her enemies insisted, he should have lost.  Why?

It was true that the Tories were going through a period of soul-searching.  Thatcher’s resignation undermined others, including the ones who’d put the knife in her back.  Even the ones who disliked Thatcher found it hard to respect people they considered traitors. But it is also true that politics does not take place in a vacuum.  Major won, at least in part, because he faced no serious opponent.  Neither Neil Kinnock nor Paddy Ashdown possessed the appeal necessary to lure voters away from the Tories.  Indeed, Major won the popular vote (although he did suffer a reduced majority (MPs in the House)).

This changed in 1997.  Tony Blair rose to power on a campaign that could basically be defined as ‘all things to all men.’  Blair had star power.  He promised a new world – he even rebranded Labour as New Labour – and reached out to factions that felt marginalised by the Tories.  In doing so, he laid the groundwork for long-term disaster.  By papering over the cracks within the Labour Party, and failing to tend to Labour’s base, he slowly alienated voters and fellow politicians.  Worst of all, Blair was unable to focus on making decisions and getting things done.  He wanted to be popular and therefore found it hard to commit himself to anything.  (For American readers, Blair and Obama have an awful lot in common.) In short, Blair had a wonderful opportunity to do whatever he wanted – more or less – and threw it away.

The War on Terror actually illustrated Blair’s weaknesses as a politician.  On the home front, Blair was unable to take decisive steps against terror, as he was torn between the need to do something and fear of being called a racist.  The results were predictable.  The terrorists and their supporters grew bolder, while attitudes hardened on the other side.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Blair committed troops to battle without either thinking about the end game or ensuring they had the manpower, supplies and political backing to do their job.  Blair was lucky, in a way.  He benefited from a political oddity in that the Tories also supported the war – or at least the troops.  It made it harder for anyone to oppose him successfully. 

Perversely, this just made the disaster worse.  Blair was allowed to look away, to pretend the war wasn’t happening as the successful invasion gave way to a brutal insurgency.  He became obsessed with spin, to the point a Labour aide – Jo Moore – was able to say that 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news.  Blair was unable to get to grips with the problems facing the UK because he wanted to be popular, because he didn’t seem to be able to deal with criticism.  He preferred to kowtow to the media rather than make hard choices.  He was not, and never was, a Churchill, a Pitt or even a Thatcher. 

I’m not going to go into detail of what happened as Blair gave way to Brown and then to Cameron, but I think the outline is clear.  British politics had become increasingly factionalised, British politicians becoming more beholden to interest groups than the British public.  Brussels was increasingly seen (not entirely fairly) as the villain, as a politically-correct force more interested in wishy-washy statements than the interests of the population.  Those who dared to raise local issues were smeared by politicians – remember how Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy a bigot? There was no longer any trust between voters and politicians, no longer any sense the politicians put voters first.  Indeed, there was a sense the country was decaying from within.  The jobs were going, once-prosperous towns were crumbling, crime and terrorism was on the rise, police and military forces were being cut, political correctness was tearing away at Britain’s guts .. people were growing desperate.  People wanted a change.

And so we saw a rise in fringe parties like UKIP.  Why should voters vote for parties that don’t represent them?

Why indeed?

Cameron’s failure lay in misreading the mood of the country.  He thought he could silence his critics and reunite the Tories under his banner.  He was wrong, because his interests – and those of the political class – had diverged from those of the voters.   The faith that politicians would do the right thing – or at least what they thought was the right thing – was gone.  And Brussels didn’t make it any easier.  It was a serious mistake to refuse to grant Cameron any concessions at all (although that is said with the benefit of hindsight).  Dislike of the EU crossed party barriers, making it impossible for any of the major parties to take a strong stance.  Cameron resigned, May was left to square the circle.  She too could not commit herself.  And so Johnston became Prime Minister.

The mood of the country was murderous.  Johnston sought to prorogue Parliament, at least in part to ensure that his opponents could not scupper the deal and/or give the EU the impression they might.  This may or may not have been a legitimate tactic.  (It’s debatable.)  What was not debatable was that the legal bids against prorogation, which succeeded, were seen as backstabbing by the public.  They were a tactical success at the cost of strategic defeat, as it was yet another reminder that the interests of politicians and their constituents had diverged.  Johnston called an election in December 2019 and won handily. 

So, we’re back in 2020.  Where do we go from here?

The Demon Headmaster Reboot Review

4 Jun

“Look into my eyes …”

I have grown to hate reviewers and critics calling books, films and television programs ‘timely,’ ‘relevant,’ and ‘what we need to see,’ over the past few years.  It isn’t just that buzzwords imply a certain lack of clarity, confidence and/or self-awareness, although that definitely is a major problem; it is that storytelling exists, first and foremost, to tell a story and if it fails to tell a story it will also – inevitably – fail to tell a message.  The vast majority of the audience will not listen to your message, no matter how important it is, if you are unable to tell a story or – worse – undermine your own message.  Indeed, whenever I read a review that is not focused on the novel (or whatever), I instantly decide the reviewer has nothing useful to tell me.

And yet, The Demon Headmaster – rebooted by CBBC – actually is ‘timely,’ ‘relevant,’ and ‘what we need to see.’

I went back and forth on actually watching the show.  The Demon Headmaster, both the books and the TV series, were part of my childhood.  Dinah Hunter was the first true heroine I liked.  The show managed to adapt the novels and expand them without actually losing the thread, giving a greater role to the titular Headmaster than the novels could allow.  I was not impressed, however, when I heard of the reboot.  Too many rebooted shows have failed, in my view, because the people who rebooted them didn’t realise what made them popular in the first place.  And I didn’t really enjoy the latest novel, the one the new series is (partly) based upon.  Much to my surprise, however, I did enjoy the series.  The link to the older series – it’s really more of a sequel, rather than a direct reboot – seals the deal.  The producers are to be commended for taking a lacklustre novel and turning it into a workable show.

Lizzie Warren, and her younger brother Tyler, have been away from Hazelbrook School for six months after Lizzie was suspended for fighting with Blake, the school bully.  The two return to Hazelbrook with a complete lack of enthusiasm, only to discover that the once-failing school has been turned around completely.  The teachers are stern, the students are well-behaved … even Blake is well-behaved.  Increasingly creeped out, Lizzie and Tyler discover that the source of the change is the new headmaster, a man who exerts control over every aspect of the school.  They rapidly discover the headmaster has hypnotic powers and that they too are not immune.  The headmaster casts a spell over everyone who encounters him.  Their lives are torn apart to suit him.

Realising the headmaster is drawing everyone into his orbit, they start trying to resist.  But the headmaster is ahead of them at every turn, alternatively holding out the promise of a better world and manipulating them so they expose the flaws in his scheme before he takes it national.  Their first acts of resistance only make things worse, even though they find allies amongst the student body; it isn’t until they find clues leading them to the headmaster’s old school – from the original series – that they find a powerful outside ally.  Dinah Hunter.

But even then, the headmaster is ahead of them.  Dinah falls back under his spell, as does Lizzie’s mother … now revealed to be the missing Rose Carter, the headmaster’s servant from the original series.  Realising the sole gap in the headmaster’s plans, knowing he has to be stopped before he hypnotises the Prime Minister himself, they launch a final desperate gambit.  But even that seems to fail … until the original headmaster arrives, proclaims the project a failure and orders the new headmaster to shut down the school and retreat.  And he’s still out there somewhere …

The reboot gives us, in Lizzie Warren, a very different heroine to Dinah Hunter.  The young Dinah was a quiet girl with a genius mindset, who became friends with the kids who were immune to the headmaster’s powers.  Lizzie, by contrast, has anger issues … not, it should be said, without reason.  Her temper drives her on, but also leads her to make mistakes.  Dinah’s plan to stop the headmaster fails, at least in part, because Lizzie – under the impression that Dinah has betrayed them – accidentally blows the surprise too early.  She does learn from this and manages to recover, barely.  Tyler, Angelika and Ethan are very different characters too, struggling to keep their thoughts their own as they try to find a way to resist.  Indeed, all three of them serve as examples of how creepy the headmaster’s power truly is.  They are reshaped to suit him.

Blake is, in many ways, the most impressive character.  He starts the show as a bog-standard school bully.  I hated him on sight.  And yet, he manages to grow and develop – partly through an odd friendship with Tyler – into one of the most persistent thorns in the headmaster’s side.  It is Blake, dismissed as fit only for menial work, who has the bright idea of locking the headmaster up; it is Blake, caught in an endless struggle between the headmaster’s commands and free will, who frees the others and gives them their last chance to stop the headmaster. 

The headmaster himself is cool, collected and always in control, even when he’s scrambling to patch up the holes in his plan.  He never loses his cool, he never raises his voice … he has an odd verbal tic of addressing people by both names – “Lizzie Warren,” “Dinah Hunter” – if they’re interesting to him.  (He always addresses Blake as simply “Blake.”)  He’s always firm, lacking any of the weaknesses other evil characters have.  There’s no sense he’s got any interests or lusts beyond command and control.  His sheer confidence is as unnerving as his hypnotic powers.  He’s smart enough to round up the troublemakers, even the ones who stayed under his control, before his plan goes into the final stage.  His only real mistake is underestimating Blake.  This is a (sort of) recast that works. 

The show also reintroduces three characters from the original series.  Rose Carter has little impact on the plot, beyond providing more tension for Lizzie.  It’s not even clear if the headmaster knew – or cared – who she was, before she became useful again.  Dinah Hunter comes across as very different from her past self (not helped by both her and Rose being recast); it’s hard to draw a line between the two.  And the original headmaster steals the show, even though he only appears for a few minutes.  He’s as creepy as ever, but with a very different edge.  His mission statement is terrifying.  The only lighter moment is that he also cracks a very black joke that’s slightly out of character.

It’s rare for a show largely dependent on child and teenage actors to do well, in my view, but most of the child and teenage actors put on a convincing performance.  They come across as largely convincing personalities, particularly Lizzie and Blake.  And the headmaster is superbly recast.  Indeed, of all the major characters, Dinah is the only one who isn’t wholly convincing.  It might have worked better if they’d hired the original actor or simply designed a new character.

The reason this show is timely, however, is two-fold.  On one hand, it illustrates just how much power lies in control of security and surveillance systems.  The headmaster’s hypnotic powers may be out of this world, but everything from CCTV cameras to internet censorship and deepfakes are not.  The characters find themselves caught in a web that is horrifyingly real, where information can be scrubbed and rewritten to suit their enemy’s implacable will.  The headmaster’s plan to destroy the library is very far from (just) petty spite.  It’s a great deal easier to rewrite history online, particularly if you refuse to allow anyone to engage in honest debate.  I’m actually surprised they got away with it.

And, on the other, the sheer folly of the headmaster’s plan.  Programming students with knowledge is good for creating drones, but useless for original thinking.  That’s what does him in, at the end; hypnotic tapes are switched around, ensuring the students don’t know how to do what they’re supposed to do.  This has uneasy resonance in the real world, in that students are rarely taught critical thinking and parents are discouraged from supervising their children’s education.  The headmaster’s plan was doomed well before it ran into people willing to resist.

The resistance was dangerous too.  They came up with plans, or adapted themselves to fit an ever-changing situation, but never thought about the endgame.  Blake is the only one who tries to confine the headmaster, thus giving the group a moral dilemma about what to do with him, while Dinah is the only one who outright tries to kill him.  (Of course, none of them knew there was more than one headmaster.)  Most protestors don’t think about what they actually want, even though it should have been simple here.  Get the headmaster out.

As always, these days, the show nods towards wokeness.  The cast is fairly diverse – it’s made clear that Angelika’s mother is either bisexual or lesbian (her former girlfriend is black), raising the question of who fathered her – but this is mostly a second-order issue.  It does, however, run into a major headache.  At one point, to give Ethan a family, the headmaster convinces everyone that he’s Lizzie and Tyler’s brother.  This simply won’t last, once he steps out of the headmaster’s zone of control.  Ethan is black.  There’s no way he’s their real brother.  The headmaster seems to have overlooked this entirely. 

Overall, The Demon Headmaster works fairly well.  It does feel a little extended – apparently, the plan for five episodes became ten – and there are a handful of little nits, but it tells a fairly coherent story.  (And the headmaster’s powers ensure that any discrepancies have a fairly simple explanation.)  It presents a creepy mystery, a battle against a seemingly overwhelming force and a promise the story will be continued.  And it raises points that need to be addressed.  How much do you trust your child’s teachers?  Really?

I look forward to the next one.

“Until we meet again, Lizzie Warren …”

Start Small II

4 Jun

One of the fundamental problems with activism – and protests and riots – is that effecting real change, positive change, takes time and effort.  The would-be activist needs to convince a majority of the population that the changes they propose, and want, will be either beneficial or neutral to them.  This requires a degree of hard work, ranging from organising an activist organisation that is capable of working towards change without being corrupted by violent hardliners or subverted by the establishment to actually listening to the people the activist needs on their side.  This can be immensely frustrating work and the urge to take shortcuts is overwhelmingly powerful, but it cannot be avoided.  Reformers who fail to do the ground work rarely accomplish anything positive.  The results are almost always negative.

I’m writing from the other side of a giant ocean, so I may be completely wrong about this, but I don’t believe the protests and riots currently sweeping over America will achieve anything positive, either for the protestors themselves or anyone else.  This is because of three factors:

First, the riots will do a great deal of damage to areas that were already badly hit by the virus and lockdown.  Destroyed businesses may not be reopened.  Those that do will face higher insurance costs, forcing them to raise prices, cut wages and slash their workforces; investment will be cut back to the bone because the district will look like a poor risk.  Unemployment will rise sharply, putting ever-greater strains on the social network; anyone with any money or sense will head for the nearest exit as quickly as possible.  In short, things will get a great deal worse for the inhabitants.

Second, the riots will confirm every negative stereotype about people who live in such districts.  Sympathy from outsiders will vanish.  People who try to leave the area will find themselves very unwelcome, as they’ll be seen – unfairly – as having very bad habits.  There will be strong opposition to federal funding for relief programs, etc, etc.

Third, the political establishment has no incentive to change.   Why should it?

Now, obviously, I don’t live in those areas, but if I did – and I wanted things to change – I’d start looking at ways to do it.  The trick, it seems to me, is to bring pressure to bear on the political establishment, the sort of pressure – the risk of being voted out of office – that politicians take very seriously.  A lone voter is statistically insignificant.  A voters movement that has a clear idea of what it wants – and is ready to vote for candidates or even nominate its own politicians – is a serious player. 

The key to running a campaign is to bear in mind that you can group people into three categories.  You have people who will support you as long as you work to give them what they want (Supporters).  You have people who will be largely indifferent to you, as long as you don’t interfere with them (Neutrals).  And you have people who will oppose you because they feel you’re either wrong or likely to interfere with them (Opponents).  DO NOT fall into the trap of dismissing your Opponents as bigots (or whatever).  This will both impinge upon your ability to reach out to them and make you look bad to the Neutrals. 

I’d actually start by recommending you read Take Back Your Government, by Heinlein.  It’s somewhat outdated now – tech and politics have moved on – but it’s still a pretty good primer for the aspiring politician.  However, if you haven’t read it or don’t have time to read it, here’s a rough outline of what you can do.

First, know what the rules of the game are before you start to play.  Sit down and do some basic research.  Who runs your state?  Who runs your county?  Who runs your city?  Who’s in charge?  How do they get elected?  You can find most of these details online, if you look; put together a rough outline of how power ebbs and flows around the state.  Find out the local political offices, see who works there and what they do.  If you’re not registered to vote, get registered; encourage others to register.

Second, work out what you actually want.  Make a list of things your community wants and needs.   Speak to your neighbours, ask them what they want; don’t – don’t – belittle them if they don’t want what you want.  Listen to them!  Half of good politics is listening to what people want.  Learn to compromise, learn to work towards something you can live with instead of trying to take the whole pie. 

Once you have your list, start working out how you want them done.  Stick to plain English.  Ill-defined buzzwords weaken your case (at best, they’ll be vague; at worst, they’ll turn people against you.)  Again, listen to people.  If there are reasons things cannot be done, take them seriously and work out how to compensate for them.  And stay local.  You do not want to start taking on impossible challenges (like fixing the entire world). Keep outside politics – particularly international politics – out.

Third, start organising a group of voters.  Register voters to vote (if you haven’t already).  Put together a list of voters who’re pledged to vote for your list.   You want solid numbers.  If you experience pushback, if you discover there are items on your list the majority doesn’t like, modify or drop them.

Fourth, you can start visiting local politicians.  Give them the list.  Inform them that they can either push for the measures you demand or your voters will vote against them.  (When?  Find out.)  Make it clear you expect effective movement quickly or else. If they drag their feet – remember, a lot of national-politicians don’t like grassroots movements, right or left – remind them you’ll be booting them out in the next election.  That should get them moving.  If it doesn’t, vote them out.

You’ll probably start drawing national attention at this point.  Expect attempts to subvert or co-opt your movement, to make you care about greater issues or pressure you into falling in line.  Stay small.  Greater issues aren’t unimportant, but you’re working for your community.  Make it clear you won’t be dislodged, even when you start getting some very negative media attention.  Put together more lists, work out simple ways to fix problems – and, if your ideas fail, learn from your failures.  It’s hard.  But it can be done.

The point is that you have to master two separate skills to get anywhere.  First, you have to learn to work the system before you try to reform it. You have to understand why things are the way they are, before they can be changed.  Second, you have to learn the fine art of compromise, of balancing dreams with practical reality.  You have to reach out to people, to convince them that supporting you will help them – or, at the very least, won’t hurt them.

There’s little hope of fixing things on a national, let alone a global scale.  Trying to do too much too quickly is asking for failure and/or irrelevance.  Losing your focus on local problems means you’ll probably do more damage than harm.  Tacking ill-defined problems makes it impossible to set any kind of victory conditions – how will you even know if you’ve won?  That’s the sort of problem that leads to a movement failing or being co-opted by people who don’t care about anything, but power … people who cannot be removed easily because it’s hard to gauge their performance. 

But on a small scale?  Things can change.  And change can spread.  And the more things get better, the better they will get.  Seriously – you tackle the root causes of a problem, the problem will go away. 

I know it’s not easy.  But it has to be done.

I’ll let Mike Williamson have the last word:

“Not every problem has to be solved right this moment, nor even within a given book or series, or in forty-two minutes plus commercials on the idiot box. Some issues are too large for an individual, and it really isn’t kind to whip up that kind of hope in a fragile youth, only to toss them into the depths or jadedness or despair too soon, when they realize it’s just not that easy in the real world. The first thing any juvenile has to do is grow up. That of itself is a massive undertaking in any society. One can’t conquer the world until one has conquered oneself. Nuclear wars and oil crises and ice ages and global warming and pollution and overfishing and creeping socialism and growing oligarchic capitalism and fluoridated water can wait. First, just become the type of person you should be. That’s what the world needs most of all.

That message is timeless. It’s also important. And most of all, it’s a message that young people of every age really want, and need, to hear.”


1 Jun

An all-new story of The Empire’s Corps!

Earth has fallen.  The Core Worlds have collapsed into chaos.  War is breaking out everywhere as planetary governments declare independence, entire sectors slip out of contact and warlords battle for power.  The remnants of the once-great Empire are tearing themselves apart.  And, in the shadows, the Terran Marine Corps works to save what little they can to preserve civilisation and build a better tomorrow.  But now they might have met their match.

The marines have seized control of the corporate world of Hameau, only to discover that Hameau is merely the tip of the enemy iceberg and that the battle is still very much undecided.  Cut off from their brethren, the marines fight desperately to hold their ground while millions of innocent civilians are caught in the middle …

… And all too aware that whoever wins the war will determine the fate of the entire galaxy.

Read a FREE SAMPLE, then download from the links here: USUKCANAUSDRAFT2DIGITAL.  And read the afterword HERE.

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