We Have To Have A Conversation About Star Trek

12 Mar

I felt awful this morning, so I did this instead of any actual work.

Is there any more feared line, these days, than ‘we have to have a conversation about …[whatever]’?

Well, no. The problem isn’t that we need to have a discussion about [whatever], the problem is that we don’t have a discussion. When people say ‘we have to have a conversation about …[whatever],’ what they really mean is ‘I’m going to speak, you’re going to listen and, when I’m finished, you’re going to agree with me in every particular … and, if you try to disagree with me in even the tiniest way, you are a hating hater who must be hated and ostracized from polite society.’ This generally goes as well as any conversation with a religious nut, who is firmly under the belief that people who disagree with them are either ignorant or wilfully evil. The idea that someone might reasonably disagree with them is anthemia.

The conversation goes poorly, in other words.

The problem is two-fold. First, the people who want to have a conversation are generally ignorant – and unaware of their own ignorance. There’s a world of difference between reading about something and actually doing it, for example, and anyone with any genuine experience of [whatever] would generally know that there is more nuance to the issue than the inexperienced might believe. Second, perhaps more importantly, conversations about racism and sexism tend to leave someone with the feeling that they’re being ‘got at’ in some unsubtle way.

Feminists complain, for example, that when they talk about sexism they inevitably hear the refrain of ‘not all men …’ Of course they do. The way feminists – and social justice warriors in general – approach the issue of sexism ensures that people who feel personally targeted will push back. It is undeniably true that, for most of human history women were, at best, second-class citizens. But it is also true that no one alive today is personally responsible for how poorly women were treated a hundred or so years ago. Why should they be made to feel personally responsible for something they didn’t do? The same is true of slavery and other such issues.

Conversations about sexism and racism, therefore, are fraught with minefields. People can be dispassionate about problems that don’t afflict them personally, but find it hard to be equally dispassionate about problems that do. A discussion about how awful people have been in the past can easily turn into a ‘their descendents are somehow to blame for this and must be punished and anyone who disagrees with this is a racist.’ There’s no way to recognise the nuances of the argument, let alone identify the factors that determine what actually happens.

It’s impossible to argue with someone who is blind to the simple fact that they are arguing in bad faith. Captain Picard’s famous quote – “we agree there is evidence to support [Q’s] contention that humans have been savage. Therefore I say test us. Test whether this is presently true of humans” – wouldn’t even get off the ground. Why should it when so many people are emotionally involved?

Star Trek lets us look at such problems dispassionately.

Think about it, just for a moment. The Federation of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager is a post-scarcity society in the truest possible sense. It may not be quite as advanced as the Culture, but most of humanity’s problems are firmly in the past. Racism and sexism no longer exist. Star Trek shows us a utopia we can all support, one where technology has advanced to the point where some form of socialism is actually sustainable. Who wouldn’t want to live in the Federation?

This actually has an interesting side effect. Star Trek’s humanity can look down on other races – even the all-powerful Q – and study their problems dispassionately, because – to them – those problems have been solved long ago. There are very few problems in The Next Generation that cannot be solved and most of them could be solved if the Prime Directive (of non-interference) was discarded. This actually allows us to consider the problems while, at the same time, feeling above them. We do not feel got at when Star Trek shows us aliens facing problems that also face us today.

It also allows us to feel without fearing that we will fall prey to emotional blackmail and/or weaponised empathy. We can assess the problems facing Bajor and Cardassia throughout Deep Space Nine – the long-term effects of fighting a global insurgency, the issues with turning from war to peace and rebuilding, the problems caused by losing a war, the dangers of turning to a strong man to lead us to glory (and, more likely, ruin) – without feeling that the scriptwriters are having a go at us. We can study the problems of military interactions along the border between the Federation and Cardassia without feeling as though we have to take sides. Indeed, we can study the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict through this lens and appreciate the nuances, instead of seeing one side as completely innocent and the other as completely evil.

Contrast this, for example, to the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. The original Galactica makes it clear that the Colonies basically intervened in a war between the Cylons and another alien race, although it is fairly clear that the Cylons would have come for the colonies eventually anyway. The reboot, however, insists that humanity effectively brought its fate on itself – they created the robots as slaves, giving the slaves a justification for waging a genocidal war against humanity. It is a great deal harder to argue over which side is in the right when one side created a slave race and the other set out to commit genocide (and effectively succeeded).

Or … Farnham’s Freehold. When the book opens, we see two kinds of slaveowners (or at least slave-owning attitudes). Duke Farnham is a classic racist, who sees himself as being on the top and hates blacks merely for being black; Hugh Farnham is a paternalistic racist, who sees himself as the permanent father-figure, the kind of person who always controls his children’s lives. By the time the book closes, we see them both as slaves, victims of slaveowners who see themselves as being on top and think they’re doing the right thing for the poor little powerless slaves. It’s a valid point, and one that needs to be made, but it’s difficult to stomach for a number of reasons. There is very little distance between us and the characters in the book.

But Star Trek – or at least The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager – offer us that distance. We can assess things properly, without our blinkers. We can see how foolish some aspects of our society are. And we can also believe that we have grown up enough to put them in the past and leave them there.

And, best of all, we can do this without feeling that we’re being attacked for an accident of birth.

Snippet–The Right of the Line (Ark 14)

10 Mar


From: Admiral Tony Mulhouse, Strategic Planning Division

To: Admiral Sir John Naiser, First Space Lord

Classification: Top Secret, Eyes-Only FSL


I must confess that I was following the discussions concerning Amalgamation with a somewhat jaundiced eye. Any student of history knows that attempts to unite radically different countries is doomed to produce either an oppressive empire or civil war and eventual fragmentation. The eventual downfall of the European Union – a well-meaning attempt to ensure peace, harmony and prosperity – stands as a warning to us all. We do not need to go far to see the remnants of the brutal ethnic conflicts that tore the continent apart and threatened to send us crashing back to a new Dark Age. I believed that Amalgamation will be utterly disastrous.

And yet, I have been forced to change my opinion.

My staff is still working on what little data we received from Second Falkirk before the flicker link went dead, but a number of issues have already become apparent. First and foremost, the virus is clearly not hampered by what we would call economic reality. We would love to be able to produce hundreds of thousands of long-range missiles, of course, but any proposal to do so would cause the Treasury to have a collective heart attack. They would say – and rightly so – that it would be a massive expenditure for very little immediate return, particularly given both their military limitations and the eternal political reality that health and education are generally regarded as more conductive to winning votes than defence. It was growing harder to secure the ring-fenced military budget before the new threat showed up and, sir, the simple truth is that too many MPs believe that we somehow provoked this conflict. They may understand that we cannot simply pick up our toys and go home – it only takes one to start a war, but two to end it – yet the discontent in Parliament will make it harder to secure an ever-growing military budget.

Second, and perhaps more serious, we may be unable to out-produce the virus even if we were granted an unlimited military budget. Our most extreme plans for war mobilisation may not be enough to stave off defeat, even if we are lucky enough to avoid serious problems with both civilian and military morale. It hasn’t been that long since industrial action in a number of manufacturing nodes caused a major slowdown and we must be aware of the prospect of other strikes if ill-feeling should happen to spread. While strikes are technically illegal during wartime, the strikers may feel that they have nothing to lose – and that we cannot bring pressure to bear against them, as we would need them to go back to work as quickly as possible. A work slowdown would be harder to stop … and, once they got into the habit of demanding and receiving concessions, would be easy to repeat.

In short, we may have no choice but to push for a completely unprecedented Amalgamation.

I cannot say how this will work out in practice. We have worked closely with the Americans and the French over the past hundred years – and exercised regularly with Russia, China and the lesser spacefaring powers – but there is a vast difference between working together and actually sharing starships, bases and secrets. At base, we are different nations. Can we unite in the face of a common foe? Or will our half-baked stumbling towards Amalgamation sow the seeds for yet another conflict?

I don’t know, sir. But I know we must push forward now, before time runs out. We are facing an existential threat on an unimaginable scale. The long-term implications of Amalgamation will be of no concern if we don’t have a long-term. There is no way we can guarantee the survival of humanity, even if we surrender. We literally cannot surrender without giving up everything. There will be things that walk and talk and look human, but they will not be human. The aliens Invincible discovered on Alien-3 are stark proof of the fate awaiting us if we lose this war.

I understand why so many people are opposed to Amalgamation. I would oppose it myself – I did oppose it myself. But right now, sir, those of us who are military men need to understand that our backs are firmly pressed against the wall. We have no choice, but to proceed towards Amalgamation.

Thankfully, our counterparts should have the same understanding.


Prologue II

Private Colin Shepherd rubbed his hands together as he stood in front of the gates, watching the steady stream of cars and buses as they passed through the outer security barrier and into the Permanent Joint Headquarters. He’d thought himself lucky to win the duty, when Sergeant Rudbek had been handing out assignments, but he was starting to suspect that it was a poisoned chalice. On one hand, all he really had to do was stand by the gates and look intimidating; on the other, it was cold, boring and hardly likely to look good on his resume. But then, he hadn’t joined the Home Guard because he’d wanted to be a hero.

He allowed himself a tight smile as he swept his eyes over the cars. He’d barely scraped through school, ensuring that he would almost certainly be conscripted into the army. The career counsellor had made it clear that the navy would probably not be interested in him, particularly as he didn’t have any real qualifications, and there was very little hope of winning a coveted place at a technical college. Colin had cursed his luck – he had no particular inclination to get his arse shot off for king and country – and volunteered for the Home Guard. It had been a surprise when he’d been accepted without question, but the Home Guard was desperate for volunteers. They normally had to rely on conscription to fill the ranks.

And it isn’t that bad being out here, he thought. The country had been on low-level alert since Invincible’s first return from Alien-1, but nothing had actually happened. Colin found it hard to believe some of the wilder stories, even if they had government imprimaturs. Everyone knew the government lied. There are some definite advantages to being in the Home Guard.

He felt his smile grow wider as the line of cars slowly dwindled away. Guard duty on the outskirts of London was relatively safe, even if there was a war on. The bombardment was a thing of the past. Colin was entirely sure the Royal Navy would keep the new threat well away from the Solar System. He wouldn’t have a chance to prove himself a hero, but it hardly mattered. Colin didn’t want to be a hero. He just wanted to impress the girls with his uniform while waiting for his discharge. It was astonishing how many girls couldn’t tell the difference between a combat infantryman and a guardsman. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

A low rumble echoed through the air as a giant garbage truck drove down the street, followed by a pair of vans. Colin blinked in surprise, puzzled and alarmed. He’d been on guard duty outside PJHQ long enough to know that the garbage men never came on a Monday, certainly not to the military base. They shouldn’t even have been allowed to get so close. The automated highways control system would have automatically barred any vehicle from entering the street unless it had permission … ice ran down his spine as he realised that something was badly wrong. A drill? Or a real emergency? He raised his rifle, shouting for the driver to stop. Instead, the driver gunned the engine and drove straight at the gates. Colin fired twice, but the truck kept moving. Colin had to throw himself out of the way – and straight into a trench – before the truck could knock him down. A moment later, there was a thunderous sound. Colin rolled over, his ears ringing hopelessly. He couldn’t hear anything.

He forced himself to stand, cursing himself under his breath. His rifle was missing … it took him a moment to realise that he must have dropped it when he’d dived into the trench. He drew his pistol from the holster as he forced himself to stand on wobbly legs, peering over the edge of the trench. The gates were gone, shattered beyond repair. And the other vans were moving forward, their doors already snapping open. Colin stared in horror, only slowly realising that this was no mere drill. PJHQ was under attack! His legs threatened to buckle as a stream of dogs, of all things, ran out of the vans and raced into the compound. Colin had only a moment to see the pouches the dogs were carrying before it was too late.

Fuck, he thought, numbly.

A man jumped out of the van, weapon already raised. Colin shot him twice, both bullets passing through the target’s head. The man staggered, but didn’t fall. Colin stared in disbelief. He’d hit the man twice! His brains were leaking out of his skull and yet he was still coming. Another man followed, then another … weapons flashing fire. Colin felt a sharp pain in his chest, despite the body armour. He’d been shot …

He fell backwards, crashing to the bottom of the trench. His pistol clattered to the concrete floor. Dogs leapt over his head, moving with an eerie silence that sent ice crawling down his spine. Colin realised, in horror, that the stories he’d heard hadn’t been exaggerated after all. It wasn’t just humans who could be infected by the virus. The dogs could carry bombs – or worse – into the compound. They’d do a great deal of damage before they were shot down.

Colin looked up as a shadow fell over him. A man was standing there, levelling a weapon at Colin’s face. His expression was utterly blank, as if he had no feelings at all. Colin couldn’t shake the impression that he was looking at something inhuman. The force animating the body was very far from human.

“No,” he whispered. “I …”

But it was already too late.

Chapter One

Captain Sir Stephen Shields felt out of place as he followed his brother into the COBRA conference room.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been in a conference that was, technically, well above his pay grade. He was the youngest scion of an important family, related – directly or indirectly – to a great many important people. The Old Boys Network had seen to it that his rise through the ranks to starship command was smooth, without any of the bumps and bruises that would have destroyed a lesser career. Everyone expected him to – eventually – take his place amongst the leaders of his country. People opened doors for him even when – on the face of it – he was far beneath them.

But this … this was different.

He took his place amongst the wallflowers, the secretaries and aides who supposed the cabinet ministers, and looked around the room. The bunker was miles below London, but it looked like a normal cabinet office, complete with a framed portrait of the king and his children hanging on the wooden walls. A small drinks cabinet sat in one corner, utterly untouched. The wallflowers were providing tea and coffee for their principals – Stephen was amused to note that he didn’t rate coffee – but no alcohol. Stephen wondered, as the Prime Minister strode into the room, if there genuinely was anything in the cabinet. The government officials should know better than to drink on the job.

Although they’ve had a terrible shock, he thought, grimly. The first reports had arrived while they’d been driving to Whitehall. A few hours later and neither Stephen nor his brother would have been able to get through the streets without a police escort. And there’s little they can do, but issues orders and wait for them to be carried out.

He frowned, inwardly, as he met the First Space Lord’s eyes. Admiral Sir John Naiser didn’t look pleased to see Stephen, although the Admiral’s staff would presumably have informed him that Stephen had been invited to accompany his brother. Naiser had worked his way up the ranks without having a powerful family, although – as a legitimate war hero – he hadn’t entirely been without assets of his own. Stephen wouldn’t have blamed the older man for resenting his presence. It was a grim reminder that class and accidents of birth still counted in society. Naiser would never be amongst the greatest of the great and he knew it.

And he deserves better, Stephen thought. He led the navy to victory in the last interstellar war.

The Prime Minister sat down at the head of the table. “Gentlemen, be seated,” he said. “This meeting is now in session.”

Stephen took a breath. The Prime Minister looked to have aged twenty years in the space of a day. It was one thing to hear about disaster hundreds of light years away, but quite another to know that the war had come home with a vengeance. Bombings and shootings on the streets … it sounded as if hell itself had come to Britain. Stephen had hoped that the first reports had been exaggerated – they always were, in his experience – but the grim look on the Prime Minister’s face suggested otherwise. The war had very definitely come home.

“Chief Constable,” the Prime Minister said. “Please update us on the current … situation.”

The Chief Constable didn’t look pleased, Stephen noted. Andrew Middlebrow was a tall man, with a distinguished record, but he wouldn’t have reached the very highest levels without a number of political connections. It would be easy for the poor man’s patrons to drop him like a hot rock, if they happened to need a scapegoat for the disaster. Middlebrow should be in his office, helping to coordinate the civil and military response, not briefing government officials deep under London. Stephen understood, better than he cared to admit. A senior officer could issue orders, but he’d never be able to do anything for himself. All he could do was watch and wait while his subordinates dealt with the crisis on their own.

No wonder so many higher officers turn into micromanagers, Stephen thought, with a flicker of empathy. It’s the only way they can feel in control.

Middlebrow stood at parade rest, clasping his beefy hands behind his back. “Yes, Prime Minister,” he said. His voice was under tight control, suggesting that he was more than a little agitated. Normally, the briefing would be given by a junior officer. “Over the last two hours, there have been a series of attacks on military, police and government installations across the country. Preliminary reports from America and France suggest that they too have come under attack, although details are sparse. The attacks were closely-coordinated, almost all of them launched before our alert status could be raised.”

He tapped a control, bringing up a holographic map of the country. Stephen leaned forward, feeling cold. A handful of red icons – mostly in or around London – glared at him. He knew very little about urban combat – he preferred to leave such operations to the groundpounders – but the display looked intimidating. London appeared to be surrounded by red icons. It was hard to recall that each of the attacks – individually – were nothing more than pinpricks. The country had barely been scratched.

“In almost all cases, the attackers were caught and killed before they could inflict major damage,” Middlebrow said. “The most serious damage was done to a recruiting barracks in Slough, where a truck bomb was rammed through the gates and detonated on the parade ground. Other installations were barely damaged, although casualties were quite high. The attackers showed no concern for their own lives and managed to take out a number of defenders before they were killed. In some cases, they were reported as continuing to fight until they were literally shot to pieces.”

They were infected, Stephen thought. He shivered. The virus has reached Earth.

“Our preliminary examinations of the dead bodies revealed the presence of the virus,” Middlebrow said, echoing Stephen’s thoughts. “Right now, we are attempting to trace them back to their point of infection and …”

“This isn’t good enough,” the Home Secretary snapped. “I thought we had defences in place to stop this … this kind of infection!”

“We took all rational precautions,” Middlebrow said. “However, sir, the plain truth is that there are simply too many ways to smuggle something down to Earth that bypass most of our security checks. We have tightened things up as much as possible, but gaps remain. We may discover, for example, that a lone starship crewman was infected and … induced … to carry the virus through security. We’ll have to backtrack the infected to figure it out.”

“Fucking careless,” the Home Secretary growled. “Prime Minister, I insist on an official enquiry …”

“After we have handled the current crisis, we will have time to reassess our safety precautions,” the Prime Minister said. “Chief Constable, what are the odds of tracking down any surviving infected?”

Middlebrow winced. “Poor,” he said. “We believed our testing regime was sufficient, but clearly we were wrong. The combination of blood tests and biological warfare sniffers needs to be reassessed. If they pass through a checkpoint, we’ll catch them; if they don’t … they may be able to hide out for quite some time. There are large swathes of the country with very limited security.”

“So they could be … breeding … somewhere in Wales or Scotland or wherever,” the Home Secretary said. “Is there no way we can find them?”

“We have deployed an extensive array of sensors,” Middlebrow said. “And we have ordered civilians to return home and stay there. Anyone still moving at the end of the cut-off period will draw attention. The police force will investigate any signs of trouble.”

“But we can’t keep people inside forever,” the Foreign Secretary said quietly. “They’ll start to starve.”

“And the economy will tumble,” the Prime Minister added. “We can’t keep the country in a state of emergency indefinitely.”

“This is going to be worse than the Troubles,” the Home Secretary predicted. “Anyone could be an enemy.”

Stephen nodded in agreement. Anyone could be infected. Anyone … or anything. The police checkpoints were looking for humans, not dogs or cats or even mice. The xenospecialists had warned that the virus might be able to infect dogs and cats, although they had suggested that the animals couldn’t host enough of the virus to make it a viable threat. Stephen hoped that was true, but it struck him as a classic example of wishful thinking. The virus could hardly be blind to the prospect of using smaller animals to spread itself. The only upside, as far as anyone could tell, was that insects couldn’t become hosts. That would have made the virus unstoppable.

“And where did they get the weapons?” The Home Secretary glared around the room. “And the bombs?”

“Our preliminary assessment suggests that some of the weapons were legal, their owners presumably infected and turned against us.” There was a hint of irritation in Middlebrow’s voice. “And the bombs were all jury-rigged devices, the explosives put together from freely-available compounds. I have no doubt we’ll eventually discover that shopkeepers and supplies were infected and, again, forced to work against us.”

“And the virus can turn our people against us so easily?” The Home Secretary sounded sceptical. “There’s no way to resist?”

The Prime Minister glanced at the First Space Lord, who nodded. “There is considerable evidence, Home Secretary, that the virus is capable of both accessing and using the memories of its host. The host, to all intents and purposes, no longer exists. They are not held at gunpoint, they are not reconditioned … they are no longer who or what they were. They do not choose to betray us. They are not us any longer.”

“Crap,” the Home Secretary said. “There’s nothing we can do about it?”

“We have taken precautions to prevent infection,” the First Space Lord said, quietly. “But once the virus gets firmly established …”

It becomes impossible to stop, Stephen thought. He knew how infiltrations worked. The virus, he suspected, understood it intimately. Infiltrations and infections followed the same basic idea. The first thing an infection did was weaken the host’s ability to fight, either by attacking the immune system or trying to gain control of the security services. If we don’t know that something is wrong, how can we stop it?

“They’re not good enough,” the Home Secretary growled.

“There is little else we can do,” the Chief Constable said. “We can expand the blood testing program – we have no choice, now we know the virus is loose on Earth. We can limit public transport in hopes of slowing any major outbreak …”

And that won’t be easy, Stephen thought. We shouldn’t be thinking of this as a viral outbreak. We should be treating this as a biological attack. The virus is far more intelligent than we realised.

He shivered. The Age of Unrest had seen a handful of biological attacks, all carried out by terrorists who had very little to lose. They’d taken advantage of advances in genetic bioengineering technology to attack their enemies … thankfully, the science hadn’t been advanced enough for the engineered viruses to spread before they were detected and countered. A little more good luck for the attackers – and bad luck for the entire human race – and the entire planet might have been turned into a graveyard. And now … the virus was intelligent, combining a deep understanding of its own nature with a complete disregard for the lives of its hosts. It was easy to imagine it evading checkpoints and spreading itself over the entire planet.

“I’m sure the police have the matter well in hand,” the Secretary of Defence said. “The question now is why … why now? Why launch the attacks now?”

“The attacks started shortly after the Battle of Falkirk,” the First Space Lord said. “That cannot be a coincidence.”

“And that means they have access to the flicker network,” the Home Secretary said. “Or even the media.”

And if the media is infected, Stephen mused, could we tell the difference?

“We told the media not to report on the battle,” the Prime Minister said.

“But rumours would have spread anyway,” the Home Secretary countered. “And …”

He took a breath. “How do we know that we were told the truth?”

The Prime Minister frowned. “What do you mean?”

“The virus can pose as a host, right?” The Home Secretary looked from face to face. “It wears a host’s face, speaks with a host’s voice … there’s no way to tell if someone has been infected without a blood test. Prime Minister … how do we know that the entire MNF hasn’t been infected?”

“The MNF understood the dangers,” the First Space Lord said, quietly. “The virus did attempt to board a handful of ships, but … none of them were infected. Their crews took prompt action to remove the boarding parties before it was too late.”

“And if they failed?”

“There were contingency plans,” the First Space Lord said. “It would be difficult to subvert them.”

“For someone from the outside, yes.” The Home Secretary didn’t sound convinced. “But what about someone on the inside? A single corrupt clerk in an office can do more damage – and hide it – than an entire team of burglars!”

“They would have to get inside first,” the First Space Lord reminded him. “And, like I said, the MNF understood the dangers. They took precautions.”

Stephen kept his face impassive. It was true that Admiral Weisskopf would have taken precautions, but it was also true that there was no way to know if the precautions had been completely successful. The Home Secretary was right, damn him. Sneaking onto a planet was far easier than boarding a starship – and Admiral Weisskopf had ordered regular blood tests – but there was no way to be entirely certain. They lived in an era when almost anything could be faked. There were talking heads on the nightly news that were almost certainly nothing more than computer-generated composites. Why couldn’t the virus have taken control of the flicker network and sent them misleading reports?

They managed to take control of Dezhnev and send her against us, he thought. Why couldn’t they do the same with an American battleship or two?

He shook his head. Dezhnev and her crew hadn’t known the dangers. They’d thought they were facing a conventional opponent … his lips twitched in grim amusement. The crew might not have realised they were facing an opponent at all. They’d had strict orders not to do anything that might be construed as hostile, anything that might spark off a third interstellar war with a mysterious alien race … they had very clear orders not to open fire unless there was a clear and present danger. It would be easy for the virus to take control of Dezhnev before the crew realised it was under attack. Stephen could imagine a dozen ways to do it.

It may not matter, he reminded himself. The virus punched us right out of Falkirk. And now it’s on Earth.

Stephen allowed none of his feelings to show as he surveyed the room. The First Space Lord looked calm and composed – he understood the realities of the situation – but the politicians seemed badly worried. They looked as if they were on the verge of panic. Stephen knew how hard it would be for the virus to work its way into the very heart of government or take control of the orbital defence systems, but the politicians didn’t. They feared the worst. And they were all old enough to remember the Bombardment.

The Prime Minister’s voice echoed in the silence. “There is no way we can talk to the virus,” he said. “We have no choice, but to press on.”

“There has to be some way to make ourselves understood,” the Foreign Secretary objected.

“The virus doesn’t seem to think like us,” the First Space Lord said. “And even if it did … why should it talk to us? It doesn’t want to come to terms, it doesn’t want surrender … it doesn’t even want submission. We are locked in a war for survival, a war that has just come home. If we lose, we lose everything.”

And that’s the nub, Stephen thought. There had been no prospect of complete extermination during the First and Second World Wars. Humanity as a whole would not be wiped out by the conflict. But any war with an alien power put the survival of humanity itself at risk. The Tadpoles had killed millions of people during the Bombardment. God alone knew how many people would have died if they’d won the war. The virus won’t just defeat us, if it wins the war. It will destroy us.

“So we keep fighting,” the Prime Minister said. “And we tighten our precautions, once again.”

“And then the virus will get around them, once again,” the Home Secretary said. “Whatever we do, it will find a way to circumvent. We need to find a way to take the war into enemy space and finish it.”

“The virus is a unique threat,” the First Space Lord said. “And one that requires us to work closely with other nations to defeat. But it is not all-powerful. It has its limits. It can be beaten. We have not lost this war.”

No, Stephen thought. He remembered the fleet of warships gathering in Alien-1. But it may be too powerful for us to handle.

“We lost a battle,” the Prime Minister agreed. “But we have not lost the war.”

“And our allies are coming,” the Foreign Secretary said. “We are not alone.”

“No,” the Prime Minister said. “And that makes all the difference.”

On to the Future …

7 Mar

Well, it’s been one of those weeks. Battling bureaucracy, dealing with issues and generally waiting for the radiotherapy in a couple of weeks. (It’s due to start on the 18th.) But I’ve also been laying the groundwork for a few new story ideas and plotting future books – I’ve drafted the first version of the plot for Mirror Image (SIM18) as well as Kingdom of Ghosts and scribbled down a few notes for something a little more complex. I keep having this yeaning to write something on a massive scale, perhaps a version of the first or second world war in space (or in a magical world), but the ideas are refusing to crystallise.

I’m planning to start writing The Right of the Line next week, which will wrap up the Invincible trilogy (but not, I should note, put an end to the war.) That will come in the next trilogy <grin>. Now if only I could come up with a decent idea … <bigger grin>.


Beyond that, this is the rough plan:

APR – Debt of Loyalty (Kat Falcone)

MAY – Kingdom of Ghosts (Zero 6)

JUN – Their Last Full Measure (ALE 6)

JUL – Mirror Image (SIM 18)

AUG – [Not Sure Yet, either TEC or ARK]

SEPT – Debt of War (Kat Falcone)



The Young King’s War Background Notes

4 Mar

I’ve been toying with ideas along these lines for a while, but I was thinking this time I might get them into a proper story. And this owes a lot to Henry II …

Once, the continent was ruled by sorcerers.

That much is known, although very little of precisely what happened is known to history. A sorcerer might rule a kingdom successfully for years or decades, then either get assassinated by another sorcerer or slip into madness … a madness that generally ended in mass slaughter, devastation and consequent destruction of records. It was a dark age, with legends of everything from demons being summoned to terrorise the locals to humans being twisted into monstrous creatures by sorcerers with vast powers and no sense of ethics. A sorcerer might start off with good intentions, but their powers eventually corrupted them.

The dark ages continued until Sihir the Great, the first of the wizards, developed techniques for controlling magic that didn’t risk madness. A wizard might not be as powerful as a sorcerer, in raw terms, but his increased skill at magic – and his ability to work with others – gave him an edge. The wizards eventually broke the power of the sorcerers, both by destroying them and by teaching youngsters with magic how to use wizardry instead of sorcery. As the sorcerers faded, the wizards steadily established order over the continent; they backed kings and princes who were prepared to uphold the Magic Accords, an international set of agreements concerning the proper use of magic, a flat ban on certain kings of magics (the Black Arts) and a handful of other details. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that this gave the wizards – now led by the Council of Wizardry – a great deal of power, but it was so much better than what had come before that everyone was grateful. However, as the years turned to decades, the kingdoms became established and memories faded, the united council started to fracture at the seams. There were simply too many wizards who were unwilling to put the interests of wizardry ahead of either their kingdoms or themselves. Worse, there were hints that some wizards were experimenting with the Black Arts, claiming that their wizardry gave them enough control to escape the madness …

This was already an unstable situation. It shifted, again, with the rise of King Harold the Great of Kline. A young and deeply ambitious man, with family ties to a dozen other kingdoms, Harold decided that it was his destiny to forge an empire and unite the entire continent under his rule. His combination of a strong and very well-trained army and a formidable force of wizards gave him an edge – he also had the advantage that many of his enemies underestimated him until it was too late – and his marriage to Queen Eleanor of Gallardo cemented it.

It was an odd match, but it was advantageous to both of them. Eleanor had not been expected to inherit. (She wouldn’t have, if her brother hadn’t died young.) She was queen, but her noblemen were reluctant to bend the knee to a woman. Indeed, they expected her to marry one of them and let him do the hard work of ruling. The match to Harold ensured that she wouldn’t have to surrender to the aristocracy, as they would hesitate to pick a fight with a man who had a large army and a demonstrated willingness to use it, while leaving her with queenly authority within her kingdom as Harold had no interest in ruling Gallardo. Indeed, in the early years, Eleanor had far more authority than most outsiders would have expected. She was Harold’s regent as well as his queen – and the mother of his children. They had nine children in fifteen years, starting with Harold II (aka ‘The Young King’) and Ricardo the Red.

Harold took advantage of his son by marrying him, at two (!), to Lillian, the daughter of King Mathew of Malang. This alliance ensured that his empire grew too large and powerful to be defeated easily, giving him a chance to promote himself to Emperor and forcing the majority of the remaining monarchs to pay homage to him. Mathew of Malang wasn’t too pleased about this, but he took comfort in the fact that his grandchild would be ruling the combined empire.

Trouble started to creep in as the children grew older. In order to ensure that the empire remained intact, Harold arranged for Harold II (hereafter the Young King) to be crowned at 16, while his father was still alive. This would, in theory, avoid a succession crisis as soon as Harold died. However, real power still rested with his father. The Young King had a title, but little real power of his own. He didn’t even control lands and castles that were technically in his name. Worse, Harold kept his son with him at all times, ensuring that he couldn’t win any glory either. Worst of all, from the Young King’s point of view, his younger brothers were given meaningful work to do. Ricardo, for example, spent a lot of time in Gallardo, knocking heads together when the aristocrats got out of line, or serving his father on the front lines when a monarch proved unwilling to admit that the empire was pretty much unstoppable. A prideful man, the Young King feared for the future. What would happen, he asked himself, when his father died? Would his brothers calmly accept the Young King’s rise to power? Or would they rebel?

Matters were made worse by his courtiers – who expected him to provide for them, which he couldn’t – and his father-in-law. The former pressured him to demand real power from the king; the latter fretted over his (as yet unborn) grandchildren and nagged his son-in-law to take a stand for himself. Torn between different pressures, the Young King didn’t know what to do. He found himself, not entirely willingly, the focus of dissent within the court. His father responded by treating the Young King like a child, rearranging his household at will and sending away courtiers he thought were bad influences. This was maddening

Making matters worse, unknown to the Young King and his father, Mathew of Malang had secretly been dealing with Dark Wizards, men who wanted to tear apart the rules and explore the Black Arts. Neither ally liked the other very much, but they saw advantage in working together.

Matters came to a head when the Young King was finally allowed to live with his bride (he was 19, she was 18). He demanded some real power for himself – lands, even, lands he could use to support his bride. Harold refused – and, in a staggering insult, gave some of the Young King’s castles to his youngest brother as a sweetener in the marriage market (Harold would, of course, keep control of the castles.) This was too much for the Young King to bear.

Taking his wife, and their unborn child, and his closest allies, the Young King fled to Malang and declared himself the true king of the empire, starting a civil war …

… And that is where the story would go.

The Structure of Magus Court

1 Mar

Just a few notes for future stories …

The Structure of Magus Court

In theory, the City of Shallot is a democracy. In practice, it’s a little more murky.

The population is not divided up by districts, but ‘families’ – a term that is no longer literally true for anyone outside the Houses and Great Houses themselves. The Potions Guild, for example, is a ‘family’ even though most of its members are not, in any sense of the term, blood relations. A person can hold memberships in several different families at the same time, although – obviously – the value of these memberships tends to change. A Potions Master, for example, might be a member of the Potions Guild, the Merchants Guild and the Landowners Guild, all of which come with a vote in family affairs.

These votes are of different values. There are a relatively small number of full-fledged potioneers in Shallot, so each voter within the guild carries considerable sway. On the other hand, there are thousands of merchants in Shallot, so a single vote within the Merchants Guild is worth relatively little. (That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.) The blending between the different families provides considerable mileage for the patron-client networking that makes up most of the city’s social structure. What we would call nepotism and blatant corruption is simply a fact of life. There is nothing wrong, as far as the city is concerned, about a father helping his son’s career – indeed, people might be more concerned if he wasn’t.

Each ‘family’ has the right to elect its representative however it wishes. The Great Houses, for example, generally grant the position to the Patriarch. (If the family has a right to more than one seat in Magus Court, the infighting over who gets the second seat is a sight to behold.) The guilds generally elect their representatives, following their own individual rules. Again, the value of a vote tends to rise and fall based on the number of voters involved. The Dockworkers Guild has so many members that their votes are almost completely diluted.) Other trades, particularly the illegal ones, don’t have guilds and therefore don’t have any representation on Magus Court.

There are one hundred seats in Magus Court. Thirty of them, more or less, belong to the Great Houses. (A House is said to lose everything when it loses its seat, if only because possessing a seat gives them an edge in city politics.) The remainder are distributed amongst the guilds and other such institutions. In theory, this gives them the power to bring the Great Houses to heel; in practice, the patronage networks ensure that the Great Houses rarely have to face a concentrated challenge from the remainder of Magus Court. (The representative from the Potions Guild was selected, at least in part, because he had strong ties to House Ruben). That said, the Great Houses can never take their dominance for granted. They have to work with the rest of the Court if they want to get anything done.

Each year, three officials are selected to manage the court. The Speaker is selected by the courtiers himself – he is, almost always, someone from a family lucky enough to possess two seats. By custom, the Speaker cannot cast a vote if, by doing so, it would result in a tie (which is why the post, for all of its glory, is seen as a poisoned chalice). The two Arbiters are the real heads of state, doing everything from leading discussions, sitting in judgement and proposing laws. They are selected by the guilds themselves in a reasonably free election – although there is normally a great deal of backroom dealing – and serve for each year before retiring to the backbenches of politics. The post carries a great deal of prestige and, unsurprisingly, the competition during elections is savage.

Below Magus Court itself, there are a handful of basic bureaucracies that handle public services within the city. Most of them are run by careerists, although that doesn’t mean they are inefficient. (An inefficient bureaucrat would probably be replaced very quickly, once resentment started to build.) If nothing else, the posts are excellent places to build a patronage network. The Arbiters are responsible for overseeing the departments, as well as everything else.

Technically, every representative is supposed to serve as a judge during legal cases. In practice, the duties are normally dumped on the bureaucrats. Magus Court can and does hear cases when the stakes are high – treason, for example – but that is relatively rare as it would be effectively an act of state. If the defendant was found guilty, there would be no recourse and no appeal.

Updates–Cursed, Health, Future

24 Feb

Hi, everyone

Bad news first – the chemotherapy hammered the cancer, but there are traces of it left and the doctor has prescribed radiotherapy. I have a pair of exploratory examinations on Friday – I think; they haven’t sent me the letters yet – and then it will start sometime shortly afterwards. I am so done with this … <groan>.

On the plus side, I’ve been working hard on Cursed (Schooled in Magic 17). I’m 31 chapters into the book and I’ve sketched out the plan for the remaining 9 chapters, so hopefully I should complete the first draft by Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are going to be very busy, but … I hope to get the edits done next week and then send the book to the publisher for the next set of edits and publication. I don’t know when it will be published yet, though.

I’ve also been sketching out ideas for Kingdom of Ghosts (Zero 6) and an (as yet unnamed) Zero book featuring Akin. I realised that I needed another POV character for the really big trilogy and Akin, for various reasons, is the logical person. OTOH, this means he needs an ‘origin’ story too and I’m not sure which way to go. A spy in the school? A plot against him by rogue elements within his family? Or something along those lines? I’m not sure where I want to take it, because he can’t be too old before the big trilogy begins. I did wonder about giving him a chance to set up an estate of his own, but that’s too close to The Family Shame.

And I’ve been sketching out notes for the next few Ark books. I have a rough plan to end the current campaign with the third and last Invincible book, but not the war itself. There will be more books following the war with the virus and its effects on the human universe … how does that sound?

My rough plan for the future is this:

March – The Right of the Line (Ark 14)

April – Debt of War (Kat Falcone 6)

May – Kingdom of Ghosts (Probably – or The King’s Man)

June – Their Last Full Measure (ALE 6)

July – The Ancient Lie

Musings on Justice

13 Feb

A follow-up, of sorts, to my previous post.

When the courts pass judgement, we expect them to issue a statement that includes the following:

1) He did it.

2) This is how we know he did it.

3) This is why it is a crime.

4) This is his sentence.

5) This is why this is his sentence.

The court does this because the court needs to justify its decisions, both now and in the future. In the case of the former, the court must convince the naysayers as well as the ‘hang him now and try him later’ brigade. There will be people, in just about every criminal and civil action, who will believe that the suspect isn’t guilty. They are the ones who need to be convinced – or, if they are so far gone that they are unwilling to admit that the person they’re defending is evil, deprived of the chance to insist that the suspect was not given a fair trial.

For example, if you happen to believe that an accusation of sexual assault is tantamount to proof of sexual assault, you will probably believe that Brett Kavanaugh is guilty. “Lock him up and throw away the key!” But, if you want more than a ‘he said/she said’ situation before you pass judgement, you will probably believe that Kavanaugh deserves the benefit of the doubt. “Either prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or STFU!”

This is not to say that courts are perfect. They get things wrong, of course. A witness might be lying. The physical evidence might be misleading. A suspect might look guilty on the stand and prejudice the jury against him. But they do have their advantages. It is possible to limit – if not eliminate – bias. (For example, if one of the jurors happens to be the suspect’s worst enemy, the suspect can ask to have him removed from the jury.) And, with a steady process, it is easy to follow the paper trail that explains why and how the decision was reached. If it later transpires that the convicted man was innocent all along, it is simple to look back and see if the man was convicted in error or if something darker was afoot.

It is generally agreed that the courts have the right to punish people, either for criminal or civil behaviour. The transparency is a key factor of the rule of law. We have doubts about secret courtrooms and suchlike because they are not, by definition, transparent. The wheels of justice can and do turn very slowly – it can be months between an arrest and trial – but they do turn. A court is supposed to put emotion – and public outrage – aside and determine, as best as can be done, what actually happened. It is that which upholds the rule of law.

And it is that which is under threat.


The question of just who else has a right to punish has become a thorny one in recent years, for all sorts of reasons. Does a convention have the right to punish someone for something that didn’t take place during the convention itself? Does social media have the right to punish someone for posting something they don’t like? Does the mob have the right to hound someone who breaks a social convention they didn’t know existed, to cost them their jobs and any hope of a normal life? This is becoming a question of increasing urgency, if only because it is only a matter of time before someone dies!

It is also quite a slippery issue, for all sorts of reasons. Let us consider the social media example first. Does Facebook have the right to censor conservatives? (There is a great deal of evidence that Facebook is doing just that, either as a matter of company policy or simply hiring people who are predisposed to hate conservative viewpoints.) A free speech absolutist would argue that no, Facebook does not have that right; a fascist (whatever protective colouring they may adopt) would argue that yes, Facebook can and should censor people he doesn’t like. But such an issue raises another issue: if Facebook actively polices content, then Facebook is de facto responsible for content that slips through the filters, which could be (and has been) anything from child porn to terrorist propaganda. This would provide lawmakers with all the excuse they need to go after Facebook, particularly if their voting base consists of people who feel that they have been unfairly silenced by internet censors.

Even if that does not come to pass, the existence of internet censorship weakens social trust and undermines the free exchange of ideas. It is, in short, the exact opposite of transparency.

The convention issue is, in some ways, just as thorny. No one would disagree, I think, that a person who makes an ass of himself at a convention could be legally evicted, although I have noticed that codes of conduct and suchlike are often so vague that it is hard to tell where the lines are actually drawn. And a person with a track record of misbehaving at conventions could reasonably be told that no, they’re not welcome at another convention. This can, however, cause problems for the convention staff. It is a basic trait of human nature to assume that whoever got punished did so because they deserved it. A person who got told “no, you’re not welcome” could threaten to sue, pointing out that they have been slandered and their reputation has been harmed. If there was no actual evidence – or a court case that could be used as de facto proof – it would be difficult to prove them wrong.

This is, however, something that took place (or would have taken place) during the convention itself. You can reasonably argue that the convention staff have the right to take whatever action they see fit to ensure the safety of the other guests. But what do you do about something that doesn’t take place during the convention?

We recognise that a court has jurisdiction over the entire country. But does a convention have the right to punish someone for something that took place outside the convention itself?

This is, in one sense, an easy question to answer. A convention doesn’t have any right to punish anything that takes place outside the convention (and very limited rights to punish anything during the convention itself.) But, in another sense, it is quite thorny. What do you do when your Guest of Honour is challenged? And what do you do when there is no decision that you can take without courting controversy?

For example, WISCON’s decision to disinvite Elizabeth Moon could be read as a reasonable response to a bigoted statement. But it could also be read as an attack on free speech, as an attempt to punish a woman for speaking out of turn, even – perhaps – as a betrayal of feminism given that the person being disinvited was one of the leading figures in feminist science-fiction. And, worst of all, it could be seen as the convention giving in to a pressure campaign that practically guaranteed that fandom would see more and more such campaigns now they’d been proven to work. (And fandom did see more such campaigns.)

There was no attempt to consider the fundamental questions raised by the kerfuffle. Was Moon guilty by any reasonable standard? And did the convention have the right to punish her? Even if one answers yes to the first question, should you still say yes to the second? And what sort of damage will you do to fandom if you do?

There was, in short, no solid case for punishing Moon. One was never put together, let alone circulated as justification. Instead, we got mob rule.


We have a tendency to think of Batman as a hero. He’s a great character. But, in the real world, someone like Batman (or even Sherlock) would be a legal nightmare. Batman does not hang around for the cops, after beating up the Joker or Mr. Freeze or whoever; he doesn’t file paperwork, he doesn’t testify in court, he doesn’t do anything to help Commissioner Gordon put the villains in jail to stay. (Amusing storyline; the villains keep getting out of jail because there’s no proof to keep them in jail.) Batman is very effective at what he does, but he’s not very legal.

And this raises an obvious question. What do we do when Batman gets it wrong?

We like the idea of the brave and true man who cuts through red tape, rescues the girl, catches the criminals … even if he has to throw the rulebook in the rubbish before he gets to work. We like the thought of someone throwing procedure out the window and just doing whatever he does. But what happens when they get it wrong?

The danger with people taking the law into their own hands, either through shooting someone they thought needed killing or forming a mob to harass some poor unfortunate who got on the wrong side of the internet, is not just that they can get it wrong. It is that they can inflict a punishment far out of proportion to the crime. (Worse, perhaps, the punishment can spill over onto others.) And is it a crime? The man who shot Cecil the Lion did not, as far as I can tell, commit any actual crime. Does he deserve to be driven out of public life?

Obviously, there are some people who would answer yes to that question. But do you really want a random outrage mob to be determining who gets punished and who gets away with it?

That is not justice. That is, at best, mob rule.

What makes this worse is that mob rule ensures that the chance for making positive changes (however defined) is lost. The people who were outraged over Cecil the Lion could have pressed for Zimbabwe to ban lion-hunting (although I doubt Zimbabwe would pay much attention) or they could have pressed for the United States to ban Hunting Tourism (in the same way there are laws against Sex Tourism). Instead, they chose to do something that did a great deal of injustice while – at the same time – wasting all the energy that could have been channelled in a positive direction.

If someone does something you find disagreeable, without breaking any laws, do you have the right to punish them? No, you don’t. You have the right to press for changes in the law, if you wish, and make whatever they did illegal, but you do not have the right to retroactively punish them. And if you harass someone … you, not they, are the enemy of civilisation.


One of the fundamental laws of … well, anything is that anyone who tries to rush you into making a decision is not your friend. An estate agent who drops broad hints that the house might be off the market tomorrow, for example, is probably not being truthful. It doesn’t matter to him if it is you or your unknown rival who buys the house – he gets the commission anyway – but it does matter a great deal if no one buys the house. A person who does not want you to take the time to think before you come to a decision is the enemy.

In an ideal world, for example, convention staff would have all the time in the world to assess the evidence, figure out what was best for the convention and make a solid decision with a sensible justification behind it. In practice, convention staff rarely get that time. They often don’t realise that there is a problem before a howling internet mob descends on them, demanding complete submission or else. (They also rarely have the time to realise that the ‘or else’ isn’t anything like as bad as it sounds.) As the sudden tidal wave of bad publicity gets worse and worse, as guests of honour are pushed into threatening to withdraw unless you surrender, it’s easy to get stampeded into making the wrong decision (or the right decision without solid justification). This tends to do a great deal of direct and indirect damage to a convention’s future prospects. On one hand, they’ve proven they can be cowed into submission; on the other, more and more writers are shying away from conventions with a history of disinviting people on spurious grounds. This is not good for the convention scene.

This isn’t good in a wider sense either. The more outrage, the more people get tired of hearing it; the more people get tired of hearing it, the less attention they pay to it. Or, perhaps, the more convinced they become that the mob is in the wrong. Why bother screaming, shouting and stamping your feet if you’re going to win in court? People are less empathic these days because we’re supposed to jump to the ‘right’ conclusions without evidence and demand punishment without justice. It can be satisfying – very satisfying – to hound someone for perceived offence, but it isn’t justice. It certainly doesn’t encourage faith in justice.

And without justice, without the rule of law, what happens to society?