Saturday, 1 January 2022

Asimov's Foundation and Climate Change


 

In Isaac Asimov's book, Foundation, a character named Salvor Hardin says the following:

"We're receding and forgetting, don't you see? Here in the Periphery they've lost atomic power. In Gamma Andromeda, a power plant has blown up because of poor repairs, and the Chancellor of the Empire complains that atomic technicians are scarce. And the solution? To train new ones? Never! Instead they're to restrict atomic power ... Don't you see? It's Galaxy-wide. It's a worship of the past. It's a deterioration - a stagnation!"

Asimov's Foundation chronicles the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire. If that sounds familiar to you as a Star Wars plot, it's because it is. George Lucas stole the idea wholesale, as have many others. And Asimov himself stole it from the historian Edward Gibbons, who wrote the famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1776.

Curiosity at what makes a great civilization decline and fall has only recently interested Western thinkers. Before the 17th Century, the Roman ruins that lay scattered and crumbling throughout Europe didn't really concern many people. Peasants broke them down for stone to build their houses and wells, and Lords showed scant regard for their preservation. Nobody cared. In Britain folk were either focused on day-to-day survival or making war on the French.

It was only in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when Britain found itself creating the largest empire that had yet been amassed, that certain thinkers began to wonder what exactly happened to the Romans. After all, if the mighty Roman Empire could fall, maybe the British Empire could too.

As unthinkable as that was at the time, serious intellects began to look into it. This was a time when Roman ruins became quite faddish. Rich nobles built ruined follies on their estates, and young gentlemen and their ladies traveled to Italy to marvel at the decrepit ruins that local Italians had never given much thought to. Theories abounded on the symptoms and causes of the rise and fall of civilizations, and it was sobering to think that every civilization that had existed before ours had fallen. Not just a few. All of them. It seemed clear that every civilization had an expiry date, and after the disaster of WW1, thinkers like Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee gained prominence as they delved deeper into the subject.

After WW2 the fad faded. The United States was the new superpower, the new empire of sorts, and a period of hope prevailed that took us eventually to the moon. Asimov, however, had not forgotten his pre-war influences, and the thinking that went before. The passage he wrote above illustrates the dying phase (the decadent phase) of a civilization, where the optimism has faded and civilizations get buyer's remorse.

They stop thinking outside the box and instead retreat to more familiar territory, both figuratively and literally. They play safe and circle the wagons. Religion becomes mysticism and critical thinking becomes pessimism.

Hardin's quote illustrates perfectly, during the different phases of rise and fall, how a civilization solves its problems. Because there are always problems to solve, even when one has become dominant. A failing civilization, however, having sat on its laurels for too long, is unwilling to expend the same amount of effort to solve a problem as they had done when they were a rising, hungry star. In Foundation, the galactic empire is more willing to silence warnings than to heed them, because solving problems is hard. The elites prefer to focus on keeping their power and their wealth, even as they are being warned by the doomsayer Hari Seldon that they will lose both.

We are not short of doomsayers here at the beginning of the 21st Century, and it's tempting to think that Hari Seldon, if he was real, would be one of them, with Climate Change being uppermost in his mind. If it were turned into a very simple contemporary movie, it would have the politicians and business elites all disbelieving the scientist and his young and ardent followers, thus bringing calamity down upon humanity. In fact, I've just described the plot of the new Netflix movie, Don't Look Up (watched it last night, very funny).

But Hardin's quote reminds us that it's not simply a matter of believing in the science and getting the message out, as some in the climate-change movement believe, and I'll give you an example of why, and what it means for the rise or decline of our own society.

Full Disclaimer: I believe Climate Change is real. Despite the subject having been heavily politicized here in the west, with a lot of media and social-media hype, there is, for me, a clear sign that it's not all hype, and that is the fact that Russia and China are spending millions to begin exploring and exploiting the melting Arctic regions, with plans to protect their investments by military means. They see the Arctic as an important geopolitical region of the future, and these are not the type of governments to be swayed by Greta Thunberg throwing a tantrum at the United Nations, or climate activists gluing themselves to the pavement as they block roads or runways to protest government inaction. In Russia or China, that kind of action would see them thrown into a dark prison, with little chance of getting out again. No, these governments have compelling reasons to do what they do, and they have their own scientists. If they believe Climate Change is real, then my guess is that it is.

It's possible you don't believe Climate Change is real, and that's fine, but for this particular example, let's just accept that the climate activists and their supporters claim that they believe in Climate Change, and follow that claim to its natural conclusion to see where it takes us.

And this wasn't originally intended to be a long post, but bear with me on this.

So climate activists, and their media and political supporters, are saying that our industrial societies, with our carbon emissions, our deforestation, consumerism and meat-eating habits are harming the planet, which will lead to global temperatures getting high enough to cause us real harm, and possibly even extinction-level catastrophe.

Fair enough. So what are their solutions? Cut back on industrialization, consume less, eat less meat, fly less and recycle more. And build more wind farms and solar panels.

That's about it. There might be slightly more complex engineering solutions around the edges, like clean-hydrogen engines and the like, but those proposals don't get shouted as much, nor funded much. Now if you look at the above paragraph, do you see how closely it resembles Hardin's quote at the beginning of this article? "Do less and return to the windmills of the past." It's not really a solution. Wind farms and solar panels don't provide enough base load to run a civilization, and are less efficient than the fossil-fuel powered stations they are supposed to replace. Recycling won't cut down on carbon in the atmosphere, because recycling requires energy itself. And cutting back on energy consumption in our societies means willingly adopting austerity, like monks entering a holy order. It should be obvious that people won't do that, no matter what they might say to pollsters. Many societies have had their ascetic types who lived on sand and locusts and practiced soulful meditation. Many still have those who live a simpler life off the grid, returning to traditional methods of living. But these people have always been a minority. Even when called upon by a powerful church to give up worldly pleasures, people rarely do. The Catholic Church could not even get its young men to cease masturbation. Just because someone asks people to do something, doesn't mean they will.

The alternative to asking, of course, is simply to coerce people. Police them. Tax the hell out of them. Make them poor. They'll consume less, then. One doesn't need to be a historian to know how that ends. Remember when I mentioned earlier about the regrowth of mysticism in declining civilizations? Most of the loudest climate activists, including Ms. Thunberg, are gripped by some mystical vision of a very unreal society that, enmasse, willingly chooses eco-piety, and doesn't need to be forced.

And the politicians who now tow the ecological line? How realistic are they? Let me give you an example from my own country of Britain: Our Prime Minister has announced that all new cars after 2030 will be electric. Thereafter the number of polluting internal-combustion engines on our roads will be phased out (helped no doubt by punitive tax tariffs). On the face of it, this could be a good thing. Less pollution, better air quality, less reliance on volatile petroleum markets in geopolitical hot spots, less reliance on fuel that we know will run out someday anyway, and quieter traffic flows. It sounds like the future, right?

Well, it's kind of a lop-sided future, because while the Prime Minister announced these measures over a number of years, I don't recall a speech where he would authorize the mass building of nuclear power stations to cope with the massive ramp up in power use. I also don't recall green activists criticizing him for that. Their only complaint, indeed, is that they don't think Boris is moving quickly enough. They want mandatory electric cars a lot sooner. And electric public transit systems.

It's almost like everyone thinks that electricity is magic, and doesn't need to be produced by industrial means. This is why I sometimes think that activists who claim to be worried about climate change and its effect on people, can't actually be that worried. Because if they were, they would be more serious about solving the problem, rather than just offering faddish lifestyle choices.

Ah, but that's because they are not worried, and it's all just really a conspiracy to deprive people of their freedoms, and ... give power to elites, who can ... do stuff that they can't already do ... for some reason.

No, it's not a conspiracy. It's exactly the kind of thinking that Asimov's character outlined in the book, and it fits with the inadequate problem-solving metrics present in declining societies.

To be sure, nuclear power is only a limited answer. Make no mistake, we are a fossil-fuel civilization. One only needs to look at 17th Century life to see what fossil fuels lifted us out of. More will be needed to move on to the next phase of energy production if we are not to slide backward to being at the mercy of mother nature. Without the fossil-fueled industrial revolution, we would not have the longer lives, education, healthcare, information technology, food production or government systems we enjoy now. Or the individual rights and freedoms that are simply not possible in harsher times or places. So there's a lot at stake.

But if we're not looking at radically new and scalable forms of energy production, then we're not serious about avoiding catastrophe. Largely because people, including college-educated activists, don't understand the sheer amount of effort needed to keep a civilization going. Because our ancestors made it all look so easy. It will take more than windmills and personal guilt-trips to keep civilization going in the face of continuous challenges.

In China, they recently tested a full-sized Thorium reactor. Thorium reactors are safer than nuclear, with more fuel available for them in the world, and produce much less radioactive waste. Why China? We've actually known about Thorium reactors and their benefits for over sixty years now, and programs to test and develop them existed in the US. But they were closed down. We should be building a ton of them now. We have the knowledge, and we were ahead of China in the science. But we gave up.

Now that would have been a serious solution. Another would be Fusion power. Again, the Chinese are ahead in developing this. It requires ridiculous amounts of money in research, but we haven't been willing to commit, and so Fusion power remains science fiction, at least here in the West. Again, another serious solution left hanging.

Do you see what I mean about us not really being serious about solving that which we claim to be afraid of? Instead we make performative gestures, promote lifestyle choices and complain about a lack of piety among the masses. If those don't sound like the actions of some out-of-touch, decadent, self-satisfied aristocracy, then I don't know what does. This is how societies fail.

Hari Seldon would not have been fooled by the climate treaties, play-acting, crocodile tears, messianic rhetoric and mystical movements. He would still have recognized an empire that, whatever it might say, did not really want to survive. And he would have moved his Foundation to China.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Cowboy Bebop - My Thoughts

 


I like it.

I watched the first five episodes of the Anime version a while back. It was okay but it didn't grab me and I never went back to watch the rest. So when I heard Netflix were releasing a live-action version, I got interested. Seeing all the negative reviews by fanboys of the original interested me more. I'm weird like that.

So far, about ten episodes in, I'm finding this live-action version more accessible. It's gorgeous to look at, tightly scripted and the actors do a really good job. The show's got a lot of heart, I love the chemistry between the main characters and even the side characters do a great job. The world it's set in is a strange blend of sci-fi and old world tech, and the retro elements add to the charm. I'm getting strong Firefly vibes from the characters and story so far, and that can only be a good thing. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Unlike Joss Whedon's Firefly, I hope it gets a second season. And I hope I haven't jinxed it with the comparison. It's obvious that a lot of money and work has gone into making this new version of Cowboy Bebop, and I, for one, want to see it rewarded. It's one of the few things released this year that's actually worth watching.

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Time and Space

 



My new book, Hell's Gate, is out. It marks my return to Space fiction since Shakespeare's Requiem. It's very different. In a way, it needs to be, considering Shakespeare's Requiem's relative lack of popularity. That was my first novel, and I've written about its problems recently on this blog, so I won't rehash the details, but Hell's Gate is a more traditional space opera with a much wider scope.

Space opera or military sci-fi?

I struggle to tell the difference, sometimes. Certainly, Hell's Gate is about a singular battle on a distant world, and aficionados of history will detect the references to a certain battle in our own history that I won't give away. In fact, I was going to reference another battle, further back in ancient history, but that was lost in the edits. But it's certainly a military story, and all the key characters bar one are military personnel in the midst of doing their duty.

But there's a wider sweep that will travel through the stars in the rest of the series, and an obvious subplot of genetic enhancement that frames the story. It's also the tale of particular individuals; their loves, lives and tragedies. And science, politics and ideals. There will be new worlds for readers to discover. And more battles to fight.

Call it Military Space Opera. Or Space Military Fi. I don't mind. In the end, as with all my stories, it's about people. It's the only thing I really care about.

Space Fiction. It's fiction set in space. It's about the characters.

Oh, but Science Fiction is a genre of ideas.

No, it's not. It's a genre that rips off ideas, and there's nothing wrong with that, but when it's packaged as being somehow original and more important than the idea's source, then it just becomes pompous and deluded. And it attracts the pompous and deluded. Some people like to grab hold of something to make themselves feel more important. They call themselves enlightened. Psychologists call that insecurity.

But I'm insecure too. The thing I'm most insecure about is my writing speed. I write slow. My competitors fellow Indie writers seem able to crank out a novel every month. The successful ones, at any rate. Their success makes them more visible, obviously. The ones that write like me are probably also invisible to me, as I am to them. In the Indie publishing world, speed equals success. Not always, but mostly. In this new age of social media, it's about catching attention (a difficult thing in itself) and then holding attention. I imagine that if the average Instagramer stopped posting for a few days, weeks or months, their readership would lose interest and they would slide down the algorithms until they no longer feature near the top of people's feed, thus rendering them invisible. Less likes and shares makes them more invisible still, and so it goes. Indie publishing is the same. Without a publisher to promote us, a book store to feature us or reviewers in mainstream media to recommend us, the Indie writing world adapted by adopting the social media model. It was the only one available. The sheer number of writers out there makes it difficult for a single book to get noticed by a casual browser, or even a more determined browser sometimes. So tactics are required. I'm not complaining. It's just something I've had to learn about the mass digital age. We're working in a crowd. It's natural.

It's not a tactic I can use. I tried, once. There's numerous posts and videos out there about how to write quickly: Outlining, formulas, writing routines. The trouble was, when I attempted the same, trying to just let my fingers flow over the keyboard, injecting the first thing on my mind, the result was, well, formulaic and routine. Vanilla characters in a vanilla plot, walking and talking through a vanilla world. It was boring. Because it's hard to come up with something nuanced and thoughtful when you're typing as fast as you can. Especially if you're planning to publish it the moment it's finished, rather than going back and rewriting it. Write several books like that, and they'll essentially be copies of the previous book and formula with the names changed.

Maybe I'm just not a genius. Because of that, the next book in The Gene War series won't be published until next year, so if you're new to my writing and you're hoping to see the next book out by Christmas, then I'm sorry. There's a lot of ideas to unpack from Hell's Gate - and so many directions for the new series to take - that I have a lot to think about. I think a lot while I'm writing, which is why I'm slow. I very much explore the story while I'm still in it, and I'm not above going back and rewriting whole sections if I've had a better idea later on.

And this new series isn't planned. It's as much an exploration for me as it will be for you. I don't know quite where it will go. That doesn't mean that it will be a bunch of random shit that doesn't really fit together when you get to the end. I'm too professional for that, and I've learned a lot about the craft of writing since I started all those years ago. I mean, the Survival EMP series that I did - my one successful series - wasn't planned at all. Neither the series, nor the individual books, were outlined in advance. All I had were a few basic ideas and the odd scene. But what I produced was a tight narrative with the perfect ending - if I say so myself. So I don't write wild, disjointed crap. I like it to be worth everyone's time, including my own.

So it will be with The Gene War. Average lead time for one of my books, if I'm honest, will be about eight months. Some people don't want to wait that long. That's okay. But that's my speed. It just takes me time to come up with new ideas (or rip them off). But I promise you that this series will cover a dynamic, far-reaching and varied story. It will be - what's the word? - Epic. And if you read Hell's Gate, you may catch a glimpse of the wealth to come.

Just don't expect the next one in a month. Patience.

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Hell's Gate

 



A new and exciting Military Science Fiction series is about to begin:

The fightback begins. But who is the real enemy?

The alien Ravagers have devastated the outer colonies, driving humanity from the fringes of space. Earth appears passive in the face of such a threat, deaf to the pleas of the colonists. A new discovery, however, could turn the tide of the war. The Ravagers are searching for an ancient artifact, located on a distant planet. It might be a weapon that, in the right hands, could swing the odds in humanity’s favor. Banding together to build a fleet, the Outer Systems Alliance hatches an audacious plan to snatch the artifact from the Ravagers with a full-on Marine assault on the planet. Time is of the essence and everyone is expected to contribute to what could be a last-gasp effort.

Ezra, Kiera and Jaden are three friends who have been pulled apart by the war. Each carry scars that may never heal, and secrets that have broken the bonds they once had. Given key tasks in the invasion, they are each vital to the success of the operation, but this mission is not all it seems and only one of them knows the truth.

A dark conspiracy threatens not only the outer colonies, but humanity's place in the galaxy itself.

Book 1, Hell's Gate is available to pre-order at Amazon. It goes live on Tuesday 9th November, 2021.

You can read the first sample chapter right here:

Hell's Gate - Sample Chapter 1

A starship is never silent. When the main drive has been shut down, a vessel continues to breathe, just like its occupants. Pumps and recyclers throb from the bowels. Pipes carry water and cryogenic fluids through the decks and passageways. Vents hum on the bulkheads, an audible whisper that you can hear when you’re trying to sleep, and a sound that you want to hear when your section’s been sealed off behind airlocks. Field generators buzz, point-defense turrets whirr and maintenance bots clank as they make their way on magnetic caterpillar tracks through ducts filled with fiber-optic looms and laser reflectors.

On really old ships, the entire hull creaks as the cold exterior vies with the warm interior, frosted armor plates twisting over heat diffusers on the vessel’s skin. Even newer ships groaned after a hyperspace jump, the compressed length stretching itself like someone getting out of bed. Whether it was a star cruiser or a small frigate, every ship had its own unique sound and feel. Until it died.

Silence was a ship’s enemy, and it didn’t sneak up like some shadow in the night. It pounded the hull with missile strikes and ripped open plating with laser fingers. When the air was sucked out with the debris, there was still the sound of the comm system in your ear if you had your suit and helmet on, as regulations demanded during an action, but that was little consolation as the only thing communicated at that point were conflicting orders, the screams of the dying and the cries of those cut off from the escape pods. When the power went completely and the lights snuffed out, there was only the total blackness of the tomb and silence’s clammy embrace.

And if you didn’t have your suit on, you couldn’t even hear your own scream.

Michael Ezra needed some of that silence right now. It meant he wouldn’t have been able to hear the cries of his crew as they perished.

But the battle was long over, and the sounds were in his head, where even the vacuum of space couldn’t touch them.

The bunk creaked as he turned over, facing the bulkhead again. The light glowed persistently in his cell. He thought about the final moments of the USS Emilia Jane: his last command. And if his superiors had anything to say about it — and they did — it would certainly be his last command.

He’d been on patrol along the edge of the Shaenua Nebula, and had detected the leaking radiation from the damaged engine of a Ravager Butterfly-Class ship. Ordering a pursuit, he’d caught up with the warship, his optical sensors confirming a visual sighting as it reflected the glowing fluorescence of protostars lighting up the gases of the nebula cloud.

He shouldn’t have engaged. The Emilia Jane was a Dagger-Class destroyer, an old patrol and interdiction vessel, but it was outclassed by the similar sized Ravager ship. Ravager technology was somewhat superior to that of the Outer Systems Alliance, and their ships had proven deadly in numerous encounters. Ezra’s orders were to signal his contact to the fleet and await reinforcements before commencing his attack. The Ravager ship, however, angled toward the nebula, looking to hide in the ionized gases and the gamma beams of a pulsar. Within the chaotic radiation emissions, it would likely elude alliance sensors and eventually get away.

Ezra wasn’t about to let that happen. The Ravager ship was running at half speed, and he judged that its combat capabilities had been reduced by whatever had struck the vessel.

He judged wrong. Closing to ten thousand klicks, with the Ravager ship just a mote of light against the stars, he unleashed his hex-grid laser batteries and missile swarms. The Ravager ship took damage and its shields went down. What happened next perplexed him even as he floated in the dark afterward, his crew dying around him.

The background nebula glow dimmed briefly around the Ravager ship. In the next instant a beam more powerful than should have been possible for such a small vessel slammed into the Emilia Jane, tore down its shields and ripped through its armor. Ravager missiles arrived soon after.

Only the arrival of Alliance reinforcements hours later prevented the survivors of the Emilia Jane from breathing their last, but by then the Ravager vessel was long gone.

That last reading from his sensors however, before the screens went dark, stayed with Ezra. Rescued, taken into custody and charged with negligence and insubordination, he nevertheless remained hooked by that moment. His career was over, his reputation destroyed along with his ship, but that sensor reading continued to bug him.

Because it shouldn’t have been possible.

The cell door clanked and rolled back. A man in the black uniform of the Intelligence Corps stood outside. “Mind if I come in?” he said.

Ezra wasn’t aware he had the right to refuse entry to anyone.

“If you want,” he said.

The intelligence officer gave him a brief smile and stepped forward. The door slammed shut behind him. “May I?” he said, gesturing to a chair.

Considering how he’d been treated since he’d been rescued, Ezra found the intelligence officer’s manner oddly polite.

“And if I said no?” he asked.

“I’d stand,” said the intelligence officer, as if it were obvious.

“Take a seat,” said Ezra.

The officer did so, and Ezra noticed something strange. There were no unit or fleet designations on the man’s uniform.

“I trust you’re being treated well,” said the man.

“I suppose.”

“And you are Commander Michael Ezra.”

“I was.”

“Of course. Mr. Ezra, what led you to attack in the way you did?”

Ezra said nothing.

“The cameras and microphones have been turned off for this interview,” said the intelligence officer. “You can speak freely.”

Ezra doubted that and maintained his silence.

“I read your report.”

Ezra gazed quietly at him.

“It was interesting.”

Ezra ignored his cue to speak and studied the intelligence officer. He was older than most Alliance intelligence officers. Probably late thirties or early forties. Intelligence officers straight out of the academy served on frigates and worked their way up the fleet, depending on how good they were. The best got jobs at Alliance headquarters. The worst got stuck on ships like this one, an aging squadron flagship tasked with coordinating the patrols of obsolete destroyers like the Emilia Jane in interstellar backwaters where nobody expected to see action — until they unexpectedly did.

“Why did you disobey orders?” asked the intelligence officer. It looked as if he genuinely wanted to know.

Ezra kept his mouth shut.

“You’ve had an interesting career,” said the officer. “Three disciplinary hearings, demoted twice for insubordination, six different posts in three years.”

The intelligence officer scratched his chin as he weighed Ezra up.

“Yet in spite of all that, you still managed to get your own command, helped no doubt by our current shortage of qualified captains. And you were warned in no uncertain terms to keep your nose clean. But you still went after that Ravager ship alone. Did your XO protest about that at all?”

The Emilia Jane’s XO was dead and Ezra didn’t feel it appropriate to answer that question. The intelligence officer’s eyes gleamed, however, as if he knew what Ezra wasn’t willing to tell.

“What made you so certain you would win that encounter?” asked the officer.

“Everything is in my report,” said Ezra.

“Not everything,” said the officer absently.

For a moment he looked off into the distance, and Ezra realized he was reading off a retinal screen. That meant the conversation was definitely being recorded. It also meant something wasn’t right.

Retinal screens were not standard issue to lowly intelligence officers.

“Who are you?” asked Ezra.

“That doesn’t matter right now,” said the officer, still reading. He was probably digesting the report.

“I don’t have anything else to say,” said Ezra.

The officer focused back on him. “Actually, I think there’s a few things you’d like to say, but that’s none of my concern. I’m more interested in your state of mind. Was it a desire for vengeance that caused you to attack?”

Ezra knew better than to answer that.

“Was it because of what happened on Regis Prime?” persisted the officer.

Ezra weighed up whether to reply, trying to work out what the officer was looking for. Something to incriminate him with? Evidence for the court martial? They already had enough to throw him out of the Outer Systems Navy if they wanted, and more besides.

“No,” he said.

“So losing your homeworld didn’t affect you emotionally?”

“No.”

The officer pondered the answer for a moment.

“Did you know what the odds were when you went after that Ravager ship?”

“Yes, I calculated the odds.”

“Every other captain in the navy would have hesitated to do what you did, and with good reason. Were you afraid?”

“No.”

“Have you ever been afraid?”

“No. Are you recording this?”

The officer gave him a sly smile. “Not officially.”

“So you are.”

The officer didn’t acknowledge that, and simply moved on. “How do you feel you were treated in the orphanage?” he asked.

“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”

“The orphanage on Regis Prime,” pressed the officer.

“Still not relevant,” replied Ezra.

“Your scores in science and math were outstanding. Best in the system. Several systems, in fact.”

This was definitely a test, but Ezra was not sure what he was trying to provoke.

“So what?” he said.

“How did it feel to be a prodigy?”

“I didn’t.”

The officer glanced across the cell, reading something else on his retina. “You’re on record as saying that we should be more aggressive in this war. You told your last CO that we were being too defensive.”

“We should be taking the fight to them.”

“Are you speaking rationally or emotionally?”

“Rationally. It should be obvious.”

“Not to everyone. What about the losses?”

Ezra didn’t answer and the intelligence officer leaned forward in his chair.

“What motivates you?” he said quietly.

Ezra stayed silent.

“I’m curious. Aren’t you?”

“No.”

The officer sat back, seemingly satisfied. “I think that’s the first lie you’ve given me,” he said. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Ezra.” He got up to leave. “One more question,” he added.

“What?”

“Do you remember Dr. Quinlan?”

“No.”

The officer gave him that same satisfied look, then turned away.

“Who are you?” asked Ezra again.

The officer passed his hand over the wall pad and the cell door rolled open.

“You can call me Rosebud,” he said with a smile.

He stepped out and the door clanked shut behind him. In the upper corner of the cell, a green light blinked on in its dark glass casing to indicate the camera was back on again.

End of Sample

To read more of this tale of war, loyalties and deception, head on over to Amazon and get a pre-ordered copy for just 99c. A new adventure is about to begin.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Where I'm At

 

Hell's Gate



Does it look gloomy? That's just me practicing some photo manipulation. It's actually a photo I took of a cemetery gate in Wales some years ago. I just added the rain and dark skies. But Hell's Gate will be the title of the next novel, though it won't be a gothic urban fantasy. I just needed some art for the article and I haven't perfected any sci-fi pics yet. And I'm quite pleased with what I'm learning with Photoshop.

But in case you missed the last post, the next novel will be military science fiction, and the first of a new series. And it's been hard going. It's now July and I thought I would have finished the first draft by now, but it's taking longer than I realized. I remember when I wrote Solar Storm that I thought I'd bitten off more than I could chew: Following the story from three different points of view, with detailed geographical locations that spanned half the world. Plus I spent a long time agonizing over how exactly Rick would make it home. From the Middle East! Yeah, that took some figuring out. I gave myself that problem. I mean, I could have placed him in Florida. Kept wondering if I should change it. The final result was epic, but I often wondered what the hell I was doing, and why I was making it hard for myself. But that's the way it goes. Sometimes you write the story, and sometimes the story writes you. Or itself. I don't know. But if you want to try something different, you have to learn to catch curveballs. And not complain when they smack you in the face.

So here I am again, dodging demonic pitchers. Hell's Gate not only features multiple POVs, but the world it operates in has to be created from scratch: The landscapes, moons, star systems, weapons, starships, creative physics, political and domestic backdrops ... it takes time, and I'm not done yet. It's going to take a lot of editing to make sure it all works in sync.

I also need to do the artwork for the cover. Now, if I was smart, I'd pay a professional to do that for me. I am smart, but I'm also broke, and good sci-fi covers cost a lot. They're also harder to do than the post-apocalypse covers I'm used to - you can't just take stock art of some location with people and add a color filter. That's why I'm taking a crash course in photo manipulation and digital art. I want the next cover to be absolutely amazing. Because the last cover for Into Darkness was not.

The Into Darkness cover has been bugging me for a long time. I got ambitious, and learned some new techniques, but I completely forgot about making it genre appropriate. This is very important in book publishing, and I knew this, so I've got no excuse. I got neck-deep into the details of the art itself and ended up with a cover that gives readers the impression of being a dark horror novel, rather than an EMP Post-apocalyptic thriller. I poured my heart into that work, then felt deflated when, after putting it out and taking a deep sigh of relief, I took a step back and looked at what I really had.

Into Darkness hasn't sold as well as the preceding works, and I'm not sure if it was the cover, or the concept that moved away from the tried-and-tested 'Going Home' theme. I don't have any regrets about the story itself, but I guess rewards don't always follow risk. Or it could be the cover. It still bugs me. Once I've published my next work, I will revisit that cover, plus the Undead UK covers that now look a little dated. I can do better than that.

What else is there? Oh yes, the Audio books have been a disaster. That hasn't been my fault, but a disaster it remains. I mentioned that the narrator (or rather, the producer for the narrator) for Solar Storm refused to narrate the next book in the series. In fact, they simply disappeared and didn't answer any further inquiries. They had headhunted me for the first book, which flattered me as I hadn't even been considering an audio book, but clearly didn't make as much money as they'd hoped. So they bailed. A smart business decision perhaps, but it felt like a stab in the back. So I auditioned for a new narrator, who worked on the next two books. Unfortunately, after many, many delays and postponements, the narrator pulled out of doing the last book in the series, citing personal reasons. I don't know. I can't seem to catch a break when it comes to audio books, and I wish I'd never gotten into it. I now have a series of four books, with only the first three having audio versions, and it's all taken so long that nobody's really waiting for the fourth anymore. It's going to be difficult to convince a narrator to do the last book of a series, which traditionally sells the least, and I don't have any money to compensate them with incentives, so I'm kind of stuck now and I don't know where to go with it. To be honest, I've given up. It looks unprofessional, but it's a mess I can't easily get out of.

Funnily enough, when I auditioned the last narrator, I had them in mind for Into Darkness, being the perfect voice for a southern gal. Considering how poor the sales have been, maybe it was better they didn't stick with me. Takes a lot of effort with little reward to do an audio production.

Bit like writing, really.

So that's where I'm at. Picking myself up and starting over. I haven't given up, and there are many more projects to follow, but I have had to digest some hard lessons about this business, and I need to figure out a sustainable way of working, and get better at making covers. I took a couple of wrong turns but I'm slowly getting back on track. If I had to make a prediction, I'd say the next book could be out in September. But, honestly, take everything I say with a pinch of salt, because I have no idea really. I can only try my best. But it will be epic, I promise you that.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

A New Project Is Coming

Boldly going where thousands have gone before.


Something new is coming. A tale of heroism and impossible odds in a galaxy not far away ... well, quite close actually. In fact, the one we're currently in. But a whole bunch of stuff will be far away. And set in the future, with starships, space marines (oh yes), aliens (of course) and battles. Lots of battles. Yes, you guessed it, I'm writing a military science fiction series.

But Rob, I hear you ask. What about a sequel to Into Darkness, or more post-apocalypse fiction?

Fear not, I will not abandon the post-apocalypse genre completely (I like it too much), but I'm kind of burned out, and I didn't have a strong follow-up story for Darla and her crew, and I didn't want to churn out a second-rate sequel just to pad out a series. I want something better than that, and when I have it I will write it. But until then, I have decided to begin a project that's been sitting in my notebooks for a couple of years. How long will it be? I cannot say. When will it be out? Ditto. I only know that I'm 40,000 words into an intriguing story with some complex world-building that's taking time to shake itself out.

So what's it about? A disgraced starship captain who's been granted one last mission, a hot-shot fighter pilot facing her doom and an intelligence officer who's about to discover the frightening truth about the planet they're being sent to invade.

And some other stuff. I can't give too much away, and I might even surprise myself with more stuff before the end. But it is coming. And it's going to pack a punch. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

The Story of a Story

 



Every story has a story, and this is the story of the boat that almost never sailed, and the story that almost wasn't written. In two days, my new novel Into Darkness goes live, which is a great relief as I can honestly say this is the most difficult project I've tackled of late.

I began publishing back in 2012, and I assumed that as I got better, writing would get easier. I mean, nothing could be more difficult than your first novel, right? Wrong. The writing gets better, but you set higher standards for yourself. And that initial stock of story ideas, usually inspired by everything you've read or watched up to that point in your life, runs out. Now you're on your own. Fast forward to 2020, and as I start writing Into Darkness I discover just how far from my comfort zone I am. I knew a little about Louisiana and New Orleans, but not enough to convincingly set a story there. I thought I knew enough about the Mississippi River (it's just water, right?), but as Darla, the protagonist, knows the river like the back of her hand, I realized I needed to know a lot more.

And steamboats. I needed to know about steamboats. Do you know how difficult it is to get real details of a working Mississippi steamboat beyond its ability to float and the view from the deck? I certainly didn't, and in any other story I might have gotten away with only a passing knowledge of such historical craft. In this story, however, the boat is itself a central character, linked closely to Darla. I won't spoil the plot for you, but suffice to say, I really needed a lot more inside knowledge than I possessed when I started the project.

And finally there was the military aspect. Or rather, the lack of it. In every book I've ever written, the main characters have been military or ex-military. I have studied military matters ever since school, where I used to draw fighter planes and tanks in my notebooks instead of paying attention in class. I'm comfortable with military hardware, history and tactics. In Solar Storm it felt perfectly natural to begin the story in Syria because I'd already studied the conflict there for some years. I'm no expert, but I had a reasonable grasp of how a soldier, even a Special Forces operative, would approach a problem.

Not so Darla. She's an ordinary citizen with zero military experience or training, an unusual background and a very particular personality. You'll understand when you read the story. So I was in uncharted territory and I needed to do a lot more research. In fact, I quit the book, not once, but twice, thinking I didn't really have enough to continue with this. I even began to doubt my own abilities as a writer (as any writer knows, continuous self-doubt is an occupational hazard). And of course, this was 2020. Once Covid hit and things went crazy, many things spiraled out of control.

Still seems crazy to me that the first sign of panic was the mass buying of toilet roll. Not just in the US, but all over Europe. As a writer of post-apocalypse stories, I was very humbled by this. In all my stories, and those of many other writers I know, the apocalypse usually began with the stampede to buy food. How wrong we were. It baffles me still to this day. I mean, preppers tend to focus on calorie intake, potable water and shelter, branching further into self-defense, medical items and leaving luxury non-essentials till last. I never pictured, nor portrayed, a typical prepper sitting in a bunker surrounded by toilet roll! Like, WTF.

So yeah, 2020 was weird and people proved to be even weirder. Getting deep into Darla's world while trying to keep my sanity was taxing, and progress was slow, with the result that the book was not ready in time to publish last year. For this, I apologize. It was not meant to take this long, and I was as disappointed as anyone else, but the fault is all mine.

Still, the book is finished and will be available to read very soon (and if you haven't already, you can read the sample first chapter that I've printed in the post below this one). So what can you expect? Well, a rich story set on one of the most famous rivers in literature, and for that I have to thank the late, great Mark Twain, whose influence runs through the entire novel. He not only wrote about it, he was a riverboat pilot with years of experience in navigating the fickle waters of the Mississippi. River pilots were the elite operatives of their day. I recommend his personal memoir of the period, Life On The Mississippi, which shows exactly what it was like, told with his trademark wit and love of detail.

The other big influence is that of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, whose title is similar to mine. Coincidence? I think not (don't sue me). The idea of a boat sailing up a great river into a dark continent of chaos seemed perfect for a post-apocalypse EMP novel, and I was surprised it hadn't already been done. Well, my own story changed many times during its creation and it doesn't follow either of the books listed above, but the influences are impossible to deny.

The biggest driver of the entire story, however, is the heroine herself, Captain Darla Jean Griffiths. She's quite unlike any of the main characters I've written before. Conflicted, controversial and headstrong, she carries the story on her back and is worthy of a part in any great novel. I count myself fortunate that she decided to appear in mine.

Check it out now on Amazon.