Travesty! When you lose control and you got no soul, it’s travesty!

brigThe following contains spoilers for the “Death in Heaven” Doctor Who episode, and before anyone says anything, YES I KNOW IT’S NOT REAL.

But.

Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was a childhood hero. His character, intended as a one-off in Troughton’s days, had already been popular enough to be dusted off for a second Troughton outing, and then came back again to provide the sole continuity between Troughton and Pertwee Who. Nicholas Courtney played him as courteous, friendly, intelligent, brave, honest, a very good soldier, and fundamentally decent. In fact, as TV father figures go, he was more accessible than the Doctor, being strictly human and of our time. I think part of his popularity was that, like Sarah Jane Smith, you always got the impression that the character was an extension of an equally likeable-in-real-life actor, and like Sarah Jane Smith, I was actually sorry to hear the actor in question had died.

Giving the Brig a daughter to take his place in latterday NuWho was a clever stroke, and Jemma Redgrave convincingly plays the part of a woman who might actually have been brought up by that particular man. She filled a Brigadier-shaped hole in the series.

And that is why it is so unconscionable that they turned him into a cyberman.

A BLOODY CYBERMAN!

And not even handled with any kind of sensitivity, or a way that respects me as a viewer who has tuned in for entertainment, expecting my intelligence to be engaged with and by the plot. It wasn’t “Ooh, this will be a good plot twist”, it was “Wevs, let’s throw in the kitchen sink and make the fans gasp, ‘cos that’s what they do.”

When Jean-Luc Picard was turned into a Borg – back in the days when such procedures weren’t as easily reversible as changing your socks – fandom was riveted to see what would happen next. If there had been a Troughton/Pertwee/Baker era plotline where the Brig met a similar fate, I’m sure it would have had the same effect.

But, this? A 30-second knock-off to justify an utterly disposable line earlier in the episode? If there wasn’t a dry eye in the house it was only because they were tears of rage.

Until yesterday my lasting memory of the Brigadier was of him in a green pullover, lips curled wryly, moustache bristling, probably a pair of binos round his neck, hands on his hips, barking orders like “chap with wings, five rounds rapid”. He was the immovable object that any alien invasion had to get through; and we, the viewers, knew the aliens never would in a million years.

Now, my lasting memory will be of him as a soulless cyborg, a fate that is like re-animating Nelson and conscripting him into the French navy.

How dare they do that to my hero? How dare they?

Future shock

The global superpower of His Majesty’s Starship was Indian. Most of the future-based scenes from Time’s Chariot were set in an international community in Antarctica, with an international cast, and the hero lived in South Africa. The (very few) Earth-based scenes from Phoenicia’s Worlds took place out at sea or in Kenya/Tanzania. When I have characters that a contemporary audience – you lot – would think of as white(ish) and western, it’s generally because they’re the descendants of the same but no longer living on Earth. I will admit it makes it easier for me as a white guy to write that way, but I also have to find a credible way of getting my future heroes into the story at all.

Because, for a very long time now, I simply haven’t believed that the West as we know it has a future. And here’s a piece that nicely articulates why not: How to Shrink the Economy without Crashing It: A Ten-Point Plan.

It’s not about the actual decline of the West, just a thought experiment as to what needs to happen for our species to survive at anything like its current level of affluence and comfort. And as the author frankly admits, it ain’t gonna happen, because is there a single politician or other power figure that you can imagine actually backing something like this?

… at least, not here in the affluent West with our current system. Other countries may pick it up, gradually, and I can well believe this is what planet Earth could eventually end up with. It’ll be more by accident than by design, but it could happen.

But only after the west has gone the way of Ancient Rome. Sorry to depress you.

Everyone’s a Critic

Empire of Dust cover

Empire of Dust

My friend and fellow author, the much talented Jacey Bedford, guest blogs about her new book. My reciprocal post is here – Ben

That’s it, I’ve done my best. Empire of Dust is not only finished but it’s published. I have a copy in my hot little hands. Too late now to change a thing.

It’s a star-spanning space opera featuring mega-corporations, brain-implanted psi-techs, foldspace and jump gates. Its broad theme is trust and betrayal with complex relationships and twisty plots. Friends become enemies and help comes from unexpected quarters. The most important skill for survival is knowing where to place your trust.

Much as I’d like to take credit for the whole book, publishing a novel is a team effort. Sure, I wrote it, but my editor, Sheila Gilbert, worked with me to make it better. Then when it was finished to the best of my ability it was handed over to a copy editor who checked it for clunky phrasing, spelling mistakes, continuity errors and consistency, and also translated it from British English into American English. (It’s published by DAW in the USA, a well-established, specialist science fiction and fantasy publisher, part of the Penguin Group.) Then I got it back to do a final check, i.e. the page proofs, which was my first inkling of how it would look in its finished typeset form. After that a professional proof reader went over it yet again.

That’s a huge team effort, but even before DAW agreed to publish it I already owed a lot to members of various critique groups.

Writer Paul Cornell says that it’s a writer’s job to seek out the harshest criticism they can find and learn from it. Some of that learning process comes from reviews after the event, but a wise writer seeks out critique while the work is still in progress. But don’t just ask your mum (unless your mum is a writer, too) and beware of those writers’ groups that exist to pat you on the back just for getting some words down on paper. I’m a firm believer in peer-to-peer critique groups.

There are well-known online critique groups like Critters, but I was lucky to be a part of a Usenet newsgroup called rec.arts.sf.composition (rasfc for short) in the days before Usenet was overtaken by Google groups, blogs and social media. (It’s not all that long ago. Things change quickly in cyberspace and Usenet still exists for those of us who want it.) Someone on rasfc floated the idea of forming an email critique group and a bunch of us who were working hard towards publication waved our hands. It became the RECOG crit group and it lasted for eight years. We had a schedule for submitting work to the group and we were honour bound to give as thorough and constructive critique as we could. I learned a lot from people I knew only by names such as garyfury and zeborah. We were all heartened when one of our number, James Hetley, got his first publishing deal for books that we’d critiqued. Hey, if it could happen for him then there was hope for all of us.

Also on rasfc I met (online) Liz Holliday who was then the secretary of Milford, a week-long event of peer-to-peer, face-to-face critiquing. In order to attend Milford you have to be published, but that need only be one short story to one recognised publisher or magazine. In 1998 I sold my first short story to an anthology and therefore qualified for Milford. I was terrified, but I booked anyway, determined to give it a go. In those days it was held in a cliff-top hotel in Maidencombe (near Torquay). Later it moved to York for a couple of years, and currently resides in scenic North Wales at Trigonos, a lovely residential centre with its own lake and a magnificent view of the mountains.

We were a group of ten in 1998. Writing is a solitary business, so to find nine other like-minded individuals willing and eager to chew over plot-bunnies, story arcs, characters and potential markets gives everyone a real boost, an infusion of enthusiasm and renewed writing energy. My fellow writers included multiply-published American author Patricia Wrede; host of this blog, Ben Jeapes; Cherith Baldry, who is one of the team that writes the very successful Warrior Cats series of children’s books, under the name of Erin Hunter; and Alastair Reynolds and Liz Williams, before either of them got their first book deal.

Did my fellow writers like my book? Not especially, I suspect, though they were very kind in their constructive criticism, and their advice helped me to make changes for the better. They certainly didn’t make me feel like a clueless newbie, even though I was. I learned so much that I went back the following year, and again the year after. In fact, in sixteen years I’ve only missed three Milfords, and those due to prior commitments that I couldn’t shirk. I’ve been on the organising committee for the last five or six years and I now maintain the Milford website.

Each Milford week takes a maximum of fifteen attendees, for both rooming and workload reasons. Attendees submit up to 15,000 words in one or two pieces. These can be complete short stories or sections of a longer work. Days are organised to a schedule in order to make sure all the work is covered. Mornings are free for catching up with any reading and critting not done beforehand. After lunch the formal crit sessions begin, and evenings are for social time (or not; no one need feel obliged if they need to hide away and write like mad).

Milford critiques are thorough but constructive. Each person, in turn, gets four minutes to deliver a verbal crit. The person being critiqued has to sit mute (usually scribbling notes), but then gets an uninterrupted right of reply in which they can scream, ‘But you don’t understand my genius!’ or alternatively explain and clarify ideas. A general conversation ensues in which ideas are developed and searching questions asked, and what began in the crit session can often crop up again at dinner or breakfast, or over a good glass of red in the library late at night.

Lots of good things have happened to me because of Milford, one being the recently formed Northwrite SF writers’ group, started by a few Milford writers who wanted a northern-based quarterly face-to-face group. My fellow Northwriters currently have the pleasure of critiquing chunks of Crossways, my sequel to Empire of Dust, due to be published in 2015.

I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for Milford I would not have a three book deal with DAW and I would not be sitting here clutching Empire of Dust and grinning like an idiot.

 

Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford lives behind a keyboard in Pennine Yorkshire with her songwriter husband, Brian, and a long-haired black German Shepherd dog called Eska. She’s had short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic and her first novel, Empire of Dust, is out from DAW, part of the Penguin Group in the USA, in November. It’s available via good bookshops and the usual online retailers.

Jacey met Ben Jeapes, the host of this blog, at her very first Milford in 1998. She wants to make it very clear that the Ben in her book and Ben-your-blog-host are not related.