The Unexpected Sequel

The short version: my novel The Xenocide Mission is re-released in print and on Kindle.

The longer bit: I am aware of the financial realities of publishing; I know that publishers like to know an author has more than one novel inside them, and that very often said novel will be a sequel. I am not averse to sequels or serieses (they are overlapping circles on a publishing Venn diagram). Without moving my head very far from where I sit, I can get the entirety of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar series staring back at me, and my life is richer for it.

But I have never set out to write a novel with the intention from the start of following it up. A very helpful early bit of writing advice was that a novel should be about the most exciting thing that has ever happened to the hero. I still stand by it, though I would add “up to that point of their life”. This doesn’t preclude writing a sequel, but it should certainly make you pause a little. Bujold managed it, by and large; Miles’s life gets more and more interesting as it goes on, and when she’s got as far as she can go, she shifts attention to other characters. Other writers’ heroes have followed a distinct bell curve of being interesting, but I couldn’t possibly name Orson Scott Card or any other offenders.

For the 1994 Milford I took chapters of my space opera in progress, His Majesty’s Starship, which was very definitely planned as a standalone novel. I wrote it with an aim; that aim was achieved. Feedback was positive, helpful … and unexpected, in that when I explained the background plot (alien race wants help from the humans) an immediate reaction was: the aliens want us? With our history? Why? Can’t they do better? Milford does that – if you’ve got a blind spot, someone will spot it, never fear.

So, by the end of that crit session I had spontaneously generated a race of warlike aliens who had, for reasons no one including me quite understood, wiped out the native life on the next planet in their own solar system. Sooner or later they would discover faster-than-light travel and emerge into the galaxy as an active menace – so, for my friendly aliens, time was short.

That fixed the plot point, but what was I going to do with these aliens? They didn’t fit into the novel and I couldn’t possibly leave that point open. Fortunately, the same session made the criticism that my hero was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! An eighteen-year-old son Joel also generated spontaneously from the ether.

And these two things together, son + warlike aliens (with a smattering of inspiration from New Scientist), gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission, in which we learn exactly why the aliens did what they did. And yes, they did have their reasons.

I plotted a large chunk of The Xenocide Mission whilst staffing the company stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, 1998. This had the advantage of looking a lot like actual work, and people who came up to me with work-based queries actually apologised for interrupting. Well, quite, art was happening. But I graciously answered their queries.

The Xenocide Mission did okay; it made it into Waterstones, which is more than His Majesty’s Starship ever managed. It paid off its advance, so, royalties. Early in the new century I got the chance to feel very futuristic and science fictiony when I was asked if I would like to include it in Random House’s fledgling ebook programme. I gaily signed away the rights, not noticing in those days of electronic infancy that there was no kind of reversion clause …

As of 2017 it was still in print, occasionally sending a trickle of pennies my way in royalties, more usually holding payment over until next time for not crossing the royalty threshold. Eventually I decided enough was enough and asked my agent to see if he could get the rights back. Random House promptly responded that it wasn’t out of print because it was available electronically and always would be … I pointed out that we knew it wasn’t OOP and were asking them to make it so, given that royalties were negligible and surely costing them more to administer than they got back. I also prepared a host of arguments exploiting ambiguities in the original contract and addendum, prepared to try and wear them down until they just gave in … And then, lo and behold, my superior logic work and the rights reverted. Just like that.

So, here we are: The Xenocide Mission, lightly edited (but only lightly; by and large I take the Pontius Pilate approach to standing by what I have written) and available in print and Kindle.

Footnote 1: Two versions meant sending Amazon two copies of the rights reversion letter from Random House, proving that I was allowed to do this. In fact, for the print version it meant sending off several copies: I had to make changes to the typeset content and it seems that at every stage of the printing process, something triggers the Amazon protocol droids to ask again and yet again whether I have the rights.

Footnote 2: When I tried to launch Amazon advertising campaigns for both versions, they were declined as I was using a very generous quote provided by Al Reynolds for the original edition. This was not a verified customer review … I know the limits of my patience and I know how far anyone gets when arguing with the protocol droids, so I de-Reynoldsed the ads and they seem to have gone through. But here it anyway:

“Anyone who missed Ben Jeapes’ first novel, His Majesty’s Starship, missed one of the best first contact books in a long while – a gripping, logical, original and fundamentally optimistic retake on one of SF’s richest themes. Brimming with humour and tension, The Xenocide Mission amply fulfils the promise of its predecessor.” – Alastair Reynolds.

So there.

Getcha luvverly ideas here!

20161025_113130You know you’ve made it as an author when you’re asked the time-honoured question, “where do you get your ideas from?” There are various time-honoured responses, but Neil Gaiman in the link nails it.

In our recent house move I unearthed a very old notebook from the time when ideas just kept popping into my head. Some even made it through in recognisable form to publication. Most got no further than the notebook. The last of them is dated 3-5-93, and as I started writing His Majesty’s Starship in Christmas 1993, that means everything here predates my career as a novelist.

I will probably never do anything more with them and it would be cruel to consign them to my bedside drawer for another 23+ years, so, boys and girls and other, please feel free to pinch with my blessing.

Professional killer of immortals (e.g. people à la Icehenge, who are bored of living forever).

Children born/bred in hyperspace as result of experiment to develop concepts for hyperspace travel – can’t cope with (or pose a threat to) men who come to rescue them. BRING IN MEMES & MIMETICS – hostile ideas and items picked up by children.

Accounts/investment manager for bloke who has deposited money and gone on a long space trip – plans to return & collect pooled-up interest. [I can’t claim credit for this, but this is similar to the origin of the AI Jane in Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse – a super-intelligent program develop to deal with the complexities of investments and index-linked pensions in a universe with time distorting relativistic travel.]

Christian minister in e.g. yuppy tower block – wins (e.g. against ambience of the buildings) through love. MAKE IT A STARSHIP? [“Giantkiller”, Interzone 89 (November 1994), available in Jeapes Japes.]

AI sets up own publishing co. Describe getting ISBNs, first bestseller etc. Survives takeover bid and ends up “X & Son” (X being its name.) [My first Interzone sale! “Memoirs of a Publisher”, Interzone 43 (January 1991), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Boy at boarding school comes from the future … 3 or 4 years in the future is all. Some kind of time swap? No one believes him until at the end when his 13 year old self reappears. [I was on a roll. My one and only sale to Fantasy & Science Fiction (September 1997): “Pages Out of Order”, available in Jeapes Japes.]

‘Rights broker’ for different classes of being (e.g. human with genetic upgrades) – rights (to live, to work etc.) are treated as commodities.

Christian sets out to evangelise parallel worlds – maybe causes the Fall in one?

Village (à la Prisoner?) where people go to disappear – get absorbed into the timestream that suits them. Detective story? Fantasy?

Elite band of actors who can act anything (à la Songbirds of OS Card). Hero is ‘foreign to his own body’ (Oliver Sacks, Michael Flynn) and a great actor. Poss. setting – post-holocaust Europe (biological holocaust, not nuclear. Nanotech?).

Prayer book is in fact spell book in disguise. Belongs to young Salvation Army bloke? Ends up as poetry book? Baddy must also be disguised. [Hmm. Not dissimilar to an idea that ended up in The Comeback of the King.]

Child’s collection of cuddly toys have lives of their own. Eventually we learn it is the child’s subconscious psychokinetic powers moving them (poss. when he dies and they collapse?) Maybe they gang up on him to stop him growing up. Maybe an older brother went through the same thing. [“Getting rid of Teddy”, Interzone 76 (October 1993), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Spaceship with different groups of people on it, poss. fleeing something. (At least one group is Cosmochristers?) Detect something near them (à la Liberator at start of Blake’s 7). What is it? Each group has its expectations – all; are satisfied simultaneously à la Schrodinger when the ship is finally revealed visually. Say, ship has been hijacked by nutters who expect, say, God to come and rescue them and think the UFO is his vehicle. Crew think it’s a battleship come to rescue them. Poss. a third alternative? At the last moment, the head religious nutter vanishes.

Treatment for mental cases – brains are wiped and a copy of their minds inserted, minus the madness therefore they remember being mad.

Time travelling reporters sent back to cover historical incidents (or history in general) – have to ‘live’ back to the present. Poss. one meets his family as children? (Or his wife’s family.) [“Correspondents”, Aboriginal SF, Summer 1998, available in Jeapes Japes.]

Society where bonfire burners are members of an elite – poss. parallel with oppressive religion. Hero fights them.

Journalist investigates someone who was a key influence in the lives of 3-4 different, important people. X knew them at school, at university etc. but is totally unremarkable him/herself. He/she is a gear in the mechanism of society. Perhaps bring in butterfly effect etc. in social terms.

Correspondent gets himself imprisoned on a life sentence – the Home Time will have to get him out, or people will see him not ageing (at least, that’s his plan). [Definitely incorporated into Time’s Chariot.]

Time travel agency brings people to pre-AIDS times in order to get laid safely. Have to work out why they don’t pass on infection.

Man looks after ‘teenage’ (problem?) AIs which can’t be erased – one gets a crush on him. [“Crush”, Interzone 68 (February 1993), available in Jeapes Japes.]

Youngster yearns to be a feelie-star (or whatever) – can’t break into it. His hero got into feelies when they started. Youngster works out that he is the star, time-travelled. MAYBE youngster grows up and matures. Sends tachyon signal (à la Timescape) back containing info to clone him from.

FTL has been invented recently. Someone works out that in C20 a Rama-type ship passed through the system undetected. It broadcast signals (e.g. the chaos number from Ian Stewart’s book) that have only recently been recognised as important. They were dismissed as static or whatever beforehand. Now we have FTL, we can go after this thing!!

Time travel – son takes his crippled Dad, who was a great sailor, on a C19 sailing ship as a treat.

Time travel – mother whose son has been taken away by social services for child abuse (real or imagined) is visited by the grown-up son.

First contact between invisible, mass-sensing aliens and humans, who can’t see them.

Scam – for some reason, guy pretends to be an AI.

Old-fashioned, clunking AI is found which can only communicate by icons, not sound.

Courtroom drama – a time traveller hops to and fro in time to create the required precedents to win a case in the present.

In SF, Earthmen make contact with less-developed aliens but still seem to deal with a worldwide society. In reality they would be dealing with one government amongst many. How about an alternate world where aliens deal with one country on Earth – a couple of centuries ago? E.g. America, 1776? Germany, 1914? [It turned out to be Cromwell’s England in 1645, in The New World Order.]

Man crashed on a far-off planet has to work out how to program ship’s computer to get back into space.

Man followed everywhere by ghost of 2-year-old toddler son (or not a ghost – he doesn’t have a son! Left over from temporal realignment …)

Aspects of a real person’s life are recorded in VR for other to experience. The real person (e.g. the Queen) doesn’t like it.

A time-travelling Red Cross, careful not to disrupt history but bringing relief to the wounded of historical battles.

Goldfinger! (wah-WAH, wah)

goldfingerI’ve been re-reading the original James Bond novels, for the first time in about 30 years, in order of publication. Entering the Flemingverse gives an interesting glimpse of the post-war world. Austerity Britain comes off worse compared to just about everywhere else. There is still a mix of common technologies where a man who drives a 1933 4½ litre Bentley can do battle with a man intent of firing a nuclear warhead at London. It’s an exercise in culture-specific attitudes, brand snobbery, gross sexism, surprisingly less racism than I had expected, occasionally poetic insight into the ways of the world, and very wry humour. And it’s all great fun.

I’ve just finished Goldfinger. It was made into the third Bond movie, so it comes from that time when the movies stuck reasonably close to the original plot. This is the seventh novel in the series, but for some reason it’s the one where I was particularly struck by the similarities and differences between novel and movie: what stayed the same; what changed; and which (allowing for the fact that two different art forms will always have differences) is better.

The book is by no means perfect. For example, I’ve never understood the allure of Pussy Galore. She comes in on page 167 of a 224 page novel, and is a lot more interested in Tilly Masterson (still alive at this stage in the book; in the movie she is killed off about five minutes after appearing) than in Bond. She is happy to go along with Goldfinger’s plan, until she decides on page 216 to switch sides, with no discernible impact on the plot at all other than giving Bond someone to have sex with shortly after the last page. The interaction between her and Tilly is cringeworthy and you have to wonder if Fleming had actually met any lesbians. (I suspect the answer is: in fact, yes; knowingly, no. Note also: “She said, not in a gangster’s voice, or a Lesbian’s, but in a girl’s voice, “Will you write to me in Sing Sing?”” In the Flemingverse, gangsters, lesbians and girls all have distinctive voices. It’s fun to imagine Honor Blackman saying novel-Pussy’s lines.)

However in the Flemingverse a lesbian is only a woman who hasn’t met the right man yet and on the last page she sure enough melts into the right man’s arms.

Half the denouement is in flashback, thus giving it the excitement of a strand of wet spaghetti. Bond, Goldfinger at al are on a plane, as per the movie. It’s Oddjob who gets sucked out of the window. Goldfinger just gets throttled. The plane doesn’t have fuel to reach land, so Bond holds the crew at gunpoint and orders them to ditch the plane in the sea near to a weathership. And that is the bit in flashback – one moment the plane hits the water, the next Bond and Pussy are safe on board the ship, remembering how the plane snapped in two upon impact and took the crew and its cargo of gold to the bottom of the sea. The final special effect of the novel, so to speak, relegated to memory. Come on! The movie probably couldn’t have managed it within the budget, but the effects budget of the imagination is unlimited. I just have the feeling Fleming got bored at that point and wandered off.

But on the plus side …

The novel opens with Bond having a one-corpse-too-many angst attack, having just had to exercise his double-0 licence yet again. It’s a flash of vulnerable humanity that none of the screen Bonds have been allowed to show. The plot continues, recognisably similar to the film, though Jill Masterson’s death by gold paint occurs off stage. The golf match between Bond and Goldfinger is just as tense and just as funny, but Bond is invited to a post-match dinner with Goldfinger, and only just avoids giving himself away as a spy by setting up Goldfinger’s cat as the guilty party who has interfered with all the hidden internal cameras in Goldfinger’s home. Goldfinger gives the cat to Oddjob for dinner, raising the utter bastard score to 15-all.

Bond sets off across Europe after Goldfinger, in a chase that is much more exciting on paper than on screen. On screen, Bond simply uses a beep machine overlaid on a map. On paper, he has to use his own judgement as to Goldfinger’s route, based on only on the strength of the homing signal, and gets it wrong on a couple of occasions, requiring quick thought and fancy driving to rectify. His journey across Europe is lovingly described – the landscapes, the weather, the food and wine sampled en route – and again the grey 50s Britain that the readers knew comes off much worse by comparison. Then Tilly Masterson enters the story and royally screws Bond’s plans up, and both are captured. This is the “no, Mr Bond, I expect you to die” scene from the film. But this is where the really interesting difference sets in. Goldfinger spares both Bond and Tilly because he suddenly realises he has need of them.

The set piece, Goldfinger’s magnum opus, is to knock off Fort Knox. Between the book and the movie, someone worked out that shifting Fort Knox’s gold reserves would be impossible in the time allowed, so the movie plot was changed to make Goldfinger want to irradiate America’s gold supply and ruin its economy. Either version is a major logistical challenge which means that Goldfinger has to recruit several different American crime syndicates for their resources and coordinate a very large operation. In the movie, he tells the crime bosses about his plans, kills the one who won’t play ball, and then kills the others anyway – I never did understand that. In the book he fully intends to recompense them for their work, in gold, so they all survive apart from the one dissenter. And he decides at the last minute – as a whizzing circular saw draws ever closer to Bond’s whizzing apparatus – that he needs Bond and Tilly as respectively an administrator and a secretary to make the whole complex operation run smoothly.

You have to wonder why this didn’t occur to him at any point in the planning stages. Maybe he’s just not a details man. Anyway, this is the first and I think only time that a Bond villain acknowledges the administrative and logistical overhead of running a major villainous operation. It appeals to me as a writer and as a science fiction fan, wanting to know how things work and make the fictitious world internally coherent. Of course, the movie would have ground to a halt if it had tried to include this point, but in the novel it just ups the tension as Bond is drawn in, becoming an unwilling part of the machine he is trying to destroy. To stay alive, he has to do his job, which means make it work, because Goldfinger will kill him in an instant if he starts to slack off.

One more example of why Books Are Better.