The Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins

H.M.S. Barabbas cover

“ Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island …”

Almost the last words that Jim Hawkins writes in Treasure Island. So, why is every sequel to Treasure Island a return to Treasure Island? Sometimes it’s blatant, as in the several TV series called Return to Treasure Island. Sometimes it’s subtler: Andrew Motion’s Silver has Jim’s son and Long John Silver’s daughter returning to … guess where? (Although, as it’s their first time there, I suppose they don’t really return …) But even so, there has to be more to Jim’s life story than that accursed island.

Thus H.M.S. Barabbas. We’ve had Young Sherlock Holmes, Young James Bond … here is the Slightly Older Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins.

“There I was, tied to an ox with wain-ropes, being dragged back to the island. ‘Oh, the irony’, I thought …”

That is not how H.M.S. Barabbas begins. Instead:

“We buried the doctor today. The old man nearly made his century, which would not have surprised anyone who knew him …”

Within hours of the suggestion that I write the Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins, the first chapter had written itself. Sir James Hawkins, FRS, MD, wracked by Weltschmerz, is penning his memoirs on the day of the funeral of his mentor and father figure Dr Livesey. Clearly, it’s many years after Treasure Island. So, what did Jim Hawkins do next?

He’s still young at the end of Treasure Island. He’s also rich, and despite his antipathy to strong lengths of twisted cords and cattle, I believe he would have a taste for adventure. He might not go back to the island, but he would also not go back to meekly running the local inn with his mother.

The starting point of all this was thinking of Jim as a kind of anti-hero – a Flashman figure whose life is essentially all one big con. I didn’t want to do that, though. Jim has genuinely been a positive role model for generations of boys and I didn’t want to take that away from Stevenson’s accomplishment.

But Jim is a flawed hero – an interesting mass of contradictions. He is never quite as brave or as strong-willed as he would like to be (until it really counts, of course). He can be a self-righteous prig, ready for a right good slapping. On at least one occasion, the plot of Treasure Island goes on hold for a couple of pages as he pleads with a pirate to consider his immortal soul. (Stevenson was agnostic-verging-on-atheist but he knew how to play to his Victorian gallery.) At the same time he can cheerfully blow the head off Israel Hands with a pair of pistols at point blank range (admittedly in self-defence) and joke about it. Following the plot-convenient death of Jim’s actual father in chapter 3, part of the fascination is watching Jim torn between two father figures: Dr Livesey, upright and moral and just a teensy bit boring; and Long John Silver, wrong but wromantic. There’s a lot of possibility here.

Silver is out of the picture (for now) and Livesey is clearly the man Jim admires most in the world. Obviously, I decided, Jim wants to learn medicine himself. He won’t be able to do that in the unnamed west country village he lives in; he will have to go up to that there London. And what might happen to him on the way? Well, that’s when the further adventures begin, isn’t it?

Suffice to say that Jim doesn’t get as far as London; not yet. He probably will in the next one.

As the plot of H.M.S Barabbas developed, I had to make some decisions.

Tell the story in first person or third? Treasure Island is in first. The problem there would be having to replicate Stevenson’s writing style, which I knew would just sound like someone hamming up nineteenth century gothic prose. It also has the problem that you can only ever show things from the point of view of the narrator (though Treasure Island gets round that by inserting clips from Dr Livesey’s diary, when Stevenson really got bogged down); and, given that this is all in the past tense, it’s a fairly massive clue that the narrator survives. Granted, you can generally surmise that of the hero of any novel, and you can draw your own conclusions from ‘The Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins’, but … In short, I decided third person would work best. The very brief first and last chapters are all the first person you get – about as long as I can carry a convincing Stevenson impression for.

Jim, Livesey and all the other characters from Treasure Island are safely out of copyright (as of 1964) so I can do what I like with them – but to make the Further Adventures mine, I needed more characters of my own. There’s also a singular dearth of female characters in Treasure Island: Mrs Hawkins is the only one, and her only job is for Jim to think of from time to time. So, I introduced more characters, and I’m pleased to say most of the ones I intend to carry on into further books are female.

And what of Jim himself? I can work with his established flaws. Jim can be refined by hardship, having his priggishness knocked out of him, bringing out his innate decency and emerging the better for it. Jim will always be a combination of innocent abroad who is also able to sup with the devil, but he can have self-knowledge too. To set this up, I let one small detail of Treasure Island turn out to be a little white lie that has preyed on Jim’s conscience ever since.

Jim’s greatest handicap as he sets out in life is that there are people who have actually read Treasure Island. We know Jim wrote an account of the expedition at the behest of Livesey, Squire Trelawney and other survivors. In H.M.S. Barabbas I have it that Trelawney had Jim’s account published privately and a handful of people have read it. At best, this colours their perception of Jim, not always accurately or positively. At worst, it tells them that here is a young man who knows where there’s more treasure …

What of the future? Jim should continue to pursue his medical ambitions, at least until the point something else comes up. He can’t have life too easy – he will have to lose that fortune of his to make things more interesting for the reader. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in the late eighteenth century, but Treasure Island is never more specific than that it is written in “the year of grace 17__”, and for that reason, I won’t tie it into any specific historic events. Maybe it’s in a parallel universe with the same events, just not in the same order.

I subscribe to the notion that a novel, as a general rule, should always tell the most important thing to have happened to its protagonist at that point in their life. That’s why novel blurbs say things like “his most exciting adventure yet!” rather than “a doddle compared to the last one”. On that basis, every sequel to Treasure Island must out-Treasure Island Treasure Island. That’s quite a challenge. It will be fun to see how I manage.

His Majesty’s Starship, part 3: a bloody children’s publisher?

Go to the book's home page

Go to the book’s home page

Slowly but surely His Majesty’s Starship approached completion … and approached it … and approached it. For a very long time indeed I was almost there, with just a couple of thousand words to go, and I simply wasn’t writing them. I self-diagnosed the problem, which was that I had a life and I was unwilling to lose it. The solution was to start getting up earlier, writing before going to work. It’s a habit I’ve kept.

Placing it with a publisher was quite atypically easy. Two friends from my writers group already shared an agent, Robert Kirby. Robert had been sufficiently tickled by their descriptions of the group to ask if he could have first refusal if any of the rest of us ever wrote a novel. I sent His Majesty’s Starship to him in August 1995, shortly before the Glasgow World SF Convention, which was my first worldcon. He finally accepted it, and me as a client, in January 1996. I had an agent! For a while I enjoyed dropping the words ‘my agent’ into conversation with friends, family and strangers.

(I recently came across an old letter from Robert thanking me for introducing him to his latest client, one Alastair Reynolds. Purveyor of retirement plans to agents, that’s me. No finder’s fee, sadly.)

And then Scholastic expressed an interest in it.

Scholastic?

A bloody children’s publisher?

Robert’s precise reason for sending the book to Scholastic was, and I quote, “Gilmore seemed to me a sort of modern day Biggles and the level of sex and violence would not have raised the collective eyebrow of readers of Captain W.E. Johns.” As Gilmore, in the draft he read, was a divorcee from a group marriage with a teenage son, and there is an alien sex scene in chapter 16, I disputed this point of view, but it’s amazing the effect having a publisher actually express interest will have on you.

Further, I had been put off Scholastic by hearing horror stories from a friend who had had a novel published by their Point SF imprint which was systematically neutered to make it suitable for a young audience. (Or rather, one suspects, for the young audience’s parents.) The approaching middle age, divorced heroine became a teenager. At one point, in the original draft, she comes down first thing in the morning and finds the boyfriend having breakfast, with the implication he had stayed overnight; now he had to walk up the garden path first thing in the morning and ring the bell to be let in.

I don’t know who edited that book but it certainly wasn’t Scholastic’s David Fickling, a boundlessly cheery Roy Hudd lookalike and publishing genius. (All my writing breakthroughs seem to be thanks to someone called David: Fickling, Pringle, Barrett …) Practically my first card on the table when I met David was that the alien sex scene stayed. “Absolutely,” he said cheerfully. I was to learn he said a lot of things cheerfully, including his careful enumerations of your novel’s precise faults.

David was the man who had signed Philip Pullman (Northern Lights had just won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction) and was looking for something meatier than Scholastic’s usual teen fare for a new imprint. Robert forewarned me that David thought the book was bogged down with too much detail. I went into the meeting determined to refute this viewpoint and I left agreeing with him. I also saw how it took far too long for the story to get going, and it finished too soon – about three quarters of the way through the book, with a lot of mopping up after. I needed to rewrite it so that it ended at, you know, the end.

The kicker was: if David suspected for a moment that I was just agreeing with him to get the book published, rather than rewriting with my heart in it, he wouldn’t be interested. Not that I would have just agreed with him to get it published … but it concentrated the mind.

This began the first of quite a few rewrites: new opening chapter, throwing us straight into the action and highlighting Gilmore’s tactical ability. A space battle, a few people killed. All good stuff. I sent off the rewrite.

Early 1997: he didn’t like it. I began to see the problem: I had added more plot but left the excess verbiage in as well. David did me a huge favour for life at this point by recommending that I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, first of the Aubrey series. O’Brian’s characters just slide into the action: Aubrey has been through some considerable scrapes prior to the novel’s opening and we only hear about these second-hand.

I applied this to the novel and I cut out anything that didn’t directly relate to the action, including (though it broke my heart) chapter 8, in which the Rustie Arm Wild interviews the crew. That chapter was the key one to introducing not only the crew but also the alien mindset to the reader. The novel was now down to 92,000 words, from its first draft of 113,000.

Back to Scholastic, and David courted death with a casual comment along the lines of: “don’t I remember a chapter where Arm Wild interviews the crew? I quite miss that …”

I restrained my homicidal impulse and learnt the lesson: anything that develops the characters is probably acceptable, even if it doesn’t contribute to the action. The interview was reinstated.

In January 1998 I sent in the final draft at 100,000 words, and it was accepted. And despite all the twists and turns over the last two years, it really was the story I originally wanted to tell.

I was struck by all the pluses of dealing with David, as opposed to the horror stories I had heard of other publishers: incompetent editors who want to be writers themselves and fiddle at every stage; who have no idea of science fiction beyond Star Trek; who bow to the High Priests of Marketing and tell you to put the sex here, the extra 200 pages there, and where’s that dragon when we need it? And all for a product that ultimately will have a life expectancy that makes a mayfly seem pensionable, because that’s how the bookselling system works. (Note: further on and many years later, I still have yet to meet any editors who match this stereotype … but I was young then and, like it or not, the stereotype exists.)

I was bowled over by an editor who encouraged me to cut. Not willy-nilly, but surgically. Cut this, yes, but expand that, because you leave off just when the reader’s getting interested … you see? And yes, I did see. David never lifted a finger to fiddle with the science fiction – that was entirely my own. He just concentrated on the story, and I came out the other end of the process a convert to the demands of children’s publishing: proper children’s publishing, not plot lobotomy as is sometimes practised. Just tell the story, then stop. That’s it. No more. Let it be as long as it needs to be. And you end with a story to be proud of: the story you wanted to tell.

I still had to stay on my toes. There were those within the Scholastic empire who clung to the old ways and David couldn’t control everything. Like, a frowning copy editor changed one character’s “Sod it!” to “Damn it!” We compromised on “Nuts!” (I had a vision of the guy wandering the corridors of their offices in New Commonwealth House muttering “Sod it / damn it / nuts / sod it / damn it / nuts …”, perhaps looking to see which of his colleagues swooned at what.) Strangely, the occasional utterance of “Christ!” caused no upset at all; a sad reflection etc. etc.

The learning experience continued right up until the end. At proof stage, I was told it was one signature too long for its price range. Books are typically printed in multiples of sixteen pages – eight pages get printed on either side of a large sheet of paper which is then folded and trimmed. That is a signature. My choice was: cut it by sixteen pages, or let Scholastic put it up by a pound. I cut the sixteen pages. It’s humiliating to realise your book has sixteen dispensable pages in it, but it was an invaluable exercise.

His Majesty’s Starship was published in December 1998. My author copies were delivered while I was at work on the last working day before Christmas, so I had to go and collect them from the depot. As I drove away from the depot, with the holidays ahead and my first novel in the boot of my car, the radio announced that Peter Mandelson had resigned from the cabinet. And then it played the third part of Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, a piece of music I really enjoy with a triumphant trumpet fanfare.

I was pretty pleased with myself and with life generally.

Still am.

Life goes on …

It enjoyed modest success and some fairly nice reviews: I still relish the tingle when I saw SFX had awarded it more stars than the other book on the same page, a Star Trek: Voyager novel. It went out of print in 2002. A few years later I did a print-on-demand version because I was still getting a trickle of enquiries. And then I heard my friend Cheryl Morgan was starting a new e-book publishing company …

Andy Bigwood did an awesome cover for it – see above. It’s now available as both software and treeware (i.e. e-book or print).  The original Scholastic edition was also published in America under the utterly baffling title The Ark … presumably as in Ark Royal, and in deference to the United States’ anti-monarchical past, and because if you want an exciting novel about starships, obviously you go for one named after a big wooden boat. But that is out of print too, and the only edition available anywhere for new has the right title. The one God intended. His Majesty’s Starship.

Accept no substitutes.

His Majesty’s Starship, part 2: B5, bad guys and by golly, a sequel

Go to the book's home page

Go to the book’s home page

Like me, Babylon 5 was also on a mission to do right what Star Trek got wrong. Its key innovation was the story arc – the idea of an overall plot across the entire series that would take many episodes to unfold. Nowadays it’s almost unknown for a series not to have an arc. Babylon 5 gave us a universe of consequences – if a character broke a leg in one episode, they were on crutches in the next. In one episode a fighter pilot was killed and the closing shot was of Commander Sinclair composing a letter of condolence to the next of kin. Humans in Babylon 5 were a minority species, one among many, as opposed to the apartheid-like setup of Trek in which humans are clearly the minority yet equally clearly in charge of almost everything. It was a universe where it was okay to be religious, without the right-minded good guys on the one hand ‘respecting’ your faith until their hearts bled and on the other quite obviously despising it as primitive superstition.

None of it was actually original in comparison to written science fiction, which had grasped all these innovations in the fifties or earlier. For television science fiction it was brand new and I felt a lot of moral support.

Babylon 5 also gave us a feisty Jewish-Russian female second-in-command; not a combination of features you would expect to be duplicated easily. Well, I got there first! Hah!

I enjoyed dividing the Earth into the political map of 2148, including such nations as the Confederation of South-East Asia, the Pacific Consortium, the Holy Arab Union, the South American Combine and the United Slavic Federation – and of course the Vatican. Then, once I had the entire planet neatly divided into political entities, I suddenly realised to my horror that I was doing what Trekkies do – I was neatly delimiting and parcelling up a potentially fascinating future to make it manageable. So the published version names a few nations, but many more are now implied.

One of those entities is the EU. Ho-hum. Innocent days.

Books need antagonists and it would have been too easy to make the Rusties the bad guys. In fact their invitation to the nations of Earth was pretty straight, for the amount of information they chose to reveal. So, the tension had to come from within the humans. For the baddies I chose the Confederation of South East Asia. This was a superstate India and its puppet satellite states; Pakistan, Bangladesh (I take credit for the first ever Bangladeshi on a starship, I think), Afghanistan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma. I really should add I had and have nothing against India – but the baddy had to be a global superpower of 2148, and I have no doubt that India will be one. Europe and North America will have long had their day by then. Whether India is a good or a bad superpower, only time will tell. In His Majesty’s Starship it’s just emerging from a mad and bad period, and there’s a tension between different factions who have different views of the past. Several of the Confederation characters are perfectly decent guys who just happen to have been born into this situation and so I gave the Confederation the NVN, an equivalent of the Waffen SS, who unquestionably are bad and not necessarily well liked by their compatriots. As I don’t speak a word of Hindi, NVN stands for ‘Not Very Nice’. NVN uniforms were plain green, based on the pyjamas I was wearing at the time. Depending which part of the novel you read, the uniforms are either dark or pale green, which has two possible explanations: dark green for dress uniform, pale for combat (or vice versa); or, they left the dark uniforms in the wash too long.

Then I unexpectedly started thinking of a sequel …

I honestly hadn’t intended to. But I showed some chapters at Milford 1994 in Rothbury, Northumberland and they came up with two unforeseen reactions. First, I explained the background plot and an immediate reaction was: that’s what the aliens want, and we’re the best they can do?! And second, a criticism was made that Gilmore was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! Thus his eighteen-year-old son Joel was generated spontaneously from the ether, together with a perfect rationale for the Rusties’ actions, and these two things together gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission: the only sequel I have written so far.

In part 3: finding a publisher and discovering I’m a children’s author.