His Majesty’s Starship, part 1: origins

Go to the book's home page

Go to the book’s home page

It was twenty years ago today … that His Majesty’s Starship hit the stands. 10 December 1998.

All of which inspires me to reminisce. In the best spirit of present-day science fiction I shall do it in three parts.

When I was young I read Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast. This proved upon retrospect, and indeed upon actually doing it, to be a bad idea because it’s terrible and I couldn’t believe it had been perpetrated by the same author as my beloved Starman Jones, which I read and re-read compulsively up to the age of about 13. However, there is a very brief mention in it of a Royal Space Force. That was an image that hung around in my mind for a long time after, but I didn’t just want to fling it straight into a story as a given. I wanted to know how such a thing had come about.

Also, much as I love good ol’fashioned space opera, with space battles and hyperspace jumps and lasers, I grew up on much more plausible Arthur C. Clarke-type spaceship stories, where there is no artificial gravity and ships must obey the laws of physics. I wanted to write a story that could start in a Clarke-type universe and plausibly end with whizz-bang-splody ships.

In my twenties, I read Hornblower. I had dipped into this before but now at a stroke I now read the entire series. I was struck by an aspect of Hornblower that eluded me as a child: his self-loathing. He is a hero and can never believe it. Every mission he undertakes he is convinced will be his last – and this at a time when the English had shot Admiral Byng on his own quarterdeck for messing up. That was my hero!
I almost had a novel. I didn’t know back then that the phrase ‘Hornblower in space’ was already fast becoming a cliché; I only had a vague idea who Honor Harrington was and David Feintuch’s Hope series had yet to be published. It probably wouldn’t have been a problem if I had, though, because both those others are set well after the start of their respective eras. I however wanted to cover the beginning. For example, why exactly would anyone want to arm a spaceship?

I also wanted to bring the limitations of nineteenth century naval warfare to space, as I think the principles will be pretty similar if it ever happens. In Hornblower’s day, ships were big and slow and couldn’t hide. If you were doing five knots and your enemy came over the horizon doing five and a half, then sooner or later there would be a battle, but you could spend all day just looking at your enemy as he crept closer and closer without being able to do a thing about it. There was nowhere to run to, and when the fighting started you just sat there and took it. And so, these principles were applied to the big space battle in the novel, when it came.

Mix ’em all together and I had my background.

In Asimov’s Foundation trilogy there is a throwaway line about Gilmer, the man who sacked the Imperial capital Trantor and brought down the remains of the Empire. This led to a vague resolution as a teenager, filed away at the back of my mind next to the Royal Space Force, that I would one day chronicle the future history of the Gilmer family. To kick them off, my depressive spaceship captain was named Gilmore. Michael Gilmore, because I’ve always liked Michael as a name: I’ve never met a Michael I didn’t like.

I kicked back against Hornblower’s depressive excesses. He never really accepts that actually he’s quite good and his self-pity becomes actively annoying to the reader. Thus by the end of the story Gilmore has good reason to believe he’s actually quite good at what he does.

Never assume an author is putting himself into his characters, but Gilmore’s lack of self-belief certainly mirrored part of my own personality. I began to write His Majesty’s Starship in 1993; I was still in my late twenties and had no idea what the future might hold. I had no idea if I would ever be called upon to lead a large body of people, or even a small one. I did know I didn’t fancy the idea in the slightest because I had no confidence that I could. And so far in my life, I’ve managed to remain a lone wolf.
And the required jump to a Trek-type universe by the end? Okay, I begged the question here: aliens, already technologically advanced, come to Earth with an invitation to the human race to help them develop a world they have available. I called them the First Breed, for reasons which become apparent; the humans nickname them the Rusties. When someone in my writers group said ‘First Breed’ sounded vaguely threatening, hinting at ideas of racial supremacy, I knew I was doing this right.

It took a while to finalise their physical form. At first I played around with all kinds of shapes in my mind but they all came back to the ‘man in a rubber suit’ syndrome; I could take them about as seriously as I could take Trek’s alien of the week. I certainly wasn’t thinking of them as non-human. Then I remembered the Hefn of Judith Moffett’s wonderful (and underrated) Ragged World (tales of the Hefn on Earth – geddit?) series, who are as at home on four feet as they are on two. I put the Rusties on all fours and, voila, aliens!

This also helped me right a grievous wrong that was perpetrated upon science fiction in the early nineties. There was an especially irritating story in Asimov’s called ‘The Nutcracker Coup’. Quite apart from being nauseously cute and upholding the right of all decent Americans to interfere in the affairs of less developed planets if they find the culture un-American or even if they are just plain bored, it featured a four legged intelligent race which – and I gaped with astonishment when I read it – still carried things about in its front legs, so that if one of them was holding a gun on you, say, it hobbled along on three legs while it kept you covered. An interesting take on evolutionary theory, I thought. How would these creatures ever invent the gun? Or any human-type tool that effectively disabled an entire limb if it was going to be used?
Thus, my Rusties had grasping tentacles on either side of their heads which they used the same way we humans used hands. Other things about them just came off the top of my own head. Rusties appear to human eyes to be flaking rust, hence the name (first I actually wanted them to be sweating iron oxide, but my biochemistry isn’t up to it), and when they are conversing face to face, humans have to fight the urge to pick the flakes off the alien’s skin. A Rustie’s nostrils are at the top of its domed head, above the eyes – they come from a relatively predator-free stock that evolved on the plains, so need to keep their airways free of dust and dirt – and thus humans tend to make eye contact with the alien’s nose. They communicate very much by body language, managing to transmit whole concepts in an instant with a gesture or a scent that would take a human much longer to say out loud; this meant I had to find a way of writing down a Rustie conversation from a Rustie’s point of view. And they are herd animals, which is very important.

Finally, the ship itself: His Majesty’s Starship, HMSS Ark Royal. This was originally Raptor, a pun on Trek’s Bird of Prey, until I decided that the UK probably would call its first starship Ark Royal – and anyway, it pushed up the word count.
Much too much of my motivation for His Majesty’s Starship was wanting to do right what Star Trek did wrong; like, emphasising that my ship’s have seat belts and depressurise during battles. At the time, Star Trek was the only viable space-based series on television, other than repeats of the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century – both of which could only be loved for their classic cheese status. But then, in 1994, a few thousand words into the first draft of His Majesty’s StarshipBabylon 5 hit our screens and changed everything.

To be continued …

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.

Probably at least The Penultimate Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)
Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd.
© 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

SPOILERS!

Well, that was fun. It starts as a retread of The Empire Strikes Back, then suddenly fast forwards to the end of Return of the Jedi, and then goes off in a whole new direction (with a brief reprise of the Battle of Hoth from Empire again). Brilliant. It does not kill off Leia, though the temptation must have been strong. It does kill off two prior villains, one minor and one major, both quite unexpectedly, obviously clearing the stage for the Grand Redemption of Kylo in the next one.

And Kylo finally becomes a threat. As ordered by Snoke, he takes off that ridiculous mask. After The Force Awakens, I observed that he is about the same height, if not shorter than General Hux: he certainly lacks his father’s ability to loom. He seems to have made up for that.

Meanwhile: a new hero to root for steps forward unexpectedly from the ranks of supporting characters, and is comfortably outside the usual Hollywood parameters of race, gender and physique for lead characters. Our heroes are in an even tighter spot than they were in the middle of the first trilogy. There are familiar faces that we will probably not see again, even allowing for the marvels modern CGI can perform for dead actors. This is the movie where Star Wars formally moves on.

Yes, yes, yes, but is it any good? I actually have to think about this. I got into it because I knew the back story. Does it actually take care to introduce itself to newcomers? I’m not so sure that it does. You’d have to ask a newcomer. Rogue One remains the best of the “other” movies, for many reasons, one of which being that it is a standalone story: you can come to it sight unseen and still be captivated.

The payoff to the climactic closing scene between Rey and Luke at the end of The Force Awakens is unexpected and hilarious.

And bits came dangerously close to being cute. Not Jar-Jar levels, but cuter than The Force Awakens. The furry penguins that serve no purpose at all apart from cheap laughs. BB8 mugging it up much more than before. Just watch your step, Disney.

On the other hand, as pointed out by my friend Jonathan Oliver, the first major line of dialogue is a toilet joke from Adrian Edmondson. Genius.

I don’t think there have ever been so many people on board the Millennium Falcon. Hope the toilets can cope.

Snoke is still a bloody stupid name. East End gangster, maybe. Evil Galactic overlord – nah.

Leia’s hair continues to challenge. In fact it does more than challenge. It throws down the gauntlet and looks you in the eye, daring you to respond.

I’m honestly surprised more fans don’t make a fuss about JJ Abrams’ notion of astronomical physics, because they are original-series-BSG-level insulting to the intelligence. We’ll allow the swooping and soaring of noisy spaceships: that’s par for the course. But previously we’ve just had it on general principle that things in space are a long distance apart, and you need hyperspace to get there at the speed of plot. Fine. But: in The Force Awakens, we had the planet-busting beam from Starkiller Base being visible across the entire galaxy as a line in the sky; the Millennium Falcon coming down from faster-than-the-speed-of-light to subsonic in the blink of an eye, guided by nothing more than Solo’s reactions; and an apparent unawareness of the fact that planets rotate. Now: out of this window is the planet we are approaching. Out of that window is the interstellar fleet pursuing us. Neither are getting noticeably closer. There are also repeated reference to hyperspace jumps as “lightspeed”. On the plus side, they do use parsec as a unit of distance, which is a first for the Star Wars universe.

I have developed a new Theory of Relativity based on the size/blast power of explosions and the speeds with which space fighters fly past the camera. They are always exactly the same to the audience. TIE fighters scream out of their hangars towards the Resistance: they must be going pretty darn quick. TIE fighters fly in formation above the massed ranks of stormtroopers in their own hangar deck: they must be going slower than the Wright Flyer. Alternatively, an X-Wing’s laser cannon takes out a highly armoured gun on an interstellar dreadnought, or blasts a hole the size of a small car next to a human on a planet who emerges unscathed: to the audience, the explosions are exactly the same size. See? Relativity?

The ending could never pack the emotional wallop of the last five minutes of Rogue One, because nothing can pack the emotional wallop of the last five minutes of Rogue One. But it packs a softer wallop of its own. The message that there will always be a little light, flickering in the darkness, even if it’s just a spark. That spark can still ignite things. The little boy gazing up at the stars, unconsciously holding his broom like a lightsaber, will become an icon.

And quite possibly the hero of another movie, further down the line.

For an excellent review exploring other aspects of the movie, see Paul Cornell’s take.