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.


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.


Aten’t dead

Image from, nearly a year since I last did any kind of blog post. A record, and not a good one.

So here’s an update. I’m still here and I’m still writing. Since the last post we’ve moved house twice. We moved into rented accommodation so that our old building could be rebuilt and made safe for habitation – and therefore, the buyer who had just agreed to buy the place when we discovered the need for the work could finally get a mortgage. It took 18 months from her first expression of interest to the sale going through, but she hung on. Then, with lots of lovely cash in the bank, we bought a new place. Frankly it was all frazzling enough even with the security of renting somewhere in between, and how people manage to sell, buy and move all on the same day without an interim lifeboat is beyond me.

The reason for the lack of bloggery is of course Facebook. Facebook brilliantly supplanted the blogging industry with its microblogging newsfeed, and then made it unsearchable and so randomised that at best what you’ve written will vanish into the ether, never to be seen again; and at worst will never be seen at all because its algorithms don’t find it interesting enough to tell other people about. And I have fallen into the trap, like millions of others, and don’t really have the strength of will to get out of it again.

I still manage my monthly post for More than Writers, though.

After Facebook and my lack of willpower, the biggest culprit is the day job. I’m writing full time, lots of words every day, and just can’t muster the energy to be creative and witty and bloggy at the end of it. I could maybe try harder at being creative and witty and bloggy at the start of it, of course, which is what I’m doing now. I have contracted work and wordcounts to keep me busy until late 2018, which is nice, and I always welcome more. For this month only I’m on a writing deathmarch, as having agreed to write something in two months, deadline end of November, I was then asked if please, please, pretty please, is there any possible way at all you could do it by the end of October? If you knock a month off a six month deadline then that’s irritating, but if you knock it off a two month deadline then you’re reducing the writing time by 50%. I could have said no but frankly I’m interested to see if I can do it. And if it’s any good at the end.

I’ll be at the Sutton Courtenay Day of Books this weekend, opening the proceedings with a talk on ‘A writer’s path’. There’s no such thing as a typical writer’s path, but I’ll describe mine: how my career developed, with especial attention to how the unexpected or sheer strokes of luck can play a part. I’ll make occasional digressions into how the writing business actually works, and hopefully be informative and instructive. If time permits (and it probably will) then I’ll give a reading and take questions at the end.

More on this when the publisher produces some publicity material that I can share, but David Fickling Books is publishing a series of biographies, in the style of Horrible Histories, but better, of famous people like Emmeline Pankhurst and Amelia Earhart and Elon Musk. I’m doing Ada Lovelace, who was an amazing woman and has been a fascinating subject to research. I’ll send the manuscript in next month.

And then there’s stuff of my own, always bubbling at the back of my mind, never with quite enough time to get down and get cracking on.

And for now, back to the day job. See you again, hopefully before October 2018.