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 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.

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 …