Knowing when you’re beat

Okay, I can take a hint. Score one for the bots. A triumph for the values you’re mindlessly trying to follow, if I may say so.

I like to review the books I read on Amazon. One of my latest reads was mostly about an obnoxious individual who was prominent in the government of Germany between 1933 and 1945. His first and last name both began with the eighth letter of the alphabet. I will just call him Himself. So, the book is called The Himself Brothers, and is by Katrin Himself, who is Himself’s great-niece, the granddaughter of his younger brother. Himself was the middle of three boys, only one of whom survived the war.

So, you will understand that it’s quite hard not to touch on touchy subjects in reviewing a book like this. The algomorons still told me I was going against their community values and asked me to edit. I did, and they still objected, and sent a warning that if this carried on then I would be unpersoned.

So, okay, I deleted it

Still not sure what my crime was, apart from saying Himself’s name a lot. I never mentioned the name of the party he belonged to, or his ultimate boss, the guy with the funny moustache, or the people he persecuted and tried to exterminate. Maybe I was just too even-minded? Did I sound like I was defending him?

You see, the impression I got from the book was that if you had met him and not known what he did for a living, he would have come across as a slightly pompous, slightly chippy middle class middle manager. He got on well with his two brothers, and he respected and loved his parents and they returned the favour. His headmaster father cared deeply about social respectability, and that seems to have instilled in all three brothers a drive towards bettering their situations and caring perhaps a bit too much about what other people thought of them. But that, really, seems to be the most negative thing Himself Senior did.

And yet.

The author is married to an Israeli so we can safely say she has put the Himself legacy behind her. She still chose to keep the family name because, well, it is her name. The legacy cannot just be shaken off. It must be explored and investigated. That is what she does. It is a brave and eye opening venture that took a lot of courage. She never does explain quite what made her great uncle what he was – and that is the point. The most sobering conclusion is that a monster like him does not have to be created through some cataclysmic event. They can just emerge, though they might still need the right circumstances to show their true colours. Without Germany’s defeat in WW1, perhaps Himself would never have risen to the heights he did; he might have stayed a relatively harmless chicken farmer with unpleasant views on race. So, how many hidden Himselfs are all around us, maybe not even themselves knowing what they are?

Well, something there upset the bots. I concluded long ago that the future is not the human race cowering from the Terminators sent by Skynet to destroy us. It’s the human race walking on eggshells in case we upset mindless algorithms that can make our lives a misery in a million passive-aggressive ways.

The year my life rebooted

Crikey. The last twenty years of my life have gone by a lot more quickly than the previous twenty (which included university, graduation, at least thirteen addresses, at least five jobs, and most of my professional writing career). My life very clearly divides into “since March 2004” and “before that”. For ’twas but twenty years ago today, 9th March 2004, that I got the best job I have ever had; the one where I have most felt I found my tribe; the one where life began again in a new and better direction. Documentation Officer / Technical Writer / Senior Technical Editor (if you don’t mind) for JANET.

I had worked non-stop in publishing since graduating, an adventure which ended with voluntary liquidation and staring personal bankruptcy in the face. So I decided I had had my fun in publishing and was looking for something more communications based – though frankly I was getting to the stage where I would have taken anything.

I had heard of UKERNA, and JANET, when I worked in IT publishing. I hadn’t really understood what they were about. I toddled along to the interview vaguely thinking it might be something nuclear, because UKERNA is almost like UKAEA and it was based on the Harwell site. It was housed in the magnificent retro post-war dinginess of the Atlas Centre, where one of the offices had a funny smell that defied analysis or tracking down, and the control console of an Atlas computer was still on display in Reception.

It was nothing to do with anything nuclear. It was the United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association, and it ran JANET, the computer network for the education and research sector. JANET is still here; UKERNA had a few name changes and ultimately was subsumed into its funding body JISC. But all that lay ahead.

And it needed a Documentation Officer to write, edit and produce … well, everything that goes in front of the public gaze. Web material, leaflets, technical documentation, reports … I would be using my publishing skills, but communicating, and being paid decently and contributing to a USS pension, as UKERNA came out of the academic sector.

And so I did. A decent salary for the first time in four years, lovely colleagues, like minds and a definite sense of my life being rebooted. Ben2. A second chance, gratefully received. But there was more…

The actual authors of everything I was meant to publish were all technical people far cleverer than me. But because they were so busy being cleverer than me, they by definition didn’t have time to do the actual writing. And I hate chasing up non-deliverers; it’s about the least satisfying and most depressing aspect of any job I have ever done. It didn’t take long to work out that everyone was happier if I just talked to them, then wrote the thing up on their behalf. Thus I accidentally became both a ghostwriter and a technical writer without even realising it.

Meanwhile, I just plain approved of JANET. A publicly funded good idea, dating back to the sixties, when it first became policy that the education and research sector needed a network of their own. Much toing and froing and research followed. One insuperable obstacle was the Post Office’s monopoly on telecommunications, which the founders of JANET eventually just chose to ignore (before it was scrapped anyway). It formally went live in 1984, evolving out of the Science & Education Research Council’s SERCnet, running on X.25 and the Coloured Book protocols (stop sniggering at the back, there). This was long before anyone outside the networking fraternity had heard of the internet. The internet runs on IP; the Chief Technical Officer when I was there had come on board at the start of the 1990s to investigate this technically inferior, hugely inefficient yet strangely popular colonial import and set up the impenetrably named JIPS, the JANET IP Service.

IP was fated to win that battle, of course. In due course the X.25 service was shut down and JANET became pure IP. And once a network runs on IP then to all intents and purposes it becomes invisible, subsumed into the internet at large. (Meanwhile UKERNA had been the logical choice to take on the task of domain naming and Nominet, which now manages UK internet domain names, arose from this.) But JANET is still there, if you know where to look, as a network of its own. If your internet address or institutional website ends with then you could well be on JANET without even knowing it.

So, just by working for UKERNA, I felt clearly and distinctly on the right side of history. Which was nice. Oh, and a decent salary and financial stability also gave me confidence to pursue a particular romantic interest that led to marriage. Also nice.

I’ve previously described how this halcyon period of my life came to an end after seven years. It was an interesting time; publicly funded, yes, but with the first faint hints on the horizon that the gravy train was chugging to a stop, or at least slowing down. Management was in an interregnum period and the new CEO was the first to come from the commercial rather than the academic sector. Every decision they made in that direction was the right one but it did inevitably bring on the day when the company was taken over by Evil Marketing Droids.

But then, nothing is forever, which thankfully I had already learned in the previous twenty years. 2044, here I come.

His Majesty’s Starship: What I got right, what I got wrong, what I got meh.

HMSS cover by Andy BigwoodForgive me for lapsing into pseudo Dickens, but: it was everything I wanted, it was nothing like what I wanted, it was everything I expected, it was nothing like I expected. Let’s be frank. His Majesty’s Starship made me a professionally published novelist and it garnered some good reviews but it wasn’t my key to the big time. I was in no danger of having to make room for a Hugo on my mantelpiece, or indeed having to acquire a mantelpiece to put my Hugo on. The big time was singularly untouched by my presence. In short, it was a bog standard first time novelist’s experience.

I’ll come back to where I am now in a moment, but first I think it’s far more interesting to see how a bit of twenty-five-year-old science fiction holds up. In general I think it does so quite reasonably. The Expanse might have more sex and swearing but I maintain my takes on politics, human nature and physics are on entirely the same spectrum. Those reviews still hold true.

But it’s also interesting to look at developments I didn’t expect.

The United Kingdom
My “United Kingdom” is but a virtual construct in the mind of the man who would be King if Great Britain was still a monarchy. Which it isn’t. My thinking was that at some point the geographic British Isles became a republic and were subsumed into a bigger and better sort of European Union. All quite peacefully and democratically done. King Richard takes his riches and sets up shop on the giant asteroid miner UK-1, “the largest spaceship ever built – seventeen massive wheels in space spinning around a common axis. The last redoubt of the exiled House of Windsor.” It has its own Royal Space Fleet and seven thousand four hundred and thirty seven subjects, and is – crucially – recognised as an independent state.

Look, I just wasn’t expecting my fellow citizens to put the electoral gun to their heads 133 years before the novel is set and vote for Brexit. I’m an optimist. I don’t do dystopias.

Artificial intelligence
My first published stories were mostly set in a more or less consistent proto-cyberpunk world – a world of artificial intelligence and networks, written by someone with a naturally wistful turn of phrase, who knew very little about the internet and hadn’t at that point read any William Gibson. However, I knew enough to see no point or purpose in having a consciousness hardwired into a particular physical, mechanical body. In other words, cute as droids might be, they make no sense. It seemed far more likely that intelligence would be virtual, able to operate whatever hardware it was connected to.

I kept this concept for HMSS. I don’t have robots or droids in individual bodies; the intelligence is software, able to roam around in a network or operate its own pro tem mechanical body. The main AI player is Plantagenet, one of a suite of AIs owned by the Royal Family with its own variable and mostly reliable agenda. (Why Plantagenet? Officially, because all the set are named after one dynasty or another. Unofficially, I like the word.) We first meet Plantagenet as the controlling intelligence of an amboid (ambulatory droid, get it?) but later on he exists only as a character in Ark Royal’s network.

I started writing the novel in 1993, delivered the first draft in 1995, saw it published in 1998, and along the way I learned a whole lot more about the internet and networks. Like, how they actually work. That’s really why my AI stories had dried up by the end of the nineties – I didn’t buy them myself anymore, so why should anyone else?

And that is why the AIs themselves were quietly phased out for The Xenocide Mission; you can assume they’re there but they play no significant role.

Related to this – the aide, which I neologise as an acronym for ‘artificial intelligence device’ but which nowadays we would probably call a phone. I didn’t see that coming.

I did see more and more applications coming to roost on a single, handheld device. At the time I didn’t even have a mobile phone of my own, but I knew people who did. And an electronic handheld organiser. And an electronic this, and an electronic that. They would proudly whip them out at a moment’s notice and talk me through them. But all had the same underlying technology inside the casing and so it seemed obvious that they would all eventually converge into one gadget.

I cannot claim to have come up with this insight. If memory serves, you will find the same idea in Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth, and probably places before that too.

And now … I think even that is passé, or soon will be. I see AI becoming so pervasive that just voicing your wishes within range of an appropriate sensor – which will be pretty well everywhere – will get you what you want. You won’t even have to address it by name: not ‘Alexa’, not even ‘Computer’. This is what I was groping for in Phoenicia’s Worlds, fifteen years later.

One of my more bizarre fan encounters was with a rabbi from New York, who bought his copy of His Majesty’s Starship at the WH Smith’s on Woking station, where of course all New York rabbis do their shopping. He was intrigued by my use of things Israeli and Jewish, and did some web searching in those pre-Google days to see if I was Jewish myself. He managed to establish that a) I’m not but still b) we overlapped at school. In Dorset. Where all the New York rabbis go to school, of course.

In particular, he called me out on the name of the Israeli ship in the delegation fleet – Adonai. And why not? I thought – it’s a perfectly cromulent Hebrew word. Except that, I’m told, no Israeli government would name a ship Adonai – it’s just too risky. “Adonai” means “Lord” in Hebrew and is read instead of vocalising the Tetragrammaton (the four letters that correspond to YHWH) that make up the Ineffable Name of God. Orthodox Jews will not even say “Adonai”, outside of the context of reading liturgy and Torah, but say instead “HaShem” which means “The Name.” Anything with the name of God on it may not be destroyed but must be buried in the ground in a designated “Geniza.” So you can see the problems of giving that particular name to a spaceship, especially one that might end up in combat.

So now I know.

And where it got me
The dream: being a serious sf author, up there with the best hard sf authors. The reality … Well, not being.

His Majesty’s Starship had been brewing at the back of my mind for years, as the space opera story that I wanted to see out there. Having written it, I then went on to write Wingèd Chariot (re-released as Time’s Chariot), which had been brewing at the back of my mind for years as the time travel story that I wanted to see out there. Then there was The Xenocide Mission, the unexpected sequel to HMSS; and then The New World Order, which had been brewing at the back of my mind for years as the alternate history story that I wanted to see out there. And after that I was out of stories I had wanted to write for years and was having to make up new stuff.

So, I didn’t really know what I wanted to write anymore, and I didn’t really have time to let anything brew at the back of my mind. I had distractions, like unexpectedly finding myself running my own company, which went bust, and equally unexpectedly meeting my future wife, which had a much happier ending, and one way or another the initial rush of my writing career ground to a halt. No one (well, hardly anyone) makes it big on the first novel. You need momentum, and I let the momentum lapse.

And I wouldn’t change it. Accidentally becoming a children’s author led to writing for Working Partners, which kept me afloat financially while my company sank around me. It also led to offers of ghostwriting work when my editor there changed jobs and inherited a series that needed a writer. The ghostwriting accelerated my return to a financial even keel, and ultimately led to the breakthrough contract eight years ago that let me go full time freelance. I’ve written other books since His Majesty’s Starship, and may yet write more, but I owe where I am now to that particular book. So, God bless HMSS Ark Royal, and all who boost at 1g at the head of a constant fusion flame within her.

See also my experiences of writing and publishing the novel: