How the SOE and Pinochet ended up in a space opera

phoeniciaExcept that, okay, they didn’t. But in an indirect way they did inform the development of Phoenicia’s Worlds.

In the early 1940s, Britain stood alone against the Third Reich, one small island facing a continent beneath the bootheel of a fascist dictatorship, with but a narrow stretch of water between them. If Britain fell then so would European civilisation.

So, naturally, everyone on the British side pulled selflessly together to fight the common foe, right?

Did they hell. The various intelligence and covert organisations whose job it was to fight Nazi Germany spent half their time fighting each other in an endless squabble for resources, rights and precedence. Read Leo Marks Between Silk and Cyanide – it makes for jaw-dropping reading. Things got to the point where the SOE operation in the Netherlands was so compromised that we were literally dropping agents straight into the hands of the Gestapo, and Marks knew this but he couldn’t get anyone to believe him. Or, if they believed, to care about it.

[Don’t just take Marks’ word for it. I’ve read the memoir of his opposite German number in the Netherlands, Hermann Giskes, who backs it up – and comes across in fact as much less of a monster than Marks imagined.]

And yet, if you had actively put it to one of those idiots in London that their activities were at best hindering our war effort and at worst helping the enemy’s, they would have been genuinely outraged at the suggestion. No one was actively, consciously betraying their country. As far as they were concerned they were all 100% patriots doing what was best for everyone.

So, take that thought and hold it: the ability, nay inevitability of human beings to concentrate on the small picture rather than the big and convince ourselves that it’s for everyone’s good.

Related to this is an even less rosy aspect of human nature: our ability to fixate so firmly on one unacceptable option that any other option, even if infinitely more unacceptable, becomes preferable. “X did Y but they achieved Z”: how many times have you heard that? It’s a false dichotomy: it becomes, in the mind of the apologist, a straight choice with No Other Way. Thatcher destroyed whole communities but she saved the economy. Stalin murdered millions but he modernised the USSR. (And no, I’m not equating Thatcher with Stalin – please.)

And any apologist for the late Iron Lady’s good friend Augusto Pinochet – and there are many of them – will sooner or later trot out the line “but he saved Chile from Communism.” Pinochet isn’t alone in the ranks of saving-the-world-from-Communism dictators but, for some reason, he is the one that has always particularly got my goat.

It is, to borrow Captain E. Blackadder’s pithy critique of pre-WW1 foreign policy, bollocks.

It was bollocks in Chile and it was bollocks throughout South America for every right-wing dictatorship propped up by the west because Communism was perceived as the only alternative. Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks.

Here is a strange fact about Communism that no paranoid right-wing loon ever seems to understand: no nation has ever turned to it out of perversity, and it has never been inevitable. What does it is desperation. You don’t want to be rich, you just want to have enough to look after your family, but you are so poor and the system so rotten that this will never happen no matter how much hard, honest work you put in. Then along come the Communists who say they will build schools and hospitals. Meanwhile the government grinds you into the dirt and expects you to be grateful for the privilege. So who do you turn to? You don’t know that the Communist’s promises will turn out to be pie in the sky. All you know is what you have now, and pie in the sky is better.

As the British proved so successfully in Oman – round about the time the Americans were pursuing their arguably less successful anti-insurgency policies in Vietnam – you fight Communism by being better. The Communists say they will build schools and hospitals. You make sure that the right side does build schools and hospitals. They surrender a little of their wealth and power – just a little – and, yes, military action is taken against the small minority of hardline insurgents. And you win. Pinochet and his vile ilk could have turned back the tide almost overnight by following this course of action.

But no. That would have meant being slightly more left wing, which was out of the question. Thus, to save this ghastly fate befalling the country, it became okay for a government to turn on its own people, spy on them, torture them, murder them, because the alternative would have been perceived as Communism – which it wouldn’t have been, of course, just a very mild case of social democracy – and that would have been totally unacceptable.

Humans, eh?

And so I came to write Phoenicia’s Worlds.

I didn’t write it to write about these themes and there are no overt references to either of the above cases in the novel. It certainly isn’t a commentary on or critique of the War Against Terror or the austerity package that is meant to save us all from a debt-ridden fate worse than death; I actually started to write Phoenicia’s Worlds before 9/11 so nothing more recent than that was on my mind. Instead, these two excerpts exemplify beliefs about human nature that are so entrenched within my being that, when the basic scenario of a beleaguered planet struggling for survival suggested itself, I knew exactly how people would react to it. And that was why I felt it would make a good novel.

End of the line

The history of Big Engine, part 4

The clue was when I first needed to put the printing bills on my credit card. Getting into debt on the card was something I had successfully avoided all this time, despite Mastercard’s kindly sending me unsolicited chequebooks drawn against the card, with friendly invitations like ‘why not write yourself a cheque and give yourself some funds?’ I finally succumbed. I remember sitting at the computer, shuffling about amounts of money from one account to another on the spreadsheet to see how it could all be made to work … and throwing back my head and howling, “I hate 3SF!”

3SF managed one more issue, February 2003. The fourth was in preparation. Meanwhile I was about to publish the twelfth and last of Big Engine’s initial founder member titles, after which I intended to publish Charles Stross’s Festival of Fools (which went on to be published as Singularity Sky: see his version of events here) and Chris Beckett’s The Holy Machine. (That’s Chris, as in, Clarke winner this year.) And Kit Reed’s Weird Women, Wired Women and Vonda N. McIntyre’s Starfarers series. The big names had heard of me by now.

But I looked at the spreadsheets, saw the bills that were falling due within the next couple of months, and then balanced that against projected sales, the amount of money presently available, and the maximum credit that I could squeeze out of every available resource, up to and including my own credit card. It just didn’t work out.

There was another choice, because by now I was getting the hang of running the company. I’d made all my youthful mistakes, I knew what I was doing, and I could have gone down the path of finding some secure backing and really, really committing to the company for the next… oh, five years minimum. But by then, to be honest, I’d had enough, and I didn’t think I had five years’ worth of belt-tightening and poverty in me.

I also looked at all the writing I could be doing instead. I knew the company had to close.

I made the decision on a Wednesday evening and called Liz, because I thought she had the right to be the first to know. I felt absolutely terrible about it because it made 3SF the second magazine to be shot from under her by a publisher through no fault of her own and she deserved so much better. Then I called my parents and told them. Then I dropped my accountant a line and asked how one actually did this; she told me about liquidators. And then I retired to bed with Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch, the first book I could read in three years without feeling guilty that I wasn’t reading manuscripts instead. The next day I called up two liquidators out of the phonebook. One of them wasn’t in and never called back. The other was in Witney, just down the road from the day job, and I could make an appointment for that afternoon.

Word soon got out.

The next to hear, after Liz and my parents and my accountant and the liquidators, was Chris Priest; I thought as a veteran author with so much experience tucked under his belt he might have useful hints. Everyone up to and including Chris kept quiet about it, pending the official announcement, though Chris was soon champing at the bit for me to go public because he really wanted to tell Dave Langford. I had every intention of telling Dave ASAP, not just because he was an author but because I wanted to make an announcement in Ansible.

Then I told the authors. At this point in my life I had very little conception of the power of blogs. Charlie Stross put it on his blog and later the same day people were getting in touch to express condolences. Before long half the SF community knew.

It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun, but I’m pleased and proud to say that no one really lost out. The contributors to 3SF #3 didn’t get paid, which isn’t good by any means, but it was out of my hands. I hadn’t realised that, immediately I declared my intention to liquidate, I could no longer write a cheque to anyone – from them on every payment had to be at the liquidator’s discretion. Otherwise, a subscription to 3SF is the most that anyone lost out on – and of the six planned issues for the first year, they all got the first three.

It was far from ideal but it wouldn’t break anyone’s bank. I emphatically didn’t blaze a trail of red ink across the ledgers of half the publishing industry, and I’m very pleased about that. Big Engine disappeared with barely a ripple.

All the authors had the right to take their books back if the company folded – I had been careful to put that in the contracts – and most of them exercised that right straight off, which of course diminished the company’s resale value at a stroke. (The more traditional course taken by insolvent publishers was to sell the company and then let the authors know about it, which gets round that problem, but I didn’t want to treat the authors like that.) A loyal remnant hung on in case a buyer could be found, but none could, so all rights reverted.

John Betancourt of Wildside Press put in an offer of £500 for the books but not the magazine. He then got so fed up with the liquidator’s dallying (I don’t think the poor man was used to companies that only had intellectual property, with no physical assets to flog off) that he withdrew it so Big Engine didn’t even get that. It was well and truly over.

And I had no regrets. It was a great three years; it meant I could have my fun while I was still young, free and single, with no one to hurt but myself; it opened doors and helped me make new contacts and friends that I value; and it means I will never be haunted by the question of ‘what if I ran a company?’ because I now know the answer. I think the world is better off that way.

3SF, and the beginning of the end

The history of Big Engine, part 3

To make ends meet in mid-2001 I started working for a Witney-based publisher of law journals. I became much more aware of how a journal publisher actually works than I ever had before. I hadn’t realised before just how useful periodicals are for smoothing out the cashflow. You get a constant, steady stream – or at least a trickle – of cash in the form of subscriptions, whereas if you just publish books, all your income clusters around the publication dates. So, I decided Big Engine needed a magazine.

I mentioned it to Liz Holliday, who had edited the short-lived Odyssey back in the nineties – a very worthy attempt at a science fiction magazine but sabotaged by an inept publisher (a sad story shortly to sound strangely reminiscent). Liz didn’t quite bite my hand off by asking if she could be editor, possibly only because I moved quickly enough. It was exactly what I had intended to suggest, though, because I knew I couldn’t handle that workload too.

Liz had long dreamed of calling a magazine 3SF, after our writers’ group. So why not? It was short and catchy and people would wonder why we chose it. We retrofitted an explanation into the magazine’s strapline: Science Fiction, Speculative Fantasy, Strange Facts.

Word spreads very quickly in the SF community. Liz just had to mention in a couple of discussion groups that she was involved in planning a new magazine, and immediately pledges of subscriptions started coming in. She’s an extremely capable editor and that is the regard she’s held in by those who know.

The main competition was of course Interzone – not that we wanted to compete. We wanted to complement. Interzone was safely into magazine middle age, no longer turning out new talent with quite the frequency it once did but relying on staple producers of fiction. It had its own distinct style and stable of authors; we wanted to develop a new stable. Liz had enough contacts in the community of beginning authors to manage that.

Interzone had started as a quarterly 20 years earlier, gone bi-monthly and was now a monthly publication. We thought that a quarterly magazine would soon lose impetus, with too long a gap between appearances, and a monthly would break the bank and drive us into an early grave in nothing flat. We decided 3SF would start off as a bi-monthly.

Fiction would be the main ingredient, but there would also be much more science fact than Interzone published, and speculative pieces, and of course reviews covering the full range of media. By some twist of magic Liz managed to hire Gwyneth Jones as UK reviews editor and Rich Horton as US reviewer generally, which made our lives much easier.

The guidelines on the 3SF website said:

“We take stories up to 10,000 words long – but at that length, a story will have to be brilliant. Especially if you’re a new writer, you have a much better chance with something shorter. And yes, we will buy short-shorts (under 1000 words).

We pay £30 per thousand words, pro rata (i.e. 3p – or around 4.5 US cents per word depending on the exchange rate – per word), on publication. We buy first English Language print serial rights, i.e. we buy the right to use your story once, in English, in the printed version of the magazine, and we need to be the first people to do so. We intend to do an electronic version of the magazine at some point in the future, and our guidelines and contracts will be amended to take account of that.”

Both the upper and lower word limits for stories were unusual and opened the magazine up to a wider range. As well as the quoted pay rate – which matched professional rates – Liz also had the idea of one even higher-paying story per issue, coming from a recognised Big Name. We were quite open about this.

And, Liz said, there would be illustrations. Personally I’ve never got on with illustrations in fiction – not since I was a child, anyway. I read a story for the words. At best illustrations are a distraction, at worst a badly placed illustration can spoil what you are about to read, and from a publisher’s point of view they’re one more thing to pay for. But there is a constituency of readers that enjoys them, and would therefore expect them in a quality magazine; a good artist is just as likely to win awards and acclaim as a writer (and hence associate it with the magazine’s reputation); and I will admit that an A4 page of small type looks pretty dull. So, illustrations there were.

Interzone still hailed from a time when written and televisual SF were two very distinct creatures with different sets of fans: the only televisual SF had been Doctor Who entering the final stages of its decline and repeats of the original Star Trek. Now there was a new generation of much more determined science fiction on TV and we wanted to cater for the increasing overlap, with critical pieces that would give, say, Stargate SG:1 or Farscape just as much in-depth attention as the latest China Miéville or Alastair Reynolds (as much as is possible with media SF; I still maintain that even the best lags at least ten years behind the printed form, and while one TV season might rattle off twenty different SF concepts that would each need a whole book to do justice to, it won’t do them well). There would also be a column on factual topics that should be of interest to an SF audience, even if they weren’t specifically science fictional; thus issue 1 featured an article by John Whitbourn on 11th Century English soldiers who went to fight in Constantinople for the dying Roman Empire; issue 2 featured an essay on ‘The Republic of Heaven’ by Philip Pullman, which I didn’t think could hurt; issue 3 had a science column on prions.

Word reached David Langford. “I hear you’re starting a new magazine in competition to Interzone,” he said in an email. “When can we expect the first edition of Die, Pringle, Die?”

I responded in a similar light-hearted mood: “I thought Eat Dirt, Pringle might strike the right balance between hostility and friendly challenge … though he’s seen so many of the opposition come and go, I doubt he’ll lose much sleep.”

My half of the conversation was duly reported in the next issue of Ansible. “Asked about the title, Ben mused: ‘I thought Eat Dirt, Pringle might strike the right balance between hostility and friendly challenge …’” I was glad he also included my line about David P. not losing much sleep over the matter, but it still led to a little awkwardness the next time I met the man socially.

I went to my first foreign worldcon: ConJose, in San Jose, 2002. The main object was to sell 3SF and I came home with a lot of subscriptions. Most of which were from Brits.

Incidentally, you really have not known what a homicidal impulse is until a major New York editor stops by your stall, fingers your stock, looks approvingly at the covers, even laughs at some of the jokes in one of the books, then compliments you on the little cardboard stands holding the books up and walks away.

Issue 1 of 3SF appeared in October 2002. If you’re selling subscriptions, it always helps to have something tangible to show. The number of subscriptions started to climb. Issue 2 followed in December. The dream of evening out the cashflow was working, if you only looked at the credit column of the spreadsheet. In the debit column …

I was right. You do get a trickle of subscriptions. You also get a regular outflow – ‘haemorrhage’ would be a better word – of cash in the form of typesetting and printers’ bills and author payments. This wouldn’t be a problem if you had enough subscribers. We never did. Launching 3SF can be summarised as a simple, elegant scheme to get a bit more money coming in, and it only needed another 700 subscribers to work.

We were all doomed.

To be continued …