Clarion Publishing has unveiled the covers for next year’s re-publication of His Majesty’s Starship and Jeapes Japes

JeapesJapesCoverBenJeapes 250x400 First Look: His Majestys Starship, and Jeapes Japes cover artwork HMSSCoverBenJeapes 250x400 First Look: His Majestys Starship, and Jeapes Japes cover artwork

Both excellent pieces of artwork by Dominic Harman. Tell me they aren’t nice!

I’m especially pleased with the cover for HMSS, which (I think) was once an Interzone cover … or was it … well, wherever it was that I first saw it, it’s stuck in my mind and I’m delighted we get to use it. As for resemblance to contents, ahem, well, the book has spaceships. And planets.

The cover for Japes is pretty nifty too, though I’ll be the first to admit that resemblance to contents is … um. Whatever comes below ‘minimal’ ‘Zero’? But that is made up for by the nice use of Star Wars-ish font, and more to the point, it’s my book.

Harry Harrison

The deaths of elder science fiction statesmen and -women usually leave me cold because in the long run it’s what everyone does. In the case of Harry Harrison I felt I should make an exception. I spent a long time pondering why I felt this way, and came to the conclusion it was because Harrison had written novels and stories that I could read and enjoy at every level of my life – child, teen and adult.

Spaceship Medic was probably my introduction to hard sf: fiction that plays strictly by the rules of what we know about Newtonian/Einsteinian physics. The spaceship Johannes Kepler is hit and damaged by a meteorite and through a strictly logical series of events the ship’s doctor ends up as the captain, having to cope with a damaged ship and a mystery illness and mutiny and … and so on. I read this book when I was, what, 10? 11? Harrison was able to explain simple real-world problems like inertia, radiation shielding through water, and disease vectors while at the same time keeping the story utterly gripping for a kid. Part of the joy was watching our hero encounter a new problem every few pages, each described with impeccable accuracy and conciseness, and each to be solved in a way you never saw coming but which made perfect sense. I recall he eventually works out what caused the mystery illness sweeping the ship by mapping the cabins of the infected and the cabins that the meteorite passed through. John Snow could not have done it better.

From there I graduated to The Men from P.I.G. and R.O.B.O.T., which told me that as well as being a great story teller Harrison also had a wicked sense of humour. Then a few years later 2000 A.D. ran a Stainless Steel Rat comic strip, which led me to seek out the books as a teen and introduced me to the concept of an anti-hero. The Rat series lagged a little after a while, and Slippery Jim’s strawman evangelical atheism gets boring; but then, Harrison also wrote “The Streets of Ashkelon” which show that he could do atheism – or at least, non-religioisty – most convincingly. No Christian will ever have to question or justify their faith after Slippery Jim DiGriz banging on at them about it, but after reading “Ashkelon”, you will at least go “hmm”.

And on top of that he could write polemics like Make Room! Make Room!, or just adventures like Rebel in Time, which bring home their message without preaching, by dropping their identifiable characters into new situations and making the reader experience them vicariously. Looking back, I came to realise that this was a common thing in much of his writing – he communicated his values, and they were good values, through his characters without the authorial voice intruding. It’s a neat trick.

It was always the middle-level Harrison that I enjoyed the most, where the fun and silliness met an engaging and worthwhile plot. The Stainless Steel Rat; Deathworld; The Technicolor Time Machine; the under-rated A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (which features Brian Aldiss as Dean of St Pauls or some equivalent office). A role model for authors if ever there was one.

Phoenicia’s Worlds

Many years ago I had an idea for a series. Posit: a network of human-settled worlds, linked by wormholes, throughout the galaxy. For two worlds to be joined, a wormhole terminus has to be towed there at slower-than-light speeds in a starship, its crew (naturally) in suspended animation for a voyage that takes decades. Each terminus can only link to one other, at the starship’s last port of call. This has been happening for centuries, and human civilisation is now an interwoven web of many worlds and cultures. The frontier of the Expansion is all the worlds that so far have been settled through a wormhole, but have yet to send a starship on to the next world.

Then one day the network goes phut

Rather, from the point of view of our heroes on a world at the end of one of the lines, their link to the last but one world goes phut. Maybe the whole network shut down, maybe it didn’t – they have no way of knowing (not for years and years, anyway) when they are forced again to rely on lightspeed communication. All they know is that their world is heavily dependent on supplies that come through the wormhole for terraforming, and will become uninhabitable within decades, so the only answer is to get into their ship for the slower-than-light journey back to the last world that will help them re-establish the link.

That would be Book 1.

Book 2, of course, they go on to the next world down the line, and the one after that, and … you get the picture. And other starships will be doing the same thing so sooner or later their paths will cross.


Then I sat down to write the puppy … And decided I really didn’t have time or energy for a series. But I could at least write one book. Meanwhile, I was busy getting married and ghostwriting and all that kind of thing, which on top of not feeling terribly inspired for an actual plot anyway led to a severe case of blockage. I persevered and hammered out a rough approximation of an epic space opera. But I was never really happy with it. I submitted it to my usual publisher, but withdrew it again.

Meanwhile it bubbled away at the back of my mind, and trusted friends were allowed a peek at the work. They all agreed it didn’t work, but their suggestions and my own bubbling led to resolutions. The galactic background that we never actually get to see was too complicated. The fact that it involved two worlds with no connection at all to Earth made it all too remote. And I was still handicapped by the thought that it might be a series so, Trek-like, I was pushing the reset button at the end to damn well make the characters do what I wanted rather than what the story said they should.

All this led eventually to a much simpler, streamlined and better novel. Just two worlds, Earth and its first extra-solar colony. Just one starship. Still a big phut. But being able to link this all back to Earth, even the Earth of a thousand years hence, meant much more emotional resonance and a far more satisfying read for the reader. And the characters do what the story wants them to, so it isn’t the contrived, series-friendly ending I was after.

Then I heard that Solaris was looking for Young Adult titles. I have never really thought of any of my science fiction as Young Adult, but the fact is that it how it has been published, so I sent it in. And then withdrew it, because I had something else to send them and the something else was the direction I wanted to go in.

And then, out of the blue a month ago, I got an email to say that the synopsis I had sent in was still somehow in circulation, and they really liked it, and would I be interested in placing it with Solaris as an adult novel?

A grown-up novel by a grown-up publisher, for the first time in my novel writing life. I thought about it for, oh, milliseconds.

And that, boys and girls, is how you will come to be able to read Phoenicia’s Worlds at some point, most likely in the summer, next year. Updates will be posted.

And yes, I am already thinking of a sequel.