It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns


These last couple of days I’ve started working again on my space opera, A Want of Reason, the third book of my An Age of Discord trilogy. (Preceded by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders.) Real life sort of got in the way throughout most of 2016, but now that 2017 is turning out so shit, writing space opera seems a good way to tune it out. Except…

When I originally started writing An Age of Discord, I’d planned to write a space opera using the narrative structure of an epic fantasy. But that wasn’t enough for me, so I started turning space opera tropes upside down to see how they played out. And I also completely buggered up the typical structure of an epic fantasy trilogy – by, for example, putting the Final Battle (TM) in the middle of book two… When I finished A Conflict of Orders back in 2007, I had A Want of Reason plotted out, but after failing to sell the trilogy, I put the project on the backburner.

But then I sold it. In late 2014. And I only had two books of the trilogy written.

In the seven years the trilogy has sat in my bottom drawer, I’d had plenty of time to think about that third book I’d never got around to writing. And the first thing I did on returning to it in 2015 was throw away the plot I’d worked out eight years before. I put together an entirely fresh synopsis for A Want of Reason, and started work on it. A lot had changed in the intervening years; I had changed, as had my tastes in fiction. Previously, the third book had simply uncovered the historical conspiracy underlying the events of the first two books, and explained its genesis. But that no longer interested me – or rather, I didn’t feel it was the core of my story. Now I wanted it to be about the inequalities baked into the typical space opera universe, and I wanted to burn them down and build something new. And that’s what I started writing…

This was back in 2015. I’d done some clean-up work on A Prospect of War and it was published in July 2015. I’d done the same to A Conflict of Orders, and it was published in October 2015. The plan was to write A Want of Reason – all 200,000 words of it – and publish it in March 2016. That didn’t happen. But I started work on the novel, before real life got in the way… And coming back to it this last week… It’s a little frightening how much of it predicts what’s happening in the US. When I wrote this 18 to 24 months ago, my intent was to make my space opera empire swing further to the right in response to a perceived threat (which remained unknown to most of the population). It’s an understandable response: when the bandits ride into town, everyone shutters their windows.

Bit the perception of that threat is an important element of such a response. In a space opera empire, typically feudal in nature, the bulk of the population get no choice in perception or response. But what I could do in my space opera was change the nature of the threat. Yes, it would bring the empire crashing down, but it would replace it with something much more equitable. I’d already presented that argument in A Conflict of Orders when I showed that the villain of the piece was motivated in his attempt to seize the empire’s throne by a desire to improve the lot of the empire’s serfs, or, as I called them, proletarians.


But when you write about a centre-right government cracking down, even if it’s a space opera empire, you end up writing about the sort of crap that Trump has pulled over the last week. I care about politics – of course I do, it affects me in every fucking way – and I like to stay informed… but I was writing space opera and trying to make it more realistic politcially, it never occurred to me this shit would turn real.

Had things gone according to plan, A Want of Reason would have been published last year and everyone would be saying how prescient I was. That didn’t happen, so you only have my word for it that recent events in the real world have uncomfortably reflected events in the plot of A Want of Reason. And had I a recently finished book to sell, then this post might well be considered just another piece of self-promoting bollocks. But A want of Reason is not finished – far from it, in fact. I may have returned to it in the last couple of weeks, but there is still a lot of work to do before it’s ready. And, let’s face it, who’s going to remember this post a week from now, never mind nine to twelve months from now.

I suppose that if I have a point to make, it might as well be this: if you look to science fiction writers for predictions, and those so-called predictions come true, then we are all well and truly fucked. Science fiction has never been futurism, and every sf novel is more about the time it was written than the time it was published or set. When sf novels become just as much about the time they were published…it’s pretty much accident. But a scary accident. Okay, so Random Space Opera Agency in Jackboots doesn’t map precisely onto a real world analogue, so plot points don’t map onto Trump’s Executive Orders… but it doesn’t take a genius see where things are going, and the one thing you can say about sf authors is that they know their invented world better than anyone else on the planet (note: does not apply to shared world universes in which sad nerds are likely to have encyclopædic knowledge, such as SWEU).

If there is a upside to this it’s that space opera can be a useful commentary on the real world. Which is, I guess, a first. Perhaps it just has to wait for the right conditions in real life to pertain. Which is a bit of a fucker. After all, let’s not forget the role science fiction, or “fantastika”, played in the USSR. To put it bluntly, if space opera has become samizdat, then we are well and truly screwed.

And all this, I hasten to add, is post facto. The popularity of dystopias in, for example, YA fiction has bugger all to do with real world political situations, although it might well be predicated on generational feelings of powerlessness. But to claim that The Hunger Games is a “blueprint for resistance” is the act of an idiot.

I didn’t intend for An Age of Discord to reflect the real world as much as it has. It’s a space opera, FFS. The fact that is has done is extremingly worrying.

But it’s also one of those things where you fix the real world, not the space opera.

Remember that.

6 thoughts on “Stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns

  1. Hi Ian

    An interesting post. I loved the point you made, ” Science fiction has never been futurism, and every sf novel is more about the time it was written than the time it was published or set “.
    This is something that has always interested me about SF as I am fascinated by how concerns or heightened interest in certain ideas or inventions be it atomic power, environmentalism, psi powers etc. move through the common culture and SF at the same time and then often disappear just as quickly. Also your description of the writing process was really interesting.


    • Thanks. I think there are a lot of widely-believed myths about what science fiction is and means, but the sad truth is that it’s nothing more than stories which relfect only the concerns of its writers. To claim anything more of it is to ignore how often it tries to predict things only to get them embarrassingly wrong. I read something recently, for example, that was doing okay until it decided to give a technical description of how a computerised autopilot system worked… using tapes.

  2. Speaking of ‘fixing the real world’, perhaps you could make a start with your publisher?

    I ordered the first two volumes in hard copy last August. At first, they said that both had been dispatched same week by first class post. When nothing arrived, we started on a tiresome exchange of mails consisting of various promises. ‘A Prospect of War’ finally arrived last October; at which point I asked about ‘A Conflict of Orders’, only to be told that “It hasn’t been published yet.” (I suspect that they don’t know the difference between ‘publication’ and ‘a print run’.)

    Throughout, both titles remained on their website as being available for sale.

    In fact, they are advertising – and taking payment for – goods that they cannot supply. I wonder if they are not ordering print runs until they have a minimum number of orders. in which case, they should have a different sales model, like pre-ordering. I’m quite familiar with a lot of mail order businesses, and advertising and taking payment for goods they are unable to supply is very sharp practice.

    I’d like to think that if you completed the third volume, you might be able to sell it to a proper publisher with some idea as to how conduct their business. From where I sit, Tickety-Boo look like nothing as much as either a bunch of incompetents or a load of outright crooks. They are certainly unfit to conduct business.

    • Sadly, you’re not the first person who has complained to me aboiut Tickety Boo’s failure to deliver hardback copies of my books. I’ve not even received an author copy of A Conflict of Orders, and I’m not entirely convinced they’ve actually ordered any copies from the printer. I’ll send them an email and ask them to fulfil whatever orders they’ve received… but, to be honest, and I know it’s bad form to badmouth your publisher, but they’ve not done a very good job with my two books.

  3. I’d just hasten to point out that his executive orders are largely rolling back executive orders made my Obama during his administration. I assume the bulk of your outrage is on the incorrectly labeled ‘muslim ban’, something that wasn’t even drafted by Trump’s administration.

    I don’t see an armed revolt in the U.S and I don’t draw many parallels between your universe and the real world. But that’s probably because I don’t view the world through the lense of cultural marxism. What I see in Trump is similar to what I’ve learnt about Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy… Except Trump has a rather staunch stance on individual liberty of the american CITIZEN.

    What I generally get from your writings and your blog posts is that you lean towards the internationalist, socialist view of the world. So your reaction to a nationalist resurgence is understandable, but I’d just like to give some thoughts of my own in response.

    – Trump has a vested interest in keeping his election promises- and he is keeping them.

    – One of those promises is to put America and its’ citizenry first, and to protect the constitution as it is.

    – A 90 day suspension on immigration from a handful of countries isn’t a ban, and there are ‘Islamic Republics’ and Emirates that are doing basically exactly the same thing. I’m talking Kuwait, UAE, and Turkey.

    – Trump isn’t in office to serve the world. He is in office to serve his electorate. His electorate are citizens of a single nation stats. His policies are always going to place them first, even to the detriment of others.

    – Illegal immigration is a thing even if you don’t want it to be a thing and it’s frankly amusing to see people that arn’t U.S citizens rallying and complaining about his policies and intentions in this area. They’re illegal immigrants for a reason. Oh and in addition- you don’t see similar levels of immigration to states that arn’t what we now call ‘welfare states’ that’s also interesting.

    – Getting outraged over someone else’s head of state, when they are democratically elected, is an interesting concept. I don’t see similar levels of outrage directed towards the dictator-in-all-but-name of Turkey, or the undemocratic nature of the EU commissioners. Or the Saudi system of government. Or the PROC’s system of government.

    Trump is a means to an end for many. Many that either indirectly supported him from overseas or voted for him did not do so because they agree with everything he does, they did it because they wanted the drift towards the authoritarian left we have seen in almost every mainstream left-wing political party across the western world smashed. And it has worked, and is continuing to work. The DNC is falling apart. What will rise out of the ashes? Hopefully, a moderate left-wing secularist party that rejects these neo-liberalist concepts like “white guilt” and “mansplaining” and perhaps one that doesn’t kow-tow to radical feminists- that is honest and frank about the ‘gender pay gap’ (which, by the way, was nowhere near as bad as portrayed and was naturally drifting towards being in favour of women as the years went on and the effects of gender equality in the workplace actually started to set in generationally), etc.

    I’ll happily call Trump a fascist when he starts gerrymandering elections, and using military or paramilitary force to subjugate his own CITIZENRY, or starts using force to silence opposition.

    • A couple of points: in my post, I was mostly referring to Trump’s rhetoric. After all, no US citizen has been killed to date in a terrorist attack by a citizen of one of the seven banned countries, and yet Trump has positioned the ban as a way to protect the US from terrorists. I’m also aware the original legislation was drawn up by Obama’s administration – but it was only in place for a short while, and the legality of it was carefully checked beforehand. It also did not apply to green card holders.

      Many of Trump’s actions since taking office have not been constitutional, which seems an odd way to protect the constitution. He has also not divested himself his his business interests, which is, quite frankly, corruption.

      Trump’s actions have a direct impact on the UK. Since our own government is determined to pull us out of the EU on a mandate of 17 million votes based upon a series of outright lies, the so-called “special relationship” between UK and US is going to be even more important. Personally, I think we’re screwed. Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster and it may be decades before the UK economy – which is already weak after more than a decade of unnecessary Austerity – recovers.

      If you think the Democratic Party is left-wing, then you need to recalibrate your political compass. And left-wing parties across the world have not drifted to the authoritarian left. If anything, they’ve been drifting toward the centre and in many countries are now more right-wing than they were 20 years ago. Just compare New Labour to Neil Kinnock’s Labour. Corbyn was a response to that right-ward drift.

      Finally neoliberalism is an economic movement and has nothing to do with feminism, “mansplaining” or “white guilt”. The gender pay gap is a real thing, as is institutional sexism. Any evidence you might provide to demonstrate this is not the case – well, I’m pretty sure at least half of the planet’s population can give you more than enough evidence to show both really do exist. But there’s a good one, just off the top of my head: CNN put together a panel of experts to discuss the Women’s March last month, every expert on that panel was male.

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