Monthly Archives: October 2011

Lord of Stone – an extract from Keith Brooke’s fantasy novel

A few days ago I wrote about my dilemma of how to publish the electronic editions of three of my earlier novels, Lord of Stone and the two books in the Expatria series. Bring them out as part of the infinity plus imprint, at the risk of people seeing that imprint as an exercise in vanity publishing, or bring them out separately and miss out on the opportunities for cross-promotion that a venture like infinity plus offers?

I settled for a compromise. I’ve brought out the two Expatria books separately, and restricted myself to just including Lord of Stone on the infinity plus list.

Lord of StoneLord of Stone is a novel to which I’m particularly attached. My first three novels were published by Gollancz and the next one I wrote was Lord of Stone. I saw it as my big novel, where I tried to combine literary ambition with strong story-telling. I was pleased with the result but my timing was awful. Gollancz were taken over by a dictionary publisher and cut their fiction list drastically; all I had to offer them was a hard-to-market fantasy novel about the death of magic… a fantasy without, at first appearances, much fantasy.

Despite this, I still believed strongly in the novel and ended up publishing it online myself, my first venture into indie publishing way before the term had even been invented.

A few years later, the US imprint Cosmos approached me about the novel. In the end, not only did they publish the first print editions of Lord of Stone (still available from their parent company Wildside), they also took on four other books from me.

And now, at last, we have the first electronic edition.

One of the nice things about working with Cosmos was that they also invited me to produce covers for three of the books. I was pleased with the two Expatria covers (which I’ve retained for the new ebook editions), but never quite so satisfied with the one for Lord of Stone. The ebook edition gave me the chance to address this, and so it now has a new cover.

This was another interesting challenge. An eye-catching generic fantasy cover would have been great for marketing (strong covers are vital for online book-selling), but not really appropriate for the novel. Most appropriate, perhaps, would have been a grainy black war-time image, but that hardly conveys the fantasy elements of the book. I settled for a pastiche of a Spanish bull-fighting poster: in the novel there are similar festivals, and the book mentions posters on the walls, both for these events and as part of the increasing religious fundamentalism that takes over during the story. Hopefully the resulting cover catches the eye and conveys some of the atmosphere of the book.

And now, without further ado, or waffling, or digression, here’s an extract:

Summer: The Year of Our Lords, 3964


‘And out of the mayhem the Lords will arise…’
The Book of the World, ch.18, v.29.

The ragged people were all around him, staring and shouting and waving their fists. Bligh looked down at the rounded stones lying scattered in the fire. Had he kicked them there? He did not know.

He remembered hiding in the ruins, looking down at all these people as they performed their calling to the Gods, the Prayer of the Body.

Yet now he was here in their midst and the people were enraged by his incursion.

“No!” he said, again. Nobody moved. The only other noise was the incessant clatter of a small radio, tuned in to a southern music station. “This is wrong,” he cried. “You can’t do this. It’s sick. Do you think that if the Lords were among you they would recognise – ” he gestured ” – this as anything but a cheap sham? Do you? There is nothing Holy about this charade. Nothing! It’s sick…” He was losing track. He did not know where he had found the words, or even what they meant.

He looked around at the people in their filthy tatters, gathered in the ruins where they were forced to make their home. These poor people were desperate, they needed something to believe, something to give their empty existences some kind of meaning.

As he studied their faces Bligh realised that the time for violence had passed and he was safe, for now. The mood of the gathering was returning to the passionate fervour of before, only now the atmosphere had been subtly transformed.

The people moved away, found their drinks and started to talk and laugh. Lila, kneeling at Bligh’s feet, hooked her hand into the waistband of his trousers and pulled him towards her. Her cheeks were smeared with tears and dirt from the ground. Her daughter was there too, pressing a jug of wine at him, small eyes pleading with him to accept it.

He did not understand these people’s response. He had wrecked their ceremony but they hardly seemed to care any more. He drank, long and deep, then passed the jug to Lila and watched as she pressed it to her lips.

She paused to touch the corner of her mouth. It was swollen, engorged with blood. He did not remember striking her – had it been him?

Someone turned the radio up louder, its music insistent, shrill. Bligh tried to come to terms with what was happening to him. The steady pressure in his head was frightening, a sure sign that he really was insane. He felt himself to be right on the edge of some mental precipice. It would not take much…

“I hear voices,” he said quietly. He had to explain, had to find the words from somewhere. “My head … I can’t keep track of it all. I see bodies, too. All day, all night. They talk to me.” He drank more wine and focused on its heat in his belly. “I’m mad,” he said. “Mad.”

He drank some more.

Later, the old man started his chant again. Nobody paid him any attention at first, but gradually the people stopped talking and silenced the radio. In their ones and twos they turned to watch, then started to clap out his complex rhythm. Bligh felt no anger now, only a mellow sense of well-being that centred in his gut and rippled outwards.

He did not object when Lila rose from where she had been sitting, head on his shoulder, hand on his thigh. He watched as she found the movements of her dance once again, her eyes locked unblinking on his. He drank some more from the jug of wine.

After a few minutes, she started to wail that twisting note that had reached right inside Bligh earlier in the evening. She wrapped her arms around her body, pulling at her clothes, teasing, and all the time her eyes were fixed on Bligh’s.

It crept up on him stealthily.

Sitting, watching, drinking … then suddenly he was out in the cleared dirt space with Lila, crying aloud, the old man’s chant pulling Bligh’s body about as if he was a marionette jerked by some mad puppeteer’s wires. He clutched at his head, trying to interrupt the pattern and stop, but still his body jerked and twisted and that awful chant pounded through his head. All he knew was the fire, the insane twitching of his body, the undying, timeless rhythm battering the inside of his skull.

At some point – he knew no sense of time – things started to change. A new rhythm, a new chant, supplanted the old. The voices of the people were all around, the people with whom he had shared this grim little shanty town. All chanting a single word, over and over again. “Who?” they cried. “Who? Who? Who?”

He did not understand, but he sensed that he did not have to understand.

“Who? Who? Who?

Somewhere in his head: the pressure, transforming. Rising through the levels of his mind, bursting forth to take over his senses and submerge all that he was, all that he had ever been.

“Who? Who? Who?

Expanding, a force that would destroy him and know no different. Rising up to take over.

“Who? Who? Who?

He stood and spread his hands, and then there was sudden silence.

“Who?” said the old man, eventually, his chin glistening with saliva and sweat.

“I am…” said Bligh, who was no longer Bligh, in a voice no longer Bligh’s. “I am the second of the Lords Elemental: I am Lord of Stone.” Now, he smiled. “I am,” he said, “your Saviour.”

Autumn: the Year of Our Lords, 3963


‘A man answers the call of his people … and so he answers the Call of the Lords.’
The Book of the World, ch.8, v.68.

They heard the first gunshot as the train pulled into the station.

Bligh’s grip tightened on Madeleine’s hand just as the shot was answered by three more. Facing them, a woman stared back blankly, her scrawny arms wrapped like honeysuckle around the tall wicker poultry basket resting on her lap. Two young girls by her side giggled and hid their faces when Bligh glanced in their direction.

The train lurched to a halt and Bligh and Madeleine joined the throng by the carriage’s door. Movement brought life back to Bligh’s legs, numb from an hour or more on a narrow wooden seat. At the exit he realised Madeleine was watching him closely. They had been lovers since the summer yet still he felt a self-conscious heat prickle his skin. He leapt to the cobbled platform and used his bulk to steady himself against the flow as he helped Madeleine down.

“Anasty.” They spoke the name of Trace’s capital city together and then laughed. The whipcrack of another gunshot sounded – far too close – and they allowed the crowd to sweep them through the station-house and out into the street.

“We should find somewhere in which to stay,” said Bligh, his Traian distinguishable from that of a native only by its grammatical correctness.

Madeleine slung her light bag over Bligh’s shoulder and kissed him tenderly on the cheek. She flicked dark hair back from her face and turned a full circle to look at the city. “The boarding houses won’t be full,” she said. “We have plenty of time.”

Holding hands, they walked on the pavement, heading in the general direction of the Old Town. Crooked buildings lined the street, three or four storeys high and perhaps two centuries old. Boards covered some of the small windows and bullet-scars and soot marked the stone facades. Here and there, outside shops and seemingly ordinary houses, long lines of people stood resolutely in turn.

They rounded a corner, Madeleine navigating from memories of earlier visits to Anasty, and there they came across their first barricade. Bligh looked immediately for a pennant or banner to identify the militia responsible. They had come from Dona-Jez that morning, a town held by the Landworkers’ Alliance. Because of this, there might be problems if their papers were examined by Government troops.

Above the broken line of rubble and sand-bags, a chequered blue and white flag drooped in the sultry air and Bligh said, “Syndicalist, it’s okay.” The Syndicalists, with their aggressively confrontational history, were at the more extreme end of the revolutionary spectrum, but infinitely preferable to a Government jail.

“You have papers?” said an unshaven guard, somehow contriving to look a fine figure in his shabby corduroy trousers and coarse woollen coat.

Madeleine handed over their train tickets and her employment card, Bligh his passport.

On seeing that Bligh had Wederian nationality the guard beamed approvingly and said, “You like our girls, hmm? In that case you will like Anasty, Friend, you will like it greatly.”

“One of them, yes,” said Bligh. “I hope to like Anasty, too.” There were more gunshots now, but faint in the distance. Still, Bligh searched the rooftops and windows. He found that in some perverse manner he was actually enjoying the sense of danger. He had never come so close to the fighting before.

“Ah, you are in love.” The guard’s smile grew even broader. “That is very good.”

“Is the fighting bad?” asked Madeleine. From her tone Bligh could tell that she did not find the guard amusing.

“For the Government and the Queen it is,” said another soldier, joining them from a nearby building.

“A piece of advice, Friend,” said the first, placing a hand on Bligh’s arm and standing so close that the smell of sweat and cheap wine was almost unbearable. “If you want to have love tonight then don’t go near to the Old Town. That is where the Army are, for now, and there is much fighting. Go there and you might end up in a hospital or in a wooden casket – a young man with the love juices flowing doesn’t want a thing like that.”

Bligh stepped away and tried to thank the man, but they could not leave without their papers. For a moment, the guard held ticket, employment card and passport aloft and then he brought them down with a grand flourish. “Enjoy our city,” he said. “If you find the time.”

Bligh retrieved their documents and at last they passed through the barricade. They walked on for some time, easy in each other’s silence, nothing to hurry them. The afternoon stretched out ahead.

Then, with no warning, they were fired on for the first time.

…continues in Lord of Stone. Available from:

Trace: a country where magic is dying out. A country at war with itself. A country where the prophecies of the Book of the World have started to come true.

Bligh: a young foreigner, drawn irresistibly to the war in Trace. A man who has rejected religion, yet appears to be possessed by one of the six Lords Elemental. Bligh thinks he’s going mad, but if he is then it’s a madness shared by others…

Back-list dilemma…

I have a dilemma.

I’ve just had rights to three of my earlier novels reverted and want to put them out as ebooks. The obvious thing is to do that through infinity plus, but I already have some collections of short fiction under that imprint and I don’t want it to look like a vanity venture.

For exactly this reason, I’ve already put out a couple of standalone short story ebooks (Queen Bee and Sweats) separately.

The novels concerned are:

  • Expatria and Expatria Incorporated: my 2nd and 3rd novels, telling the story of an isolated colony world as it renews contact with Earth;
  • Lord of Stone: my 4th novel, the story of the death of magic in an increasingly secular, civil war-torn world, and a book I still consider to be one of my best.
The options would be to do them all through infinity plus; do just Lord of Stone through infinity plus and the other two separately; or keep them all separate from infinity plus. What do you think? All comments gratefully received!

infinity plus singles: a new line of cheap, bite-sized ebooks from top authors

What it says in the title, really.

Our new venture at infinity plus: a series of short, standalone ebooks, stories you can read in a single sitting from top genre authors, including Eric Brown, Lisa Tuttle, Kit Reed, John Grant and more. Full details are available from the infinity plus singles website.

Our lead title is Iain Rowan‘s One Step Closer, already phenomenally successful as a free ebook, a long-term number one download from Amazon, and winner of the Derringer Award for short crime fiction. Also included in the first batch we have:

  • The Time-Lapsed Man, Eric Brown‘s Interzone readers’ poll-winning story of a starship pilot whose senses fall out of step with the world around him;
  • Has Anyone Here Seen Kristie? by John Grant, a very adult and haunting love story described in an SF Site review as “…like a Ray Bradbury story for mature audiences only”;
  • my own Head Shots, one of my favourites of all my stories over the years, set in a world where the paparazzi can see into the minds of those they pursue;
  • and Kit Reed‘s, wonderfully creepy and moving Old Soldiers.

Lined up for the future, we have stories from Lisa Tuttle (including International Horror Guild Award-winner “Closet Dreams”, and “The Bone Flute”, for which Lisa famously refused a Nebula), Neil Williamson, Anna Tambour, Sarah Ash and others. For now, the stories are reprints, but in future we aim to throw a few new tales into the mix.
It’s a fine line-up, and we think there’s a market for this kind of thing. And now’s the time to find out.

Sweats, by Keith Brooke

All the forensics point to Joey Bannerman – the DNA profile, the fingerprints, the pheromone signature, the security cam records… But Joey wasn’t there, he wasn’t in his body at the time of the hit. Joey is a sweat, and he was safely warehoused away while someone else paid to ride his bones… Or at least, that’s his defence.

After its initial publication in PostscriptsSweats was adapted to become part of my critically-acclaimed novel The Accord, described by SF Site as “one of the finest novels of virtual reality yet written” and by The Guardian as “not only Brooke’s best novel to date, but one of the finest to broach the subject of virtual reality”.

Sweats is available as a standalone ebook from: (Kindle format, $0.99) and (Kindle format, £0.86).

Here’s an extract…

Head Shots: a short story for Kindle

Bartie Davits is a sweat. A student working his way through business school, paying his own way because his parents are in no position to help, one of them a low-paid supermarket assistant, the other long since dead and gone. Sweating is easier than shop work, and generally safer than dealing, although he does a bit of that too – that’s just a natural extension of his business training, he always argues.

He likes the SweatShop parlour in Haymarket. Real class. You can taste it in the air.

He opens his eyes, remembering where he is, getting used to his own senses again after spending what feels like a couple of days warehoused off in netspace, playing TrueSim games while some rich wanker fools with his body.

A face looms over him, cheekbones like geometry, perfect skin, eyes like the flawless glass eyes of a perfect porcelain doll. Bartie can smell her and she’s like apples. He smiles.

“What’s the damage?” he asks.

She smiles back at him, everything symmetrical. Someone paid a fortune for those looks, he guesses.

“Narcotic residue,” she tells him. “Alcohol residue. Black eye – looks like you had a run-in with someone. That’s all, though, Mr Davits.”

No serious damage this time, then. Right now there will be drugs cleansing his blood and liver, stripping out the narcs and booze, replenishing his reserves. That’s one of the perks of sweating; some people argue that the clean-out could add years to your life. Rich wankers would pay a fortune for some of this shit and here is Bartie Davits, getting it all for free. Fuck no: getting paid for it.

“Like we agreed,” he says, sitting slowly. “Cash in hand, right?”

She smiles her professional smile again. “The fee is already in your registered account, Mr Davits, minus tax and obligatory pension, just as always. No special arrangements.”

He stands, stretches. Feels unfamiliar aches and stiffnesses. Raises a hand to his left eye, suddenly aware of its dull ache.

He looks down at his clothes: a slick pair of jeans, a crumpled silk t-shirt, pointed snakeskin boots, none of it his. There’s a bag on the side containing his own newly laundered clothes. The new outfit – another perk.

He hopes his body had a good time while he was warehoused.

Funny to think that his own body has had far more diverse experience than he himself has – and he knows nothing about it other than a bunch of hints and signs and scars…

Out along a corridor, mirrored walls multiplying him, bright lights making him squint. Into the foyer, all tall, angular plants emerging from chrome pots full of glass pebbles. The street outside looks dark through the clinic’s floor-to-ceiling tinted glass front.

The cops grab Bartie as he steps outside. He’s just wondering whether it’s a Comedy Store night, who might be on. Maybe he’ll call a few mates and front them for a night out, make the most of the new wad in his bank account. But the cops have other ideas.

He steps out through glass and chrome doors that slide open as they sense his approach. He has time to notice the sudden clash of warm scented air from the interior of the clinic mixing with the smells of the damp London street, has time to emerge into the drizzle, to look left, then start to look right and then they’re on him.

A sudden rush of figures… Two men step out from his right and as he opens his mouth to speak, to curse them for jostling him, for not looking where they’re going even though it’s actually Bartie who has stepped out into the flow, another two take him from the left. His arms gripped tightly, he smells something cloyingly sweet, realises someone has sprayed something, feels it infiltrating his lungs as he breathes it deep, hears the gabble of street noise suddenly fizz to static, to nothing…


…wakes in a cell.

He remembers now, the men grabbing him, the prickle of some kind of nerve agent in his lungs. He realises they were police, some in uniform, some not. He hadn’t had time to take it all in as they descended on him, in the sudden rush of sensation as the foundations of a normal day were abruptly pulled from under him.

He’s on a bunk, a brick wall to his immediate left, a narrow strip of floor and then another bare brick wall to the right. There’s a door at one end of the cell, past his feet, with a viewing panel set into it. In one corner of the room, where two walls meet ceiling, the glinting eye of a security cam peers back at him.

He sits, rubs at his temples as dizziness settles.

Down on the concrete floor, he presses his feet against the wall and starts on sit-ups, rapid and regular, enjoying the rush of blood and adrenalin that kick in with the exercise. Bartie likes to look after himself. It keeps the brain in tune as well as the body. And his rich clients like a fit sweat to ride in, so it’s a good career move, if sweating can really be considered a career.

He’s past 150 when he hears the door. He carries on until a man says, “Bartie Davits. You’re wanted for interview.”

“Interview?” he asks, pausing, twisting to see the uniformed man framed by the doorway. “Like for a job?”

The policeman just looks at him, waits for him to stand, steps back to let him out into the corridor.

A short time later, Bartie is sitting in another room, elbows on a desk. There’s a plain clothes officer across the table from him, a uniformed man on the door.

“Bartholomew Brooklyn Davits,” says the officer, “we have reason to suspect your involvement in the murder of Elector Nathan Burnham at his retreat in Jakarta on the 23rd of this month. This interview is being recorded and your responses processed for veracity by smart systems from two independent vendors. Anything you do or say may be used as evidence in a court of law. Do you understand?”

Bartie stares at the man. “I understand your words,” he says slowly, “but fuck no, I don’t understand.”

The officer has a feed going into his ear. He receives some kind of input, nods, and his eyes meet Bartie’s again.

Then Bartie adds, “Burnham? Elector Burnham? The virtual worlds guy? Dead?” At a brief nod, he continues, “I… I’ve been out of it a couple of days. I hadn’t heard. I sweat rides, you know? I was sweating, warehoused in a data-bank somewhere while some rich fuck rode my bones, you know?”

Another pause, while the officer listens to his feed, then: “Elector Burnham was killed by a kid called Joey Bannerman.”

“So… I don’t understand?”

“Bannerman was gapyearing round the world, ran out of cash, took to sweating to get by. He was ridden by the killer.”

Bartie gets it, he thinks. “Not me, man… I didn’t do nothing. I was warehoused, playing TrueSim strategy games in perfect isolation. Check out the records: I was pumped into a databank and kept clean and cut off from the world. They have to do that. Data integrity and all that: have to put back what they take out!” He laughs awkwardly.

“We don’t think it was you, as such,” says the officer.

Bartie relaxes, hasn’t realised how much tension he’d been holding in. Then he registers the “as such” and he sees from the officer’s expression that there’s more, a layer yet to unpick. “And?”

“We’ve pattern-matched traits identified from the data-feed that injected the killer into Bannerman’s skull. The killer was an amalgam, a construct. Whoever was behind the assassination took a few traits from here, a few from there, and built the killer suited for the job.”

Bartie waits. There’s more.

“It’s a known technique. Developed by the Yakuza but it’s been seen in a number of cases now. The way they do it is they have to have a solid foundation, a template, someone who could easily be a killer in the right circumstances, with the right traits added, remixed, recompiled. We’ve identified the template, Davits. We’ve tracked down that individual. It’s you.”

Bartie shakes his head. “But it wasn’t me!” he finally says. “I was warehoused, isolated… It wasn’t me.”

“Your profile was used,” says the officer. “Edited, built upon. We’re talking legal grey areas here. Our advice is that this could be the test case to beat all test cases. Could take years.”

The officer is enjoying this, Bartie suddenly realises. “How do you mean?”

“It’s all about legal culpability,” the officer explains. “When due process proves that you were the template used in this crime, and when it is demonstrated that the killer was substantiallyyou, then you will share legal culpability for the killing.”

“But… I wasn’t there.”

“No, that’s true. But there is evidence to show that a statistically significant instance of you was…”

This story continues in Sweats, an ebook by Keith Brooke.

Available from:

10k at Amazon, and still shifting: One Step Closer

I’ve written here before about experiments with ebook pricing and marketing, but some time last night we hit a landmark with one of our experiments at infinity plus.

Back in March we published Iain Rowan’s first collection, a set of crime stories called Nowhere To Go which included his Derringer Award-winning story “One Step Closer”. The collection received some excellent reviews and blog coverage and performed reasonably at Amazon and our other distributors, but Iain and I wanted to give it a boost and so we discussed various options.

We decided to take that Derringer winner and produce it as a standalone ebook, priced initially at 99 cents but with a view to persuading Amazon to drop the price to zero. At those prices there’s a very different audience: casual browsers making impulse buys/downloads, readers who may like the look of something but not want to buy the complete book, readers looking for a quick lunchtime read, and so on.

What we didn’t know was how much crossover there would be. Would a reader with a liking for scraping up the freebies also be the kind of reader who would spend $2.99 on a book by the same author if they liked the free offering? Would there even be that kind of author-recognition once the quick read has been read and put aside?

One Step Closer went free at Amazon in September, and very quickly overtook our other free offering, the infinities anthology (which, itself, had been a big success, hitting number two in the free anthology charts in the US, and holding the number one slot in the equivalent chart in the UK for several weeks, a position it still holds).

To be honest, I don’t really understand why Iain’s short story has been such a big success. It’s a fine story, of course, and being an award-winner must help establish its credentials for anyone unfamiliar with Iain’s work. It has a great cover and is nicely put together. Iain has a strong social media presence, and has worked hard at promoting his various books. There must be lots of elements of good fortune involved, too, and a key thing is that success can be self-perpetuating: once a story hits number one, it becomes far more visible, which keeps the success going.

Whatever the reasons, some time last night Iain’s short story hit the landmark of 10,000 downloads through Amazon. It’s occupied the number one free story download slot in the UK for several weeks, and for that period has been a fixture in the top 20 free downloads of any kind at Amazon UK, against some tough competition.

What remains to be seen, though, is just how this translates into commercial success. What we do know is that more than 10,000 readers have liked the look of the book enough to download it. Some of those will have read it already; some will read it over the coming months; others will lose it among all the other freebies they’ve downloaded.

Of those who read it, some – a large proportion, I reckon – will like it a lot, because it’s a hell of a story. But how many of these will immediately follow up by clicking on a link to Amazon to find Iain’s other work? How many will intend to do that, but because they didn’t do it immediately, will become increasingly unlikely to follow through? How many will remember Iain’s name next time they’re browsing and so click on a link to his other books?

It’s incredibly hard to answer these questions, as it’s just not possible to track purchasing decisions back to their origins. Amazon gives us good reporting, but not that good!

After success like this, though, I’m certainly looking forward to trying to make sense of it all over the coming weeks and months!

That thing, and other stuff

You know that thing where there’s so much in your head and you’re being subjected to so many demands you can barely even pause just to get your head around it all? Yes, that.

That’s me, that is.

Just coming off the back of an insane period in the day job, where I ended up working a solid 17 day stretch, doing anything from 12 to 18 hours a day, and now we’re in the aftermath of the big project going live: all the user support, the feedback, the picking up of everything I’d allowed to slip in the heat of the project work… and breathe.

And outside the day job, somehow I’ve kept things going: four new ebooks from infinity plus, including Eric Brown’s very successful Approaching Omega; two hugely successful free ebooks from infinity plus, with the infinities anthology peaking at number two in Amazon US’s free anthology chart and occupying the top slot in the UK for some time now, and Iain Rowan’s Derringer-winning short story One Step Closer making the number one free story slot at Amazon UK its own for a month now.

I’ve been writing and editing: Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the sub-genres of science fiction is on track for publication later this year, with some fantastic contributions from James Patrick Kelly, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and others; I’ve been doing my usual reviewing for The Guardian; I’ve been working on various fiction projects, and will be returning to finish my new novel, alt.human, soon.

And I’ve been working on a new line of ebooks from infinity plus, due to be announced soon.


You know that thing where there’s so much in your head and you’re being subjected to so many demands you can barely even pause just to get your head around it all? Yes, that.

That’s me, that is.

In Search of the Archetypal Spacer: guest post by Gareth L Powell

The figure of the lone space pilot is a recurring one in my experience of science fiction—an image to which I pay homage in my latest novel, The Recollection (Solaris 2011)—but where did this image come from, and what is its attraction?The Recollection by Gareth L Powell

Some of my earliest memories are of watching Star Trek on a black and white TV in my grandparents’ house in Somerset. I enjoyed the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew, but couldn’t help feeling that they weren’t really achieving anything. They seemed to just be aimlessly flying around, getting into trouble each week.  And then along came Star Wars and Han Solo, and I realised that sometimes, getting into trouble could be the whole point.

Han was a smuggler and a pirate; he was lazy, selfish and won his captaincy in a card game. In short, he was the opposite of the hard-working Kirk; and every boy in my school playground wanted to be him. Although Kirk often rebelled against his superiors, he still fought to maintain the chain of command and preserve the Federation of Planets. In contrast, Han existed on the disreputable fringes of a Galactic Empire—an empire he would eventually help to bring down. Where Kirk and the Enterprise stood for honour, personal integrity and heroism, Han and the Falcon symbolised freedom—the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, as long as you could stay one step ahead of the wolves barking at your airlock door.

A few years later, I discovered the computer game Elite, which I played on a borrowed BBC Micro computer. In the game, the player takes the role of a space trader jumping from planet to planet, trying to achieve the titular “Elite” combat rating, and trading various goods along the way in order to pay for fuel and ship upgrades. By today’s standards, the game’s graphics are laughably simplistic; but back then, the simple wire-frame renderings of planets and starships left plenty of room for my imagination to fill in the blanks. When the computer was returned to where it had been borrowed from, I turned my attention to a role playing game called Traveller in which, as with Elite, the characters existed in, and moved through, a vast universe of inhabited planets.

These early experiences influenced my later tastes in fiction, giving me a nostalgic soft spot for scoundrels such as John Truck, the amoral loser in M. John Harrison’s Centuari Device; Beowulf Shaeffer, the freewheeling tourist in Larry Niven’s Known Space series; and Lorq van Ray, the doomed renegade in Samuel R. Delany’s classic novel Nova. Rather than enjoying the heroics of Star Trek, I now watched and empathised with Dave Lister’s plight in Red Dwarf, as the only human rattling around a spaceship the size of a small town.

As I got older, my tastes broadened, and I began to see my attraction to these fantasies for what it was: a desire to shut out the rest of the human race, to gain control over my own fate and avoid the adult world of work and financial responsibility for as long as possible. While at the time, such escapism may have seemed juvenile and destructive, I quickly realised that it was this same escapist urge that allowed me to play in my head, inventing the characters and settings for the stories I was beginning to write.

To me, as a writer, archetypal spacers exist apart from society. They are freewheeling freebooters who do not subscribe to the laws and constraints of society, and yet cling to their own—sometimes warped—moral codes. They are wanderers, criminals, gamblers and tourists with world-weary stares. They’ve drunk in every bar from here to the Core, and they’ve seen things most people wouldn’t believe; and once you know where to look for them, you start seeing them everywhere.

You can find them in the crews of the “lighthuggers” that ply between the stars in Alastair Reynolds’ novel Revelation Space. Known as “ultras”, these men and women are distanced culturally and temporally from the rest of humanity by the effects of relativity. Travelling close to the speed of light, they experience only months of subjective time, while decades pass in the outside world.

You can find direct descendants of Han Solo and John Truck in handsome trader captain Joshua Calvert, whose swashbuckling exploits and sexual adventures light up Peter F Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy; and in Mal Reynolds, an honourable malcontent whose struggles to  stay one step ahead of the law, keep his ancient starship airborne and his ragbag crew fed, form the narrative of Joss Whedon’s aborted TV series Firefly.

As mentioned in the introduction to this post, I paid homage to the archetypal spacer while writing my novel The Recollection, by introducing the central character of Katherine Abdulov, the estranged daughter of an interstellar trading family. Alone and penniless, Kat has to eke out a living from world-to-world, alone with only her ship, the Ameline, for company. I tried to make Kat as original as possible. To me, she’s a living, breathing individual with her own history and foibles; but in her grease-stained fatigues, she’s also an affectionate acknowledgement of the scoundrels and adventurers to have gone before; and the creation of a writer tipping his hat and making the most of his influences.

Gareth L Powell is the author of the novels The Recollection and Silversands, and the acclaimed short story collection The Last Reef. He is a regular contributor to Interzone and his work has appeared in a number of recent anthologies.

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