Waterloo in which each side fought for a different kind of liberty


[It’s easy to be pro Napoleon] if your last foreign invaders arrived in 1066.

So Waterloo was 200 years ago today: a battle so terrible that afterward you asked who had survived, not who had died.

It was an odd battle. Those who fought against the imperialist side were less personally free than those who fought for the imperialist side. It’s also clear that whatever moral principle might been at stake in Belgium, 1815, generally didn’t hold good outside the boundaries of Europe.

Some people think a Napoleonic Europe would have been a good thing. It’s easy to be pro Napoleon if your last foreign invaders arrived in 1066. Yes, it is true that Napoleon’s laws were rational and his culture egalitarian. However,  his handling of Imperial economics was less than optimum. Worse, in my eyes at least, he had an Olympian view of spending the lives of others:

A man like me troubles himself little about a million men.

(My 11-year-old son Kurtzhau picked up on this. Speaking of the Battle of Lodi in which Napoleon basically took a bridge meatgrinder style, he said: “That would have been great if it have been an RTS battle. But those were real men.”)

It’s ironic that while Napoleon’s egalitarian French adhered to the column, the aristocratic British created the Rifle Brigade and ushered in something like modern infantry tactics. Even more so that the appallingly snobbish Wellington liked to put his men — who he famously once referred to as “scum” — safely on reverse slopes. It was Wellington, not Napoleon, who wept over the dead and wrote:

Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.

However, my main problem with the Emperor Napoleon was that he was an Emperor.

Even great rulers get old, go sour. At the dog end of a reign, the wolves roam unchecked. Worse, as Machiavelli observed, weak rulers usually follow the strong — the inheritor invariably believes the rhetoric of destiny and divine rule, and shuns the realpolitik and hard work that it masks. Then everything goes to Hell, or should I say Ragnarok?

No. Any Golden Age of Napoleon would have been overshadowed by the apocalyptic struggles of his successors.

A writer’s job is not to judge, just to put imaginative boots on the ground. Even so, I am proud that any of my ancestors who were at that battle would have been wearing a red coat.


Aliens and Snipers in the Belfry

Astounding-Stories-March-1935(This is me thinking aloud, rather than offering cast-iron literary theory)

I am a proponent of the Snipers in the Belfries Rule; if you want readers to notice your belfries, put snipers in them because nothing is real to the reader unless it’s part of a conflict, either an arena, an objective or a player.

I’m working on a Space Opera at the moment, so I’m wondering how this applies to aliens.

The thing about aliens is that once you’ve invented them, they hold true for your entire setting. So aliens need to be interesting, not just because they want to eat your characters for “cultural reasons”, but also in their own right.

We can immediately relegate two alien design approaches to the supplementary list:

  • Alien vs Tropes, aka “Subverting and Challenging Tropes” is a great literary sport, but if readers aren’t familiar with the tropes, then it’s a bit like having an argument using a hands free mobile phone. Your one-sided discourse may just be confusing and annoying. Or – figuratively not seeing the phone – the reader may just assume you are nuts.
  • Alien vs Environment, in other words designing aliens by extrapolation has the advantage of being Hard SF. However, to be interesting long-term, aliens need more to them than clever world building.

Neither of these two approaches tackle the main point of aliens; that they are alien as in not human.

I think that the most fruitful conflicts to dwell on all relate to Alien vs Human — at a cultural level (as in “Tell of this thing you humans call love, captain”) rather than a military one (“Die human scum!”), that is.

Of course, as soon as we talk about an alien culture, we risk pinging the TV Trope “Planet of the Hats”: “Everybody is a robot, or a gangster, or a Proud Warrior Race Guy, or an over-the-top actor, or wearing a Nice Hat.” The argument is that humans have many cultures, therefore it is preposterous to expect an alien race to be mono-cultural.

However, from the point of view of aliens, Earth is also a Planet of the Hats! Had they come here in 1200BC, it would have been The Planet of the Priest Kings. Shortly afterward, it would have been The Planet of the Parasitic Aristocrats. Then, from the AD400s perhaps, the Planet of the Warrior Aristocrats, before being back to the Parasitic Aristocrats. Some time in the AD1800s, we became the Planet of the Politicians.

Still worse, were aliens to take the long view, I can think of several ways they would regard us:

  • The Planet of the Parasitic Aristocrats – we almost always have a class system, whether generated by force or votes, and though there is often a sense of reciprocity/nobless oblige, from the outside it’s pretty clear who lives in the big houses.
  • The Planet of the Professional Soldiers – sure, sometimes there’s rhetoric about warrior prowess and honour, and sometimes – like now – the cultural gate keepers (The Parasitic Aristocrats?) prefer to pretend we don’t have a military, and certainly don’t want to pay for it. However, the reality is that throughout history most developed cultures have a caste of professional soldiers who, when it comes to actual warfare, behave with discipline and cohesion regardless of the individualistic banter.
  • The Planet of the Merchants – A past of nuanced gift exchange not withstanding (see Debt), trade carries on regardless of the “real history” around it. All the way through the 100 Years War and the Wars of the Roses, the merchants of Bristol explored and traded. Moreover, trade, or at least traders, drove a lot of wars and foreign expansion. Aliens would look at the empires of the 19th century and see them as primarily economic.
  • Planet of the [Erk?] – Aliens may also get the wrong end of the stick. For example, they could see us as the “Planet of the Matriarchy” on the grounds that men traditionally are the ones who fight for territory and go down mines while the women sit home and enjoy the benefits. Or perhaps we are the “Planet of the Symbiotes”, given our propensity for keeping pets.

Call this Aliens as Mirror. It can provide amusing character interactions, but also drive the galactic politics. For example, it could be a problem if aliens just see us as just soldiers or merchants, or if egalitarian aliens regard our politicians as members of a parasitic aristocratic caste.

Beyond that, we have more implicit challenges to our culture. There are three really obvious ways to do this:

  • Aliens as Satire:  They represent an exaggerated version of an aspect of our culture. We have a political caste. Perhaps they have a political species.  (“Vote for a Lizard or the wrong lizard will get in.”)  This can be funny, but it can also call into questions our assumptions.
  • Aliens as Time Travellers: They represent a defunct human culture done in the space age. We once had warriors. Perhaps they ARE warriors. The main challenge is either to our romantic assumptions — warriors seem cool until they raid your homestead– or sense of cultural superiority – we’ve moved beyond warrior culture, but my god these men can fight.
  • Aliens as Thought Experiments:  What if some aspect of human society were different? How would we function? This calls into question our sense of what is significant. For example, Dunbar’s Number for humans is around 200, meaning our brains can cope with groups of that size and still have some kind of relationship with everybody in it. This explains why about or just under 200 is so common as a military unit size. What, though, if this were different?

All of the above, of course, reduce the aliens to Hat Wearers. However, that’s OK as long as we bear in mind that (a) variation and flat denials lie behind the big picture, and (b) the aliens will be loudly accusing US of wearing a collective hat while their society is of course nuanced and complex…


If you find this kind of thinking useful, buy yourself a copy of my Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic (UK, Epub).


Anthem for a new generation…

Kurtzhau (11) and Morgenstern (7) are having a kind of singing battle in the hall as we get ready for music school. Morgenstern is lalala-ing the theme to her favorite RPG. Kurtzhau, meanwhile, is belting out…

“Hang on,” I say, that’s Vode An. You’re singing the Mandalorian anthem!”

“Yes,” he says. (Quirky smile) “It’s better if you can thump each other’s armour.”

Kurtzhau is reading Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando series that ties in with the exquisite video game of the same name.

The other day, his teacher, who always reminds me of a Dr Who assistant, caught him with it.

“Oh,” she says, “I like Star Wars. I’ll read that this Summer.”

When Kurtzhau reported this to me, I thought, And Kurtzhau will be safely in high school when she does.

They are not exactly Young Adult reads. Traviss pulls no punches with the logic of a clone army and the characters go around doing Black Ops, assassinating people, discovering… erm romance and generally doing their best to make good with their woefully short lives.

They’re good books, though not really Star Wars, which is presumably why she didn’t get to finish the series. I suspect her main sin was to create too much lore for the Mandalorians, who she turns into a kind of multi-ethnic Space Landschneckt Brotherhood (rather than the Planet of the Barbuts). It works so well in the books, because one theme is the Clones exploring their  roots and embracing “Mando” culture…

…which is why my 11-year-old is singing Vode An on the way to music school.

“Wait,” I say. “Do you know the British National Anthem?”

Blank look.

“What about the Scottish one?”

Kurtzhau’s Viking-grey eyes twinkle. “This one is fine for me.”

“Oh well,” I say. “I guess all these music lessons have been worthwhile after all.”


We need a Jim Baen Memorial “Blowing Shit Up In Space” Award…

With regard to the current unpleasantness around awards, it sometimes seems that people are at crossed purposes. Are the Hugos for “great read”, “great literature” or “great innovation”, two of these, or all of these?

Leaving aside that these definitions are themselves both subjective and reader-specific, it occurs to me that the world would be a better place if we could have two new SF&F awards given out at a prominent convention:

  • The Jim Baen Memorial “Blowing Shit Up In Space” Novel Award. This could be a retro laser gun.
  • The Lin Carter Memorial “It’s only Sword and Sorcery But I Liiiike It” Novel Award. A horned helmet, natch.

I myself would certainly aspire to both.


Kurtzhau on the 100 Days

“Wait a minute Dad – Did they send a FRENCH regiment to arrest Napoleon?” asks Kurtzhau.

My 11-year-old and I are watching a documentary on Wellington.

“Yes,” I say.

“Facepalm,” says Kurtzhau, and puts his palm to his face.


Morgenstern: Time Travelling Militant Librarian

“And we’ll make a time machine using an old clock…”

My daughter, Morgenstern, 7, is chattering happily on the way to swimming, scooting along beside me.

“And then once I Have A Time Machine, I’ll go back in time to the Library of Alexandria with (verbal drum roll) Indestructible Blocks and protect it from the monks.”

WTF? Unlike Kurtzhau, Morgenstern doesn’t treat me as a walking History podcast. (I mean seriously, he used to say “Pause” and “Continue”.) “The Library of Alexandria?” I say. “Where did you hear about that?”

She uses her Talking to an Idiot Voice. “I HEARD you tell Kurtzhau about it. And it was On Cosmos.”

My daughter has, it is true, been utterly hooked on the new Cosmos. “Great I say,” and mean it. I’m also — moral hazard — sensing an idea of a quirky girl’s adventure book.

“AND,” she trundles on. “I’ll take Heavy Weapons and I’ll say to the monks ‘What the heck do you think you are doing? These are my (another verbal drum roll) Futttterrristiccc Weaponss! Then — Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! — I’ll shoot them all and Saaave the Librrrarry.”

“Where will you get futuristic weapons from?” I ask, fascinated now. “You’d have to travel forward in time now.”

“Oh Daddy,” she says. “If they are from OUR time, then they will be Futuristic for the monks. We’ll just say to the soldiers, ‘Come and defffeeeend the Liiiibrrrary of Allllexandria.”

We reach a flat bit and she kicks her pink scooter into hyperspeed and hurtles off, hello kitty crocks and princess-long hair tangling in the wind. “You can’t catch me…!”


Quit beating on EL James (and leave JK Rowling alone as well)



I’m starting to get uncomfortable with the way people, especially wannabe authors, beat on E.L. James.

Most of us write in a genre that somebody else holds in contempt.

How is it that “Mommy Porn” about erotic power and kinky sex is trash, but SF about political power and blowing shit up in space is not trash?

And that Lad Lit  about sex and wangsting over middle age is also not trash?


“Not trash”

And, how terrible to have chunks of your text taken out of context and snarked at by people who don’t get your genre! Especially if you’ve been writing in 1st person, so that odd metaphors etc are part of characterisation.


“Also, not trash”

Has anybody who enjoys criticizing EL James’s descriptions of… erm… intimacy actually read DH Lawrence?

And we get something similar with J.K. Rowling.

OMG somebody used similar concepts before! She must be a plagiarist!

They are tropes, moron! It’s what she did with them that mattered.

Harry Potter


If you demand original tropes, then you can bin just about everything written in every genre. Hell, you can bin Shakespeare, who ripped off Boccaccio half the time.

“Eww. The books get big fat and bloated!”

Are you 12? 14?


“Not bloated”

No? Then shut the hell up.

The intended readers, the ones the right age, read her, continue to read her. Many of the adults too,

Also, how come big fat fantasy  series count as not bloated?

Ugh. It’s just a re-skinned public school story.

First, Hogwarts is technically a state boarding school.

JK Rowling house

JK Rowling lived here for a while

Second, some people like school stories. You don’t have to — hell, many of us had such a shitty time at school we find such stories almost triggering — but don’t criticize a book because you don’t like its sub genre. In that light, the Culture books are “just modernized Flash Gordon stuff”, Pride and Prejudice is just a “pre-modern privilege pain narrative”.

Face it!

Both James and Rowling wrote bestsellers that broke out of their genre ghettos, gave people at minimum a few precious hours of escapism and at best inserted new excitement into their lives, sent moms off to explore fantasies, and teens off to find more Fantasy literature.

El James House

EL James now lives here

Surely the fairest test of a book is; “Do people read it, come back for more, and feel its influence later?”

By this measure, these two writers are literary giants.

They both wrote themselves out of obscurity and into rather nice houses, pretty much like Sir Walter Scott did back in the 19th century, and every 20th and 21st century bestselling Thriller and Crime writer has done since.

So is the real problem that women writers are only supposed to get rich by writing serious literature?

Are some people seeing them as letting the side down? And others just seeing them as uppity?


“women writers are only supposed to get rich by writing serious literature”

I don’t know.


When I was a student in Edinburgh, we used to hang out in a coffee shop across the road, the now-defunct Nicolsons.

This was before it was trendy to fictioneer in coffee shops.

I remember a friend saying, “There’s that woman with the kid writing again” and I have this vague recollection of bottle-blond long hair, an untrendy mum-raincoat, a baby buggy and an excercise book.

I’ve been there, writing in the gaps in my life, hunched over a laptop on a train to Glasgow while broad shouldered morons decided to assert their space, or squirreled away in a biker bar at lunchtime, tapping frantically at my second hand keyboard while sipping bad coffee, or doing edits in the park while a child dozed in their pram.

JKR in Niccolsons

“It’s how most of us start. “

It’s how most of us start.  So, me? I wish JK Rowling and EL James all the best. May they enjoy the good fortune that they have earned.

Snark away if you want. Neither writer need care what you think. A mansion is a great comfort blanket.


Edmond Hamilton, one of Space Opera’s fathers and almost certainly an influence on Douglas Adams

Last-of-the-Star-Kings2-CopyI must admit I started on Hamilton because he was married to Leigh Brackett, one of my all time heroes.

My first thought on reading him was, “Oh good, he wasn’t bad at all. That must have been nice for her.”

(Imagine a relationship where both were writers, but one was an embarrassment? Phew.)

I read on because he’s pretty mind-blowing — Hubble fan fiction with the Galaxy as the star, deep history and deeper space.

Something in his exuberant world building reminded me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, odd because Douglas Adams always claimed to have never read beyond page 10 of any mainstream Science Fiction work. Imagine my glee when I found parallels in the text of HHGTG and Edmond Hamilton’s opus!

This gave me two rather good blog entries on Edmond Hamilton, one calling out the late great author, the other more or less excusing him and revelling in his connection to the tradition:

I haven’t been this excited by discovering a vintage writer since Harold Lamb, so I started cramming my Kindle with Hamilton, reading as much of his work as I could. Since he wrote solidly for 40 years, it took a long time to even read a significant proportion. Finally, I felt braced enough to write up what I had found so far:

There are a lot of writers I wish I had discovered earlier, and Hamilton is now firmly on this list.


The Sky Tomb of the Earth Kings – a story in Heroika Dragon Eaters

Dragon Eaters“Zombie dragons, vampire dwarves, elves, animated skeletons, a flying city,  a steampunk zeppelin, a bounty hunter…”

Kurtzhau (now aged 11) had asked me what I put into my story for Janet Morris’s Dragon Eaters anthology, and now he’s listening with a twinkle in his eyes.

In truth, it was my first paid for Fantasy story. Despite my own genre roots, my entire professional CV marks me as a Historical novelist. For this reason, I threw everything I had at this little story. Fortunately, with the help of Janet who is an awesome editor, the thing worked, and better yet I think I learned how to do it again.

Perhaps it was what a mate calls “stunt writing”. However, I was also marking my territory to prove to myself I could write this stuff. Except…

I clap my hand to my forehead. “Damn. I forgot to put in werewolves!”

“Oh Dad,” says Kurtzhau. “Don’t you think you put in enough tropes?”

“Oh Kurtzhau,” I shoot back. “Doesn’t it concern you that at eleven you can say that sentence and know what it means?”

He just looks at me.


Shieldwall: Barbarians!

Final CoverI’ve just published my YA novel

 and – frankly – I am exhausted.

Indy publishing sounds all edgy and exciting, but really it’s an exercise in micro management and networking. I really missed having an editor on the other end of the email, plus a marketing department to worry about all the crap.

But I’ve done it. We’ve done it. My wonderful helpful friends and I.

It’s a book that’s close to my heart – it all started with a conversation that began “Daddy, how did the Roman Empire fall” – and it’s my attempt to follow in the footsteps of my hero Ronald Welch. There simply aren’t enough boy’s books out there that are about leadership… not that this book is just for boys, or can’t be read for adults. YA is so very close to the old pulps. Decide for yourself…

But now I’m going to drink malt whisky and sleep.