I’ve just heard from Troubador that No Direction Home is now available for pre-order from Amazon and Apple, which is pretty rapid footwork from them considering that I only signed the contract with them on October 13th. In that time, they’ve put together a cover, set it up for ebook publishing and arranged for it to be added to the lists of probably the two leading ebook retailers – respect, Troubador!
Finally getting the process of publishing No Direction Home under way – I’ve decided to go with Troubador (and yes, that is the correct spelling) after weighing up all the options. It’s due out on the 25th November (just in time for the Christmas rush – ha ha), but it’s already up on their website here (less than 24 hours after I signed the contract) and there’s an entry for it on Goodreads as well.
Time to start sending off submissions for No Direction Home to literary agents, after drawing up a short list of about half a dozen agents/agencies who are looking for new authors and are prepared to consider SF submissions. The reason for the delay (as always) was more fine tuning and revamping until I felt like Oscar Wilde spending the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon taking it out again (or maybe it was the other way round). Realistically, the damn thing’s finished so it’s time to test the water…
This is a whole new departure for me – a Science Fiction novel. It’s a genre that I’ve been reading ever since my teens, when the likes of Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov hooked me almost immediately, followed by the likes of Larry Niven and Frederik Pohl. More recently, there’s been Iain M Banks (RIP), Alastair Reynolds and William Gibson – and there is no way that No Direction Home is in that sort of class, but I’ve enjoyed writing it, all the same.
It’s set in interstellar space, aboard a starship that is travelling towards Delta Pavonis (a star just under twenty light years away) on a journey that will take over three hundred years, with two thousand colonists aboard, frozen in cryogenic chambers – there are no wormholes in space or warp drives, or even alien monsters, unless you count the central character, who is not fully human. Vinter is a clone, given cyborg augmentation while being ‘grown’ and with a set of memories that belong to the man who should have been aboard but who was confined to a wheelchair following a terrorist bomb incident. (And, yes, I know I used the name Vinter for The Cromwell Exercise, but as that book has long since been consigned to history, I decided to use it here instead.)
Without giving too much away, the plot involves Vinter having to deal with two sets of conflicting memories that he has been given at different stages in his ‘growth’, as well as, ultimately, fighting another clone of himself; he also has to come to terms with the fact that the wife and daughter that he remembers vividly are still on Earth. Worse than that, he is aware that he – this version of himself – never actually knew them at all… In many ways, the novel is less a SF/action story than exploring the reactions of someone who realises that he is an artificial construct who is essentially alone in his universe and probably always will be.
I like it, anyway… But now I’ve decided to try and find an agent, because, hopefully, I can do more than simply self-publishing it in ebook format. Worth a try, anyway?
I did have another look at Phoenix in the end, and rewrote at least half of it, coming up with a starting point involving illegal arms sales to Argentina during the Falklands War, with a revenge motive dating from there that enabled me to set it during the present day – and I’m still not happy with it, because there remains a huge plot hole that just won’t go away. This time, I think it’s final – the basic idea has been kicking around for over thirty years now and, despite everything, it refuses to gel (even though there’s only one sequence left from the original manuscript now), so it probably never will. It’s been a case of trying to fit an overall story onto existing sequences rather than the story coming first (which, when you think about it, should be how it works). Again, another one to put down to experience (although it’s taken long enough for it to sink in).
This post should really have been published a year or so ago – better late than never!
I’ve been looking at Phoenix (again!) and I’ve decided not to release it after all – I have far too many reservations about it. The mere fact that it’s been kicking around for thirty years or so without ever being sent to a publisher indicates that there’s probably something intrinsically wrong with it and I’ve decided that this is indeed the case; it’s not enough simply to inflict it on the reading public simply because I can…
OK, so what’s wrong with it? Actually, there’s quite a lot, to be honest.
The original version of Phoenix was actually the third book that I completed, but it sat on the shelf while other, better, books came and went. The story was based on the salvage operation that was carried out on HMS Edinburgh in 1981. The Edinburgh was sunk in the Barents Sea in 1942, when she had been carrying 465 gold ingots, payment for Allied supplies by the Soviet Government; by 1981, the gold was worth around £43 million. While the salvage operation was being set up, the thought occurred to me… what if there was no gold in the wreck, but lead bars? So Phoenix was born. HMS Edinburgh became the fictitious cruiser HMS Bristol and the year changed to 1944, but the starting point was the same – a Royal Navy cruiser being sunk in the Arctic carrying gold bars – but the gold had never been loaded in the first place. It had already been stolen – but by whom?
The main story would have to take place in the present day and would feature Michael Rankin, the son of an officer who was drowned when the Bristol was sunk. He owns the company that has gained the salvage rights to the gold, but he soon discovers that someone is trying to kill him; gradually, he uncovers the real story of what happened in 1944 – but what is he going to do with the information?
The original version had a pretty far-fetched finale, featuring an aerial assault on a salvage ship and an underwater duel between two mini-subs in order to prevent the cruiser’s wreck being vapourised by a nuclear device – the book also had a detailed account as to how the uranium for the device was stolen, which, in all probability, would not have been remotely possible in the real world (at least, I hope it isn’t – if it were actually that easy, then we really do have problems). The SIS were involved as well, along with the KGB, not to mention Phoenix itself, a global conspiracy that dated back to before the War, rather like the Illuminati… it was a heady mix, but, ultimately, even I had a job believing the story being told. The characters were stereotypical, to say the least; Rankin was an ex-Falklands War vet, who’d served with the SBS, so was an expert in both armed and unarmed combat, while the femme fatale villainess (whose role was signalled from her first appearance) was a masochist’s wet dream, the ultimate dominatrix. Not to mention plot holes galore… Phoenix went on to the back burner and, as time went by, became outdated in that the story more or less had to take place in the 1990s in order for Rankin to still be young enough to be a plausible action hero (i.e. he would be 50 in 1994).
However, it was extensively rewritten in the 1990s, with a far less preposterous denouement, but still did not quite measure up and so it remained on the shelf until I came to revisit the books with a mind to converting them to ebooks. Phoenix obviously could not be set in 2010 (Rankin would be 66 by then) and so was ignored to begin with, but when I came to re-read it, I realised that it was better than I remembered (telling the story from Rankin’s viewpoint seemed to work pretty well and there was a better romantic sub-plot involved than before) and so I added it to the list of books that I intended to release. However, having looked at it yet again, I still can’t get my head around the implausibility of the theft in the first place, or that there would be very little evidence linking Phoenix to it in any case, so why bother trying to prevent Rankin salvaging the wreck when the most likely suspects for the theft would then be the Russians rather than a shadowy conspiracy that nobody knew existed anyway? Basically, the overall starting point (the actual theft of the gold) still doesn’t work – and probably never will, unfortunately. Take away that starting point and, basically, the whole thing needs to be started again from scratch. Maybe I will, some day… but maybe not.
The Alaska Project was not actually my first attempt at a thriller set in the present day (I had already written The Cromwell Exercise and Phoenix by then), but it was the first to be published. The idea for Alaska came from the shooting down of KAL 007, a Korean Airlines Boeing 747 with 269 people on board, by a Russian jet fighter over the island of Sakhalin in September 1983. In the immediate aftermath of the atrocity, what had seemed a fairly promising situation for détente between the Soviet Union and the USA collapsed into mutual recrimination and a hardening of attitudes – both sides increased their military budget, the SALT talks were pretty much shot down in flames, and so on. It occurred to me that KAL 007 suited the ‘hawks’ of both sides – what if they had planned it together? And what if they combined once more in the 1990s to undermine the process of glasnost?
Thus, The Alaska Project started with the shooting down of KAL 007 with the aerial sequence being based on the actual signals sent and received by the Soviet Air Defence System and Major Kasmin, the pilot of the fighter that shot down the 747. (There are stories that Kasmin later descended into alcoholism and died in his 50s from liver disease.) The narrative then moves on to 1995 (the book was published in 1989) to take up the story – in other words, projecting the global political situation at the end of the Eighties into the near future. It was an approach that seriously backfired in the end, but more of that later.
The story needed two protagonists, one British, one Russian, because there would be two storylines developing, one in the West, the other in the Soviet Union; eventually, the two would dovetail together. This probably turned out to be an error of judgment on my part in terms of appealing to a global audience because not only was neither of the heroes American, the main villain was – hardly an approach likely to appeal to a US audience. I suspect that this is why Walker Books decided not to buy Alaska’s US rights (although there were other, equally valid reasons which are outlined below). However, at the time of writing Alaska, I admit I was not really thinking that far ahead.
So: two main characters – Peter Kendrick, working for Desk Seven, a fictional offshoot of MI5, and Ilya Voronin, an experienced officer in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, the department responsible for foreign espionage. Both experienced professionals, they are forced to co-operate as the outlines of the Alaska Project gradually become clear. They actually have a good deal in common in that both men have sacrificed personal relationships due to the demands of the job, but they only ever meet twice face to face in the book; apart from that, they must work independently.
The Alaska Project probably involved more research than any other book – there are sections set in the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia and in the corresponding HQ of the KGB (which wasn’t still in the Lubyanka, actually); I also needed detailed information about Soviet military helicopters, guided missiles and ASAT (anti-satellite) techniques, along with information about the internal structure of the KGB. The thought has often crossed my mind that if anyone monitors this sort of research, I’m probably on some sort of security file by now…
Alaska ended up as a long book; 115,000 words as opposed to 70 to 80,000 words for the others (and actually twice as long as The Faust Conspiracy in its original version) and it was also a book that I hoped would reach a larger audience, but it was plagued by setbacks and problems almost from the start. The original cover artist ended up withdrawing the cover (on the not unreasonable grounds that he hadn’t been paid) and so a replacement artist had to be drafted in, then there was a nine month delay in publication because of a dispute with the printers (I suspect for the same reason as the artist’s withdrawal) and the book actually went out littered with typos (some of which I could clearly remember correcting at the proof reading stage, so heaven knows what happened there, because I don’t…) Worse than that was that the ending was rewritten by the publisher without my approval; the change was only in a couple of sentences, but it left most readers bewildered – what had actually happened? The final calamity came within three months of the book eventually being published, when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and the political map was changed forever; there is a sequence in Alaska that refers to Checkpoint Charlie… in 1995. OK, so bringing down the Berlin Wall wasn’t a calamity from anyone else’s point of view, of course, but it cut whatever ground the book had left from under it. So, far from being my springboard to writing success, The Alaska Project disappeared into utter obscurity – it actually sold fewer copies than any of its predecessors. This was not just down to the fact that it had become outdated, however; the publishing company was in quite serious financial straits by then and so the book’s distribution was piecemeal at best. The fact that the book was outdated within three months of publication was also probably the other reason why it never found an American publisher (see above).
In short, one way or another, The Alaska Project became the biggest disappointment in my writing career – it still is, to be honest. It was to be the last book of mine to be published in the UK – the next, Piccolo, would only be published in the USA and Canada (and sold about six times as many copies as Alaska.)
Initially, when I came to revisit the books in order to release them as ebooks, I was not going to include Alaska – it dealt with a 1995 that never existed, after all. However, it’s still a book that I feel proud of, so I decided to approach it as an ‘alternative history’ novel – what might have happened, rather than what actually did. Once that decision had been made, the main alteration initially made to the book was to add a sequence giving more insight into Voronin’s character and backstory (apart from correcting the typos and restoring my preferred ending, of course). However, upon further re-reading, it became apparent that the romantic sub-plot between two of the main characters just wouldn’t have happened, for all sorts of reasons, so that had to be written out. However, it wasn’t as if leaving out that storyline was going to have any significant impact on the book’s length – it still weighs in at nearly 110,000 words. In addition, it made no difference to the overall story (which was another reason for leaving it out – it wasn’t exactly essential).
In some ways, I’m looking forward more to Alaska coming out as an ebook than any of the other print versions; it’s finally the way I want it and it will be available to far more readers than the first time round. In theory, anyway; whether they will actually read it is another matter, of course…
Servants Of The State was originally called Tamerlane, the codename of a top MI6 ‘mole’ inside the Kremlin; the reason for this title was that Tamerlane, or Timur The Great, was a Mongol emperor in Central Asia during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, and one of the greatest conquerors in history – the story takes place in Central Asia, starting in Sary Shagan in Kazakhstan, moving on to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Dushanbe (Tadzhikistan) and on to the border with Afghanistan. However the basic idea for the book came from a rough outline of a projected book called The Perun Mission, which used a lot of the research I had carried out on ASAT (anti-satellite) warfare for The Alaska Project. A fair part of this would have taken place in Sary Shagan, which was then the main centre for Soviet missile research (and still is a major centre for developing Russian missiles, despite the fact that it is now in Kazakhstan). Perun (named after the leading god in Slavic mythology, and specifically the god of thunder and lightning) had a storyline concerning the defection of a British scientist to the Soviets in order to work on their ASAT programme and the attempts made to bring him back.
Gradually, however, the defection plot was abandoned and the book evolved into smuggling Tamerlane out, all the way from Sary Shagan to the Afghanistan border (750 miles as the crow flies, considerably further by road and/or rail), with the Russian FSB (successors to the KGB) hot on the fugitives’ heels. The British agent was named Cairns – simply that, no first name given, just Cairns, in order to maintain a level of mystery about him; more than that, it’s likely that Cairns is not his real name anyway. The reader finds out one or two details about his background and history, but the fact remains that Cairns is very good at not being noticed; he is a courier, not a James Bond style secret agent, and his job is to smuggle information across frontiers, which means being anonymous is his stock in trade.
It is the pursuers who are more interesting – and this is intentional, because it is on one of these, Verenyev, that the story pivots. He is a Police Investigator from Moscow, on secondment to Sary Shagan to assist Colonel Krasnin of the FSB in tracking down a CIA agent in Sary Shagan; Krasnin needs his undoubted expertise. Verenyev has little time for the FSB and, having succeeded in identifying the agent, is looking forward to returning to his wife and family in Moscow when he is dragged into another investigation when Cairns snatches Tamerlane from under the FSB’s noses in Sary Shagan and goes on the run with her (Irina Malenkova, a member of the staff of the Russian Defence Minister). Verenyev’s job is now to find her before she reaches the West – she is in possession of vital information (the nature of which Krasnin keeps from Verenyev).
In some ways, it’s a similar situation to Behrens and Kreissner in The Dutch Caper, but the difference is that, although the two men detest each other, Krasnin is far too intelligent to waste Verenyev’s abilities; he lets the policeman lead the pursuit, to good effect. In short, despite their mutual dislike, Krasnin and Verenyev form an effective team, which is not good news for Cairns and Irina. However, Krasnin has his own agenda as regards wanting to catch Irina, and it is as Verenyev comes to realise what these are that he has to make his own decision about the situation.
Thus, Cairns is not the central character at all; it is Verenyev, who is not an action hero, simply a very good police officer who just wants to be left alone to fight crime, but who is only too aware of the power of the mafiyas and of the corruption amongst his fellow policemen. He is not a crusader, but, like it or not, he finds himself in a position where his actions are going to have a profound impact on Russia’s future – and he can’t duck the issue, not this time… It is the duel between Cairns and Verenyev that forms the main focus of the book, in the roles of fugitive and pursuer.
Servants Of The State eventually replaced Tamerlane as the book’s title – as with Carronade (Berlin Endgame), Tamerlane would have led readers to expect a historical novel. Servants refers to the four main characters (Cairns, Irina, Verenyev and Krasnin), each one, technically, a servant of the state, but who all, in their own ways, question the obligations implied by that label.