Sunday, 22 March 2015

Resurrection Protocol - Eden's Endgame

At one point I studied military logistics - don't ask me why - but I learned two things. First, maintaining a battle front is very complicated, and requires a lot of organization and a whole supply chain feeding weapons, vehicles and resources (soldiers) to the front along with all the fuel, food, medical and communications support, in a constant two-way stream. Second, break that logistics supply chain, and the front becomes fragile, cut off.

I thought aliens might do it smarter.

Because in space, in a galactic war, the distances - strictly speaking, temporal distances - are huge. And it often comes down to ships that have to be self-sustaining, fleets with all the support they need right there, a self-contained army. So it becomes about the number of ships and the superiority of their weapons and defences. Take out enough ships, and you break the enemy. I was reminded of Star Trek's Deep Space Nine, where one of the turning points of the ongoing war with the Dominion was the raid on enemy shipyards that were producing ships at an alarming rate.

Again, I thought, aliens would be smarter.

I was always fascinated by the idea of terraforming, transforming barren planets into habitable ones, seeding them with life. But what if you could use terraforming for another purpose, a military one?

In Eden's Endgame, one of the races (the Nchkani) is effectively wiped out during a major all-or-nothing battle. But they left something behind, an awful legacy, and a human is about to unleash it...

Extract from Eden's Endgame
Aboard her vessel, Louise stared first at the harmless-looking doughnut-shaped object in the holding bay, the gift sent to her by Qorall himself, then at the holo of the dwarf planet below, originally an asteroid enlarged by the Q’Roth, who had used a process of accretion over decades, building a planet from a former asteroid belt; easier to mine that way. Six thousand Q’Roth, more or less, worked on this factory-planet rich in ores and complex alloys. The Queen hadn’t warned them or given them time to evacuate, knowing that the resurrection process would require organic material. Louise had scanned the entire system prior to arrival, and this one had a 97% fit for the re-genesis requirements. She touched a control and the doughnut dropped from her ship down towards the planet.
            The doughnut exploded at low orbit, sending a shimmering aurora around the planet. Rain the colour of rust fell all the way to ground level, nano-harvesters that broke down everything they touched, the Q’Roth included. She’d never seen Q’Roth warriors overwhelmed before, and wondered if they screamed in bewilderment as the bio-mechanised acids dissolved their flesh. Many raced to their ships but were unable to break through the aurora locking the planet down, their frantic calls for help unanswered. There was a time when Louise might have been impressed by the Queen’s ruthlessness, her commitment to purpose, but not today.
She quit the bridge and headed to her quarters, and took a long shower to wash the three Alicians’ blood from her feet. She sat naked on the floor, cold water drizzling over her, as she pondered her next move. She thought about the place she’d mentioned to Astara and the others: Ustraxia, the battlefield five hundred years earlier on Earth where Alessia herself had been overcome. It had been a ploy to make the Sentinels complacent, and fifty years later the Alicians had risen up and gained the upper hand, crushing all but a few of the Sentinels. Louise had invoked this name to persuade Astara and the two women that this was a worthy sacrifice, that their deaths would help Louise turn things around later. Now she wasn't so sure.

When she returned to the Bridge, the entire planet was coated in thick metallic mush that quivered as shapes swirled beneath the surface. Precisely two hours before the Queen’s deadline, the first ship emerged, looking like a mechanical fish rising from a swamp. At first she couldn’t see the trademark Nchkani spines, but as the ship climbed into orbit, slipping unhindered through the aurora, the black and white spines flexed outwards from its hull.
A Q’Roth Battlestar approached to intercept the Nchkani vessel. Louise let the vessel fire its full arsenal of weapons, none of which had any effect. She thought about instructing the commander to abandon ship, but knew it would do no good. Q’Roth tested everything through blood.
She instructed the Nchkani vessel to attack. A light-sphere riddled with electric blue arcs spat out from one of the spines and chased after the Battlestar, which tried to evade and fire at it, to no avail. The sphere engulfed the Q’Roth warship as the arcs dissected it into small chunks, as if the ship had been squeezed through a sieve. Individual Q’Roth warriors flailing in space were boiled alive inside the sphere. Eventually the sphere collapsed to a small ball, and returned to the Nchkani vessel, nourishing it.
The Nchkani had been brilliant. At Level Sixteen, they were few in number, but long ago had moved away from having dockyards to build ships, and had developed the re-genesis process, able to manufacture a fleet in a less than a day. And when they fought in battle and won, they recycled the enemy’s energy and raw materials, rather than allowing their own resources to become depleted. From a war logistics point of view, it was pure genius.
And yet they were dead, gone, after who-knew-how many million years of existence.
The Queen contacted Louise. “How many more ships will we have, and when?”
“One hundred and eighty. By tomorrow. I will transmit command codes for all the others except this one, which I will command. They each need only one commander, no other crew are necessary. We should proceed straightaway to Hell’s End. Qorall is waiting, and Hellera is on her way.”
The Queen didn’t acknowledge.
Louise watched the second ship emerge, then another. She wondered where Ash and the Alician refugees were by now, not missing the cruel irony of events, now that Alician society had suffered the same fate they had inflicted on humanity.

The fleet was ready to leave. A Q’Roth High Commander was in charge, Louise was to be at the rear. The Nchkani bridge was smaller than she expected, but then everything was done by neural interface. She was about to cut connection with her own ship when it informed her of an inbound vessel in Transpace. She had been given some of Qorall’s tech to monitor Transpace, and had asked for notification of two signatures, the first the Alician flotilla led by Ash, the second, Shiva. It was the latter.
            The Q’Roth/Nchkani fleet powered up.
Louise made up her mind, her adrenaline spiking as she did so, remembering the words of her dead lover. 

It only matters what you do next.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Why heroes must die

One of the things that set Game of Thrones apart was the death of the hero at the end of the first
season. This was a bold, well-judged move by the writer, and one which made so many readers and viewers want to see what happened next.

It used to be that heroes didn't die, to the point that it felt they couldn't die. There was also a practical reason, since often the story was in the hero's point of view, so how could the book/film continue if they were no longer there?

In my own Eden Paradox series I've killed off a number of heroes along the way, but when I got to the last book, Eden's Endgame, I knew I had to be bolder, take the leap, and kill off one of the main protagonists who had survived all three books up to this point. But why? Well, here are the main reasons:

1. If you keep playing Russian Roulette, you eventually take a bullet in the brain
I realized this while watching the Deerhunter as a young boy. I was shocked when one of the heroes actually died during the famous Russian Roulette scene. Having grown up on Star Trek and Tarzan, I felt sure they would all make it out of there alive. But it made sense to me, even then, especially since it was about Vietnam.
In all four of my books, the stakes are always high and getting higher, so inevitably even the heroes will be cut down.

2. We remember fallen heroes
If heroes die heroically, selflessly, giving up their lives for others, we respect them for that, and we remember them. I realized this from fans of the books who asked me to somehow bring back certain heroes who were killed off 'before their time'. The fans had a deep attachment to these characters even after reading two more books where they did not appear. In the last book, several heroes are killed, one of whom was not a major character, but his death has had quite an impact on the readers, and several said they wanted to go back and re-read the earlier books, to read more about him, because in their minds he has become a more significant character, someone they want to know better.

If you've read the Dune series, which characters do you remember? Usually it is Paul Atreides, the Baron Harkonnen, and the fallen hero, Duncan Idaho. And if you're a Star Trek Next Generation fan, you'll undoubtedly remember Tasha Yar, who was killed senselessly in Season One, yet her memory lingered so much they kept bringing versions of her back occasionally in episodes throughout the rest of the series.

3. It raises the stakes for those who are left behind
At the end of the first Lord of the Rings movie, Gandalf is killed. In fact he isn't dead, and does come back, but it greatly increases the tension in the first half of the second book/film, and the surviving characters struggle to find their way without their leader. It forces people who are not normally heroic, but are ordinary - to step up to the challenge.

Frank Herbert's Dune series also has plenty of fallen heroes, but when Paul Atreides loses first his father, and then later on, Duncan Idaho, both of them heroic figures, these losses shape him and force him to grow fast - and very convincingly - into becoming the rebel leader on Arrakis. This transition from a young, slightly-spoiled man into a tough uncompromising leader would not have been credible without such losses. Similarly in my own books, the death of a significant hero in the last book steels one of the other characters to finally become the hero the situation demands.

4. It makes it matter to the reader
I have readers who read my writing prior to publication. When my first reader came across the death of one of the major heroes at the book's half-way point, he called me. "You can't do this. Change it!" I didn't. It's a turning point for the book, and for all the characters, and for the readers. It's no longer a yarn, because this hero has been around since the beginning, has come through thick and thin, and is suddenly gone. It makes it more real. When this one dies, you sit up, and think like one of the character says, 'Now we're really screwed.' The villains have crossed a line. There's no going back now. When a hero falls, you know more blood will follow, sooner or later.

5. Because fiction is about reality
And in reality heroes die, all the time. Watch the news. Look around. Heroes are assassinated, or they become corrupt. Does that sound cynical? I watched American Sniper recently, and though I have plenty of issues with snipers, he was in a way a hero (as was his counterpart during the conflict, to the other side), and it was moving seeing the film footage of people lining the streets for his funeral, especially those crippled by the war. Heroes can be relatively ordinary people who stand up for their beliefs and pay the ultimate price. That's tough, and it's life. Its why I don't play video games anymore, by the way, because for me they're not about life. In my last book, Eden's Endgame, there's a character called Petra. She's not a hero, far from it, she's like you and me, but she's prepared to die, and one of my reviewers picked out the scene where she is almost killed, because it's her defining moment; her life, a fiction until then, suddenly comes into sharp focus and becomes reality.

6. It can make the ending more satisfying
Well, it's not a done deal, but all the reviews so far have said that of the last book. The cadence of the intersecting story lines  at the end is stronger because of the sacrifices that occurred earlier in the book. Here's a secret about how I wrote this series, which an Amazon reviewer spotted after reading the third one, Eden's Revenge. There are three threads running through all four of my books, and at the end of each book they meet, and at the start of each new book they split. But Eden's Endgame is the last book. To achieve the crescendo I wanted to deliver to the readers, I had a hero die in each story thread, in fact, two. There are thirty-one chapters in the last book, and seven chapters from the end you won't see how they can escape the approaching doom that is tearing the galaxy apart. But there is a way. With most of the heroes gone, those left behind, like you and me, have to rise to the challenge, because after all, there's little choice. Heroes aren't sitting around waiting for an opportunity to be heroic, heroes are forged by circumstance. And in the end, some heroes must die, to make way for new ones.

The Eden Paradox Series
The Eden Paradox
Eden's Trial
Eden's Revenge
Eden's Endgame

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Do you love your publisher? A survey...

I recently completed a survey called 'Do you love your publisher?' I've actually published 8 books, four non-fiction with several publishers (Elsevier, Pergamon, CRC Press), and four science fiction books (Ampichellis; Summertime; CreateSpace).

For any published authors out there who are interested (or publishers/agents/authors who want to see the questions), you can find the results of the 2012 survey here. If you want to take part in the current ongoing survey, you can find the link here.

Coincidentally, someone from my office came to see me yesterday about writing her first novel. It is always great talking to fresh writers because they are so full of enthusiasm, not like some of the more seasoned ones who might have become cynical about the industry. However, the 2012 survey showed that authors are still positive about publishing, although many would move to another publisher tomorrow, because their current publisher doesn't involve them enough in the process.

For my eighth book, I decided I wanted to go it alone and see publishing from the other side of the fence, and although I don't want particularly to prop up Amazon, I used CreateSpace to do it. I found them efficient, responsive and professional, by the way. But for me this was an experiment, and for the book I'm currently working on (fiction, not scifi), I'll try again the 'traditional' publishing route.

In one of my answers in the current survey, in response to a question about Amazon and what message I'd like to give to the CEO, I replied that Amazon needed to find a way to stop 'shills' (bogus reviews to increase a book's sales) from biasing the market and lowering standards. I believe in free markets, but I go to writing conferences and see many authors beating themselves up about perfecting their writing, and then I look at the top 100 on Amazon in various genres, read the first few pages of some of them, and am sometimes aghast at the poor writing in these top sellers, and often these books have hundreds of 5 star reviews, and maybe one or two one-star ones asking what the fuss is about.

One of the questions asked whether traditional publishing might disappear in the next 10-20 years. I answered 'yes'. But it's a conditional yes. Traditional publishing needs to gear up, or even man up in the fight against Amazon, and come up with a viable alternative that values good writing but still sells well. Part of this solution is engaging better with authors. As with any industry, its the people that matter, more than the products. Forget that and you'll be consigned to the dust heap.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Making believable bad characters

The one character everyone seems to remember in the Eden Paradox series - and have a strong opinion about - is Louise (the photo is Charlize Theron in Prometheus; I think she'd make an excellent Louise). She's a badass that divides readers eating no middle ground: many people wanted me to kill her off (several volunteered to do it for me), but many acknowledged that whenever she was 'on scene', it became electric.

She's not based on anyone I know, so I'm not entirely sure how I got it right with her character. At first she was a little two-dimensional, and indeed when I wrote book one (the Eden Paradox) I did not intend her as a major character. But in the second book she really came into her own, with brutal sardonic humour, yet she was still somehow sexy to boot.

It became personal between her and one of the lead male protagonists, not only because they briefly slept together, but because she - in her mind, at least - was wronged by the protagonist, and a feud simmered and occasionally boiled throughout the entire series.

But I'm pretty sure I know when she hooked readers In the second book, Eden's Trial: she ends up fighting for her life against an alien artifact trying to kill her. She's just lost her lover and one path back to salvation, but she's so gutsy you can't help admire that part of her. And she serves as a cold judge of humanity and all our failings, her raison d'être being to put us out of existence.

In the final volume, Eden's Endgame, people asked me to - please - kill her off. Did I? You'll have to read it to find out. But I wanted to give her more backstory - just a little - as I had for the other arch criminal in this series, Sister Esma in the Prologue in Eden's Revenge.

I didn't want to make Louise too human, but just to show the play of events that shoved her down the wrong path. I also wanted this final prologue to show how WWIII actually began, with Louise and Sister Esma at its epicenter.  

So, here is the Prologue from Eden's Endgame, when we see a different side of Louise...

Bangkok, 2252, Eve of WWIII
Thirteen years before the Fall of Earth

Louise fidgeted in the long silk dress with the red dragon pattern; give her com- bat fatigues any day. But Nick had never seen her in a dress – naked, sure – and they were being called up tonight, so it was now or never. She shifted her weight in the bamboo chair, sipping her second Lao Pane, a kiwi whiskey shake, and mopped her brow with a paper serviette; it was forty-five in the shade, and the café aircon was bust again. Nick was already an hour late, but she’d wait. It was the fourth day in the past month they’d been put on high alert, the difference this time being that the tactical nukes had been armed, their mid-range delivery missiles prepped.

Through the dusty window she watched people in bright colours and straw hats scurry past. Bangkok always bustled, but there were fewer smiles and animated interchanges than usual. Everyone knew a third world war was just around the corner. According to the indie sav-minds, half the population would perish. Many still didn’t accept it, but she did. Man had always waged war, on increasingly large scales. All you needed to make it go truly global was to interconnect everyone and everything. Nowhere left to hide or run to, nowhere neutral. The screen behind the counter blared out the latest last-ditch peace talks, another excuse for a barrage of rhetoric whipping up normally sane people into a frenzy. One trigger-happy finger, one inflammatory event, and the world would ignite.

Louise leant forward, caught her reflection in the glass table-top, saw the hardness behind her features. Her state of mind wasn’t the best brochure for humanity. Twenty-two years of life had been pretty shit so far, more than her fair share of uninvited adult attention as a teenager, and once she could fight back, she’d tried and failed to reinvent herself as a teacher. Instead she’d ended up a marine after one of her few real friends pointed out she had a killer in- stinct, having witnessed her break a guy’s jaw in a nightclub punch-up on her eighteenth birthday.

Her sex-life had been a disaster zone until a few weeks ago. Nick, a Canadian commando monitoring the US war games in Thailand. Love at first fuck. And now gung-ho politicians and insanely radicalised religious lead- ers were going to blow it for them, and for everyone else. She could forgive them all if she and Nick could have one last afternoon of passion. Staring over people’s heads outside, she searched for his six-six frame. Come on, Nick, don’t keep a girl waiting.

She took another sip as she watched a woman in a burka enter the café – must be baking alive inside – and take a seat opposite a man with slick black hair, shiny business attire and mirror sunglasses, none of which suited him. He looked like one of the Green-Shirt politicians who’d been warmongering over the Thai vid channels. The two of them made an odd couple, especially as she seemed to be the one running the meeting. The woman’s eyes suddenly locked onto Louise, so she turned back to gazing out the window.

Across the busy street she spied Nick, taller than the locals, sailing to- wards her like a yacht cruising into harbour. She stood up to show him the dress. His shades were down but when he saw her he stopped dead and lifted them and mouthed “Wow.” He walked faster, waving his hands in the air, pre- tending to be exasperated by the constant flood of people and biofuel tuk-tuks in between him and the café; it made her smile. Wait till he saw what was underneath her dress.

Another man crossed her gaze as he glided towards the café entrance ahead of Nick: athletic frame, bald, no hat, no sunglasses, and grey one-piece jumpsuit despite the heat. Her instincts kicked in as he cut effortlessly through the crowded street, his features concentrated and alert; he was on a mission. She noticed a tattoo on the side of his neck, like a cross but with an oval at the top; the ankh symbol, she recalled. Then she remembered a briefing three days ago: a US politician had been killed in broad daylight right outside the Senate; there had been a photo of the assassin’s body, riddled with bullets, the same tattoo on his neck... She glanced down at the bag at her feet. No pistol, just her knife.

The door tinkled as the man stepped inside, his eyes an intense emerald green. He took one brief look around, reached into his pocket, then sprang to- wards the woman in the burka, brandishing a metal rod. The woman, without even turning around, flung herself flat, as a thin blue blade whipped above her, finding instead the neck of the politician who was rising to his feet, a gun in his hand. The politician dropped his weapon and clutched at his throat, un- able to speak or scream, only gurgle as blood gushed through his fingers. He crumpled to the floor.

Louise stumbled backwards as the speed of events caught up with her; she couldn’t move properly in that damned long dress. Cursing, she fell to the floor, amidst the scraping sounds of furniture being kicked aside, swishes of the assassin’s ultra-thin sword, and high-pitched screams and shouts of the clientele as they clambered for the exit. Louise glanced up while her left hand dived into her bag and unsheathed her stiletto. Nick burst through the door, almost taking the frame with him, and thank god had his pistol drawn. Louise found the knife, grasped its smooth handle, and got to her feet.

Nick was right behind the assassin, who seemed oblivious as he hacked his way through tables and chairs towards the woman in the burka, who was far more agile than she looked. Nick shouted at the guy to stop, or he would fire. The assassin didn’t turn around, just flicked his blade backwards, its blue edge slicing first through Nick’s pistol arm before it carved a line through his chest; Nick went down. The woman in the burka had her back against the wall.

Louise darted forward and flung the knife at the killer just as he raised his sword. The stiletto plunged into the side of his neck, severing his carotid ar- tery, a curtain of blood spraying over the wall. The woman in the burka dived to the floor. The assassin staggered backwards a pace, glared at Louise once, then tapped the sword hilt with his other hand as if entering a code, ignoring the blood spurting from his neck, and collapsed.

Louise didn’t see him hit the ground.

Everything turned blinding white, and she heard a deafening crack as a wave of searing heat scorched her entire body, lifted her off her feet and threw her to the other end of the café. She landed in a puddle of melting plastic fur- niture and burning bamboo. Her left eye still worked, the right was fused shut. She looked down her body: the dress was largely burnt off, her skin a hideous landscape of red and black, the flesh on her right arm barbecued to a crisp. Flames licked her legs, the only saving grace being that she couldn’t feel them. She was glad she couldn’t see her face. Acrid fumes made her cough and her eye water. Getting up wasn’t an option. Through the smoke and fire she tried to make out Nick’s remains.
A tall figure walked over: the woman in the burka. Steam poured off the black material that now looked more like very fine chain mail. It flickered sil- ver and white as if there was some kind of tech underneath. The woman was unharmed. She removed her hood and facemask, and bent forward, her eyes the blackest Louise had ever seen. Two sets of footsteps rushed in, speaking urgently in foreign accents, not Thai.

“Your Eminence, are you alright? Thank Alessia! We must leave straight- away, the police will arrive quickly; you cannot be found here!”

The woman did not answer them. She spoke instead to Louise.

“You saved my life. But you have fourth-degree burns over most of your body.”

Louise coughed, tried to speak, couldn’t, her throat and tongue dried leather, tasting of charcoal. That extent of burns meant only one thing. Louise closed her eye as the pain asserted itself with a vengeance, as if she was being boiled alive. Her body began to shudder. A single whimper of agony escaped through clenched teeth.

The woman continued, amidst shouts and wails outside, and the crashing of the burning roof caving in all around them.

“The assassin who did this to you – and murdered your friend – is called a Sentinel. There are fifty of them roaming this doomed world. You have a choice: I can put you out of your misery here and now, or I can save you – if you agree to join me and help kill the rest of the Sentinels. The choice is yours. If you wish to die, keep your eye closed. You have ten seconds.”

Louise thought of Nick; he deserved to be avenged. But what if this woman was evil, and the assassin had been trying to kill her for a good reason? No way to know. And right now, the world could go to hell as far as Louise was concerned. Besides, if she was dead, there was nothing after, of that she was convinced.

She opened her eye.

The woman touched Louise’s neck with something metallic that made a short hiss, and her body numbed as if she was wrapped in a cool cloud.

“Bring her,” the woman said.

Rough hands grabbed Louise’s listless body, lifted her from the sticky floor. The sirens grew louder.

“What about the Minister, Your Eminence?”

“Leak a report that the Fundies assassinated him. It is the spark we have been waiting for. The war starts tonight.”

Louise’s head tilted back as she was bundled out of the café into a hover car. Behind her, in amongst the smoking carnage, she glimpsed Nick’s cre- mated corpse. In that moment, she hated the world and everyone in it, and was prepared to watch it all burn, until there was nothing left but ash. 

© Barry Kirwan |
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