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Post mortem

pile of Merchant Princes books
My first author copies of "The Trade of Queens" arrived this morning; that's one of them, sitting on top of the pile of its predecessors on the step-stool. (Parenthetically, this means that copies should be showing up in warehouses and book stores over the next week, and in the mailboxes of folks who placed advance orders very soon thereafter.) The stack you're looking at is the culmination of eight years' work; I began work on these books in 2002, if I remember correctly. It's about 70-100 pages longer in total than "War and Peace". And I'd like to talk about them for a bit.

Back in early 2005, I wrote a somewhat cynical essay on an earlier incarnation of this blog, titled "Five rules for cold-bloodedly designing a fantasy series". Web rot and a change of publishing platform have made that essay somewhat hard to find, so I'm going to reproduce it in edited form right here (below the cut), with updates and further insights gathered on the road.

Mon, 21 Feb 2005:

I've just returned the page proofs of the paperback edition of 'The Family Trade', due out in May in the US, and my thoughts turn to the history of the book: why and how it got written, and how things have turned out. For some reason this doesn't seem to be a topic novelists discuss much in public, so I thought I'd jot down some notes here.

The story begins in late 2001. I'd had a breakthrough year; in addition to being nominated for one of the major awards in the SF field for the first time, I'd acquired a literary agent who successfully sold my first two SF novels to Ace. I was working like a dog, trying to write at least one and a half novels a year on top of a workload of freelance computer journalism — in early 2000, when the bottom dropped out of the dot-com boom, events had caught me between stools and I ended up writing two magazine columns and numerous features every month to make ends meet. Writing books looked like a less stressful way out (at least you get to measure your cash flow in months rather than weeks), and I'd sold two, so why not try to sell some more?

Note for the uninitiated: a literary agent is the jobbing novelist's white knight. Your agent takes a cut (typically 15%) of your earnings. But if you don't earn, you don't get paid, and neither do they, so their job is to figure out how to get you as much money as possible. As a recent survey shows, agented novels get significantly higher advances, on average, than unagented; like an accountant, a good agent should earn you a lot more money than they cost. So when talking business (as opposed to art), your agent is the first person you turn to — they'll shoot down unsalable ideas before you waste six months pursuing them, and provide helpful advice on how to make your good ideas sell better. (But note the qualification about talking business, as opposed to art.)

When I raised the idea of writing some more books with my agent, her first comment was, "you realize that 'Singularity Sky' probably won't be in print for two to three years? And 'Iron Sunrise' won't be out for a year after that? Ace have a backlog, and they've also got an option on your next SF novel." (An option clause means you've got to send the next SF novel to your existing publisher, who have to reject it or sit on it for an inordinate length of time before you're free can send it elsewhere.) "On the other hand, if you really want to write for a living, can you do something that isn't specifically SF, so we can sell without breach of contract? Like, say, a big fat fantasy series?"

This made me stop and think hard. The thing is, I've read a lot of extruded fantasy product in my time, and I don't much like it. Fantasy and Science Fiction are co-marketed in most bookstores, but this conceals the fact that they're actually radically different genres in outlook. Loosely speaking, if Science Fiction is often a literature of disruption (in which change is, if not good, at least embraced), Fantasy is frequently a literature of consolation: a warm feather-bed of social conservativism disguised as nostalgic escapism, a longing for feudal certainties. While there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Fantasy, the marketing mechanism applied to it tends to promote those aspects of it that I really don't like: the hordes of marching sub-Tolkien clones. (I'm with China Mieville on this.) And besides, Robert Jordan is still alive and selling.

Rule 1: Don't steal from living authors, their ecological niche in the publishing jungle is already occupied. (Alternatively: nobody needs another Robert Jordan.)

If I was going to write extruded fantasy product, I'd have to write it from the point of view of the young lad growing up with poor but honest folks somewhere in middle earth who discovers that he's destined to grow up to be the Dark Lord, overthrow the established order, and start a revolution. Because? I'm a native of a nation that has a hereditary aristocracy and a monarchy, and it's a lot less romantic in real life than in fiction. As long as they're constitutionally reigned in and kept busy opening supermarkets and holding garden parties a monarchy isn't too toxic, but if you go back a century or two what you get is basically a hereditary dictatorship (complete with secret police) dressed up in fancy clothing. If you want a modern cognate, you need look no further than Kim Jong-Il.

I said as much to my agent and she sighed (inasmuch as one can sigh in email) and said "don't do that, the readers will hate you." Readers who hate authors do not buy their books. I saw her point, and shelved the idea. Score one for commercial pressure over art. (Note from 2010: These days I'd probably push a bit harder, and see if there was a way to square the circle — I'm more inclined to take commercial risks. But nothing concentrates the mind like a magazine going bust oweing you for three months' work, which was also happening at the same time back then ...)

Idea number two: I've been interested in alternate history as a sub-field of SF for a while. There are a couple of ways of writing alternate history; you can do it straight (as an historical novel set in a history that never happened) or if you bend the rules enough to allow for a visitor from our own world to get a tourist visa to the universe next door, you can use it as a tool to poke at our conceptions of how our own world operates.

First I took a stab at designing a straight alt-hist novel. (Elevator pitch: "I'm going to cross the streams of The IPCRESS File and Heart of Darkness in a universe where the first world war ended in 1919 with allied tanks sitting in the wreckage of Berlin, and the decaying British empire went on to invent fascism in the 1940s. It's 1962, and two OSS agents are injected into British-dominated Europe to trace the underground railroad that is funneling abducted/brainwashed American scientists east. Our two spooks, "Wild" Bill Burroughs and his swivel-eyed Californian sidekick Philip K., follow the trail — by way of a sleazy S&M nightclub in Hamburg presided over by ageing queen Adolf and his boyfriend Rudi Hess — to Ceylon, where in the guts of a hollowed-out mountain they confront the jackbooted, monocle-wearing Air Commodore Arthur Clarke and his program to build an atom-bomb powered space dreadnought.) My agent shot it down as "too weird". With 20/20 hindsight, I think she may have had a point.

Next I went to look at mode #2 of alternate history: visiting the world next door.

One fly in the ointment is that AH fiction is often marketed as SF. (See "contract option" above.) But I happened to recall a precedent for doing it in fantasy — noted SF/fantasy author Roger Zelazny's masterwork, the Chronicles of Amber, all ten books of it, featured a family of rather paranormal protagonists who could walk between worlds. The Amber books sold like bandits, but since Zelazny's untimely death in 1995 the ecological niche has been empty. And "magic" makes for an end-run around an option on an SF novel ...

Rule 2: Steal from the best. (There's no point stealing from the worst.)

Why not, I thought, take the basic premise (a family of folks who can walk between worlds) and strip off all the superstructures Zelazny added to the mix? Reboot it in the context of a coherent alternate history set-up and see where it goes. Maybe even (being mischievous) add the "child of poor but honest folks who grows up to be the [thematic] dark lord" sub-plot to anchor it more firmly in the marketing soil of the contemporary extruded fantasy series while laying the groundwork for a later refutation of the key thesis of consolatory return? I could get to have my cake (a long fantasy series) and eat it (the intellectual challenge of doing something new).

Rule 3: If you steal an entire outfit from one writer's wardrobe, people will mock you for being imitative. So steal from at least two, and mix thoroughly.

The mere theme of a bunch of relatives who can walk between time lines does not a novel make. You've given them the means, but not the motive or method. Luckily it's not virgin territory; other writers have been here before, and it's always worth looking at the prior art. In the SF field one author in particular stands out — H. Beam Piper. Dead since 1964, his books are nevertheless still in print: a sure sign that he had something to set him apart from the majority of writers (who go out of print for good within two years of their demise). Among his most enduring works are a handful of stories and a short novel ('Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen') about the Paratime Police — an agency established by an imperialist time line that ruthlessly exploits the resources of its neighbours. While I really didn't like his key ideological assumptions, his technique was another matter. So, in accordance with Rule 3, I decided to use Piper as my other source.

Now, here's an important point: I was planning a series. Conventional publishing wisdom is that you can only publish one book a year in a given genre — if you publish more, you risk cannibalizing your own sales (unless you have an avid fan base). So if I was going to get to grips with this project, I was going to be in it for the long haul. How long is long? Well, I didn't particularly want to limit it to a trilogy — what I'd decided to look from the attic of ideas was a background and a basic premise, not a story, and I had some big ideas to explore. It would take at least four big, fat books to get to grips with it.

The first book: thesis. We're introduced to the world-walking folks, get to see why they engage in this activity (which, on the face of it, is personally risky). It's probably the oldest reason of all — economics. They do it to get rich.

This series is going to be sold as fantasy, so a mediaevalist or at least very non-contemporary setting is pretty much mandatory. This has Implications. If the family of world-walkers come from a society that's backward and primitive by our standards, that puts a whole new spin on the premise. Usually, in this sub-genre, visitors from other time lines have Advanced Super Science mojo, which invites unwelcome plot non-sequiteurs. In contrast, making them primitive is (as far as I know) a first.

For our protagonist, I can use the "child of poor-but-honest folks coopted into the aristocracy" cliche, only, like, inverted, so that being coopted into the aristocracy is bad. They find it stifling and unpleasant — a big clash of cultures. They rebel. (Hey, I'm back to the disruptive protagonist theme again!) But a poor-but-honest character from a society dominated by aristocratic time-line traders is going to be at a marked handicap. How about making them a long-lost by-blow who's grown up in our world, and gets sucked in against their will? And who's pre-wired with a curious urge to look in dark corners? A journalist, say. Who starts digging places they shouldn't, is forced to go on the run, and then has to desperately struggle to build a secure power base for themselves before the assassins close in ...

And that's how 'The Family Trade' gets the first inkling of a plot skeleton. I scoped it at around 200,000 words, or 600 pages.

The second book: antithesis. The first book sets loose a whole flock of pigeons. Pigeons shit everywhere, get eaten by hawks, and lay eggs: they have side-effects. Somewhere down the line, the consequences of our protagonist's arrival are going to start making themselves known. They're from a relatively advanced culture and they've been dropped into a relatively backward — but not politically unsophisticated — one; shades of the old time-travel classic Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp. Meanwhile certain other sub-themes (that fell out of the first novel outline) suggested themselves, which I'm not going to go into here. Truth and consequences: I scoped out 'The Clan Corporate' at around 250,000 words, or 750 pages.

There were two more books in the original series pitch I prepared and sent to my agent. I figured I had enough loose ends to tie myself up in enjoyably for five years — but no longer. I'd already been through sequel hell in writing 'Iron Sunrise', and figured out that no series should outlive the author's interest:

Rule 4: When choosing the themes to pilfer, only pick ones that you, personally, find interesting — if you pick something boring you'll only have yourself to blame if it's successful and you end up chained to the desk to write more of it for the next decade.

I sent the pitch to my agent, and she said, "huh, I think I can do something with this. Want to write the first book?"

So I did. The first draft ran to 155,000 words, was written in a twelve-week frenzy, and had an ending that sucked mud through a straw. My test readers told me this, so I re-wrote it and the manuscript bloated to 190,000 words. I'd run out of energy at the end of the first draft. The second worked. It's still the longest book I've ever written.

During the writing of the book a whole bunch of extra ideas occured to me. It acquired a lot more texture and complexity, and the series outline mutated in line with it. This is a good thing. I may have spent the first 90% of this essay writing a frank endorsement for deriving all your ideas from your predecessors, but it's one thing to steal the floor plan and another thing entirely to steal the wallpaper and silverware as well:

Rule 5: However much you're stealing, make sure it doesn't look stolen. Genre publishing is a beauty show, and originality wins prizes (but not too much originality).

All writers are periodically asked "where do you get your ideas?" Our dirty little secret is that ideas are cheap. You've got ideas. Your pet cat has probably got ideas. You can find ideas in the back-catalog of authors who died forty years ago, or you can go sit in a cave for forty days and nights and bring back ideas. Or you can slavishly ape Roger Zelazny's technique. What matters isn't the ideas, but what you do with them. I managed to take a grab-bag of ideas pioneered by other writers, and by inverting a couple of assumptions and hybridizing a handful of unrelated strains I came up with something new that, as far as I know, hasn't been done before.

My agent took the book and sold it to Tor. Where David Hartwell gave it a thorough editorial working over (in the course of which it swelled to just under 200,000 words). Then the dread words came down from on high: "can you split this into two volumes?" This is my sole apology to those readers who are annoyed at the abrupt ending of 'The Family Trade' — it's the first half of the original book, splitting them so that the series would run in 300-page chunks (rather than 600-750 page doorsteps) wasn't my idea (in fact, I protested it), but in the final analysis I can only tell my publisher where to get off if I'm willing to get off (and go find another publisher — after acquiring a reputation for being "difficult to work with"). I understand the reasoning behind the decision, and indeed if I'd been working with the publishers before I wrote the book it would have fitted the form factor they wanted — but that's not how the business works, and these are the breaks. At least the second half of the story will be in the shops in roughly twelve weeks' time.

Back to March 2010:

The original four-book outline now maps out to four story arcs. The first, "The Family Trade", was split into two books ("The Family Trade" and "The Hidden Family"). The second, "The Clan Corporate", would have needed two and a half books if it had been written to the 300-pages-per-volume constraint from the start. However, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

I was already 60,000 words into "The Clan Corporate", with about eight months to go to my deadline, when the form factor was declared from on high. 60,000 words into a projected 250-300,000 word novel is the intro and set-up. (The original plan was 250,000 words, but sub-plots bloat; adding 20% in the development process isn't unusual.) I was faced with a dilemma: tear it all up and redesign the rest of the series story arc from scratch and write a new 100,000 word novel, or just plough on with what I had, add another 40,000 words, and try to make it work. And while eight months might sound like plenty of time, I was overcommitted: I had another book that I was due to hand in two months later! Realistically, the throw-it-away-and-restart-from-scratch option wasn't an option. Which is why "The Clan Corporate" reads slowly, with little direct action happening until the very end — it's the setup sequence of a much longer book.

I also discovered a new ailment of the serial novel at this point. It's this: you have to spend some time at the beginning tying each new volume into what has gone before, and you need to spend some effort making sure there's at least a nod in the direction of giving the book a climax. All of this is overhead, and the rule of thumb I've learned is that it adds about 33% to the length of the story. By taking a 250-300,000 word book and splitting it into 100,000 word episodes, I ended up having to add an extra 130,000 words — bringing it up to four books.

Midway through book #4 ("The Merchants' War") I got some good news. My agent had just sold two more SF novels to Ace, and had written in a change to the contract: the option held by Ace on my SF novels now explicitly excluded "Merchant Princes" books. This was a huge relief; it meant that I could begin writing in the back-story behind the Clan's world-walking capability. In the first three books it was presented as a black box, implicitly magical; by book six it should be fairly obvious that the series is SF in fantasy drag, and as the series expands the breakdown and decay of fantasy tropes continues.

So, with six books on sale, I've actually only completed the first two of four planned story arcs. The first, "The Family Trade", can be summarized as "Miriam discovers her disturbingly-talented family; kicks back: releases a whole bunch of pigeons." The second, "The Clan Corporate" (in four volumes) can be summarized as "Miriam's pigeons return, doing what pigeons do — they shit everywhere and there's an unholy mess". The third story &mdash that would be books 7-9 inclusive, and I've just about worked out how to make them fit the 100,000 words-per-volume format. But I'm not about to begin writing them for a while; I want a couple of years off!

Final notes:

Firstly, you're probably wondering what the Merchant Princes is about.

Paul Krugman nailed it: it's implicitly about sociology and economics, and more specifically, about the development trap. If you're reading this blog entry on a computer of your own, you're probably a native of the developed world. But what is the developed world? What does it mean to be undeveloped? More importantly, why do some societies develop rapidly, and others fail? Compare and contrast South Korea or Japan with Thailand or Burma; the former two are richer on a per-capita basis than Germany, but only developed in the past sixty years. The latter two ... aren't. Why is that? Again, consider the middle east, and the parlous state of science, industry, and economic productivity in most of the countries there. Some of them are clearly trying to develop; others ... aren't. In the Merchant Princes books, by setting up a bunch of time lines with divergent histories I was able to establish an artificial development scenario, and examine development traps; how it is that the ruling elite of a very poor country can live an imported developed-world lifestyle, but fail to spark economic development in their general population. And there's also a thesis buried in there about the toxic effects of ruling elites, and the suppression of free trade, free speech, and human rights that ruling elites are prone to.

Some of you may be wondering why I wrote a certain political figure into the series. There are a couple of answers to this question. Firstly, a huge problem any writer faces with an ongoing serial novel is that you can't go back and redraft earlier chapters if you realize too late that you've gotten elements of the plot tangled up: they're already in print. As it turns out, I'd implicitly written a very high-ranking US government figure, in cahoots with the Clan, into the books right from the start; it was only in the proess of writing book #4 that I realized I needed to bring this person front-and-centre, lest the plot peter out embarrassingly or otherwise expose me as not having a clue. Secondly: one of the failure modes to which constitutional democracies are prone is the usurpation of power by hard-liners, when confronted by an external threat. It was obvious that the exposure of the Clan would necessitate a drastic response from the US government — so why not explore the boundary condition where the response is dictated by the most outspoken national security hawks? Thirdly and finally: these novels are set in an alternate present. There are clues, from book 4 onwards, that this is not our world. (If you haven't read them yet, keep an eye open for Paris Hilton and "Chemical" Ali.)

Lastly: there are no unambiguous "good guys" in this series. I've had some indignant mail from readers who don't like my treatment of, on the one hand, the Clan, and on the other, of WARBUCKS. The former ... in their own world, they're arrogant aristocrats; in our world, they're narcoterrorists. And as for the latter, at least in these novels there's a reason he's a paranoid arsehole. There is a tragedy wrapped in an enigma here: the tragedy of the ordinary people, living in interesting times. And I think that's probably going to be the overarching theme of the third story line, when I start writing it ...



The Roger Zelazny link is broken.


Well, that explains something I never understood: Why those novels were being marketed as "fantasy" in the first place. I thought from the beginning that it was obvious they were science fiction, with the worldwalking as a psi power . . . the sfnal way of saying "magic," to be sure, but it is an sfnal trope of long standing. And for the rest, well, when I reviewed the first book for Prometheus I said that it was hard science fiction, where the science was economics. I thought that the people who were reviewing it as fantasy were literary naifs who thought anything with landed aristocrats was automatically fantasy no matter what the author's approach was; I hadn't realized that you had carefully laid out the garden path for them to walk down for coldly commercial motives. It's a good thing it worked!

Reflection: The idea of "psionics" as a way to achieve miracles seems to invite the kind of aristocratic thinking that often goes with fantasy; it's classically a hereditary gift that makes its possessors a natural elite, along the lines of Bradley's Darkover books. (In the real world, on the other hand, aristocrats just have land, which can be redistributed . . . though I used to joke about the British having successfully bred their upper classes for "enormous tracts of land.") On the other hand, spellcasting could be something that anyone could learn by studying, a form of human capital that would make for a bourgeois society complete with nouveaux mages. (At least once the old guild system was broken.) Hmmm, that could be an interesting campaign setting. . . .

Reflection: It seems to me that the natural counterpoint to fantasy is actually horror. Compare The Lord of the Rings, where the "free peoples" are the social classes of an ideal feudal society (clergy, aristocracy, peasants, and artisans) being threatened by the industrialists of Mordor and Isengard (wouldn't a Marxist treatment have Sauron's victory followed by a rebellion of the orcs and their establishment of a workers' state?) with Dracula, where the wicked feudal lord draining the very blood of the peasantry is opposed by a kind of joint stock company whose shareholders are a cross section of the international bourgeoisie.

Anyway, an interesting essay, and thanks for reposting it. I hadn't seen it before, and it makes better sense of some things I hadn't understood about the books. It reinforces Bujold's theory of the need for a fuller understanding of the literary structure of extended series of novels. I'm looking forward to the final volume . . . especially after the end of the penultimate one, which didn't so much hang from a cliff as hurl the world over one; now I've got to see what follows that!


Your fascist-British-empire story sounds INCREDIBLE. You should definitely write it someday, even just as a novella.

Also, this has reminded me that I should really buy & read the non-Laundry and non-Halting State half of your ouvre..


"Your fascist-British-empire story sounds INCREDIBLE. You should definitely write it someday, even just as a novella."

Or as a stage play or film script! Definitely something with visual elements.


+1 to the unwritten alternate-history novel. I'm sure by now you can get it published (it's really no weirder than "Gravity's Rainbow" or most of Paul di Filippo's work... OK, a little bit weirder.)

In the meantime, I plugged it on the story-games forum as a great idea for a roleplaying campaign, adding my own off-the-cuff character idea: "the young Jim Ballard, a sadistic doctor who stages car crashes for fun and wants to destroy the world in a holocaust of either water or wind (he can't make up his mind...)"


Interesting! Through your post I've simultaneously learned (a) that it's significant that the cover of Family Trade markets it as "fantasy" while Revolution Business says "SF" (somewhere, maybe not the cover), and (b) that while significant, it's not actually problematic.

I just finished reading Revolution Business (I'm collecting the series in MMP form) and am getting enjoyably creeped by Huw's investigations; I'm glad you were able to bring them in.


Also the Mieville link.

This may be me displaying a tin ear for a joke, but "constitutionally reigned in"?

I third the approval of the fascist British empire world.


Elevator pitch: "I'm going to cross the streams of The IPCRESS File and Heart of Darkness in a universe where the first world war ended in 1919 [...] monocle-wearing Air Commodore Arthur Clarke and his program to build an atom-bomb powered space dreadnought.)

Charlie, I'm not sure if there's a limit to how much I'd pay to read that novel, save the near certainty of death at the hands of my wife when she discovers how much I'd parted with for a single book.


Courtesy of the Wayback Machine, the key bit from the broken Zelazny link: "[Zelazny] says that every night he leaves a bowl of milk and some crackers on the back stoop; in the morning, the milk and crackers are gone, but there's a stack of crazy ideas by the empty bowl."

I want to read that discarded alternate history too! What a shame it will never happen.

It's always fascinating to read about how economic and material factors shape literature. Thanks for reposting this, Charlie, and for the CMAP posts.


I'm with everybody else here-I really like the alternate British Empire story idea (which I guess means I "fifth" it). And frankly, I think ideas that are "too weird" are something we don't see nearly enough-especially in alternate history, which too often sticks with the most familiar events.


When I read this:

the series is SF in fantasy drag
my caffeine-deprived brain presented me with two images that I can't unsee:
  • Mike Fleming in hiding as an "associate" of RuPaul; and
  • the reincarnation of J. Edgar "Pink Tutu" Hoover, promoted to the new President's National Security Advisor... and turning out to be the best hope that Miriam's faction has of peace.
I think I'll go scour my optic nerves with lye to see if I can scrub those images away.

All seriousness aside, I think that Our Gracious Host and Professor Krugman have missed one critical aspect of the political economy model that MP is exploring. It's not just about nameless, faceless "political elites": It's also about the human costs to the (tiny) minority of reformers who start out within the political elites, whether voluntarily or otherwise. So as to avoid spoilers — and there are some doozies I could mention — I offer LBJ (from the US, after he began associating with the Kennedy advisors). One of the things that makes MP more than just a counterpart of Anthem/The Fountainhead is that there really are believable human costs; they are there from day one; and those human costs eventually end up as part of the policy/implementation feedback loop.

Of course, I spent waaaaay too much time in both literary studies and the Reagan/Bush I administrations (thirty seconds would have been too much of the latter... and I had at least middle-of-the-auditorium seats for the whole debacle), so perhaps this perspective is inevitable.



I don't think that's necessarily the right expression? (And it's definitely not spelt correctly)


And before that sounds overly critical, I hasten to add that I had bought and read the first two books (in hardback) before getting discouraged by the length of the series, and a nagging voice telling me I shouldn't be reading fantasy anyway (an internal one, not my wife) So I'm now reconsidering quickly since our Gracious Host is now hinting that it really is SF after all. Great, more books to read!


Add me to the "you must write that 'too weird' alternate history novel" list. My goodness, that sounds like a great big pile of awesome. If I hadn't been sold by the time you got to Rudi Hess, that alone would have sold it for me.


"...the jackbooted, monocle-wearing Air Commodore Arthur Clarke and his program to build an atom-bomb powered space dreadnought.)"

I'd buy this in hardback for a universe in which that sentence flows naturally from whatever else is going on.


I don't do series, I don't do series, I don't... Oh bugger, it's off to the bookstore now.

Speaking of filing off the serial numbers, that mad alternate history whiffs lightly of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And I would buy it in a hummingbird's heartbeat. Golden Gryphon?


I notice that the stack in the pictures above is all paperback, although TTOQ is just coming out as hardcover. This is due to it being an author copy, right?


Au contraire: the stack in the picture above is 100% first edition hardcovers!


For those of you who wants the Fascist Britain novel, I can recommend the Richard III film that came out a couple of years ago - it's set in an alternative 30s Britain, and, well, I assume most of you are familiar with the rest of the story. (The Titus Andromicus adaption is also worth watching - in the same vein, but a lot weirder.)


Charlie, can you show the list of people willing to promise very large amounts for the AH Fascist Britain novel to your agent as proof that it's not too weird to sell? Or, alternatively, will you write it if we all pitch in to pay you for it?


You might want to add a correction after "And besides, Robert Jordan is still alive and selling." - not valid anymore...


"atom-bomb powered space dreadnought" +1

Reminds me of Bryan Talbot and Luther Arkwright. Perhaps the novel of the comic?


Alas, I've got the next (counts) two and a half novels and two novellas and $SEKRIT_PROJECT already mapped out; that's about 2-3 years' work. So requests for a barking mad dieselpunk alt-hist novel won't result in anything soon ...


Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium is my favorite -- primarily for a section which appeared in the magazine version, was cut out of the book version, and has now been restored by Baen Books. The basic idea: there are sequences of events across time was well as up and down in time.

And also for the explanation of why we haven't been overrun with crosstime travelers: Most of the alt-worlds in which the crosstime device was invented didn't have adequate safety precautions, and if it goes wrong it's a planet-killer.

Unfortunately, Laumer's sequels weren't nearly as good.

I look forward to reading The Trade of Queens.


On the "Merchant Princes" series as fantasy vs. science fiction:

I took a look at the tags for each volume on LibraryThing. As the series progresses, there's a steady drop in the relative number of "fantasy" and "sci-fi" tags. "Fantasy" outnumbers "science fiction" and "sci-fi" on the first volume by more than two to one (I didn't count "SF", since some people use it as "speculative fiction", to include fantasy), they're about even at Merchant's War, and science fiction is 2-to-1 over fantasy on The Revolution Business. Certainly a lot of people share the perception that the initial books read very much like fantasy.


One more vote for the alt-hist novel. My jaw dropped open when I read the elevator, that is weird...and that is good.


I umpteenth "barking mad dieselpunk alt-hist novel". How can you not do this?


I would certainly enjoy reading you alt. hist novel as elevator pitched above. It sounds like a fantastic romp.


I doubleplusumpteenth it. Perhaps you could work in a Dyna Soar?


could never work out why they were marketed as fantasy novels - which put me off for years even as I consumed everything else you wrote. thanks for filling us in.


Loved this post. And it resulted in at least one more sale for The Family Trade, although it violates my vow never again to start an unfinished fantasy or sci-fi series. I'm counting on you to finish it--don't pull a Jordan on me.


I don't normally do me too posts but... yes please write that dieselpunk novel.


I loved the Amber books. 20 (30? OMG i'm on wikipedia, Nine Princes in Amber came out in 1970 => 40) years ago, a successful trip to the bookstore for me was a new Zelazny. I noted the similarities to the Family Trade books (which I have greatly enjoyed). But ... One of the things I vividly remember, 40 years later, from the Amber books was the trippy (after all, it was 1970) rides they took between the worlds -- as opposed to the headaches with risk of stroke in the Family Trade.


I wonder if it might not be easier to get a straight up anti-fantasy fantasy novel published today? China Miéville has been successful, and Richard K. Morgan recently did it with "The Steel Remains", IMO.


Zelazny is spelt Zelanzy twice. (Sorry still in proofreading mode).

Mike@31: With "The Trade of Queens", the series is finished. For now.

Dieselpunk novel? Why not? Mind you, I'd also like more Laundry stories, not to mention stories in the "Trunk and Disorderly" universe. Anything you'd care to write really.


Thanks for the recap. The Family Trade did not completely pull me in, but I might have to check the other books out anyway.


The elevator pitch has me interested, too! (now I think I have to got track down MP books)


@2 LoTR There are hints from JRRT's letters, and critical analysis, that Saruman represents the fascists (Take-over of apparently unchanged existing power-structures, but fundamenatlly nasty personal power) and Sauron the Communists. Neither want to destroy Middle Earth, they want to CONTROL it, and are prepared to have temporary Nazi-Soviet pact to wipe out the "free peoples" in the meantime.

H. Beam Piper. Well ..... There are supposedly THREE sequels to "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen" 1. Great Kings War (I've got a copy) 2. Kalvan Kingmaker & 3. The Seige of Tarr-Hostigos. Written/ghosted by J. Carr. I've never seen copies of the latter two, and would love to find ones ....

Fascist British Empire already been done by Micheal Moorcock, surely?


Mike, the series is de facto finished, insofar as the story line comes to a climax and finale in book 6.

Story 3, if it happens, kicks off ten years later with a cast of new characters exploring second-order consequences of the world-disrupting events of books 1-6. (Or it was going to: in the meantime, Paul McAuley published "Cowboy Angels", a novel which covers most of the ground I'd staked out for books 7-9.)


Nthing the Wacky-empire idea. Gimmegimmegimme.

Also, given that Robert Jordan is no longer so much with the alive and kicking bit, perhaps there's an empty niche to fill afterall (i.e. overly long and drawn-out emo hack'n'slash fiction, with a side-order of braid-tugging ;)


@41 Perhaps there are some niches that should just remain empty. Empty niches look quite decorative.

@39 Didn't JRRT write somewhere that he didn't like allegory and would have written it (but if he had, the Ring would have been used, not destroyed) (though I have to say your analysis still sounds convincing)

Can I also join the chorus for Charlie's empire concept to see the light of day.


Hi Charles - This is a deliciously candid piece about how to think commercially as a writer...It's what all writers have to do. And I love the way you anatomise what you don't like about fantasy; I have similar reservations about some stuff I've read.

And what you've ended up doing clearly is creating a fantasy story that works for YOU - emotionally and politically and in its subtexts about what kind of society we should be living in.

Confession: I'm not a prolific fantasy reader so haven't read the Merchant Princes yet- but I should remedy that. I hate fantasy that's all about how great it is to live in a medieval scoiety where everyone knows their place - hell, we escaped from that! So your variations on the theme appeal.


Please, please, please. Don't care when, but please write the dieselpunk. As for the answer to LOTR. Was covered by Mary Gentle, Charlie and friends. Grunts and Villains


NOTE: To those of you who want me to do the dieselpunk thing ...

a) See "other projects come first" above.

b) The research workload for this one is daunting. First, everything I can get my hands on, biography-wise, about William Burroughs and Philip K. Dick. Secondly, more reading on the 1920s British political scene ... and a huge mass of planning to work out exactly how the UK slides into fascism -- possibly a POD in 1916 whereby the Easter Rising doesn't happen, followed by the very violent suppression of a much larger Irish uprising in 1919 and state of emergency combined with fighting the Reds in Russia: you don't have to push too hard to have Britain swinging hard-right at that time, but you have to get the background right). Thirdly: more background reading, notably Lothar Machtan's "The Hidden Hitler", more of Stephen Dorril's "Blackshirt" (on Oswald Moseley), more on the background to the US/Japan Battleship race of the 1930s, the Kellogg-Briand pact, War Plan Red, and the likely flashpoints for the Pacific War (USA/Japanese Empire probably, but possibly the Japanese go North instead?) and a metric buttload more scholarship than I'm comfortable about in the short term.

c) Who do I sell it to? Ace currently want mostly near-future SF (cf. Laundry novels, Rule 34). Tor want more Merchant Princes or outright fantasy. In marketing terms this book pitch is full of lossage because it's not obviously compatible with my current writing track. Which doesn't mean I can't write it, but I wouldn't get a big advance and my publisher's marketing people would be Confused (which really hurts your sales).


Presumably, if the unfought 1919 campaign actually gets implemented (see tanks, Berlin), J.F.C. Fuller is going to play a major role...

An important leverage point could be the Government of India Acts 1919 and 1935 - the faction of the Tories who supported it hoped it would lead to an India dominated by the princes, which sounds like it could be pretty fascist and have interesting consequences in the UK.


Charlie re point C randomhouse did the baroque cycle for stephenson. Are they a bad idea?


Another thought. Would it be possible to do something like Cryptonomicon with the laundry (beginnings of hellboy) as a link to the dieselpunk as a way of bringing ace on board. Or am I creating more problems than I solve. Probably. I'll shut up now. But I really would like you to write that book


I remember picking up the first trade princes book because it said Charles Stross on the front and Roger Zelazny on the back. About a day or two later, I finished it and went "This is nothing like Zelazny at all!" In fact, I was kinda disappointed that someone had put a woman in the 'Corwin' role, and then gone ahead and made all the characters including her merely lifesized. It was a Charles Stross sort of thing to do, but then you end up with the 'hero starts at level 1' fantasy trope, and y'don't even get near Zelazny's niche like that. Though the 'second half of the series is about completely different characters' thing sounds familiar.

But you say you've gotten the hang of pacing fat fantasy series now? And maybe you could bring over the feeling of background depth you write into the Laundry books, and your sci-fi stuff? I'd risk buying the first book of another series then, or the second half of this one, but I'm really pretty happy waiting for more Laundry and that sequel to Glasshouse you mentioned once. And by pretty happy, I mean jumping up and down and going "eeee" every time I think about it.


Well, from a sales and marketing point of view, steampunk is quite 'in' at the moment, and I would think that selling a fresh twist (same theme, different scenery) wouldn't be that difficult.

The problem is that given the lead time of writing and publishing, it's likely that steampunk is going to join sexy vampire fiction in the discount bookshop section.

On the other hand, you could go all Robert Harris / Fatherland - there's a market of people who don't read 'SF' but do real alternative history novels - and Fascism is close enough to Nazism in terms of marketing (a nice red/white/black cover with a logo that says 'a bit Nazi'). Put that together with the Nazis actually being British, rather than played by British actors, and our American heros, and that definitely sounds saleable to me.

The fact that your heroes are Burroughs and PKD less so . . . I think that's the part where it moves from commercial to weird. But the marketing people could play down that angle, just as Merchant Prince's was marketed as regular fantasy.

Anyway, looking forward to reading the final volume - especially to see if a hunch I've had since book 4 pays off.

And yes, whoever said 'Moorcock' has a point - anyone wanting to read this, but who hasn't already read the 'Warlord of the Air' sequence really should - seeing as it's theme is very much different kinds of Imperialism, explored through 3 alternate worlds - although obviously set in an earlier era.

I greatly enjoyed his 'Dancers At The End of Time' sequence too, for hitting on the great idea of combining a C19th comedy of manners with SF time travel tropes. I think that basic idea could be ripped off again (using different tropes).


I finished a book on Thursday and The Complete Paratime was second to be read; I just went ahead and started it last night since Charlie mentioned Piper. John F. Carr wrote the Introduction and it was stilted and talked down to readers. I don't know if the sequels are the same.


Here is another vote for that "barking mad alt-history dieselpunk novel". How about the point of the departure being something like the 1926 general strike (see The differences being that the Baldwin government did not bother to prepare for the strike, some of the strike leaders take the opportunity to try to make a genuine revolution and in desperation, the government allows the fascists to help break the strike. The fascists are then seen as saviors of the nation and become the government when the Baldwin government fails to adequately deal with the depression.


The general strike is much too late as a POD -- for one thing, it happened after Versailles and the beginning of the first German hyperinflation; there's going to be Trouble Again in Germany, and to make this alt-hist fly I'd have to figure out a way of avoiding the global conflagration of 1931-45.

However, as a lurker points out, there were interesting signs of fascism in the UK as early as 1912, and Home Rule was the catalyst.


Alternate fascist histories?

Surely the US is much more likely to go that way? "America First" / Lindbergh / ..... And, most likely, and the one that nearly succeeded, the attempted coup against Roosevelt in 1933?


The problem with the British Empire turning fascist (as opposed to militarist, racist, and imperialist, which it was already) is that you don't have the particular kind of combined but uneven development that you have in most of the Euro countries that do turn fascist. Germany pre-1933 was a world leader in medical science, but also a country where peasants in the countryside would visit their local barber to be bled twice a year.

The last outpost of such pre-modern, rural agrarian ways of thinking within the British Isles (or 'North Atlantic Archipelago' as the Dublin government once tried to rename this part of the world) was Ireland. And even that had started to disappear with the mass peasant movement for land reform that began in the late 1870s/early 1880s. So you'd need more than just a POD where the Easter Rising doesn't happen (though that might increase the chances of a fascist Britian all the same - the sort of embittered 14-18 veteran who joined the Freikorps in Germany enlisted in the Black and Tans over here).

Also, while a Jackbooted Britain might be recognisably fascist, it wouldn't call itself that - 'muscular constitutionalism', or perhaps 'lawful democracy' would be the watchwords, I'd say.

In conclusion - in the immortal words of Leonard Cohen, 'if these thoughts interest you for even a second, you are lost'.


Oddly, my first thought about alturno-history novel (well, the first thought after DO WANT), was, this sounds like something Warren Ellis would have fun with.

Mind you, on further thought, the idea of Ellis 'having fun' with an idea like an "ageing queen Adolf and his boyfriend Rudi Hess" is an image I want out of my mind right now.


Could be British facism with India mixed in - "indo-arian" partnership, the British-BJP-way?


An Indo-Aryan partnership won't fly either. What they used to call the 'colour bar' would have blocked that one.

A local arrangement to secure an indirect, neo-colonial adminsitration of India through a trusted local proxy? Sure - that was the pattern later one throughout most of the old colonial empire. But an equal partnership between the Anglo-Saxon elite and even the most princely of India's local rulers? Not a chance.


It wouldn't fly in the real world (and it didn't fly there ...) - but I'm not so sure if it couldn't made plausible and believeable, throwing the right switches. Some 1890s race theory, some colonial born members of the aristocracy, ... just keep in mind the real-world axis between nazi Germany and Japan!


If the British Empire goes fascist, then the USA probably would go fascist-lite whenever the Depression-analog hits in this ATL. The US then would have been too decentralized to become a #1 power if there's an intact British Empire, but they could have been close allies. You get things like FDR's New Deal but with a more fascist/technocratic spin.

Some of the 1930s US government iconography had definite fascist tinge to it:

For variety it might be fun to have France go communist, and have the Whites win in Russia turning it into a Capitalist powerhouse (with even more excesses than capitalist nations in OTL).

Have the US involved in constant interventions in Latin America (like Germany in Spain in OTL, but 10-fold). France could be involved in modernizing and developing it's African and/or Indochina colonies according to communist principles. Japan could be in a proxy war with Russia in China or in a real war with the US in the Pacific.


Not that it's useable for that fabulous fascist Britain idea, but there is a glorious fascist Britain called "What if Gordon Banks had played?" at where Banks plays in the 1970 QF, Wilson is re-elected, Enoch Powell replaces Heath as Tory leader and becomes Prime Minister, with Thatcher as his chief lieutenant, and we end up with unFascist Britain.


Wow. Add me to the list of those wanting to read your unwritten alternate history novel, that sounds amazing.


Remember: the first rule of Fascist Britain is that you don't call it Fascist Britain.

Princip's gun jams. Curragh happens. WW1 kicks off a bit later, when the UK political scene is very, um, volatile. Then the Germans win on the Marne. A 'stab in the back thesis' ensues, and lots of nastiness happens to those perceived as disloyal in Whitehall and beyond, hardenig attitudes all round. So although WW1 results in a broken-backed victory (fine soil for unfascism) for the Entente (with some kind of Russian revolution - another important ingredient for UFB), the UK is in a bit of a mess all round, Ireland's burning, and the workers are restless come the postwar slump...

As for research, think about how way off the mark Foulkes can be and still sell (NB: at no point read Derek Robinson, which would tend to slow you down). Just write the bugger, and we'll back you up, provided you give it a SEFT.


I just hope that Air Commodore Clark's rival, the eccentric American Rear Admiral Bobby Heinlein is in the book somewhere...


Sorry, but this is all crap.

Remember the way Edward VII was pushed rapidly out of the door, for fascist sympathies? ( The business over Wallis Simpson was true, but a VERY convenient excuse - to cover up his effective treason )

I repeat, the failed anti-Roosevelt coup in the US, which actually happened, is a much more likely scenario.


Who cares about what's the most likely -- given the cast of characters I don't think we're going for strict realism here. It's a fun scenario, with opportunities to add famous people in different unusual scenarios. I like the theme of putting in SF writers and such into new roles.

Here's another one: Ayzyek Azimov, director of the Soviet Union's Gosplan. His development of the Soviet science of psychohistory combined with an emphasis on automation (the USSR has the highest per-capita count of robots in the world) have allowed the USSR to become an economic powerhouse.

Just picture Foundation mixed with Soviet ideology... :)


Here's another possibly useful detail; James Connolly isn't tied to a chair and executed by the firing squad as per OTL, but lives to lead the Irish revolution in a leftward direction. . . which leads to the Irish community in Britain being portrayed as the 'enemy within' by the new proponents of Muscular Constitutionalism. . .


Dear Mr. Stross,

even if that "I'm going to cross the streams of The IPCRESS File and Heart of Darkness" novel will take 5 years

i really, Really, REALLY would like to read that ..

and i would be willing to subscribe that book .. in the old meaning of the word - paying for it before it was written or published ..

.. and i am pretty damn sure that if you set up a paypal button and state aprice you will get a lot of clicks on that button.


markus baur


@45 and the general concept.

Yep, understand both the 'time is committed' and the leadtime; those are presumably good things if there's any actual reader-driven plan, which will also take time.

So, we have two questions if folk are serious. (1) Would Our Gracious Host in fact consider the reader-funded model? and (2) if so, what level of $$ are we talking? [My guess from the recent post series is somewhere in the $10K-$15K range on the basis that all rights remain w/ said Host, but that guess is worth only marginally more than a third-hand Hubbard doorstop... and after reading the complexity of contracts in a well-defined author-agent-publisher universe, I am not sure that even given willingness, this will fly]

But: If (1) is yes and (2) seems doable... then details can be organised. By someone else :).


Ewan, I hate to say it ... but you can take that estimate of what it would cost and quadruple it.

(I'm more successful than average and I sell internationally and -- the big twist in the untold story -- my novels all earn out the advance and pay royalties on top. Which is a problem, if anything, because it ties me firmly into the existing publishing business model.)


@67 GET REAL Connolly "leads" Ireland even further backwards into the 13th Century, with a "return to true catholicism" movement....

NOT too different from what actually happened, and a nightmare from which Ireland is only now awakening, complete with religious child-abuse scandals.

Why do you think the CP was so closely modelled on the RC church? Because if you want to be REAL BASTARDS, that's the successful model to follow ......


There seems to be a bit of a movement going around with online authors doing vignettes, doing the work online as a serial type thing, some with input from the audience and some without, but the bottom line is you get paid and we get to see this strange and wonderful piece of alternate history and your publishers don't need to be involved or worried about the consequences per se. Just a thought.

Here is an example done by Max Barry:


A few sleep-deprived replies...

54, 60, 65 Been done (not all that well) by Philip Roth, poisoning it for the US market for at least another five years. The Plot Against America (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004) was nicely atmospheric, but depended upon multiple levels of idiot-plot antics and required more suspension of disbelief than would a more obvious departure.

Rightly or wrongly — probably wrongly — any "Fascist America Between the Wars" would be treated by the publishing industry over here as derivative of Roth... conveniently ignoring Lewis, Dos Passos, etc. It ordinarily takes at least a decade for that particular pustule (a name-literati American author goes slumming) to drain sufficiently that anyone will seriously consider acquiring such a work; right now, the problem is with the post-apocalyptic tale, as Cormac McCarthy has infected the wilderness (The Road) and Margaret Atwood has infected the urban areas (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood) with their respective inferior works.

46 Let's hope not; Fuller was, to put it mildly, an idiot. Casualties would be even higher than might have been imagined; Cambrai should already have proven that the "lesson" was a combination of mobility and combined arms, not armor. As late as 1929 Fuller was still advocating a 9:1 ratio of tanks to infantry, even with the tanks of the 1920s! And the less said about tanks in urban areas (see, e.g., Budapest in 1956 and Praha in 1968, with vastly more-advanced tanks), the better. Then, too, the logistical support just wasn't there, and hadn't even been imagined yet. Fuller, like most military-SF writers, had hardware on the brain without enough knowledge of anything else to actually use the hardware effectively. That he made flag rank says more about the Royal Army than we really want to know (although he was still a colonel in 1919, if memory serves).

In short, merely breaking the German front line would not have miraculously led to the end of the war, or even moved General Haig's drinks cabinet more than a few kilometers closer to Berlin. Until American logistical support became established in about summer 1919, nobody would have had the ability to exploit any breakthroughs... and once the American supply machine got close to the Strassbourg railhead, there would almost inevitably have been a negotiated peace as the French army mutinied yet again, the British started sending grammar-school boys to the front lines, and the Germans starved to death on both the military and home fronts. Meanwhile, the nastiness to the East — and that's more than just the Bolsheviks — would have been an ... interesting sideshow that constantly threatened to turn into the main event.


Thanks for that Greg, it's always good to start the day with a laugh!

Now, let's look at what Connolly actually wrote:

After Ireland is free, says the patriot who won’t touch socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you won’t pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic. Now, isn’t that worth fighting for?

Thus spake the prophet Connolly, and lo - it came to pass!

But as I was saying to Oswald Bastable the other day, these are not the words of a man who have looked fondly on the squalor of post-independence Ireland as it evolved in our particular branch of the time streams.


says more about the Royal Army

Eh? Perhaps there's a Royal Army in the alternate time line?

You are right about the loggie problems, though. Perhaps that's the twist in the 1919 plan - the breakthrough is achieved, but there simply aren't enough trucks to sustain the exploitation in depth. After the initial panic wears off, the Germans make a rapid retreat onto, say, the line of the Meuse. It's a much shorter line and therefore they can hold it much more thickly, while doing anything they like in the East. And, dammit, the tanks don't swim well yet.

So yes, a victory that isn't really, after even more bloodletting, and an example of (relatively) successful authoritarianism on the continent. Because anything much short of Versailles is going to leave Germany as the hegemonic power in Europe. This will be a considerably less fun status than it sounded like in 1914, but it's still good to be king.

I think Unfascist Britain will be heavily focused on envy and competition with the Americans, while having a rather sick special relationship with Germany. They can whistle for their damn war bonds. Meanwhile, the Police Attache requests that So-and-So be transferred into German custody and that no publicity be given to the matter.


C.D.G. Stross is a more easily marketed persona for the author of dieselpunk novels, so that is one way to stave off your publisher's people's Confusion.

Black Hearts of Ceylon sounds like great fun, and I can't wait for the sequels, Red Clubs of Shanghai and Diamonds of the High Altai.


Yep, it's the logistics which set the pattern of WW1. Rail networks in western Europe let you support the trenches, whether attacking or defending. The more mobile war in the east arises because there is more space, and less transport.

Still, look at the pace of the 1914 German offensive. The big problem by 1918 was getting supplies through the devastation of the front line area. (And maintaining tactical communications: wireless was barely usable. Twenty years later, you didn't need to string telephone wires to keep in contact with your advancing troops.)

Fuller's ideas for a 1919 offensive were dumb in so many ways. Even the tanks he was talking about didn't exist. It took over a year to get from the first tanks on the Somme to the Cambrai battle, from near prototypes to a usable version in sufficient numbers. What would have been available in 1919 would have been tanks such as the Mk VIII "Liberty" and the Medium Mk C, and neither would have had the range or speed to have shattered a defending army.

Fuller had his mind fixed on the tanks. Maybe bulldozers would have shown more return than his pet projects.


If trench lines are castle walls, early tanks are siege engines not cavalry.


The link to the China Mieville article seems borked. Could the following be the correct one?


I'm not convinced that Fuller would have played a part had things dragged out to 1919. He only made a name for himself as his views made him stand out among the pool of mediocrity that was the British Army once the post WW1 demobilisation process was over. Talented soldiers had either died a long time ago or were eager to get out of uniform.

But I would like to see what Tukachevsky and his peers would have done had they avoided Stalin's purges (a cameo by an Orthodox priest called Dzhugashvili as well ?).

(As an aside I feel that the "lions lead by donkeys" tag is unfairly applied to WW1, when 1940 saw incompetence on a truly global scale by the Army as the dross that stayed post WW2 reached command positions. But I digress.)

@73 Oh, and the grammar school boys crack is out of order, you're obviously not aware that in the trenches the life expectancy of the average subaltern (drawn from public and grammar schools) was shorter than for the private soldiers he lead. There's a reason the British Army didn't see front-line mutinies like other participants.

I'm not convinced that 1919 is particularly realistic either unless you can do something about the shift in technology to favouring the offensive (see Hundred Days, The) and the murderously effective naval blockade of Germany. Perhaps have Jutland happen in 1914 and result in a strategic victory for Germany ?


Y'all need to go away and read Terraine's 1918, then come back. And once you've done that, check out what was going on on the Salonika and Italian 'fronts'. Prague was Allied in October 1918, and it's a lot closer to Berlin than is Amiens.

I could go on and on about this, but I have other priorities - notably, I am off to have a cup of tea with the world's premier authority on Moltke the Younger.

I have every wish for Charlie to write a C20th alhist, but no wish whatsoever for him to bankrupt himself in the process.


Charlie didn't get much R and R. His only way out of the war was death, or victory.


Lets KILL this "lions led by donkeys" and "our commanders were all idiots" pair of tropes, shall we?

Yes, by some standards we didn't do well, and the casualties were truly appalling .... and yet. The British and Brit-empire casualty rate was the LOWEST of all the major WWI combatants. If you don't believe me, look at the actual numbers.

Better still just COUNT the numbers on a village war memorial here, then go to Germany or France, and do the same thing. Done that, I can tell you, and it is truly scary.


83 We're going to have to agree to disagree. Donkeys would be insulted by that comparison; the soldiery/sailory/usually aircrewery were largely hyenas, not lions; and the flag-rank leadership of the major combatants — not just the UK — met the then-current clinical definition of "idiots" all too well.

All of that said, let me point out a serious reasoning problem:

The British and Brit-empire casualty rate was the LOWEST of all the major WWI combatants.
But putting oneself in the position of playing attrition games against a vastly larger opponent borders on idiocy... and doing it wastefully and incompetently crosses that border. Too, it fails to accept that maybe both sides were led by idiots, and "victory" was a product of chance!


As I noted, I was sleep-deprived, and therefore didn't make things clear: I was referring to age, not social class. By 1919, the British Army (once again, "Royal Army" is the current designation, and it was o-dark-thirty here) would have been putting 15- and 16-year-olds in the trenches to maintain the manpower numbers of 1917.

Also, one further clarification: I know full well that Margaret Atwood isn't an American. However, the publishing industry on this side of the pond treats her as one. (Had she been a few years older, she would have followed the Robertson Davies path and been treated, perhaps, as a Brit.) Further, her postapocalyptic works are set in either explicitly or impliedly the US.


85: '"Royal Army" is the current designation'

No 's not. As for the rest, I don't agree with that either. Books, mate, books. Terraine, Beckett, Todman, SHeffield. Even Prior will shift your position a little.


There are historic political reasons why it's a Royal Navy but a British Army. Individual units frequently have a "Royal" prefix, and the Air Force an Marines are Royal, too ... but the Army's descended from an army raised by parliament, as a collection of local units, and parliamentary assent is (or was) required to maintain a standing army.

The historical origins of this arrangement lie in the period leading up to Charles Stuart's Haircut.


once again, "Royal Army" is the current designation

Owing to a certain spot of unpleasantness in the the 17th century, the Army of the United Kingdom remains the British Army as opposed to the Royal Navy, Air Force, and Marines. Parliament is jealous of its land forces.


In all the talk about what would have happened if WWI had lasted until 1919, you forget that Germany had a revolution in November 1918 ...

A more plausible scenario would be not to have the conditions in Germany and Austria that led to the rise of fascism, namely a less Carthageian peace in the treaty of Versaille. (Any questions about that one are exhaustively discussed in John Maynard Keynes book "The economic consequences of the peace", 1919 - to be found on



Thanks for the explanation about why the first book ended so abruptly. I just finished it(and ordered books 2,3,4 by the way), but I still growled when I finished the first book because it didn't really end, it just stopped...Looking forward to catching up with the series, thanks for another interesting set of tales.


parliamentary assent is (or was) required to maintain a standing army

Still is, but the authorisation is now only renewed once a Parliament, instead of annually.


On "Royal Army", y'all are right; I was operating on individual unit designations (and still on little sleep). My bad; fortunately, I don't think anyone thought I was referring to a different organization...

On your reading list, Mr/Ms Williams, I must disagree. I have, in fact, read those sources (or, at least, I've read book-length works by authors with those names, and it's entirely possible that you mean different books and/or persons, as a couple of them are not-uncommon names). I have read a lot more sources, and dealt with primary documents in the area, too; and the Beckett I read is, umm, not entirely consistent with the primary sources.


Well, cepetit, if you've got a spare five minutes, why not post some exceptionally terse references (WO files if necessary, I'm not fussed, and I get paid to do this) which prove to your satisfaction why that lot I mentioned above are wrong and you are right? I might even change my mind - it's been known to happen.


Please contact me via e-mail offline; I am not going to hijack this topic.


cepetit: I think that if you're going to insinuate in one particular forum that a professional historian (and, as it happens, a colleague of mine) is making stuff up and/or is unreliably incompetent, then you need to put up or shut up in that same forum. If it's annoying Charlie, he'll tell me to stop - he's done it before.


No. I hope Our Gracious Host pardons my apparent incivility, but:

We're going to verify the identity of the subject matter first. And don't throw that "my colleague the professional historian" in the face of a former professional military historian before you do so.


Funny that you mention stealing from Zelazny—since he stole the premise for Amber from Philip Jose Farmer's "world of tiers" series.


And don't throw that "my colleague the professional historian" in the face of a former professional military historian before you do so.

Being a former military historian doesn't absolve you from the responsibility of being careful with accusations of professional misconduct.


I'm not quite sure what you're after in terms of identity, but it was: John Terraine, Ian Beckett, Dan Todman, Gary Sheffield and Robin Prior. NB - I am happy with Sheffield's military revisionism of WW1, but I am not in agreement with aspects of his political revisionism.


Still not sufficient, as there are two particular books by one of those authors — among quite a few — that are a problem.






cepetit: "the Beckett I read is, umm, not entirely consistent with the primary sources."

I'm going to interpret the absence of any actual evidence to back up this accusation, here on this thread, as a strong indicator that there isn't any. Like I said earlier, feel free to be terse with the primary source references - I won't be at the PRO til next week, but I can probably spare a couple of hours when I get there. Likewise BL.

I do rather think that it's 'put up or shut up' time on this one.


In terms of the general story arc of The Merchant Princes, when I started reading it some of the aspects reminded me of Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame series. (Note that there are two Joel Rosenberg authors that frequently turn up in web searches. I'm referring to the one that writes fantasy, not the one that writes about Islam.) In the series, a bunch of college kids are transported to an alternate world. They embark on a quest to find the necessary doodad to return home, but eventually decide to stay in order to wage war against slavery.

It's a lot more traditional with its fantasy elements - wizards, priests, dragons, dwarves, elves, magic items, and so forth.

I'm curious if Charles had read it, and if it was an influence. I would guess, though, that it's just another author separately inspired by Zelazny.


Mike: Joel Rosenberg is not, as far as I know, published in the UK. I've never read any of his work.


For the bystanders on the debate about World War 1, perhaps a starting point on what the issues are is the BBC web page.

For fiction influenced by the war, consider the tales of Lord Peter Wimsey, by Dorothy L. Sayers. He is explicitly a shell-shocked war veteran. Also, think of what the casualties meant for young women such as Harriet Vane--a shortage of "suitable" young men.

A less certain example is Simon Templar. In the early stories, there are occasional references to the war, consistent with him being a veteran. Stories within my family--two great-uncles were police officers in the 1920s--suggest that whole class of fictional adventurer had some inspiration in reality.

And remember this: on the 11th November 1914. at First Ypres, a last-ditch collection of cooks, servants, and clerks, from ordinary British infantry battalions, stopped the Prussian Guard.

By 1918, the pre-war professional British Army was mostly dead. The wartime volunteers and conscripts stopped the German attacks of early 1918, and went on to smash the German Armies, from August onwards.

Led by donkeys? I don't think so.


I was in Ypres (Ieper) last weekend. My friends and I concluded our stay by going for a walk in the countryside, where the trenches used to run, hoping to find some artifacts. When asking a local farmer permission to walk his fields, he showed us the heaps of stuff he'd been plowing out of them. Among the unexploded ordinance was a shell the size of my parents' dog (Border Collie), and no doubt many times heavier.


Indo-British; Tory-BJP alliance? If Randolph Churchill had stayed healthy another ten years? If he'd talked British Parliament into including Indian MPs in an Imperial Parliament as well as the princes in the House of Lords?

The White Socialism reaction might well have kicked in a 'muscular constitutionalist' or Muscular Commonwealth. Then, if the British Expeditionary Force had got killed along the canal between Kaisershaven and the Baltic, the Germans would have won a battle fought with high explosives on their own territory: since WWII (when that happened, if you believe the USAF bomb results study) the German peace movement has had real teeth.


I so want to read that straight alt-hist novel.


Charlie, you'll meet Joel Rosenberg at Minicon, and I think he may be one of the people DD-B is thinking of borrowing from.


doubleplusgood on the dieselpunk.

As to anti-LOTR, Glen Cook's "Black Company" saga is the be-all and end-all to me. Croaker forever! (Although "Grunts" is pretty wonderful, too).

Charlie, very much enjoyed seeing you at Boskone. Now I just have to run down HB's of your earlier stuff, my paperbacks are getting ragged from rereading.

Thanks for all the great posts and illumination on the writer's trade.


$60k. Well, my guess is that puts the kibosh on plan A.

[Deleted ramblings on the People's Committee for Stross Dieselpunk and various schemes to elevate royalty streams; ah well.]


A zillionth comment in favor of the alternate history, if ever you can get around to it. And one more idea:

How about you switch the fate of the German revolution, at least temporarily? In 1919, the Spartacists (Rosa Luxemburg et al) succeed in taking power. This came very close to happening - if you're interested in the long version, read Pierre Broue. But that leads to a renewed WWI, as British & American capital aren't about to put up with a communist Germany. And in the event, the Anglos win. Then you get (1) your occupation of Germany and (2) an additional impulse to fascism in Britain, as communism appears an even bigger threat than in reality.


Got my copy on from the bookdepository in the mail on the 22nd March, just got around to picking it up today - the book looks great, looking forward to reading it :)



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on March 12, 2010 11:54 AM.

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