Ideas are cheap.
They're so damn easy to come by that I have difficulty understanding why so many people seem to want to ask me where I get my ideas from. All I do is read widely, and periodically bang a couple of random ideas together until I get a spark. It takes, on average, six to nine months to write a novel; but in brainstorming mode I can come up with half a dozen book-sized ideas in a week.
I have more ideas for books than I have time to write them. Also, some of these ideas are of ... dubious, shall we say ... commercial value.
These are book proposals that caught my attention for long enough that I made notes on the topic, in some cases pitched them at my agent or a passing editor or even a potential co-author. But for one reason or another, the opportune moment never came; or the editor was less than interested, or whatever. So it's about time I cracked the covers on a few of the concepts that didn't make it into my production queue.
First, from late 2001: the book I nearly wrote instead of "The Family Trade".
The scene: a starving author's garret. It's October of 2001, and I've signed a contract with Ace for two science fiction novels — specifically space operas. The first novel (eventually to be retitled "Singularity Sky") is in; the second novel ("Iron Sunrise") is nearly finished. Buried in the small-print there's a clause promising that I shall offer my next SF novel to Ace and give them first refusal on it before shopping it around. And I'm 18 months into living by my wits as a full-time freelance author and computer journalist, my previous change of employment status having coincided unfortunately with the dot-com bust.
I get an email from my agent. "Okay, so 'Iron Sunrise' is finished. That's good," it says, or words to that effect. "But you know that 'Singularity Sky' won't be out until summer next year? And they won't run 'Iron Sunrise' any sooner than 12 months after that. Have you thought about what you're going to do for the next two years?"
"Starve" is the thought that's going through my head at this point. (My book advances in 2002 were, shall we say, not enough to live on.) "Got any bright ideas?" I asked.
"Ace have an option on your SF output," she replied. "How about you have a think about writing a big fat fantasy series or an alternate history or something that I can sell without breaking your Ace contract, and make us both lots of money?"
(I ❤ my agent.)
Unfortunately I have an ideological problem with high fantasy, and this was before my urban fantasy/spy crossover thing went anywhere. ("The Atrocity Archive" was being serialized in Spectrum SF, a small Scottish magazine; my agent couldn't figure out how to sell it to a book-format publisher, and indeed it didn't catch fire for a couple more years.)
My problem with high fantasy is this: I come from a nation that has a real, no-shit monarchy and aristocracy. Consequently you get to learn about this stuff in high school, and see its stilted echoes on the TV news every week. Monarchism, the default political stance of high fantasy, sucks. We have a term for its latter-day incarnation: we call it "hereditary dictatorship", and point to North Korea for an example. From the point of view of most of the population, your typical fantasyland is not a utopia. Anything but! And to make matters worse, the traditional format of a high fantasy novel is that some source of disruption threatens to destabilize the land; it is up to the hero (usually it is a 'he') to set things right and restore the order of benign tyranny to the world. Fantasy, in short, is frequently consolatory, and I don't get on with it.
(Yes, there are exceptions: China Mieville, the new weird, yadda yadda. But throw yourself back to 2002. These exceptions were somewhat less visible then than they are today.)
((Incidentally, my problem with high fantasy probably tells you where the Merchant Princes series is coming from. Yes, in structural terms Miriam is the dark lord. Her enemies want only what the heroes of a high fantasy story traditionally want. OK?))
High fantasy didn't appeal much, but alternate history is an entirely different matter. So I dived straight in, and here's the proposal I generated.
First, some deviant history:Can you guess why this novel never got written? (Hint: "dieselpunk" was not a word on everyone's lips back in 2002 ...)
The year is 1950 -- but it's not our 1950. Things began to go off the rails, history-wise, in 1917-1918. Lawrence of Arabia was shot dead at the gates of Damascus, for example: the whole face of the middle east is utterly different. Trotsky had flu in October 1917 — the Bolshevik revolution happened in early 1918, and Stalin got himself killed in the process. Because of the late Russian collapse, World War One ended differently in this universe: the Kaisershlacht started in June (not April), the German high command collapsed in January 1919, and Germany was actually occupied by Allied forces (including the first large-scale deployment of what would later be called Blitzkrieg warfare — this was actually planned, but never used because of the German capitulation in November 1918). Germany was invaded, subjugated — no support for the "stab in the back" theory that Hitler used so effectively.
(In this world, Hitler ends up in Spandau prison in 1923: but instead of being there for treason, he's there for sexual offenses. He later becomes a gangster in Hamburg, and features in the Plot. Ditto Mussolini; he doesn't become Duce. In fact, in this world, Fascism is invented in Britain.)
Trotsky follows Lenin, and a series of bloody skirmishes are fought on the borders of the Soviet empire during the 1920's. Then the Great Depression arrives more or less on schedule, and everything goes to pieces. Britain has been trying to hold on to empire much harder in this history than in our own. Imperialism breeds repression breeds ... well, the results aren't pretty. In 1937, Moseley's New Party seizes power and declares a Republic. There's a worldwide clampdown as the Republican Empire tries to hang on to its assets with a bulldog grip. Moseley is followed in 1942 by Chairman Blair, veteran leader of the Authority's forces during the Spanish Civil War. Britain is under the grip of a grey, iron dictatorship aimed squarely at defying the looming forces of Communism, that squat on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone that is Germany.
By 1950, World War Two is imminent — and it's going to be a war between the Republican Empire and the Soviet Union. America is beginning to awaken >from a period of isolationism, punctuated by a short and inconclusive war with Japan in the mid-1940's; far-seeing diplomats realise that if they allow Fascism to take over the fragile democracies of the DMZ they'll end up standing alone against whichever dictatorship wins. And so they start a rearmament program and create an organisation — the OSS by any other name — to send agents into Europe and figure out what's going on.
And now, the plot:
Heroin is coming west across the Atlantic, from somewhere in the DMZ. In return, Differential Analyzers (early computers) are going east. The OSS want to know why. Cynical veteran Bill is called out of semi-retirement as station officer in Morocco and teamed up with a weird, dreamy wet- behind the ears agent called Phil K: their task is to follow the heroin supply back to its source somewhere near Afghanistan and to work out who's buying the computers.
(This is all rooted in a vision I had, of William S. Burroughs as a CIA agent, and Philip K. Dick as his young henchman, going head-to-head with notorious gangster and pervert Adolf Hitler somewhere in Hamburg to find out where Hitler is shipping all the computers he can get his hands on.)
The Great Game of the 19th century — between the British and Russian Empires — has hotted up; Afghanistan is occupied by the British (who are policing it with strategic bombers and nerve gas), while huge rows of fortresses block the Panjshir valley and the approaches to India. The heroin Hitler is smuggling comes from out East, deep in India. To get to the source Bill and Phil have to smuggle themselves at great peril through the dark periphery of the British empire, all the way to the depopulated island of Ceylon — where under the protection of the suavely sinister British secret policeman Ian Fleming, Doctor Clarke's team of engineers and astronomers are putting together a secret terror weapon that will threaten everyone on Earth.
(I want to have Ian Fleming as the bad guy in command of a James Bond style mountainside secret hideout, complete with en suite hot and cold running super-weapons. With Arthur C. Clarke as the scientist in charge of the space program — if I can get him to agree not to sue!)
The McGuffin that's going to be hinted at throughout is that although nuclear weapons don't officially exist, various nations have nuclear reactors, the British Republic's Navy has nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers ... so where are the bombs? The answer is in Ceylon, and that's where our heroes follow the trail of stolen computers. The British are building an atomic pulse-detonation powered spaceship (based on Freeman Dyson's Orion design), which needs about fifty A-bombs just to nuke its way out of the atmosphere — and which is why they've evacuated Ceylon. With a nuclear powered space navy Big Brother Blair's dictatorship will be unassailable: which threat gives me the time pressure that drives our OSS heroes towards a climax in which they have to choose which evil empire to do business with.
(In the next thrilling episode: the early pitches and proposals for "The Merchant Princes".)