On Being Between Projects

So, I finished and submitted my tenth novel. Now, what do I do?

Finishing the last book in a trilogy or series always provokes a bittersweet reaction. You’ve spent months, perhaps even years, working in that world with those characters, and now it’s all over. You’ve been aiming at the ending for so long, you don’t know what to do with yourself now it’s here.

There’s a definite Sisyphean element to being a writer. You give everything you’ve got in order to scale the peak of each book, only to find yourself right back down at the bottom of the hill again as soon as you’ve finished, with the next peak looming before you.

Sometimes, it can be hard to shake off your last book. You find the ideas you’re getting for the new one are suspiciously familiar, and the characters have the same sorts of attitudes and backstories as the ones to whom you’ve just bid adieu.

As seven of my novels have been space operas, I sometimes worry about becoming repetitive. But those books have been well-received and have attracted an enthusiastic audience. How do I produce something new and startling while also giving that established readership what they want, which is more of the same?

I remember seeing Iain Banks talking at a convention some years back. He described his process as six months of very hard thinking followed by six months of frantic writing. But those months of hard thinking were every bit as much a part of writing a book as the actual composition. He had to find and refine his ideas until he had something worth writing.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to think very hard. I’m going to read a lot, take long walks, browse science and tech newsfeeds, and ask What if? questions until inspiration strikes.

It won’t look like writing, but it will be.

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Science Fiction’s Secret Weakness Chamber

The other night, I watched Battle: Los Angeles, and while it was okay as a piece of reasonably brainless entertainment, it still suffered from what I call S.W.C.S. – Secret Weakness Chamber Syndrome.

Ever since the exhaust vent on the Death Star in Star Wars, all evil alien technology has come with a secret weakness, which is usually housed in a handy ‘secret weakness chamber’ located at the heart of the alien’s stronghold. This weakness allows our out-gunned and out-numbered heroes to defeat vast armies with a single blow.

In the Avengers and Independence Day, the alien hordes are controlled by a central mothership, the loss of which disables their forces. There’s a similar set-up in Edge of Tomorrow and Starship Troopers, in which the aliens troops are telepathically controlled by a single entity. In Battle Los Angeles, all the aliens’ technology is controlled via centralised command and control nodes, which just happen to make handy targets for the plucky marines. And in Captain America: Winter Soldier, the mechanism for disabling the deadly armoured helicarriers is housed, for some inexplicable reason, in easily accessible glass bubbles on the bottoms of their hulls.

And let’s not forget the Borg from Star Trek.

These weaknesses, or magic off-switches, can probably be traced back to War of The Worlds by H.G.Wells where, as I’m sure you already know, the Martian invaders – having defeated everything humanity can throw at them – are finally destroyed by germs.

These secret weaknesses make for involving plots, where the good guys get to fight back against seemingly overwhelming odds – but reality just isn’t that tidy. There is no simple re-set button to cancel the alien invasion. Instead of wiping them all out in a single explosion, you’re more likely to end up with alien casualties, prisoners-of-war, and¬†guerrilla¬†resistance. This is the lesson the US learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that Russia may soon learn in Ukraine: nothing ends cleanly.

That’s why in my novels The Recollection and The Embers of War trilogy, I confronted humanity with seemingly unstoppable foes; and purposely neglected to provide those foes with secret weaknesses. There is no off-switch, no central brain or control system; and so none of the usual space opera narratives work.

Sometimes, you can win a temporary cessation of hostilities. Other times, all you can do is fall back. Fall back, and survive.

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