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Welcome to:

Posted on 2008.07.31 at 19:05
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This is a title page. For the newest entry, scroll down or click "previous"



This is a world that, five hundred years ago, was enslaved by magicians
and charlatans, and is now enslaved by a lust for profit 
and the machines of its engineers.

This is a world where men and women fly on stolen insect wings, 
fight with the borrowed claws of the mantis, 
and share the hive mind of the ants.


This is the world where the destructive might of the vast Wasp Empire is massing 
against the divided and bickering city states of the Lowlands
and only one man can see the storm coming.


Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky is due to be published by Macmillan in July 2008


This blog tells the story behind the story.

Now read on.

Navigation: As the blog skips around, follow the Empire tag for entries on the book, backstory, world and plot; follow the Publishing tag for entries on the publishing process; follow the Writing tag for entries about the writing process in general; follow the Insects tag for entries concerning them; follow the Digressions tag for entries relating to nothing whatsoever.

Moving to Grander Premises

Posted on 2008.06.30 at 21:54

Empire Rising is moving!

The blog has been ceremonially translocated to:


the new official website for Empire in Black and Gold, the insect-kinden and their world.

Blog entries have been ported across but comments didn't make it, so feel free to repost them there, or post different ones, as you prefer.

As well as the blog the site will accumulate bonus material (!) including artwork, short stories and the like, as well as news about forthcoming books.

Look forward to seeing you all there.

Now is the time for all good men...

Posted on 2008.06.12 at 18:40

Well, the moment fast approaches to see whether this beastie can survive in the wild, so...

To celebrate the publication of his debut novel, Empire in Black and Gold
will be signing copies of the book at Waterstone's,
United Reform Building, 89a Broad Street, Reading RG1 2AP
SATURDAY 5th JULY, 3-5pm


For those wishing to attend, it may be wise to pre-order the book from the shop, to have a copy waiting. The website for this is 

All welcome! bring your friends, bring your family, bring your enemies and beat them to death with a copy (1, 2)

Also, in support of Independent Bookseller's Week I'll be giving a reading and a little talk at the Garforth library (Garforth is just outside Leeds) at 10.30am on 12th July, followed by signing at the local independent bookshop at 11.30. Again, all welcome. (3)

(1) At around 600 pages it's got a decent heft to it. However, if you prefer to serve your revenge cold, book 3 looks like it might have real damage potential
(2) Obviously you should pay for the book first.
(3) Yes, it's a week later than the actual independent bookseller's week, yes, and yes, in the relevant week I'm signing at Waterstones. The irony isn't lost on me.

Choose your Words Carefully

Posted on 2008.06.11 at 20:11

There are reasons why many fantasy stories take place in an ersatz Merrie Englande composed of equal parts Robin Hood, King Arthur, Prtince Valiant and cheese. Of course, one reason is imaginative bankruptcy, but there's more to it than that. The more you sing a tune the audience has heard before, the more they can fill in the words for themselves. Hence the standard fantasy landscape of castles, forests, wolves, elves, wizards, vampires and all that jazz (1).

If your setting is less stereotypical, your path less trodden, then you have a cognitive gap to make up. If your world deviates from the world, then in those places where fiction and fact fail to meet, you can trip yourself up no end. Mind the Gap.

Example the first: zoology.

The insect kinden live in a world devoid of land vertebrates save for a very few domesticated exceptions that humanity was able to save from the chitinous purge. All well and good. Only when you come to the nuts and bolts of it, though, do you realise just how much of our language is built from animal metaphors: take the bull by the horns, hawks and doves, the cat that got the cream, fox amongst the pigeons, a tiger by the tail and so on and so forth. Frequently the animal imagery is second nature, the natural cliché to slip in, to save a hundred words.

But: no bulls (2), hawks, doves, cats, foxes, pigeons, tigers, mice, elephants, dinosaurs, duck-billed platypes or any of the rest of the crowd. The insects got 'em, every last one (3).

The metaphors and similes are actually relatively easily avoidable (4). However, there is a deeper level where the bestial has become the etymological: hounding your footsteps, dogged expressions, being his catspaw, hawk-featured (5). Worse, there are some anomalies that are basically unavoidable, because the invertebrate is named for the vertebrate: how can I have dragonflies, stag beetles or skunk-nosed woolla-woolla weevils (6) when I have no dragons (8), stags or skunks?

Two choices face the desperate writer at this juncture. Firstly he descends into gibberish and calls it either

(a) A Schwoedge, which is just meaningless.

(b) A Razorwing, which is just gratuitous

(c) An Arcturian Mega-Fly, which is just borrowing from Douglas Adams.

Secondly, he calls the bastard a dragonfly and uses the linguistics defence. The linguistics defence runs as follows: these people are not speaking English. They are speaking some mad language of their own, that your humble raconteur has translated into something you, the eager reader, can understand. Whilst those fictional people will call our dragonfly something like (a), (b) or, admittedly less likely, (c) above, I decipher their nomenclature to identify the thing as what you, in your innocence, know as a dragonfly. Hey presto, dragonflies without dragons.

Example the second: divinity

So, you have a world without religions: no concept of god, hell or the devil has come to trouble them. The missionaries never arrived (9) and the natives live in a state of grace.

This is a lot more difficult than the animal issue, because our language is riddled with religious terms, and when we get het up about things, as characters in fantasy novels often are, such oaths tend to rise to the surface. I won't go into the same level of detail, but suffice to say that I had a hell of a time hunting down the damned things, and lord knows I surely missed a few. Of course, although there are no religions, some of the Inapt kinden have a spiritual framework, so when a Mantis-kinden talks of being damned, for example, that is in keeping. It's a moveable last supper, so to speak.

Example the third: modernity

David Gemmell once said to me (10) that he used the phrase "to fire" of bows and arrows in one of his books, and was challenged about it (11), and in his defence was forced to invent a lost mechanistic past to account for one of his characters using the phrase. Of course, Gemmell's work is pulp-style fantasy, and lost races and ancient technologies are very much in keeping, but it might have been simply just to yank out the chap's beard (12) in a fit of pique and leave the backstory where it was. However, the point stuck in my mind, and - by Toutas! - I have done my bloody level best to ensure that nobody fires a bow, or a crossbow, or a ballista. Nobody even fires a nailbow, which is a kind of rather primitive gunpowder repeater, because they're very new and unreliable and there hasn't been the opportunity for the phrase "give fire" (from musket drill originall I think) to transform into the everyday very "to fire a weapon". Am I a perfectionist? Count how many of the sods I've missed and then ask me.


(1) Or at least Hawkwind-ish heavy metal.

(2) I confess to the phrase "take the beetle by the horns" appearing in book 2 somewhere, unless they edit it out.

(3) There's a tragic story in that: the last duck-billed platypus, growling and snarling, backed into a corner by a weta the size of your head.

(4) by saying this I'm guaranteeing that one has slipped through, and will be brought to my attention at every available opportunity.

(5) Although no problem with beetle brows or the bee's knees.

(6) I made that one up (7)

(7) At least I think I made that one up. Given the million or so insect species kicking about, maybe I didn't.

(8) Absolutely no dragons. Also no elves or dwarves. Some wizards, however. Perhaps fantasy books should come with some sort of dragon-content warning on the back cover?

(9) and/or were eaten by enormous insects.

(10) in all honesty he also said it to the large crowd of people I was hidden amongst.

(11) almost certainly by a civil war re-enactor, frankly.

(12) You know the objector had a beard, you just do.



Six Legs Bad - Two Legs Worse

Posted on 2008.05.18 at 22:12
Tags: ,

From childhood's hour I have not been / As others were; I have not seen / As others saw; I could not bring /
My passions from a common spring

wrote Edgar Allan Poe (1), although very few fantasists haven't felt like that on occasion. It's a genre that traditionally appeals to the odd and the misadjusted. Fiction about other worlds will be more attractive to those who find their world somewhat lacking.

So, a small digression, as it's been a while since I wrote about... insects, for example (2). I put forward the following as a reasonable touchstone of the way most people seem to see insects.:


I like insects. I find them aesthetically pleasing. I'm not alone in this, but it's decidedly a minority position, occupied by me and Jean Henri Fabre (3) and a handful of entomologists (5, 6). There's an Oxfam advert on the screens at the moment where various words from papers take on a life of their own and turn into centipedes or moths or similar, before we come across an enormous injustice-monster that is disposed of by people gobbing sparks at it. Well, all very well, but it relies on the viewer making certain associations. You're probably not meant to watch and think how nice the creepy insects look.

Empire might be carving itself a new niche. Forget pretty butterflies and industrious bees, in fiction insects show up mostly as expendable villains - see the implacable insect enemy in Swainstone's Year of Our War, for instance. Insects, in their infinite variety, tend to end up symbolising slavish uniformity, a mindless advance and urge to increase (7). Insects and robots, although these days, with AI being fashionable, robots are traditionally accorded more humanity, and possibly even representing the future of humanity (8).

But insects have a role to play in literature. They show us the dark side of ourselves. There is a particular literary tradition in this, and it is an Eastern European one. Man as insect. Insect as man. I think it's the variety and specialisation of insects that opens the doors for this: forget all that valedictory business about eagles and lions as wonderful expemplars of human virtues (11), we all know that it's the flaws that maketh the man, that heroism and virtue can only shine against a background of darkness. Because insects live determined, conventrated, single-minded (or mindless) lives, they become another kind of exemplar, for all the things that we cannot deny, but would rather not say about ourselves.

Three examples:

Poor old Gregor Samsa wakes up as a beetle (12), and receives some fairly shabby treatment from his nearest and dearest.

In The Insect Play the brothers Capek have their tramp protagonist act as a voyeuristic commentator on the bitter, murderous struggles of the insects around him, the fickleness of butterflies, the genocidal wars of ants, the bug-eat-bug world of carnivores and parasites (and snails with speech impediments). It's worth a note that los bros Capek are better known for their RUR, a very early take on (decidedly unfriendly (13) ) artificial intelligence, which gave the west the word 'robot' in the first place.

If you really want to twist your brain, find a copy of Viktor Pelevin's Life of Insects, a supremely disorienting piece of work where characters shift seamlessly between the insect and the human. After finishing the book the reader is prone to scrutenise his fellow human beings, like the narrator from The Island of Doctor Moreau, wondering if one can see the bug beneath the skin.

There's quite a heritage of the insect not as Other, bus as Us, in our worst moments -six legs bad = two legs worse. Of course, I'm dragging the tradition from the satirical into the fantastical with Empire, but it's interesting to note (especially after Pelevin, whom I only discovered recently) that others have been inspired to show the finger of man and the claw of the insect reaching towards one another like a distorting mirror of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I may, of course, be the first to find some positives in amongst the negatives.

Two legs good. Six legs better?


(1) From Alone

(2) ie. the way people view insects, not the way insects view the world. There probably isn't a bee somewhere painting its honeycomb black and complaining that its mother doesn't understand it.

(3) Father of modern entomology, who combined a fluid writing style and a rigorous scientific method to demonstrate, frequently, just how mindboggling stupid insects are. One of his more spectacular experiments involved firing a cannon at some cicadas. (4)

(4) Also one of the few times he was wrong. As the cicadas didn't flick an antennae at the sound, he claimed that the fabulously noisy insects were deaf. In fact they hear extremely well, but they have no interest in any sound not being produced by a cicada.

(5) Originally typed "entomologeists". Who you gonna call?

(6) Possibly fewer than you think. I was disappointed to discover at University that a large proportion of insect study is preparation for doing away with as many of them as possible. It's a bit like seeing Bill Oddie going after the rooks with a shotgun.

(7) It’s apparently a little understood fact, in creative circles, that most insects aren’t social. The social insects, however, are lauded by naturalists as the apex of insect evolution, and why not? They are famers, builders, slave-takers, war-makers, all the things that make them the insects most like us, and yet they are used to often to symbolise being alien and facelessly inhuman.

(8) The word for this is, I think, "transhumanism". I refer my honourable friend firstly to the cartoonist Dresden Kodak (9) who makes a continuing case for the idea of humanity's onward evolution, and secondly simply to the very sympathetic way that intelligent machines are often portrayed in fiction these days - they have gone from being either the terrible but fallible oppressor or the slavish and devoted servant to being something more mature and intelligent than the mere human - Ian M. Banks is one of the chief exponents of this, of course. I do wonder if one reason that the film I Robot didn't satisfy was that the whole muderous mechanical idea is so out of fashion, so very 20th century. (10)

(9) Read the blog entry at the foot of the comic at http://dresdencodak.com/cartoons/dc_040.html  Then read the rest of the site.

(10) Or, if you prefer, so very 2001 - and it's telling that a certain amount of the follow-on to that plays apologist for bloody-handed Hal's actions.

(11) In the case of lions, especially, notably inaccurate. Four decades of nature documentaries have exposed them as lazy, inept, misogynist child-killers.

(12) usually cockroach, but if I have this right the word Kafka uses has no specific species denotation. In fact I'll stick my neck out and say that I think the strict translation is "vermin", although I'll wait for Tiwla to correct me on this.

(13) but, depending on how you read the play, not unjustifiably unfriendly. The revolt of the robots, whilst genocidal and desstructive, is a revolt of slaves against vastly cruel and callous masters.


The Ants Go Marching...

Posted on 2008.04.30 at 22:44

Warfare amongst the Kinden changed irrevocably after the Apt revolution, and continues to change with each artificer's refinements. In the Lowlands the main model for an army is that of the Ant-kinden, who hold themselves supreme in the field of mass combat (1). The other major Apt model is that of the Wasp Empire's many armies, which have developed to make best use of that kinden's particular Art. The Spiderlands and Commonweal can also muster large armed hosts when the need arises, frequently considerably larger than those of their Apt brethren, Here, then, is a brief guide to war amongst the insect-kinden, how it is carried out, and its future.


The Inapt Model Army: the Warband and the Levy

The traditional Inapt or pre-revolutionary army, as might have been fielded by the Moth-kinden before they were cast down by their slaves, is one of inequality. A minority of the troops on the field were skilled warriors, of whom the bards sang and the poets spoke: their rivalries, duels and clashes were recorded in frankly interminable detail by the wordsmiths of the time, and, of the balance of the soldiers brought to battle, it was only said that these heroes slew their hundreds, and their tens of hundreds.

The chief warriors of the Moth armies were Mantis-kinden, and their way of making war has changed little over the centuries. They form their warbands, loose-knit mobs of however many warriors have the inclination. They move swiftly over the countryside, using all stealth despite their numbers, and they launch sudden ambushes or attacks against an unwary foe, or simply meet a wary one head on in the field. Each Mantis, with all the skill of his or her kind, fights alone: spear, claw, bow, rapier and the spines of their arms are their weapons. They carry the day by speed, ferocity and individual prowess. This is the old way, the way they would still practice, should anyone bring an army against them.

Whilst Mantids prefer to fight alone, in the old days their Moth masters often massively reinforced their (never great) numbers with slave levies: Ants and Beetles of the Lowlands were pressed into service and sent out to be butchered by the champions of the other side. The great hero-warriors were the deciding force in the battle, and the levy were merely used to slow them down.

Even before the revolution this was changing. Although Beetle-kinden were never destined to be great warriors, the Ants had a strong martial tradition, and they began to produce their own arms and armour in readiness for the wars their masters would commit them to: they developed tall shields and forged their own mail and practised their combat manoeuvres, honed to iron discipline by their mind-sharing Art. The reason the Moths prevailed so often against their Inapt rivals, back in the murky Dark Ages, was often that their levy was markedly superior to the rabble fielded by the other side. Although the Mantis-kinden remained unmatchable for individual skill, Moth strategists began to adapt their battle plans to take account of their slaves' greater efficiency. Ironically, of course, those same efficient slaves would soon after overthrow them and banish them to their high, dark places, spelling the end for their way of war.


The Dragonfly Commonweal

The Commonweal armies still fight in much the same way: they have a small core of Dragonfly and Mantis warriors who are warriors from birth, lethally skilled with sword and bow, and they have a mass of levy who, in peacetime, are farmers, artisans and craftsmen and seldom if ever take up a weapon. These levy, mostly Grasshopper and Dragonfly peasants, are generally armed with long spears, mobbed together in great rambling units, and sent towards the enemy, whilst the noble warriors run and fly amongst and over them. This style of war was what the Commonwealers brought to the Twelve-year War when the Wasps invaded their lands. The Commonweal armies fielded were vast, frequently outnumbering the attackers ten to one or more, and it was the sheer size of these forces that stretched the war out so long, rather than their effectiveness.

The Commonweal has one other noteworthy tradition: it is one of the only armies in the known world to make much use of land-based cavalry. Whilst most armies have a small mounted scout force, Dragonfly nobles often charge into combat ahorse, en mass, casting spears and loosing arrows as they go. After the initial contact the riders would take to the air (2), leaving their well-trained mounts to fight on their own behalf whilst they shot arrows from above. Against surprised or ill-disciplined forces, such as the bandit armies they were formerly used to combating, such a solid strike is often a swift battle-winner, but if the enemy holds then disciplined infantry and archers, such as the Wasps possess in abundance, will generally prevail. Although some ancient Dark Age armies also used cavalry, and even chariots, their modern use as a significant part of an army is limited to the Commonweal.


Spiderlands armies

Spider-kinden armies have developed in a very different direction, more varied and decidedly more haphazard. When a Spider-kinden Arista wishes to raise an army, she has at her own disposal those small forces, house guards and the like, that her family keeps on retainer. For substantial forces she must then turn to the various cities that her family has influence in, and to other families that owe her house favours or obligations. Raising an army is a matter of bitter argument, negotiation, promises and threats, and each city provides a different array of troops, depending on the kinden and the local speciality. A Spider-kinden host, therefore, is usually a patchwork affair, with a very broad variety of troop types, none of which are usually present in tactically useful quantities. Supplementing this the Spider Lady-Martial will raid the family coffers to hire mercenary bands, which are never in short supply in the Spiderlands. These can range from the dregs of banditry to highly-skilled elites.

As an example, a Spider-kinden host could see, side-by-side: Spider skirmishers with sword and bow, Scorpion line-breakers with two-handed swords and axes, Fire Ant engineers, Fly-kinden slingers, Ant mercenary heavy infantry, Dragonfly airborne archers, spider-mounted scout cavalry, dragonfly-mounted archers, Beetle-kinden mercenary artificers with armoured automotives and savage jungle Ant warriors along with several hundred of their insect friends.

Spider armies, although disorganised, slow to muster, slow to march, can grow to remarkable sizes, as once a war effort appears to be underway, formerly uncommited Aristoi houses will decide that they have no wish to be left out, and turn up with their own troops whether invited or not. Government and direction of these forces often devolves to a collection of equal-ranked representatives of the major houses present. Despite this picture of waste and inefficiency, Spiders are a clever people, and their history is replete with a number of ingenious strategists. Their ability to out-think and predict their opponents is notable.


The New Model Army: Ant-kinden after the revolution

Ant-kinden are arguably the best soldiers in the world, standing shoulder to shoulder. Their linked minds allow entire armies to react as one, and give commanders the ability to deal with battlefield developments as they happen, with no possibility of lost news, misunderstood commands or confusion. As against this, Ants have two major problems. Firstly, they are not great innovators. They have been masters of war in the Lowlands for long enough that they have settled into particular ways of doing things. As a kinden they lack the imagination and curiosity that marks out their Beetle neighbours. Secondly, their style of fighting has developed to deal with other Ants. Ants fight Ants. Their city-states have been in mutual opposition since anyone can remember, and their warfare is designed to deal with the strengths of their own kind.

The great bulk of any Ant army is heavy infantry: tall shields that interlock easily, reinforced chainmail, short swords. Every third man or so will carry a crossbow, and frequently there will be a rank of crossbowmen behind the shields in a battle-line, shooting bolts into the faces of the enemy shieldmen. The Ant heavy infantryman is a versatile, capable and undaunted soldier, and for five centuries the Ants have done little but tweak their soldiers' armour and weapons.

As well as these great blocks of infantry, the Ants field scouts, either horsemen, Fly-kinden or simply lightly-armoured infantry. As Ant scouts can report back to their officers instantly, their reconnaissance is usually extremely good. There are also units of specialists equipped with more powerful weapons, such as nailbows or repeating crossbows, who can be concentrated or spread throughout the army at need. There are also a few other specially-trained units, such as engineers, extra heavy 'sentinel' infantry and animal-handlers.

Ants are also skilled artillerists, although their actual machines, catapults, ballistae and trebuchet with a few more recent leadshotters, are often not of the most recent designs. The Sarnesh army, which owing to its ties to the Beetles of Collegium is somewhat more advanced in its technology, has begun to field armoured automotives in battle, using them as weapon-carrying battering rams to break enemy lines.

Most Ant armies will also have a limited airborne contingent, usually of armed orthopters or similar flying machines, but to date Ant wars are ground wars, and airpower has played at most a minor role.


The Black and Gold

Only a few Wasp-kinden manifest the mindlink that is universal amonst Ants, and so they have little of that iron and all-encompassing discipline. However, the Art gives Wasps two major advantages over their neighbours. Most of them can fly, and all of them can use the burning energy of their Sting, allowing them to strike at range. Wasp armies use very little heavy infantry, usually just a core of massively-armoured sentinels and some units of armoured spearmen that make up from a tenth to a fifth of the army proper (3). The vast majority of Wasp soldiers are the Light Airborne, warriors armed with sword, sting and sometimes spear, wearing a cuirass of banded mail, and fully capable of attacking from the air. The Wasp army is therefore extremely mobile, with large numbers of troops able to ignore enemy positions and fortifications and attack where they choose. This flexibility and speed is often sufficient in and of itself to defeat slower armies such as earthbound Ant-kinden and, although the Empire has sought out many more modern advantages, this remains their greatest strength.

The Wasps are also more versatile thinkers than Ant-kinden, and quick to make use of new tactics and toys. When they conquer a subject race they take anything of use and incorporate it, either as new technology for their artificers or as new auxillian troops for their armies. Wasps are very good at using the strengths of their slave races to their advantage, usually with very little care over those slaves’ longevity. From the efforts of their own artificers, and from the pillaged designs of their victims, they have also built up a respectable tally of artillery and a crude but efficient mechanised airforce of heliopters to supplement their Airborne and insect-riders.

As their Empire has developed, the Wasps have had to organise on a greater scale than the individual Ant city-state, and this has further strengthened their armies by allowing them to develop specialist corps that recruit and prosper independently of any given force: engineers, slavers, provisioners and merchants, all contribute to the war effort. Least spoken of, but perhaps most significant amongst these is the Rekef, the imperial secret service, whose outlander forces precede the army proper, weakening the enemy by sabotage, rumour-mongering, agitating and assassination.


(1) Their subsequent encounters with the Wasp Empire will put a fair-sized dent in this supremacy.

(2) No horsemen amongst the kinden have yet come up with the idea of stirrups. The Dragonflies use a "castled" saddle with high front and rear to absorb the shock of the charge, and stirrups would prevent them from taking to the air freely from horseback.

(3) Towards a fifth if the army is reinforced with auxillian heavies such as Ant or Bee-kinden warriors.



Getting the Last Punch In

Posted on 2008.04.22 at 21:41

A brief diatribe on the Hollywood Fight

Not some choreographed wrestling spectacular (1) but the way that your traditional action movie lumbers through its climactic hero/villain confrontation.

Fantasy fiction has far, far more than its fair share of fighting. From duels to running skirmishes to vast set-piece battles and sieges (2), the genre is a fundamentally violent one. So fine, so are our earliest myths, so is our species, so big deal.

An author of fights has various responsibilities in describing the action, not least to make it comprehensible and readable, but more, it must be plausible. This may seem a strange word to throw into a genre of dragons, magic wizards and demons, but plausibility is all the more important when the basic axioms of your world are altered. If Sigmar Owlfoot can blow up the dragon in chapter 2, you must provide a reason why he can't blow up the other dragon in chapter 17, relying instead on the innate undragonising abilities of the Runespork. I won't say that there aren't books out there where the otherwise wildly powerful hero seems to have acute attacks of amnesia regarding his capabilities whenever the story needs to fabricate some suspense, but those aren't necessarily good books.

And here's the Hollywood way out:

-it's the final showdown between huge-bicepped hero and huger-bicepped villain. They are both martial arts boxer killer commandos (3).

-They go at it with lots of fancy-pants moves.

-The villain, in a lion-and-unicornesque manner, beats the hero all around the town, with the hero barely getting a blow in

- after sufficient of this, either

    - the villain makes some particularly callous remark about the hero's love life, parentage or some flaw in his character; or

    - the hero catches the eye of his loved one who, in moments, will be at the villain's mercy; and

- the hero has a sudden access of rage and/or inspiration and strikes the villain, either just once or repeatedly.

- the villain inexplicably forgets how to fight and has the bejesus beaten out of him and/or is floored with a single blow.

- A select proportion of the cast live happily ever after.

- the fight coordinator, if he has any honest pride in himself, sulks in a corner and doesn't get the drinks in when it's his round.

To my immediate memory two of the worst examples of this baloney are the Slater/Travolta fight in Broken Arrow and, perhaps deserving of some sort of plausibility-suspension nobel prize, the Van Damme/Lundgren fight in Universal Soldier, but, Lord - they're hardly alone at that party. Over and over the hero gets his ass whaled on, only to suddenly get "angry", turning all the tables. Angry? Are we supposed to believe that ol' Jean-Claude was taking the whole beating quite philosophically until Dolph said what he did about his mother? (4). I mean, where did all that beating go? If you've beaten a six foot man to within an inch of his life, that's 5'11" of beating to account for before he can suddenly get back on his feet and save the day. Neiztche may have proposed that if it doesn't kill you then it makes you stronger (5) but this seems to be an extreme interpretation of the dogma. After all, I don't think boxing managers spend twenty minutes going over their prizefighter with a baseball bat immediately before the title fight. (6)

It's possibly some comment about how the hero's good heart and righteous motivations and "spirit" can overcome any superior skill, strength and lack-of-being-beaten-on-for-the-last-twenty-minutes that the villain can bring to the table, which is the sort of thinking that can get a lot of people killed trying to take on bank robbers, but of course...

But of course it's the underdog thing, that we are invested so heavily in. The whole point is that hero must come from nothing to save the day, and that's a good story, and there's nothing wrong with it (8). It's imaginative bankruptcy, though, that means that the day is saved by a story told so poorly, and again and again in the same unlikely way. Plausibility, you see. Now, in fiction you have a lot more leeway, it's true. You can be inside the hero's head, or the villain's, to show exactly why their form declines/spontaneously improves, and smooth over the cracks of continuity. In fantasy fiction you have a whole extra level of whizz for your plots, as if you're kind of magic can arise without warning from nothing to ultimate power, and if you've established that already, then so be it, it's plausible (if not necessaribly terribly satisfying). But the burden of plausibility is still very much there, and the bigger the reversal, the more work is required to make it work. The villain, if he’s a hero-villain type, can suddenly be unmanned by a swan-song eruption of his better nature. The villain can pause to gloat, allowing the hero to use that trick-shot move he was practising earlier. Some expendable ally of the hero can make a sudden dash to intervene, sacrificing him/herself but allowing the hero to recover and strike. You can even, fates help you, fall back on prophecy and destiny, which happens a lot in fantasy (9)

So long as your hero doesn’t just get “angry” and show his “spirit” by beating all the odds by way of a single knock-out punch, that’s all. In a world of dragons, giants, sorcerers and orcs with the serial numbers filed off, is a little plausibility too much to ask?


(1) Why should I get so annoyed at pre-choreographed wrestling, when all they're trying to do is tell a story? I think it's a courage-of-their-convictions issue, like the aforementioned false 'based on a true story' stories. If it's a story you're telling, at least have the guts to admit it. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

(2) I think David Gemmel probably still holds some kind of record for the world's most protracted single military engagement in Legend.

(3) At your option add "from Space" or any other suffix of choice.

(4) I cannot for the life of me recall what it was that so abruptly turned the tide of this particular fight, nor do I have the inclination to re-watch it to find out.

(5) But, as Jonathan Coulton points out in his song Madelaine, if it kills you, you'll be dead

(6) Interestingly, of course, whilst the tired old format makes little sense with a fistfight, it can work for a swordfight. After all, if the hero's been slugged by his bigger, stronger opponent 27 times, then his great knockout punch in return is just plain daft, but three feet of steel through the ribs will ruin anyone's day, and it only takes a moment's lapse of concentration. The Roth/Neeson duel in the otherwise unremarkable Rob Roy is an interesting, and workable, case in point. However, you still have to account for that lapse, that moment where the hero has a clear shot, and if you've already established the villain as a superior swordsman then this has the same plausibility threshold. Just because the hero gets very angry after the villain kicks his dog doesn't mean that the hero therefore becomes any better at swordfighting, indeed usually quite the reverse. People talk of berserkers, but I imagine berserkers usually still died, just not alone.(7)

(7) Of course that's an option. If your hero is expendable, after the villain is done for, then that's a good solution to the problem.

(8) The exception to this is Superman, arguably the world's most tedious superhero - not just superhuman, but so risibly overpowerful that he can (depending on which incarnation) turn back time, put the moon out of orbit and irradiate the oceans with one mighty belch. And who was this enormous ubermensch originally pitted against? oh just goons with guns, bank robbers, hoodlums, you know. Superman, who has sufficiently vast reserves of potency in the twinkle of his lazer-heat-visionomatic eyes to unmake creation - and you're telling me he's not himself the greatest threat to the world because...? He's sort of a nice guy? That's it? That's the only think saving the world from Superman's fits of ill temper after he gets super-drunk on the world's total alcoholic production for a year, the night before? That he's, you know, ok really? The fact that Lex Luthor, a moderately clever bald man, can occasionally even temporarily cause Superman slight difficulties should earn old baldy some kind of Hero of Humanity medal.

(9) Hmm, destiny... I’m very leery about using destiny as a plot mechanic. It’s monumentally overused, in fantasy – the stableboy turns out to be the prince so damn often it’s a wonder they don’t keep a red carpet in every hayloft just in case. And is he more the hero because everything was foretold, and because his blood is as blue as a bluebottle? According to rather a lot of novels, apparently yes. Surely, though, logic dictates the opposite. If all he’s done is fulfil a prophecy, then surely he was being spoonfed all the way and can claim no personal credit. If the stableboy was the prince of the true blood all along, then how much that removes from his triumph – what can he claim credit for, if mere heredity has fit him for it? No, give me heroes who save the world in the teeth of adverse omens and then go back to muck out the stables.



Return to Earthsea

Posted on 2008.04.17 at 21:04

When I was a young lad the fantasy writing landscape was different to today's. Certainly, my fickle memory suggests there were fewer authors about, or certainly that were widely-enough published in this country to leap to the general attention. Terry Pratchett was a new development, for example, and aside from the obvious Mr T (1) there were a few particular names to conjure with that any given fantasy reader was expected to have a passing familiarity with. Everyone had, I think, read something by Anne McCaffrey, for instance. Everyone knew who Elric was. Similarly, A Wizard of Earthsea was basically required reading. You couldn't honestly claim to be a fantasy fan unless you had at least a passing familiarity with Ursula le Guin, Sparrowhawk and the magic of true names.


Earthsea is in itself an interesting creation on a number of levels: as a post-Tolkien look at both dragons and wizards (wizards as people, gifted humans, rather than the somewhat nebulous status that Gandalf has); as a sea-based setting based on an enormous archipelago; as a very early work (1968) to introduce the concept of religion-driven desert-dwelling (2) adversaries long before the recent vogue (3); as one of the first fantasy works to set out a logical system of magic (rather than just saying, basically "it's magic").


The structure of the series, rather like the geography of the archipelago, is scattered. After the initial trilogy of A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore (4), written from '68-'72, and with its somewhat downbeat ending, it was almost two decades before le Guin returned for Tehanu in 1990, resulting in many who read the original trilogy being unaware that it was ever continued. This goes double for The Other Wind, a decade late still. Indeed, as The Other Wind shows, on its list of previous works "Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea" there is at least a small suggestion that le Guin herself wasn't intending to go the full five yards. On reading the complete set, though, this is surprising: Tehanu, a novel very different in feel to its precursors, which deals in often traumatuc detail with cruelty and helplessness at a very real and non-epic level, has no sense of closure at the concluson. It leaves readers with more questions than they had at the start. The Other WInd, however, is so fitting a sequel, both to Tehanu and to the original three, that it is hard to believe it was not intended all along (5).


However, my particular focus on Earthsea is that it has become an example of how to do, and mostly how not to do, an adaptation for the screen, as Earthsea has now had the dubious pleasure of two separate versions being brought to the visual medium.


Firstly, the Sci-fi channel undertook a live action 2-parter, under the title of Earthsea. It is difficult to know what to say about this, to be honest, especially in light of the extremely good Frank Herbert adaptations that the SF channel was responsible for. However, Earthsea was not good. The first two novels, Wizard and Atuan were taken, shaken, broken and gene-spliced with a lot of foreign material to create a lumbering, unrecognisable and non-viable mutant. Given that le Guin's first Earthsea book has an extremely powerful plot that surges along without any unnecessary distractions or complications, it is hard to understand why this god-given opportunity for good drama was thrown aside. The only thing "missing" from Wizard was a romantic sub-plot, given the emphatic celibacy of the hero and his fellow magi. This was no obstacle for the producers, who happily had him shacking up with the female protagonist from the Tombs of Atuan, The book strayed so far, and so needlessly, from the names, places, facts, ethnicities and basic principles of Earthsea that le Guin herself asked, in response to the producers' claim that the film was "faithful to the spirit of the books", whether Tolkien fans would have found Jackson's Lord of the Rings a faithful adaptation if Frodo had kept the ring and ruled all Middle Earth. This is no exaggeration. My response to the TV movie was jsut a bitter disappointment that the chance to film the original story had been blown so definitively. It was not that the script invented characters, places, peoples, traditions and points of reference that were not in the original. Adapting a book for a screenplay is surely a difficult business, and there may well be gaps the novel did not need to cover that the film does. The fault was that all of those places & c. had already been created, and they were overridden roughshod by cheap replacements that made less sense and served only to rob the setting of those aspects that made it so memorable. Everything brought in by the TV version, whether character or plot or world detail, served only to genericise.


So, on to adaptation the second. This last year, an anime entitled Tales from Earthsea was produced by Studio Ghibli in Japan. Ghibli have a long track record of bringing out superb full-length cartoons. They are one of the very few anime-tors(?) who have had large-scale cinematic releases, with Howl's Moving Castle, for example, and the absolutely remarkable Spirited Away, and their back catalogue (most of it recently re-released in this country) is well worth getting hold of. Their approach to Earthsea was decidedly more thoughtful. For a start, they left the first two novels entirely alone, whilst leaving enough references to Atuan and the like to make it clear that everything in those books happened exactly as stated. This is obviously unorthodox, as the viewer is immediately being challenged - the film complementing the books rather than trying to supplant them. The plot of Tales from Earthsea is something of an intermingling of books 3 and 4 of the sequence, following Sparrowhawk and Arren through a version of their quest to save magic and the world inFarthest Shore whilst bringing in the title character and some of the plot of Tehanu, and concluding with a scene that oddly mingles the climaxes of both books. Does it work? A considerable amount of liberties are taken, it must be said. The character of Arren is given a sufficiently different backstory that he is unrecognisable, although this in itself involves a reworking of the "Shadow" idea from Wizard that, at least, feels in keeping with the setting. Similarly, the final confrontation of, and on, the Farthest Shore, which in the book is genuinely nightmarish, is considerably lessened by transforming the malefactor from the terrible lost soul of the book into a more traditional demon king villain, with a castle and henchmen. There is also, for a cartoon set in a land of small islands, remarkably little of the actual sea, and a scene of someone being rescued from a slaver's ship is, for no good reason, turned into a rescue from a wagon on land. Despite this, though, the feel of the anime does come across as much more faithful, both to the letter and spirit of the original books, and I'd give it a reasonably confident thumbs-up.


(1) "I pity da fool who has to take that ring to Mordor..."

(2) The Kargs of Earthsea live on four large islands to the east, which by virtue of their individual size have a desert interior. It is worth noting, and often forgotten, that the Kargs are white, nordic, and as well as being desert fanatics are also quasi-vikings.

(3) Also, unlike many fantasy settings where the ultra-religious desert people are basically led by the nose by evil priests either fabricating or genuinely serving their evil demon god, the ideological balance of right and wrong, of understanding and ignorance, is by no means so simple in Earthsea.

(4) There are certain titles that have a classic simplicity that is absolutely unimpeachable. They lend their books a solidity and grandeur that most writers would kill for. I covet, as I have coveted few things, The Farthest Shore. It's one of the most evocative book titles I've ever come across.

(5) In the preface to her short story collection, Tales from Earthsea, le Guin states that Tehanu brought the story of Earthsea up-to-date, but that, when she chanced to look back there, later, things had changed and the story had moved on. More of this later, possibly.


The Oozing Horror

Posted on 2008.04.01 at 23:21

A very brief interlude to say that I have found the name of horror, and it is “dried, sweetened pineapple”.

In a somewhat halfhearted attempt to be healthy I decided that, to snack on at work, I would purchase some dried fruit. Dried fruit – is there anything more wholesome and natural? (1). It comes in packets that are almost, but not quite, like sweets, and so there’s a slim possibility that the part of your mind that is used to a diet of solid sugar will be in some way mollified or fooled. Dried blueberries. Dried cherries. Yes.

Dried, sweetened pineapple. No. Heed the warning.

In fact, dried pineapple of any stripe looks like a no-no.  Your standard item, whilst it still tastes very distantly (as through a glass darkly) of pineapple, looks appalling. Pineapple was not really intended, in any universal scheme of things, to be dried. A dried pineapple ring looks like any of the following, take your pick:

a)      some obscure internal organ that’s spent far too long in formaldehyde and then far too long out of it

b)      the spiny seedcase of a plant evolved to hook onto wildebeest

c)      a roadkill jellyfish

In short, something toroid that’s been wizened and leathered until all that’s left is this peculiar spiky circlet of desiccated matter. When something looks that inedible, and has the general texture of some part of the mummy that the British Museum wouldn’t care to exhibit, the actual residual pineapple taste is insufficient to excite the palate.

But lo, this is not “dried, sweetened”. There are greater horrors yet in store. Foolishly, I thought that dried, sweetened pineapple sounded jolly. I groped the packet – there was a fair amount of give, rather than the brittle, dead-sea-creature feel of the merely dried stuff. Succulent, I thought. That seemed, foolishly, a good sign. The picture on the packet showed jolly little chunks of pineapple. Mouthwatering.

Well then, a few days later, and the seal on the unspeakable container is broken. No actual wailing spirits of the damned were released, although that would have been fitting. Unwarily, I put my hand in to fish a piece out.

Oh Good Lord, is the only response. There are certain sensations that nobody wants anything to do with, and this was one of them. If you can imagine incautiously placing your hand into a bag of dead eels and chopped liver, that would just about cover it. Slimy pineapple, for the lord’s sake. Slimy, sticky, flaccid gobs of yellow. “Dried” it said. There was nothing “dry” about it. It turns out that the phrase “dried sweetened” basically refers to a process similar to that which produces glace cherries – all very well as singular items on a bakewell, but in their battalions, sickeningly sweet, appallingly textured, whole gelid masses of them, no, no, and no, in that order. A year of therapy would not get the memory of that first shuddering contact from your mind.. HP Lovecraft would have run out of grotesque adjectives for them. They were antediluvian. They were cyclopean. They were ick.

Stick with chocolate, frankly. It may be bad for your body, but it’s better for your sanity.


(1) Actual fruit, yes, I know.


The Long Good Lunch

Posted on 2008.03.30 at 23:44

So the call comes at last that I should meet with my agent and my editor in London for lunch.

The publisher’s lunch is rightly famous, to the extent that the name graces a trade magazine for the industry, and Douglas Adams incorporated a homage to it in Life, the Universe and Everything (1). In a world gone mad for time-and-motion studies, efficiency, value and the remorseless cheapening of life’s experiences, the publishing industry yet retains its dignity and its luncheons.

So, after a whirlwind tour of the Pan Macmillan offices, the three of us decamp to a one of those little, low-ceilinged places, too traditionally appointed for a wine bar, too much space to be a pub (2), that only seem to exist in London. The food is good, the drink copious, astonishingly copious. There is some kind of etiquette here, and as far as I can make out it can be summed up as “it is now impossible to refuse any offer of alcohol.” I half expect us to make it to absinthe before the end of the night. It remains a distinct possibility (4). We crouch (5) about the small table like criminals planning the next bank job (6), and as we eat they treat me to scattered anecdotes about the world of publishing, mostly consisting of who threw wine on whom, why she can’t stand him, and that time that such-and-so was discovered resting in the office the following morning, having not entirely made it home.

There are some sorties on business, within this. The first one hundred pages of edits are passed ceremoniously to me by Peter, each one liberally filigreed with busy pencil (7), which is a milestone in the process. Oh the contracts are signed, the wheels are in motion, but only with receiving that plain envelope of annotated text did the clasping of hands, the joint venture, become tangibly real.

In particular, and aside from the aforegoing, there were three important pieces of business that remained sufficiently insoluble in alcohol to get resolved:

There is the matter of the book cover. I’m not entirely sure what input is usual here, and what happens when the author and the publisher pull in opposite directions (11) but we all three came to the table with the same idea. There must be a human figure, chiefly. I’d already had some problem with test readers getting a little thrown by whether the characters were insect or human, and although I’d attended to this in pre-agent rewrites, it was something I was keen to sort out – so stick a man on the cover, rather than a moth, and the reader is thinking the right thoughts. As we’d all turned up independently with the same kind of thoughts, the decision to put one of the Wasp-kinden front and centre came quickly thereafter. The second book, Dragonfly Falling, which I note is already showing for Amazonian pre-order despite the fact that I’m still working through the edits for that one, will have a different kinden as the poster child (12), and so on.

Secondly, the name for the series was still up in the air. The working title was “Insect Tribes” which I wasn’t happy with, and the others were even less happy with. We brainstormed (13) this back and forth for some time and, some time later and quite spontaneously, Simon came up with “Shadows of the Apt”, which fits the long-term plotting very well (14).

Lastly, the thorny issue of names. We batted about a number of options before resting on Adrian Tchaikovsky for the simple reason that it was easy on the reader’s eye and memory.

Surely I jest? Not a jot of it.

To digress briefly, there is a kind of mouthwash I essayed once, which tasted, oh, godawful foul, some kind of bastard mint-acid savour that raked the inside of the mouth and made you gag if you were unlucky enough to swallow any. The true horror, however, was that this flavour was just that, a flavour. Someone had carefully added that misbegotten taste to disguise how ghastly the stuff actually was. The horror, the horror!

So, then, Adrian Tchaikovsky was eventually picked from a number of options because it was still considerably easier than the original. I should state, I am of Polish roots, a fact I’m very proud of, however... I do have to spell my name multiple times every day at work, on the basis that this country is populated almost entirely by Franks who are incapable of pronouncing a perfectly civilised moniker that might happen, say, to kick off with a combination of vowels and consonants not ordinarily to be found this side of Gdansk. I had already given up, long before ever writing Empire, on being known by my own name as a writer. The thought of some poor reader approaching the counter at Waterstones and asking, “D’you have the new book by Cz... by Cz... oh, do you have the latest David Eddings or something?” was painful to me. So my Russian namesake was the least of a number of evils, as Pyotr Ilyich had already done the hard work (15).

However, as the possibility of the Polish rights being sold seems extremely viable, there is an epilogue to this tale of Frankish ignorance, for in Poland, one would strongly assume, I may finally see my name in print in its unadulterated form.


(1)   “Missing, presumed fed”

(2)   The pub came later, and it was also one of those quitessentially Londinian (3) institutions, a tiny, cramped warren of beams and plaster and Ireland, the sort of place that has been bought up, dolled up and killed off by pub chains anywhere else.

(3)   There is presumably an adjective, but I have no idea what it might be.

(4)   Only once, only once, to date, at the Oxford residence of some extreme libertines it has been my fortune to become embroiled with. I remember that it tasted green, and very little else of the evening.

(5)   Subsequently “lounge”, and later “slump”.

(6)   Which would make the editor the guv’ner, my agent the Lock-Stock-style East-End rogue, and me some manner of hired muscle, I suppose.

(7)   I remain grateful for the sheer level of detail in that edit – whilst the agentle (8) edits had sorted out the bigger picture stuff such as plot and structure, the editorial (9) notes were at a sentence-and-word level, or dealing with paragraphs where the flashing fire of ideas in my mind had not entirely made it to the paper (10). Also, I was dismayed to see just how many words in the English language I was apparently quite unable to spell.

(8)   See (3) above.

(9)   On sounder footing with that one.

(10)                       An odd side-effect of writing a book set in a secondary world that you’ve created in some detail – it’s easy at times to forget that the reader hasn’t had the thorough grounding in its history, geography and mythology as the writer.

(11)                       Well, one can make an educated guess as to who gets the last word.

(12)                       No prizes for guessing which.

(13)                       The sort of storm with a great deal of precipitation, naturally.

(14)                       Well, in brief you’ll recall that ‘Aptitude’ refers to the ability to understand and use the new technology, that the Apt races are on the up, and the old Inapt races are fading. The ancient world, with its magic, superstition, darkness and fear, is very much the shadow of the new world of progress and light, and like any shadow, you just can’t shake it off.

(15)                       It’s the same name, of course, but the Slavic languages are simply not intended to be represented in the Roman alphabet. Poland, being a mostly Catholic country, did its best with the Romans’ meagre stock of letters to represent the vastly rich variety of different sounds in their repertoire. Russia, being originally Orthodox, got on quite well with the Greek-derived Cyrillic, but when Tchaikovsky came to Western notice, the name got put through the mangle a second time and ended up with an almost entirely different cast of Roman letters.


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