In 1982, aged 17, I read Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast. This proved to be a very bad idea as it is terrible. However, there is a very brief mention in it of a Royal Space Force. That was an image that hung around in my mind for a long time after, and it carried over to the time of my life when I started writing stories. But I didn’t just want to fling it straight into a story as a given. I wanted to know how such a thing had come about.
Also, much as I love good ol’fashioned space opera, with space battles and hyperspace jumps and lasers, I grew up on much more plausible Arthur C. Clarke-type spaceship stories, where there is no artificial gravity and ships must obey the laws of physics. I wanted to write a story that could start as one and end as the other, and I wanted to cover such obvious questions as: why would any nation need a space force in the first place? And who in their right mind would want to arm a spaceship?
In short, I needed to write a novel.
In the meantime I read Hornblower. I had dipped into Hornblower a as a child but I now read the entire series. I was struck by an aspect of Hornblower that eluded me as a child: his self-loathing. He is a hero and can never believe it. Every mission he undertakes he is convinced will be his last – and this at a time when the English had shot Admiral Byng on his own quarterdeck for messing up. That was my hero! I was comfortably unaware at the time that the phrase ‘Hornblower in space’ was destined for cliché. Or maybe it was just an idea whose time had come.
In Asimov’s Foundation trilogy there is a throwaway line about Gilmer, the man who sacked the Imperial capital Trantor and brought down the remains of the Empire. This had led to a vague teenage resolution, filed away at the back of my mind next to the Royal Space Force, that I would one day chronicle the future history of the Gilmer family. To kick them off, my depressive spaceship captain was named Gilmore. Michael Gilmore, because I’ve always liked Michael as a name: I’ve never met a Michael I didn’t like.
The eponymous ship was named Raptor, a subtle punne or play on words of ‘Bird of Prey’. Then I decided the UK really should name its first ever starship Ark Royal, so I did, and subtly boosted the word count into the bargain.
It took a while to finalise the shape of my aliens, the First Breed, or the Rusties as humans call them. I played around with all kinds of forms in my mind but they all came back to the ‘man in a rubber suit’ syndrome; I could take them about as seriously as I could take Star Trek’s alien of the week. I certainly wasn’t thinking of them as non-human. Then I remembered the Hefn of Judith Moffett’s Ragged World series, who are as at home on four feet as they are on two. I put the Rusties on all fours and, voila, aliens!
This also helped me right a grievous wrong that was perpetrated upon science fiction in the early nineties. There was an especially irritating story in Asimov’s called ‘The Nutcracker Coup’. Quite apart from being nauseously cute and upholding the right of all decent Americans to interfere in the affairs of less developed planets if they find the culture un-American or even if they are just plain bored, it featured a four legged intelligent race which – and I gaped with astonishment when I read it – still carried things about in its front legs, so that if one of them was holding a gun on you, say, it hobbled along on three legs while it kept you covered. An interesting take on evolutionary theory, I thought. How would these creatures ever invent the gun? Or any human-type tool that effectively disabled an entire limb if it was going to be used?
Thus, my Rusties had grasping tentacles on either side of their heads which they used the same way we humans used hands.
I believe ‘The Nutcracker Coup’ won the Hugo that year. Meh.
Other things just came off the top of my own head. Rusties appear to human eyes to be flaking rust, hence the name (first I actually wanted them to be sweating iron oxide, but my biochemistry isn’t up to it), and when they are conversing face to face, humans have to fight the urge to pick the flakes off the alien’s skin. A Rustie’s nostrils are at the top of its domed head, above the eyes – they come from a relatively predator-free stock that evolved on the plains, so need to keep their airways free of dust and dirt – and thus humans tend to make eye contact with the alien’s nose. They communicate very much by body language, managing to transmit whole concepts in an instant with a gesture or a scent that would take a human much longer to say out loud; this meant I had to find a way of writing down a Rustie conversation from a Rustie’s point of view.
Books need antagonists and it would have been too easy to make the Rusties the bad guys. So, the tension had to come from within the humans.
I enjoyed dividing the Earth into the political map of 2148, including such nations as the Confederation of South-East Asia, the Pacific Consortium, the Holy Arab Union, the South American Combine and the United Slavic Federation – and of course the Vatican. Then, once I had the entire planet neatly divided into political entities, I suddenly realised to my horror that I was doing what Trekkies do – I was neatly delimiting and parcelling up a potentially fascinating future to make it manageable. So the published version names a few nations, but many more are now implied.
The final touches came when I showed some chapters at Milford 1994 in Rothbury, Northumberland. One criticism was that the aliens just were not reacting to humans like any sane species would (i.e., pointing their ships away from Earth, engaging hyperdrive and just plain running away.) A little extra rationale for their actions was added on the spot, which unexpectedly set me up for a sequel, The Xenocide Mission. This book would star Joel Gilmore, son of Michael, who was created on the spot when the same Milford produced a concensus that Gilmore pere was a bit too bland and needed more background.
Slowly but surely His Majesty’s Starship approached completion ... and approached it ... and approached it. For a very long time indeed I was almost there, with just a couple of thousand words to go, and I simply wasn’t writing them. I self-diagnosed the problem, which was that I had a life and I was unwilling to lose it. The solution was to start getting up earlier, writing before going to work. It’s a habit I’ve kept.