Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment

It’s no exaggeration to say that Crime and Punishment is one of the most staggering achievements in all of literature. I don’t think I can possibly say anything new about C&P which hasn’t been said before, but I will try and express my own thoughts about the book. What I found particularly fascinating was the book as a modern philosophical (and psychological) representation of the story of Cain and Abel.

It’s no spoiler to tell that Dostoevsky’s masterpiece novel focuses on the brooding, maddened, profound character of Raskolnikov, fiction’s most famous axe-murderer. What’s so powerful about Dostoevsky’s intense character study is that, against a backdrop of the emergence of more nihilistic philosophies such as Nietzsche’s critique of Catholicism (wrongly taken by many to be an excoriation, when in fact it was in fact a warning for it to get its act together, and boy was he right) which themselves grew from the seeds of Marxism and Darwinism, he builds up Raskolnikov’s reasoning for committing his infernal acts of violence and murder upon foundations of iron.

The first act of the book leads up to the murder, but is in fact building, brick by brick in Raskolnikov’s head, the justifications and reasons for committing such an act. For Raskolnikov, there are several good reasons for ridding the world of the scraping, grasping, Scrooge-like old pawnbroker woman: it would enable him to rob her and pay his way through law school, which in turn would free his sister from a loveless marriage to a rich but conceited suitor, it would liberate the old woman’s retarded little sister, whom she beats and essentially enslaves. These are Raskolnikov’s practical reasons, but Dostoevsky does not rest there; he also allows Raskolnikov to construct a moral and philosophical argument; he argues that great men, truly great men who have the ability to change the world, find themselves in a position where they have to break free from the paradigms that hold the world in check, because to do so and check their own greatness would itself be an unethical act, and potentially hold back the advancement of civilisation as we know it. That some men must remould thought around what is ethical and what is permissible – and not for anybody, but only for the very greatest of individuals. When this argument is held up against figures such as Marx, bubbling away in the background, Raskolnikov’s reasoning becomes very powerful indeed.

And yet. After committing the crime, we are witnesses to the punishment. Truly, the worst thing in the world is to realise what you have done. And slowly, creepingly, maddeningly, the realisation of what he has done assaults Raskolnikov through dreams, fevers and madness, exhausting him with guilt and distress. He is become Cain, who ran and hid from God after murdering his brother. When God says, “your seed will be punished for seven generations” (I’m paraphrasing), Cain replies, “my punishment is worse than I can bear.” This is what has happened with Raskolnikov. He is consumed by his grievous sin, and the punishment for it is of his own making. What’s interesting about the Cain and Abel story is that we are all partly Cain and partly Abel, and the story represents which part of us do we want to win in our own internal conflicts; the one who makes sacrifices and gets rewarded, or the embittered, impulsive part that destroys the better part of us. Which is exactly what happens with Raskolnikov: he destroys the better part of himself through his actions and agency in the world, and is thus cast into a hell of his own making, and he drags down all the people around him through his dire actions.

The supporting characters are no less well constructed. I won’t go into all of them here, but Svidrigailov, Doumia and Katia are all wonderful characters in their own right. However, special attention ought to be paid to Razhumikin, Raskolnikov’s great friend. Razhumikin is loyal, passionate, strong, and has a strong sense of what is morally right, and stands up for an individual’s means to assert himself in the world – he is, then, a classical foil to Raskolnikov’s nihilism. But he can also be read as Abel to Raskolnikov’s Cain; he is the better part of Raskolnikov; he uses his philosophical skills to construct ethical frameworks of hope and aspiration; he works hard, he champions the individual over the collective, and he tries with all his heart to help his dearest friend and his family, even in direst need. And, at the end, when Raskolnikov faces his fate alone, Razhumikin has also been broken by the knowledge of his brother’s sin.

I’ve said more than I intended. But I was compelled to do so. No book has exhilarated me this much since I read The Name Of The Rose for the first time, and I feel that it is one of the most devastating philosophical takedowns of the brutal idea that the “ends justify the means”. Like 1984, Crime and Punishment is a book that everyone should read.

Building Empires In The Sky

March 28, 2018

And like that – [clicks fingers] – March was gone. Time flies when you’re busy, regardless of whether you’re having fun. But busy can be fun, too. It makes you feel like you’re heading in the right direction.

Since I last updated these pages a few things have been going on. Man O’War has smashed through, er, the top quarter-of-a-million rankings on Amazon. With the hardcover version scheduled to be available just after Easter, I expect to break through into the top two-hundred-and-thirty-five-thousand within weeks. Upwards to the sky!

One of the absolute bestest things about writing books is that occasionally people will ask you for an interview about it. This is even more betterer when the interviewer has actually read the book, which is a fantastic rub-down for the old ego. So it was that I was given a proper third degree and no mistake by Pete Long, who hosts an excellent SFF blog way down in them thar web parts. We covered the themes of Man O’War, my literary influences, and did some extra thinking about writing in general. The interview is available to read here.

A couple of Saturdays ago I took part in the annual Essex Authors Day in Chelmsford. I did a reading of Man O’War (chapters Dhiraj I and Nita IV), which you can see above. I also ran a workshop on subbing and pitching, which was very well received by the audience (one woman called it “inspirational”!); alas I wasn’t permitted to film the workshop, so no video. Next year I shall have to secretly film it a la the Fake Sheikh.

In other news, which my frequent visitor may have noticed, I’ve added a new section to the website for my brother Darryl’s band Sky Empire, who have just released their debut album , the title track of which is loosely based upon the Robert Browning poem, and even more loosely upon the Stephen King epic. I wrote lyrics for three of the album’s five tracks, which I’ve helpfully posted up here. If you like your music epic, and proggy, and hard, then Sky Empire is definitely up your Imperial, like.

With the craziness of the March launch out of the way, April beckons. I shall make my way to the annual jaunt that is the London Book Fair, and anticipate the hardcover launch.

Knee Deep In Snow (books)

It’s been quite a week, and that’s before we even get to the festivity surrounding the launch of you-know-what. Despite the best efforts of the Beast From the East, I’ve slogged through the snow to host a three-day meeting for colleagues visiting from all across Europe for the space robotics project in which the UK Space Agency is participating. It’s this project which informed a lot of the thinking around the robotic themes which form so much of the plot of Man O’War.

Talking of which, my debut novel finally hits bookshelves today. And on World Book Day, too! Why, it could almost have been planned that way. What’s more, my publishers at Snowbooks have even managed to deliver some on-message Siberian weather systems to coincide with the launch (Icy what they did there etc), and if all that doesn’t add up to a compelling argument for buying a science fiction novel about sex robots and industrial corruption, then I don’t know what does.

Still, it’s best not to sit on one’s laurels and rely on the beautiful weather alone to do one’s marketing, so I have been doing my best to be out and about this week. Last Saturday I was at Forbidden Planet’s Small Press Expo featuring Fox Spirit, Snowbooks, Grimbold and NewCon. Also there were my fellow SFF Chroniclers Bryan Wigmore and Steven Poore. A small consignment of signed copies of MOW remain, if anyone wants to mosey down and pick up a copy. We made new friends, flogged lots of books, and even made plans for world domination (or, at least, parts-of-west-London domination), which I might explore a little more in a separate blog post some time soon.

Earlier this week I was interviewed for SFF World by the wonderful author of Heart BladeJuliana Spink Mills. Juliana really dug into the themes of MOW and gave it a five-star write upfor which I’m very humbled. I was also interviewed by DJ (no relation) at My Life, My Books, My Escape. I’m currently doing another round of interviews with Pete Long of, er, Pete Long’s Blog. Pete is another friend and fellow SFF Chronicler, and his blog is one of the most thoughtful and well-articulated meditations upon science fiction and fantasy books out there.

Next week I’ll be trying to draw breath, and will be avoiding the trains into London if at all possible. Stay warm!

Man O’War Character Sketch #6: Tilda Boulton

Over the coming weeks in the run up to the launch of Man O’War, I’ll be posting a few lines on each of the main characters in the book, about who they are, what they do and their role in the book. They’re a varied and diverse bunch, in more ways than one, and I have a soft spot for them all. I’ll also be posting a little bit about the creation and inception of each character, and why they are the way they are. I won’t be posting anything spoilerific; these will be more like musings of the author.

The six POV characters are, in order of appearance: the jellyfisherman Dhiraj Om; the corporate Head of R&D Nita Rhodes; brutal gangster Agarkka D’Souza; black market engineer Salazar Gomez; oil heir and civil servant Adem Johnson; and hard-nosed policewoman Tilda Boulton. This week it’s Tilda Boulton.

Tilda Boulton

Like Adem and Salazar, Tilda wasn’t initially among my list of POV characters. But, whereas it became very quickly apparent to me that Adem’s and Salazar’s stories were pivotal to making the novel work, I was a long way into plotting and writing the novel before I realised I needed a sixth character to balance out the story and connect the dots between the subplots. When I realised this my first instinct was to make the Tilda character an investigative journalist. She could still have access to the necessary crime scenes and would be possessed of that journalistic drive to connect the clues. Plotting Tilda The Journalist led me a little way through the plot jungle, not to the clearing leading to the Way, but to another dead end. The problem was that it became necessary in the plot to instigate the amnesty of sex robots, and the Tilda character needed both reason and ability to help influence the people to make this happen. The influential folks within the Civil Service – folks like, say, Adem Johnson, would be required to cooperate with the police, but not the press in this matter. In fact, they would want to keep the press away at all costs.

So she became a detective. Perhaps a little cliché, but it gave Tilda access to the crime scenes, close access to the sex robots themselves (being evidence, or part of those crime scenes), and it gave her sufficient proximity to those higher up the food chain with influence. But it wasn’t until I’d figured out Tilda’s back story that I really brought her character into the light. In some ways, Tilda’s back story is the most developed in the story, and I was really pleased with its emergence. Without giving anything away, Tilda’s backstory became another example of the secondary impacts of technology. For a character like Salazar, the spillover effects of new technology, in its hard adaptations at the hands of engineers can be imagined quite easily. But in Tilda’s case, we see how technology can have softer impacts upon us as humans, and how we perceive ourselves, and others. Tilda’s views of herself, and of people like D’Souza, and people like Nita, and then the kokeshi robots themselves, are indicative of how technology can colour a whole range of issues, or even introduce new issues that never existed before. If engineers are serious about bringing many of these technologies to light in the real world and not the fictitious one of Man O’War, then I hope they give serious consideration to some of these implications.

When I wrote Tilda’s pivotal scene, on Lambeth Bridge overlooking the river Thames, I was kind of surprised that this subplotline had weedled itself out in this way. I hadn’t intended for her character to represent anything overly political – she was to be a plot device, poor thing (though a well fleshed out plot device) – but in the end her backstory became rooted to the principal themes of fragmentation and atomisation that run through Man O’War. She is broken by her past, and indirectly by the introduction of technology into our human lives. Without wishing to sound like a Luddite (not a good stance to take in my line of work), there is a philosophical knot requiring untangling that suggests the introduction of technologies that represent the intention of bringing humanity together, may end up atomising us irrevocably. The obvious example is social media, and when even Facebook states that it (social media) may be harmful to mental health, maybe it’s time to think about this in greater detail. As Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) says in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied trying to find out if they could do something they didn’t stop to ask if they should!”

Tilda isn’t a showy character like D’Souza, or burning with ambition and visions of doing great deeds for humanity like Nita, but she carries herself with a rod of drive and shines a light on herself and others in unexpected ways. I don’t know whether her ending is happy or not; I’ll leave readers to decide that, but it’s the one that gave most satisfaction to write. I’ve no idea what happens to her (or any of the other characters) once they depart the text, but I think she probably deserves a little slice of happiness more than most.

Tilda is the last of the POV characters in the book, and thus endeth my little run of character sketches, which has been fun. There is one more POV character in MOW, but you’ll have to read the book to find out. But anyhoo! The book’s out next week, and it’s been a long journey to get here.

Tomorrow I’ll be at Forbidden Planet with some advance copies to sign and flog, so if you fancy getting your mitts on one before the official launch date, Forbidden Planet in London is the place to go. Also there will be my friend and author of the jaw-dropping The Goddess Project, Bryan Wigmore; Jonathan Green, author of YOU Are The Hero, a brilliant history of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (among other things); and one of my other fellow wanderers, author of the excellent Heir To The North, Steven Poore. It’ll be quite a get-together. With beers afterwards.

Man O’War Character Sketch #5: Ademuyiwa Johnson

Over the coming weeks in the run up to the launch of Man O’War, I’ll be posting a few lines on each of the main characters in the book, about who they are, what they do and their role in the book. They’re a varied and diverse bunch, in more ways than one, and I have a soft spot for them all. I’ll also be posting a little bit about the creation and inception of each character, and why they are the way they are. I won’t be posting anything spoilerific; these will be more like musings of the author.

The six POV characters are, in order of appearance: the jellyfisherman Dhiraj Om; the corporate Head of R&D Nita Rhodes; brutal gangster Agarkka D’Souza; black market engineer Salazar Gomez; oil heir and civil servant Adem Johnson; and hard-nosed policewoman Tilda Boulton. This week it’s Adem Johnson.

~

Ademuyiwa Johnson is the son and heir of Joseph Johnson, who heads up the powerful Johnson Petroleum Corporation in the Niger delta. Adem’s character and story is one of the most multi-faceted in the book; like D’Souza, he straddles multiple identities and struggles to define himself against several different contexts. More than any other character Adem allowed me to explore ideas and themes that aren’t overt in other parts of the book, such as father-son relationships, sibling rivalries, and responsibilities disposed towards two different countries.

I’ve been asked a couple of times why I picked Nigeria as the setting for the latter half of the book and, therefore, the country of Adem’s and his family’s birth. The simple answer is that on a high level it satisfied many of the geographical and political criteria I set; it’s oil rich (and getting richer), it has a coastline, and it has a colonial history with the UK, allowing for geopolitical ties to be easily established in my imagined world. Nigeria is also the site of a long-running and tragic historical grievance, which allowed me to easily imagine its evolution into a bloody insurgence run by guerrilla Marxist revolutionaries who hid and moved in the delta, much like the Marxist revolutionaries of Colombia. I almost chose Saudi Arabia as the foreign setting instead of Nigeria, particularly because of the Al-Yamamah business deal, but settled on Nigeria because of the watery wilds of the delta, and the fact that I was lucky enough to know people who’d worked in the oil and gas industry over there.

So Adem Johnson is Nigerian, but his career in London means he feels – and, to his father, seems – more like an Englishman than a Nigerian. I wrote Adem as a sort of well-to-do throwback, with more accentuated genteel English mannerisms than many of the English members of the cast, but his father’s shadow looms large, and he is not so genteel. At a basic level all Adem wants is to win the affections of his father, but beneath that his intentions and schemes are more Machiavellian.

The difficult relationship Adem has with Joseph – and, by extension, his squabbling siblings – is a result of this slightly fragmented sense of self he has. His brother Remus is an undeconstructed boor, while his sister is a left-wing firebrand who doesn’t hold truck with her family’s nefarious dealings in the oil sector. In every sense Adem is the Golden Boy of the family; he’s the eldest, he has a respectable job, an excellent network of contacts, and the business acumen to hold him in good stead during his future position at the head of the family business. And yet. Families crackle with relationships that don’t make sense. Joseph is hypermasculine, unrefined and direct. Families are rarely as close knit as they ought to appear on the surface. Conflict brews within every in-joke and every dig. But it makes for good writing!

Like all the characters in Man O’War, I like to think that, under Adem’s scheming skin there beats the heart of somebody who wants to do something good, both politically and personally. I don’t buy into the notion of evil very easily; in some way every ambition can be justified, however skewed and warped that justification may be. Like the rest of the cast, I found Adem’s written sweet spot snared somewhere between bad decisions and good intentions. In this respect he makes for a perfect associate for Nita Rhodes, who also is trying to balance those multiplying spinning plates. They really are made for each other, because I made them that way.

I always felt Adem was my classically tragic character, the man who is dragged to his fate by his own designs. The question is: can he draw himself back from the brink? As he covers his tracks he finds himself dealing with Tilda Boulton, the DS with a grudge. We’ll take a look at Tilda next week.

Man O’War Character Sketch #4: Salazar Gomez

 Over the coming weeks in the run up to the launch of Man O’War, I’ll be posting a few lines on each of the main characters in the book, about who they are, what they do and their role in the book. They’re a varied and diverse bunch, in more ways than one, and I have a soft spot for them all. I’ll also be posting a little bit about the creation and inception of each character, and why they are the way they are. I won’t be posting anything spoilerific; these will be more like musings of the author.

The six POV characters are, in order of appearance: the jellyfisherman Dhiraj Om; the corporate Head of R&D Nita Rhodes; brutal gangster Agarkka D’Souza; black market engineer Salazar Gomez; oil heir and civil servant Adem Johnson; and hard-nosed policewoman Tilda Boulton. This week it’s Salazar Gomez.

Salazar Gomez

When I had the original draft concept for Man O’War I had three POV characters whom I knew would drive the story: my jellyfisherman, Dhiraj; my corporate leader Nita Rhodes, and my gangster Agarkka D’Souza. Appropriately they are the first POV characters we meet, and their conflicting ambitions are what open up the first half of the story. As the web of plots and subplots became more intricate it became apparent I needed more points of view from which to tell the main story, and that there were many more types of people who’d be affected and dragged into this kind of story. So I created my “second wave” of POVs: Salazar Gomez was the first of these.

On the face of it, Salazar is like Dhiraj – another everyman character. He just wants what’s best for his daughter, his beloved Lily (his “Chou Chou”), and to try and improve the wretched lot he’s found himself in. But he’s more than just an everyman. His ambitions are familiar to us all, but unlike Dhiraj, he is already immersed in darkness when we meet him, and his story peers through a glass, darkly. Salazar is an engineer of advanced robotics, specialising in sexual plastics and systems. In the world of Man O’War, such a niche specialism might be legitimately used for prosthetics or medical purposes; in Salazar’s case, awful decisions taken in his past life have scuppered any chance of a medical career, and so he has turned to working on illegal sex robots manufactured in the French underworld.

Salazar’s world is violent and seedy, but unlike D’Souza, he doesn’t revel in it. He wants out. But he has enough street smarts enough to manipulate his reprehensible situation for his benefit. When we meet him, he’s secured an interview with Nita Rhodes’s firm, EI Systems. And he’s willing to do anything to get him and his precious Chou Chou out of the slums of Lyon.

More than any other character, I think Salazar represents the potential for what I’ve called the “secondary use of technology”. That is, where tech is being adapted or co-opted or manipulated for purposes that not related to the original intended purpose of the system. To be frank, nobody really knows how technology is going to be co-opted and used until it is dragged from the testing conditions of the lab and into the pool of human ingenuity that is reality. An amusing example would be how magnetrons developed for radar arrays were accidentally adapted to create… ta-da! The microwave oven! A less salubrious example would be the way in which terrorists adapted mobile phone devices to act as triggers for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). I wonder how robotics will be adapted by enterprising individuals, for good or ill? It’s almost certainly going to happen, and I wonder how much thought goes into this area of thought? It’s not really an engineering discipline, and it’s not really a philosophical one. It sits somewhere between the two, I think.

One of my hopes for Man O’War is that it sparks off ideas about these possibilities for technology. Engineers often have a blind spot about how their technologies might be co-opted in the real world, because they are – understandably – distracted by the technical excellence of the product or capability they have created. It’s frequently down to artists and amateurs to explore how these things might be used in different ways. Salazar is an engineer, but for him, necessity becomes the mother of invention.

He might not have been inventive had Adem Johnson not leant on Nita Rhodes quite so heavily. We’ll come to Adem next week.

Man O’War Character Sketch #3: Agarkka D’Souza

Over the coming weeks in the run up to the launch of Man O’War, I’ll be posting a few lines on each of the main characters in the book, about who they are, what they do and their role in the book. They’re a varied and diverse bunch, in more ways than one, and I have a soft spot for them all. I’ll also be posting a little bit about the creation and inception of each character, and why they are the way they are. I won’t be posting anything spoilerific; these will be more like musings of the author.

The six POV characters are, in order of appearance: the jellyfisherman Dhiraj Om; the corporate Head of R&D Nita Rhodes; brutal gangster Agarkka D’Souza; black market engineer Salazar Gomez; oil heir and civil servant Adem Johnson; and hard-nosed policewoman Tilda Boulton. This week it’s Agarkka D’Souza.

Agarkka D’Souza

In 2011 my wife and I took a holiday in Sri Lanka, driving in a rough clockwise circle that began and ended with the capital Colombo. We stopped off in Negombo, a small city few miles northward up the coasts from Colombo. Negombo comprises a coastal strip of beach, from which a looping, crooked finger of spit languidly curls out into the Indian Ocean, creating a beautiful lagoon peppered with fishermen’s huts on stilts poking up from the waterline like rustic HG Wells War Machines that have decided to hang up their heat rays and retire by the sea.

It’s a seaside town with the sort of languorous pace of life typical of most of Lanka. One evening we were walking to a restaurant by the sea and on the opposite side of the street I saw a sight so incongruous it’ll never leave me. There walked a gang of youths that looked like they’d escaped from the set of Back To The Future 2. Despite the sun pumping down temperatures of thirty degrees and the rest, they wore leather coats, showed off Mohawk haircuts, twirled motorcycle chains and boisterously laughed and joshed with each other. Their leader was taller than the rest, sported a huge, Lasith Malinga-style kinky ‘fro, chiselled cheekbones, and wore what must have been a sweltering, full length leather trench coat. He had big, wild eyes and a crazed grin, like he had business to attend to, and business he intended on enjoying.

When it came to writing my London gangster character for Man O’War, the initial knee-jerk idea was to create a Ray Winstone character to take the reader through the underworld, but something kept telling me to avoid the clich, and at some point the vision of this odd character from Lanka came back to me. Who knows whether he was really a gangster or hoodlum or just had a most unlike Lanka-like aversion to sunshine, but I’d already created one British-Asian character, and the unique look and aura this guy had just seemed to fit perfectly. Plus it meant I could bring a whole other strand of interesting and different cultural characteristics to the character, rather than yet another “Shooters, fags and Granadas” character that I might otherwise have propagated. D’Souza practices a Sri Lanka martial art called Angampura, and fights using an edged weapon called an ethunu kadawa. Thus, D’Souza is the only character who is based on a real life person, even though I’ve no idea who that person was, or what he was like.

D’Souza exists in a kind of no-man’s land, constantly teetering on the brink of several identities. He lives in London and is unquestionably a Londoner, yet constantly thinks about returning his Sri Lankan homeland, a kind of one-man diaspora; he is bisexual; he exists outside the boundaries of civil and legal society, preferring to ply his trade in the black market robotic sex trade; and physically… well, perhaps that facet of his story is best left to be read organically. I felt quite strongly towards D’Souza; he is not a pleasant character and one wouldn’t necessarily want to be caught in his company, or his crosshairs, but I hope he comes across as more than simply a violent thug. Of all the main POV characters, his story was the most satisfying to write.

The flashpoint in D’Souza’s story that marks the change in him is due to the actions of Salazar Gomez, the black market engineer trying to improve his lot. We’ll take a look at Salazar next week.

Man O’War Character Sketch #2: Nita Rhodes

Over the coming weeks in the run up to the launch of Man O’War, I’ll be posting a few lines on each of the main characters in the book, about who they are, what they do and their role in the book. They’re a varied and diverse bunch, in more ways than one, and I have a soft spot for them all. I’ll also be posting a little bit about the creation and inception of each character, and why they are the way they are. I won’t be posting anything spoilerific; these will be more like musings of the author.

The six POV characters are, in order of appearance: the jellyfisherman Dhiraj Om; the corporate Head of R&D Nita Rhodes; brutal gangster Agarkka D’Souza; black market engineer Salazar Gomez;oil heir and civil servant Adem Johnson; and hard-nosed policewoman Tilda Boulton. This week it’s Nita Rhodes.

Nita Rhodes

Nita Rhodes is the Head of R&D Programmes for the fictional engineering firm EI Systems (Emotional Intelligence Systems). She and the brains trust of engineers and scientist under her direction at EIS have developed a truly remarkable new technology: the ability for robotic systems to learn, develop and apply human emotions. She is, understandably, highly enthusiastic about this tech, and when we meet her, she is eagerly seeking approval from central government to provide her with a regulatory framework against which to test in a large demonstrator programme.

Hmm. Regulatory frameworks… demonstrator programmes… All that corporate speak doesn’t sound like it makes for a riveting plot, does it? Maybe, maybe not. But having such rigid frameworks in which to operate (which reminds me of the old cartoon where a boss says to his subordinate, “Give me some innovative thinking, and make sure you follow these rules!”) can be frustrating, and perhaps can make people as though thwy’re forced into “alternative” methods of operation.

Nita was one of the characters I had very little problem in fleshing out, because I meet Nita Rhodes almost every day in my line of work. I’ve dealt with a raft of brilliant companies, of all sizes, all seeking to grab some funding to develop their technology and get it to market. She’s an amalgamation of several people I’ve met over the years, brimming with enthusiasm, ideas and with what looks like a fantastic prototypical product-in-waiting.

Alas, getting something to market in what we refer to as the High Value Manufacturing sectors (not phones and tablets and stuff, but things like aeroplanes, helicopters, large robotic platforms, satellites, etc) is not easy, and the road is particularly difficult for emerging technologies, which moves quickly and is sometimes not well understood by people such as the Sir Ingham Fitzwilliams of this world, the Government regulator whom Nita meets in her first scene. Luckily for me I’ve never sat in Sir Ingham’s chair, but I’ve sat in enough rooms and conference halls with Sir Inghams and Nitas to know how it goes. And sometimes, business can be a bastard.

Behind the push of every great idea is not simply money, or innovation, or ingenuity, but will. In a vast sea of competitiveness throbbing with genuinely brilliant ideas, which ones rise to the surface? The best ones? Maybe. You’d like to think so, at least. But – and this isn’t limited to the technology and engineering sectors – it’s often the ideas with sufficient will, influence and persuasion behind them that make it. That sounds like quite a right-wing appraisal, but given that Nita is a hard-nosed businesswoman, I think it’s also an appropriate one in this instance. It’s common to portray engineers and technical scientists as Oppenheimers and Frankensteins, particularly in comic books – people who seek to develop new technologies for the sake of the technology itself without thought of the consequences. The art of the possible. But when technological progress is married to a cause, that’s when business cases become persuasive, powerful and seductive.

Nita’s cause is the emancipation of girls, women (and some boys and men, too) from sexual abuse and rape, both at the domestic front and abroad. In her mind, the marriage of powerful new technologies and important human issues makes the case for development ineluctable. As her story progresses, she is faced with an ancient question: when you know the cause for which you fight is right, at what point do the means stop justifying the ends? Nita’s story is corporate and skulduggerous – her world is shot through with spinny slogans such as Champion English Industry! –  but also driven by her hopeful vision for humanity. Part of the power of Nita’s will to succeed is the fact that she’s female, and a woman working in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry: science and engineering. While I wouldn’t expect that to be the case in the mid-22nd century, when MOW is set, it remains an issue today (though, I sense, a moribund one), it’s still her sense of sexual injustice in other walks of life that drive her to implement this technology for societal benefit. And, in my sad opinion, some of the problems she is trying to address with technology – sexual abuse, rape as a weapon of war, and the dysfunctional and primitive men who perpetuate them – will certainly not have been eradicated by the mid-22nd century. Indeed, another conversation for another day may be how technology doesn’t in fact eradicate (re)primitivisation, but enables whatever is already there to flourish.

The ramifications of Nita’s actions are felt from London all the way to Port Harcourt, a city at the southern tip of Nigeria, the gateway to the Niger Delta, and one of the people affected is the gangster Agarkka D’Souza, whom we’ll meet next week.

Spoiling For A Scrap

In arguably the most famous episode of the 1970s sitcom Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, the two titular lads, Terry and Bob, are trying to make it home to watch the highlights of the FA Cup Final on Match of the Day. However, they must run the gauntlet of Newcastle city centre, where the result of the match is on everyone’s lips. Cue, er, hilarity as Terry and Bob run around with their hands over their ears shouting, “La la la la, can’t hear you!” for half an hour.

On my writing forum of choice, SFF Chrons, not so long, somebody got themselves into an awful state in the past month or so because somebody had posted a plot point about Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a thread clearly labelled “Contains Spoilers” (Quick point: I’ve not seen TLJ yet, and reading the spoiler hasn’t spoiled it for me, but that’s because to me reading a list of Star Wars plot points frequently feels like trying to read the Upanishads in the original Sanskrit). Similarly, my brother used to close his eyes and stick his fingers in his ears when the “Next time, on 24…” trailer would come on at the end of each episode (this was back in the days when the Beeb had the rights).

To be honest I’m more sympathetic towards Terry and Bob than my brother or the frothing Star Wars uberfan. At least in sport it really is all about the result; that final statistic imprint in the record books is the absolute. Second is nowhere, and all that. But there’s no second place in literature. In literature there are resolutions, there are changes, there are stubborn rebuttals and there are movements, but there’s not often an ending that can be as clinically reported as a 1-0 result. At least, I feel there shouldn’t be (again, with the exception of mysteries where there surely can or must be a result to avoid hornswoggling the reader).

The sacrilegious status afforded the spoiler, or spoiled plot point, in contemporary culture. As a writer, I’d be pretty miffed if knowing the “result” prevented them from enjoying the story. In literature, the outcome is not the whole story, otherwise what’s the point of reading the preceding 400 pages at all? On some level even spoilerphobes are aware of this, as they operate on the logic that the knowing the destination spoils the journey. But I’m not so sure.

I’ve just finished Stephen King’s magnificent IT which, taking place over two converging timelines, reveals many crucial plot points which another author may wish to have kept secret; one prime example is the revelation that the Losers’ Club badly beat the bully-boy Bowers Gang in the apocalyptic rock fight. And even though that’s a clear “result” it’s flagged in the text as a memory way before the reader happens upon it, and even though we know the result, it in no way takes away the horrid drama of that episode (and hence I’ve not flagged it as a spoiler here). Similarly, I just watched the film Blood Diamond for the first time the other day. From the outset, it’s pretty clear that Leo DiCaprio’s questionably-accented, world-weary Rhodesian mercenary is going to undergo a Hollywood transformation by the end of the film and Do The Right Thing (or Do De Roit Theng, as Leo might say). Sure enough, the ending, telegraphed by a thousand similar character arcs from Hollywood blockbusters gone by, came to pass. Didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the film; in fact I thought it was a cracking little thriller.

So a slight plea: if one does happen upon a spoiler, don’t let it spoil things for you. You never know, you might find that the first 400 pages of that novel are still worth reading!

Man O’War Character Sketches #1: Dhiraj Om

Over the coming weeks in the run up to the launch of Man O’War, I’ll be posting a few lines on each of the main characters in the book, about who they are, what they do and their role in the book. They’re a varied and diverse bunch, in more ways than one, and I have a soft spot for them all. I’ll also be posting a little bit about the creation and inception of each character, and why they are the way they are. I won’t be posting anything spoilerific; these will be more like author musings, which hopefully will provide more background to the characters and their world.

The six POV characters are, in order of appearance: the jellyfisherman Dhiraj Om; the corporate Head of R&D Nita Rhodes; brutal gangster Agarkka D’Souza; black market engineer Salazar Gomez;oil heir and civil servant Adem Johnson; and hard-nosed policewoman Tilda Boulton. We’ll start with Dhiraj Om.

Dhiraj Om

Dhiraj Om is my essential “everyman” character, the one with whom I’d expect the majority of the reading audience to relate. His apparently simple decisions at the start of the book act as a catalyst for everything else that happens, while his relatively basic wants and needs (to provide for his family, to stay safe) are the anchor for his fish-out-of-water story.

Appropriately enough for a fish out of water, he’s most comfortable at sea. When I started writing MOW, I had images for three key scenes in my head: the opening, the critical middle scene, and the ending. The opening image was the discovery made at sea. Therefore, the discoverer was only ever going to be someone who worked at sea, and someone who worked alone. Therefore Dhiraj Om was to be a fisherman, and with a little 22nd-century extrapolation (the impact of catastrophic overfishing, pollution, and extinction of some species), he became a jellyfisherman, scouring the freezing waters of the North Sea for bounties of moon jellies. (It seems I’m developing a pattern of giving my protagonists otherworldly, portmanteau job titles: in Hole In The Sky Grub Teng is a “psychitect”.) So we meet Raj first on his autonomous fishing skiff The Lion’s Mane, going about his business, when the chance happening upon a rare, valuable and illegal bounty in his nets – the pleasure robot, or kokeshi, called Naomi – thrusts an ordinary man into an extraordinary situation, for which he seems ill prepared and equipped, both physically and emotionally.

Dhiraj is the only character – the only human character ­– for whom there wasn’t some real-world anchor upon which I could base him. In short, I don’t know any jellyfishermen. In that respect writing an everyman (or everywoman, but because Dhiraj is a man, I’ll stick with everyman) character is relatively simple. One doesn’t need a specific point of reference in based in reality, as the everyman could be any of us, and is the person whose thought patterns will most closely resemble our own, which when the going gets stressful, most of the time can be boiled down to, “how the hell did things get to this?” I’ll be honest, I think that each time my one year old throws yoghurt on the floor, so throwing some violent and vengeful gangsters and a few deaths into the mix must really only be an amplification of this yoghurt-on-the-floor emotions. I’m guessing, anyway (isn’t that what writers do? he said cheekily).

As Dhiraj and Naomi spend time together, trying to get through the situation in which they find themselves, they help each other in very unexpected ways. One of the major themes of the book is the way in which technology is commandeered and used (and I’ll write a bit more about this when I tackle the characters of Nita and Adem) in a secondary fashion. In my line of work there’s a lot of talk about which new technologies will enter the market and when, and how they will help the economy and society at large. I usually contend, with my writer’s hat on, that it’s not possible to truly know how the technology will impact society (and the economy) until it’s been dropped into society. In a sort of distortion of the Observation Principal, once you start using a piece of technology, you change it – and it changes you. It’s a given to say that a robot will help humans to lift bigger things, or get to places more efficiently, or communicate more easily, or work longer hours. But when they reveal new things about ourselves is when things get really interesting, and potentially dangerous.

Dhiraj and Naomi undergo literal and figurative changes in the course of the book, that reveal to Dhiraj things about himself he would never have understood or thought about. And in return, he begins to feel certain things for this artificial being. It’s easy to say that we can become connected to robots, in the same way that we become attached to objects of little outward importance – a trinket of some sentimental value. But when robots are used in new ways, and that in turn reveals new things about the user, then they transcend being mere items, or things, and could be thought of as something else. Perhaps one might think of them as not engineering but art, moving us in the way a painting, a book, or a piece of music might. Or, if you’re like Nita Rhodes, you might think of them as something else entirely. But we’ll come to her character next week.