You’ve probably seen plenty of box sets in the Amazon Kindle Store in recent years. The idea is that several individual titles are collected into a single Kindle book, and usually presented at a bargain price. The books are connected by a theme, and the first Kindle military SF/ space opera themed box set that I’m aware of was Stars & Empire, which came out last year and did very well.
These box sets are a very good idea, I thought to myself. So I decided to make one of my own.
I wanted a strong theme, which took me a while to dream up. Then it occurred to me that I had discovered other British military SF writers over the past year or two, and the only way to find them was by keeping an eye on the amazon bestseller charts, and reading the author bios.
You can call it an excuse to get in touch with some new friends. You could even call it a record of an exciting moment in the evolution of science fiction.
Personally, I call it a bloody good read. So grab yourself a cup of tea (taking care to drink in comedy British style by lifting your pinky as you raise the cup to your lips) and read the introduction taken from the box set, Empire at War: British Military Science Fiction.
From Downton Abbey to Doctor Who, Britain is going through one of its periodic phases of cultural success. Cool Britannia they called it last time around. Monty Python, 2000AD, Led Zeppelin, James Bond, Top Gear, scotch whisky and Sir Tom Jones… it’s not that we Brits are better at ‘doing’ culture, but when we get it right, we do it a quirkily different way. Jason Bourne is as exciting to watch as James Bond, but one is American and the other British. You couldn’t swap them around without utterly changing the dynamic.
Or take comics. When I was growing up in England, America exported Spiderman, Batman, and the Fantastic Four, while the British answer was (and still is) 2000AD with its dark dystopias of Judge Dredd, the Volgan Wars, and Strontium Dog. I can’t imagine Marvel Comics being British any more than 2000AD could ever have been American.
And that’s a good thing. It’s diversity. Readers get a wider choice of material.
The British have supplied their fair share of science fiction authors too. Iain M. Banks, Tanith Lee, Arthur C. Clarke and many others have thrilled us for years, but British military science fiction?
That’s an oxymoron.
Conventional wisdom says that Brits didn’t do military SF, not unless you count the gaming tie-ins of Warhammer 40k. War is sometimes used as a backdrop, or a key event in a character’s past, but portraying characters in a military organization who are fighting an ongoing war…? Well, that’s the kind of thing we leave to the Americans. In fact, as we’ll see in the essay SitRep: The State of British Military SF, the idea that Brits don’t do military fiction was never quite as true as the standard narrative would have you believe, and yet even today the fallacy that British military SF is an oxymoron remains common, despite all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
And that evidence largely comes from Amazon through its bestseller charts, which for the first time in publishing history give a freely available and transparent guide to who is selling well and what kinds of books readers are buying. Not only is military SF selling in huge amounts, but British authors are playing a big part in this explosion of new talent.
In the Empire at War collection, we showcase a sample of writing from top British military SF writers. We have all of us had multiple top-10 bestsellers in the Amazon.com military SF book charts in the past two years, and half of us have clawed our way to the #1 spot in that chart. British military SF first erupted into prominence almost 150 years ago, but this collection is not a dry retrospective of the history of science fiction; this is a sample of what is happening in science fiction right now.
The first novel in this collection is Discovery of the Saiph by P.P. Corcoran. This is the opening book in an epic-scale adventure story of humanity’s war for survival against an implacable enemy. Space battles, alliances and treaty negotiations, special ops and alien technology… it’s all here in Discovery of the Saiph. Originally hailing from Scotland, but currently based in Northern Ireland, Paul Corcoran draws upon his experience of twenty-two years spent in the British Army, as an elite paratrooper in 5 Airborne Brigade, and subsequently in signals and intelligence.
Paul follows his novel with a short story exclusive to this collection: Haven One-Eight. A relentless foe seeks to murder the Faithful in their haven, but who are these unstoppable servants of Satan? The answer will shock you.
Alien invasion of the Earth is a popular theme in military SF, and an early British example is HG Wells with War of the Worlds (1897), which itself tapped into the invasion fantasies featuring German or French invaders that had been immensely popular for decades, ever since the stunning success of George Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871). It’s astonishing to think that it is almost 150 years since British military SF’s first period of huge commercial success. I hope we’re doing that tradition proud.
I’m confident the next book in this collection does just that. Take War of the Worlds and The Battle of Dorking, add in the 1940 Blitz spirit of the Battle of Britain, and shift to the day after tomorrow. The result is Their Darkest Hour by Christopher G. Nuttall, a novel of alien invasion, occupation, collaboration and resistance. Though the descriptions of the (mostly) brutish German soldiers in The Battle of Dorking may seem coy to modern sensibilities, they outraged the Victorian audience at the time. Modern tastes are less demure, but the actions of British collaborators in Their Darkest Hour are powerful enough to appall contemporary readers, just as Chesney outraged his.
The Their Darkest Hour series is one of many published by Scottish author Christopher G. Nuttall in recent years, of which The Empire’s Corps and Ark Royal are the most famous. Nuttall is not only one of the most prolific but possibly the most successful new British science fiction writer of the decade, winning huge legions of fans, and along the way scoring many #1 bestselling titles on amazon.com, the #1 position in bestselling science fiction authors, as well as being a USA Today bestseller.
Phillip Richards is the only author in the collection who is not a full-time, professional writer. That’s because he’s otherwise engaged in his day job as a platoon sergeant in the British Army. C.R.O.W., the first book in Richards’ Union series, tells the story of Andy Moralee, a young Combat Replacement of War in the English Dropship Infantry, as he progresses through training and hazing through to his first experience of combat. Like P.P. Corcoran, Richards takes his service experience and applies it to his writing, but with completely different results. Corcoran’s Saiph series features a large cast and many locations because, as he explains, that’s how real wars are. As Andy Moralee progresses through Richards’ Union series, and begins to take on promotions to NCO rank, his viewpoint remains limited. In what becomes a politically messy military campaign, the field commanders don’t share every detail of their plans with a lowly enlisted soldier, and certainly don’t ask for the advice of a junior NCO, as they often seem to do in the less convincing modern military SF. The results are sudden explosions of chaotic action that are unpredictable, sometimes injected with confusion, and always have you turning the page to find out what happens next.
The Union series is still ongoing, but Phillip is already planning another, less autobiographical, series. The opening chapters, entitled Escape from the Hive, are available for the first time in this collection. In this preview, Dankin awakes in a hold filled with unconscious soldiers hanging from the overhead like carcasses in a meat plant. Who is he, and why is he there? But all such questions are driven from his mind when a genetically engineered killing machine enters the hold, programed for slaughter.
The final novel is Marine Cadet. Unlike the other three novels here, the characters in Marine Cadet have never set foot on Earth, and have only recently been granted permission to learn of Earth’s history. They are like the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, cut off from their homes to fight in alien wars. The series starts in what appears to be a standard boot camp scenario, but this isn’t the familiar tale of a gruff but decent drill sergeant teaching hard lessons to our young characters. That’s present in the book, sure, but there are dark conspiracies maneuvering in the background, angling for advantage before this region of the galaxy explodes into a civil war, after which nothing will be the same again.
The characters in the Human Legion series have been isolated from the rest of humanity for centuries, but their distant ancestors were taken as children from Earth. In The President’s Son, a short story exclusive to this collection, we hear the story of that first group of slave children.
There is one more story in the collection, and it’s pretty special! The sumptuous cover artwork for Empire at War was produced by Andy Bigwood, whose cover art has twice before won the best artwork award from the British Science Fiction Association. Andy is a fully fledged contributor to this collection, and has supplied seven pieces of artwork that are interspersed with the other stories. I have written words to accompany each image, and together they tell a lavishly illustrated short story called Fallen Witness.
To round off the book we have SitRep: The State of British Military SF. Non-Brits needn’t be concerned because the essay is about more than Doctor Who and endless cups of tea. It has to be, since in order to grasp the current state of British military SF, we first have to understand how American science fiction publishing has transformed in the past five years.
This, then, is Empire at War: British Military SF. Now, go lose yourself in the stories within.
The box set will be ready early in the new year.
In other news, I’ve been commissioned to write a story for an anthology to be released summer 2016. This will be a Human Legion story, but won’t feature any of the characters you’ve seen before. I think Alastair Reynolds and Peter F. Hamilton will be in the anthology with me, which would be pretty cool if they are, but I’m losing track of next year’s projects so maybe I’ve gotten that mixed up with another anthology.
And did I mention? Tantor Media have produced audio editions of the first three Human Legion books, and the first one is out next Monday, although you can pre-order now through most Amazon stores and through Tantor’s website (https://tantor.com/marine-cadet-im-c-taylor.html ) where you can also get a sneaky listen to Tom Zingarelli’s narration.
When you consider J.R. Handley’s forthcoming Sleeping Legion series, there’s plenty going on in the Human Legion Writing Hut, but the primary focus remains the next Human Legion novel, War Against the White Knights.
We’ve mentioned the White Knights a lot in the first four books, but they like to work behind others. No one actually knows what they look like or any details about their home star system.
Well, that’s about to change. And you can get the drop on the Legion commanders right now by sneaking a peek at a sketch I made of the White Knight star system. It’s one of the good things about writing with a partner, that you can’t dodge the need to get your maps and technology and all that good world-building stuff straight before you craft scenes in detail. Otherwise your sections of the book will contradict each other.
So here, then, is a sneaky peeky map of the Olympus-Ultra system that we’re using right now to write the next book. Click on it for a closer view. Or if clicking doesn’t work in your browser, follow this link for a close up.