The Northern Spy
To Build or Not to Build
There are 10 kinds of people in the world--
those who understand binary, and those who do not; programmers and users, the differentiators and the integrators; those who put people into categories and those who do not (which are you?)--and that's as far as the Spy's April Fools' Day will go this year.
More important, there are the self-absorbed and the empathetic, the honourable and the dishonourable, the wise and the fools, the noble and the ignoble, the theoretical and the practical, the secure and the insecure, the saints and the sinners, the technophiles and the technophobes, the just and the unjust, the repentant and the defiantly self-righteous, the builders and the destroyers--one may categorize the the whole sweep of the human race (the only race of humans, BTW) in a series of such bifurcations. All of us are from time to time in one or the other of such polar opposites, or perhaps both at the same time. Such is the canvas of characters on which life is lived and from which novelists draw.
Shameless Self Promotion
And such is indeed the human pool from which the Spy has drawn (or dredged, depending on your viewpoint) his novels in "The Interregnum"--tales of alternate history and choices in technology--Christian science fiction with a decidedly Irish flavour. With the publication of "The Builder" in March 2012, this series has reached six volumes, and the Spy regrets to advise that the seventh may occupy more than one physical book (see below).
The basic premise of the series was provoked by a long-ago editorial in Analog magazine, in which the editor mused about the Fermi paradox--to wit, that given the vast number of solar systems in the universe, there must be many other intelligent races in the universe, so surely several have attained at least to the human level of technology and could be contacting us. So--where is everybody?
Now, setting aside for a moment the perhaps quite reasonable possible conclusion that there never has been and is not now any other intelligent race that could contact us, let us consider this hypothetical question. Perhaps, goes the reasoning, no one wants to or is able to dial us up, send an eMail, or Tweet. Perhaps they already have, and this is what UFOs are all about. Or perhaps, there is no one out there any more because every sufficiently advanced technological society has the means of self-destruction readily available to sufficient individuals so that sooner or later someone pushes a button, whether chemical, nuclear, or biological. After that--poof! and no more civilization to contact anybody. Perhaps no more life on earth.
The latter idea posits an interesting question, because it is obvious (or ought to be) that the human race is either rapidly approaching such a state or is already there. A madman (or woman--the Spy won't discriminate) could very soon, if not already, be easily capable of collecting the resources to destroy the entire human race. This might require co-opting a whole nation in the case of a nuclear "final solution", or perhaps no more equipment than a kitchen sink and a few store bought ingredients for some of the others. In the former case, think of the Middle East where countries pursue "peaceful nuclear programs" while threatening to bomb Israel down to the bedrock. In the latter consider how easy it is already to set up a drug lab and distribute deadly substances on the streets. In either case, think of the true-believing terrorist who would earn a place in paradise by murdering the largest possible number of other people--whatever (s)he may define as "other".
Now, those who know the Spy at all well, know that he is decidedly a minority contrarian on a few issues. (Read a column or two.) In the instance at hand, he is confident the human race lacks the authority to destroy either its collective self or the earth over which it was given stewardship--that power residing only in the hands of the Maker, and never having been delegated. Still, the question deserves an answer, independent of that conviction. Besides, quite a piece of awkwardness could be caused the survivors short of total destruction.
And, it is paradoxically in majority conviction that an answer may be offered. What restrains the hands of most people from "pulling the trigger" excepting a widespread conviction that it would be the wrong thing to do--if not morally wrong, perhaps dishonourable, or at the very least pragmatically inconvenient. Whatever one thinks of Judeo-Christian moral theory, until fairly recent times most in the Western world at least paid lip service to its behavioural (ethical) ideals, and this consensus has, in the Spy's view at least, provided much of the glue that has kept or society from self-destructing. Oh, we have come close, and the twentieth century saw numerous would-be apostles of human wastage in the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and others of lesser renown, if no less ambition. But there were always those with a will, the means, and (seemingly at least) the Divine help (think of the odds before the Battle of Britain) to stay the hand.
So, in the Spy's novels, a suggested alternate answer to the Fermi paradox question is indeed a general consensus for society around at least honour, if not morality, and around the idea that certain technologies are too dangerous to be used, lest such use be what permanently fouls the nest. His characters all pay at least lip service to the "Covenent of the Living", adopted after the worldside eighteenth century collapse into chaos following biological and nuclear warfare.
Really? The eighteenth century? Well, in an alternate Ireland, Brian Boru survived the battle of Clontarf and established an enduring throne over a united Ireland with his rescuer(s) as succeeding him. That Ireland by calculated policy in turn assisted the Duke of Kent in 1066 to defeat the Normans, ensuring they would not take over England, and leaving fragmented into many fifedoms, thus guaranteeing Ireland alone would become the major world power. The scientific revolution began in Northern Ireland in the early 1300s, the industrial revolution occupied the next century and a half, Trafalgar and Waterloo were fought by 1440 with Ireland as protagonist, and by 1700 the whole planet was called Hibernia. But in the next hundred years after that nearly everything came apart as the use of technology very nearly ended all life. The remnant have rebuilt, but avoid contaminated lands, have a low birth rate with many mutations, a small population, and an absolute ban on all weapons except those that can be wielded without leaving the hand.
By choice, modern battles are fought with sticks and swords, with generals and politicians who authorize them at the forefront, and on foot. A throwing knife or sling can be exceptions, but can only be so used to prevent a cowardly or dishonourable use of weaponry by others. Use of a gun triggers a court martial, and unless sufficient provocation can be proven, a prompt death sentence results. The Spy tries out the idea of equality for women in the Royal Army. Are the consequences what you want? Oh, yes, and Brehon law prevails. It is a capital offense to practice law for money.
By the mid-twentieth century, the high nobility (in theory and traditional practice a meritocracy) supposedly polices compliance to the covenant, and the High King of Ireland provides a check on them. Alas, at the height of the "Three Worlds' War" in 1941, a racist and power-hungry oligarchy of nobles deposed the king, and banned his family from the throne for a sixty year period called The Interregnum. Those six decades provide the meat of the stories--largely played out in conflicts between the elusive King James and his descendants on the one hand, and the xenophobic and racist MacCarthy clan on the other. Meanwhile, wild card Thomas Monde pursues banned genetic modification experiments, and the secretive Builders and elders of Meta (a third alternate earth of the six known) manipulate affairs of state in the background on all of them.
The Interregnum novels so far have been The Peace, The Friends (Best SF of 2003), The Exile, The General, The Nexus, and now, The Builder.
These novels follow scholar and military genius Mara Meathe, described by peers as an "elemental force of nature", her supposedly deceased father of uncertain parentage himself, mysterious multi-Ollamh Rhiannon, her close friend, beautiful military poster girl General Cath Maguire, hard-nosed skeptical Roger Hanlon, the fly boy-engineer wanting to advance the prestige of his two military corps, his friend and committed Christian Mike, Tadgh O'Kelly the sometimes Senchus and always brilliant musician and forensic specialist, Donal XII, the former Sean Reilly, who's sat on the chair of state longer than any dictator of the Interregnum by being the most devious manipulator of his generation, and Lord and Lady Kildare, heirs to two of Hibernia's three wealthiest families. These interact with scores of saints, sinners, priests, soldiers, heros, villains, nobles, and hoi polloi in a complex series of story cycles that take us back and forth in the historical affairs of Hibernia, with occasional forays to Tirdia (our earth), Meta (Builders World), Babylon, Desert, and Waterworld (Ocean).
Into this volatile mix come a few characters from our own earth, including Mara's close friend Nellie Hacker, angst-ridden orphan prodigy Lucas Caine, and Tiffany Friesen, who rescues from drowning in the Vedder Canal a man who is Hibernia's most wanted man, and also clan MacCarthy's only legitimate general.
Who is King James, really? (The Builder has a partial answer.) Will acclaimed pilot and engineer Roger Hanlon, who helped build a space railway and whom people call the Builder of Tara, save his city from destruction? Will he discover his true origin, or that of his friend? Will he be saved himself? Why does Mara defect to the MacCarthys? What is the Donal up to? What has happened to the new earth generated in the nexus of 2000, and then deliberately "lost" by Lucas in the Timestream. What will become of Ireland once what Mara already calls "The second battle of "Glenmorgan" is fought in the new year? What will be the Afghan Khan's contribution to that battle? Where has The Builder of Meta vanished to? What really became of his daughter Eider, and his ward Lucas? And, what is this fantastic story of the first three nexi and the original builder of Meta that the daughter of his eleventh century successor (or is he?) wiggled out of him?
Oh, yes, and when both the "good" guys and gals and the bad ones (can you always tell the difference?) have access to Tirdia, nuclear weapons sometimes become available after all. And there is that high armory up there in orbit that temptingly contains a lot of them. All you would need to do is steal one of the latest model space planes and persuade a CRAF pilot to fly it up there...
Well, as author of this latest 305K tome (The Builder), the Spy hopes his fan has survived the five-year wait since the last volume, which was The Nexus (Tirdia divided and a new earth was formed, and it was all Lucas' fault. Sorta.) The Spy wasn't been well for a time, hence part of the delay. Publishers take their time, which explains more. However, there are lots of new stories here, and some major loose ends still to clean up for the final installment.
The Spy's largely Mac-oriented audience will be particularly interested in the state of computing art on modern Hibernia. It does use a ten-state "dit" rather than a two-state "bit", a ten-dit byte, storage capacity of data cubes has been in the ten terabyte range for decades, the planetary metalibrary is well-developed, and those sword hilt-cum-throat mike interfaces are quite nifty. Alas, it badly lags ours in other respects, for the seventeenth century standardized on something much resembling UNIX, there was no Apple to challenge this monopoly, and even though that very reliance on a single vendor was one cause of the Collapse, neither operating systems nor programs have changed much since, and programming is all but a lost art. See where we might have gone? Perhaps once Nellie Hacker imports Macs from Tirdia, she may begin a revolution. On the other hand (or is it the same one) outsider Mara Meathe has already introduced some startling technological innovations, and she's not the only one with a flair for technology.
Where do you run to get these novels? The Spy's books are readily available (first five in paper; all six as eBooks) from publisher Writers Exchange ePublishing, from Fictionwise, Smashwords (iOS, B&N, etc), Amazon, and other fine eBook retailers. For locals, the Spy can retail copies, and the TWU bookstore carries them. Expect to pay three to five bucks in eBook format, eighteen to twenty-five in paper. The Builder won't be available in paper for another six months, and some retailers may not yet have it in eBook form yet. (It's only been out for a couple of weeks as we type.) Note that the Spy does drink his own root beer. He's been publishing in electronic format since a time when it was the wave of the future, and still is now that it’s the wave of the present. That's where the majority of sales are these days. Head for your nearest keyboard or touch screen.
What comes next? The Throne, volume seven of The Interregnum, was planned a long time ago. This story cycle was to contain the tale of the conclusion of the Royal vs MacCarthy civil war and restoration of the monarchy in the hands of the winners (if any—second Glenmorgan was a really bad affair), a second journal following Lucas and partner on a quest to find the earth he lost, make amends to John Dominic, and try to find himself, and a third tale recounting the history of Hibernia from 1014 onward, and telling us more of her kings and queens.
Alas, the latter project was going well at one to three chapters every century and a half, with promising tales set in 1014, 1320+, 1500, the 1700s and the 1800s (in some order), and a couple more planned, when the Spy took an unexpected detour in the 1415-1441 era of tall ships, great armies and navies, and their battles over control of Europe at Trafalgar and Waterloo. That account alone (working title "Mother's Girl") is now 572K words and will top out at 600K. So...the book that was to be "The Throne" will likely become the simultaneous concluding volume of two series, rather than one. However, the good news is that his fan might see two or three of those new books in the next year, if the publisher lag time can be kept down.
Characters, once well-developed, have a tendency to get out of hand as well. By the end of The Builder, Mara wants to run away and join the circus, another character wishes he had, a third is pig-headedly going straight into life-threatening danger, two have died, and there's been a grand triple wedding. The folks who won volumes two and three finalist status for "Best ePublished SF of 2003" (The Friends won.) will all have to be rounded up for one more go, and the Spy isn't sure how many will survive yet another story cycle.
And why write novels? To entertain of course. To provoke thought also—why make certain technology choices, and what are their consequences? What indeed would have happened if different ones had been made, and at different times? What of moral choices, and how they affect history?
Get your copies before the professor bumps them all off—excepting of course Nellie, who's probably too ornery even for him to mess with. Oh, two warnings first. First, these books may provoke the reader to think. Second, they are Christian in orientation, so if mixing the Gospel with Alternate History Science Fiction is too unpalatable for you to conceive of for whatever reason, don't buy them after all.
--The Northern Spy
Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.
Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.
URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Arjay Enterprises:
Arjay Books: http://www.ArjayBooks.com
The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com
opundo : http://opundo.com
Sheaves Christian Resources : http://sheaves.org
WebNameHost : http://www.WebNameHost.net
WebNameSource : http://www.WebNameSource.net
nameman : http://nameman.net
General URLs for Rick Sutcliffe's Books:
URLs for items mentioned in this column
The Interregnum Series: http://www.arjay.bc.ca/Fiction/interregnum.htm
The Builder—Volume 6: http://www.arjay.bc.ca/Fiction/TheBuilder/TheBuilder.html
Series Reviews: http://www.arjay.bc.ca/Fiction/interregnumreviews.htm
WEE-The Publisher: http://www.writers-exchange.com/search.php?mode=search&sutcliffe