Mammals and dinosaurs

A light analysis of the current state of the publishing industry, including the ripple effects that indie publishing can have on traditional models. Featuring big indie collaborations, warring states, James Patterson, and more.

The Wild West of indie publishing is settling down. Here’s a glimpse of [what I think] is the future. Thoughts distilled over multiple conversations with R.R. Virdi, a great friend and occasional writing partner.

Firstly, a brief primer: there are five big companies that own much of traditional publishing (TradPub) today[4]. Regardless of what imprint you see on a cover, the book in your hands is most likely from Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, McMillan or Hachette. They are megacorps. Here, for example, is HarperCollins, which publishes my work.

From Al Almossawi’s excellent overview of Big Five subsidiaries (https://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/)

And then there is indie publishing. While articulate naysayers still exist[1] (most recently with regard to Maroc Koskas’ Renaudot-longlisted novel[2]), indie publishing not a tradition new to literature – Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf all self-published their work[3]. Let us therefore burn snobbery at the stake and read. I’ll lump two types of indies into one umbrella: small indie presses that go after particular styles and genres[5], and indie authors themselves.

It’s very difficult to achieve fame and fortune with physical books in the indie space – one needs to invest in printing, shipping, warehousing and all manner of capital-intensive projects, not to mention breaking into the distribution channels traditionally owned by TradPub. These are meatspace[6] problems.

With the rise of Amazon and other storefronts, these problems have been largely solved for a sizeable number of readers. This is what I think of as the Amazon model:

1. A successful digital marketplace for authors and readers to sell and buy books (Kindle + Store)

2. Free tooling provided by the marketplace host so that the author can take a manuscript into publication-ready form (KDP)

3. Discovery functionality provided by the marketplace host at no visible cost to either seller or producer (Search)

4. A publishing model where the author makes the bulk of the royalty revenue (70%) and the marketplace host (Amazon) keeps a smaller sum. This is in marked contrast to the the traditional publishing model, where the author makes an average 7.5% on royalties.

Various services can hook into different parts of this ecosystem (Draft2Digital, Reedsy, Vellum, Mailchimp et al) to provide superior functionality; however, the basics exist and an author can finish a manuscript, neatly evade the meatspace basics, and be read from Colombo to Columbia in under a minute. Thanks to the higher royalties, said author can earn far more per reader than a traditionally published author.

Thanks to this Amazon model, self-published authors like Hugh Howey, Mark Dawson[7], LJ Ross and others became extremely financially successful[8].

As of late, traditional authors have begun to make inroads into this world. One of them is Brandon Sanderson, the living juggernaut of epic fantasy. Myke Cole was thinking about it as far back as 2013. Mark Dawson, a former trad-pubbed author who is now a key figure in the thriller genre, argues that trad publishing could be the new form of vanity publishing. There are many others, and not enough space to list them all.

Why this switch?

This 2018 piece from the New Statesman[9] provides a great summary of the situation: 

“…a dramatic report published by Arts Council England (ACE) in December has raised the spectre of the highbrow novelist as an endangered species – and started a combative debate about how, if at all, writers should be funded.

The study claims falling book prices, sales and advances mean that literary authors are struggling more than ever to make a living from their fiction. In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013. To avoid novel-writing becoming a pursuit reserved for those with independent means, ACE suggests emergency intervention: direct grants for authors and better funding for independent publishers and other organisations.

Simply put, it takes a certain amount of financial security to be able to put one’s feet up and keep the pen on paper. Traditional publishing no longer provides this surety.

It’s easy to picture such indie publishing as a sort of digital Wild West, then, where lone authors venture forth into the desert heat, keyboards blazing, and claimed their fortunes, eager to defy the trope of the famous but starving bohemian artiste.[10]  

Franchises are the endgame

However, indie publishing has evolved beyond being just an avenue where one can publish anything and earn a living. The Kindle Gold Rush, if it ever happened, is an event of the past.

Game industry consultant Christian Fennesbach, in a fine opinion piece, observed that in video games, franchises – and the franchise potential of intellectual property – are key to longevity[11]. He posits four key elements required for an intellectual property to become a franchise:

1. Characters that are interesting and memorable

2. A fictional universe big enough for more than one story

3. A recognisable visual style

4. Different, but not too different

This is wisdom that has long been circulating in the publishing community in some form or the other (including the phrase you have to write a series). In the indie space, from my observation, this franchising happens along a more organic route:

Often an author creates a popular, genre-focused Intellectual Property (often in the form of a fictional universe with strong characters). The reader demand for it outstrips the supply. This is, in effect, a franchise with potential.

The author then goes on to collaborate with multiple co-authors to produce a series of novels, with the founding author playing the role of publisher and chief creative. They provide the vision and/or story outline, does a smaller percentage of the writing and the co-author takes on the larger share of the work.

Today, the indie publishing space seems to be trending towards such collaborative publishers (CoPubs). CoPubs function a bit like medieval foundries – a master smith at the center, aided by a number of lesser-known apprentices. The business model is often structured so that partners generally have long-term skin in the game: advances are rare and small when existent; profits are derived from royalties, split along much more equitable models than traditional publishers. I’ve seen contracts that go anywhere from 30% to 50% – large figures compared to the 7% of trad pub.

Elven smiths reforging the shards of Narsil into Anduril.

Less often there are equal partners in the enterprise – two smiths hammering away in a collaborative fashion, sharing half the workload and half the profits.

A key advantage of this model is speed and continuity. Fans benefit from the extremely rapid rapid release cycles possible with this method, and the CoPub itself can pivot quickly to add, expand or modify stories with sales potential. As the CoPub earns, it invests in advertising – primarily digital – to push its books.

In a sense this is similar to James Patterson’s business model[12], the fan-service of Charles Dickens[13] and, more recently, the business models behind Robert Ludlum or K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs[14].

The most successful CoPubs perfectly marry Fennesbach’s’s four elements to speed. Just as Patterson outsells Stephen King and John Grisham combined, CoPubs can outsell solo operations with less effort. Few single authors can compete with the prodigious output of work in a franchise that fans ardently love.

The most known within indie circles is perhaps LMBPN Publishing,[15] which operates Michael Anderle’s Kurtherian Gambit universe. Sterling and Stone[16], WaterHouse Press[17], the Nick Cole-and-Jason Anspach Galaxy’s Edge and Chris Kennedy’s Four Horsemen – co-created with Mark Wandrey – are others.

The Warring States

A light analysis would suggest that CoPubs become the new traditional publishers. More authors gravitate to CoPubs, profit accumulates, imprints acquire capital. The CoPubs cast down the Big Five of TradPub, diversify outside the digital book space and start shaking hands with airport bookshops and film executives, and in a generation or two there are the new megacorps- the Fat Six, or the Magnificent Seven, et cetera, et cetera.

This state of affairs continues until some upstart indie wordslingers figure out a new model, and the Wild West begins and ends all over again.

Possible. It’s a perpetual David-vs-Goliath story, and we love those stories.

But we happen to think there’s another future.

Firstly, CoPubs are smart. At present CoPubs are small fiefdoms that compete whose chief creative direction seems to stem from one person in the middle – aka one master smith. Dunbar’s number suggests a limit to the number of relationships that can be maintained by one person[18], and there is presumably a size at which a fast corporation becomes a slow, lumbering giant, so this suggests that there is a peak size at which a CoPub operation will halt, if only to preserve its agility.

Secondly, trad pub authors should be factored in terms of the attention economy[19]. The difficulty of forging a full-time career through trad pub alone[20] appears to be forcing midlist authors to contemplate indie.

Traditionally published wordslingers who sell well sometimes set up their own publishing imprint to manage affairs – the Tolkien Estate, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore or Brandon Sanderson’s DragonSteel Entertainment are two examples. Our sample space is terribly limited, but imagine top authors handling the publication aspect for favored authors and giving them a push by slapping “JK Rowling presents” or “Brandon Sanderson presents” on top. That would mobilize a legion of fans, and said legion many be large enough to sell as many copies as a CoPub. There’s plenty of precedent for this in anthologies.

Thus, we think we’ll end up with a state of affairs where the fastest authors lump themselves into one set of operations, the bestsellers and their proteges/peers lump themselves into a slower set of operations, and everyone competes for attention in the market. All operations are structured feudally around one author or two authors as the master smiths. There may be grander unity and divisions between them all – the CoPub and the trad-turned-NewPub. Periodically an operation collapses, or wordslingers cross from one side to the other – much like the Sengoku Period or the current personality politics of Japan.[21]

Logic suggests that both these types of fiefdoms – will use the Amazon model and work similar to record labels founded by rappers[22] and Led Zeppelin.[23] The CoPubs are likely to have an advantage in terms of speed, which plays a significant role in the algorithms of the Amazon model. The NewPubs will have an advantage in advertising due to sheer brand power. Both will stay relatively small and agile.

The elephants in the room

What of ghostwriters? Ghostwriting is significant business. Growing up, I first became aware of it in K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series – I later learned that the author had a very structured process where they outlined books and had ghostwriters do the work.[24] I later realized the same thing held true for Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, produced by the Stratmeyer Syndicate in the 1930s.[25]

Aragorn, author of the Gondor 2.0, faces his army of ghostwriters

Obviously this exists and might last as long as markets exist. But we have no way of identifying them[26], and so have chosen not to talk about them in the analysis. It’s my guess that they’ll mimic the structure of CoPubs.

What of the TradPub model? We believe mid-sized TradPub will suffer, but the Big Five may be “too big to fail”[27]. The allure of the mainstream publishing contract is a powerful thing. After all, not all authors are profit-driven, and in the model of the attention economy there are other ways we reap satisfaction from our work – prizes, honors, awards and such prestige are social capital and thus will likely always be largely tied to Big Five publishing.

In an optimistic future competition forces them to give their authors a larger share of the royalties and focus more on digital.  

We don’t know if this will happen. Big Five publishers appear to diversifying their operations by investing in smaller presses.[28] The authors still make pennies, but this provides an excellent feeder network where editors with taste and niche knowledge carefully curate massive quantities of books, and something eventually goes viral, at which point the Big Five’s marketing budgets kick in and a new star is born. Moreover, it makes it easier to shut-down non-performing presses. TradPub may be taking lessons from the mammals, but we’ll have to see if benefits trickle down to the authors.

Meanwhile: bring on the fiefdoms. More competition is a good thing. Even if one doesn’t want to set up a franchise, the fact that these avenues now exist is great for all authors.

If there is a counter-narrative to these trends I’ve highlighted, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. The more data we have, the better.

Lastly, if you’ve read this far, and want to support our work, a novellete we’ve co-written has been nominated for the Nebula Awards. We’d like to ask you to read it, and if you think it’s worthy, spread the word. You can read it at https://www.sfwa.org/forum/reading/work/3270-messenger/

 


[1]https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/mar/21/for-me-traditional-publishing-means-poverty-but-self-publish-no-way

[2]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/sep/15/french-bookshops-revolt-after-prize-selects-novel-self-published-on-amazon

[3] https://www.pw.org/content/notable_moments_in_selfpublishing_history_a_timeline

[4] https://almossawi.com/big-five-publishers/

[5] https://electricliterature.com/how-indie-presses-are-elevating-the-publishing-world-deb06dc11c8a

[6] https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/what-is-meatspace

[7]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/15/self-published-authors-hollywood-andy-weir-the-martian-el-james

[8]https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/08/buying-houses-in-cash-and-selling-millions-meet-self-publishings-hidden-authors

[9]https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2018/01/slow-death-literary-novel-sales-crisis-afflicting-fiction

[10] Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1851; Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900–1939

[11] https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-01-14-franchises-are-the-endgame-opinion

[12]https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10711191/James-Patterson-how-the-bestseller-factory-works.html

[13] http://blog.tavbooks.com/?p=226

[14] https://www.avclub.com/pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain-7-ficti-1798239907

[15] https://lmbpn.com/

[16] https://sterlingandstone.net/about-sterling-and-stone/

[17] http://www.waterhousepress.com/

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

[19] “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it” – Herbert Simon, 1971

[20] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/11/traditional-publishing-fair-sustainable-society-of-authors

[21] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2001/08/personality-politics-conquers-japan/377730/

[22] http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2016/08/rappers-record-labels/

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swan_Song_Records

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animorphs#Ghostwriters

[25] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/05/hardy-boys-nancy-drew-ghostwriters/394022/

[26] To confound the analysis, many people write under pen names in the industry – from Bella Forrest (who nobody seems to know) to James SA Corey of Expanse fame, who are actually Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham.

[27] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Too_big_to_fail

[28] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/21/covers-story-why-are-there-so-many-new-publishing-imprints

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Reading Robert Heinlein

I re-read Starship Troopers today. It has been so long since I read it that I had forgotten almost everything but the core themes of the book. Reading it was a reminder of why Heinlein alone among the Big Three – the other two being Clarke and Asimov – remains one of my favorite writers.

In Sri Lanka, where I live, this idea is minor heresy among those who actually read science fiction (a small and harmless minority). We are supposed to revere Clarke: the man lived here, set his novels here, even advised our President. A next choice would be Asimov, who with great daring laid down the intellectual touchstones of robotics in science fiction.

But to me, Robert Heinlein has aged better. Not just because of his pioneering status in science fiction, or his science. Yes, Starship Troopers is credited with practically having started the mecha genre, and those drop-pod sequences are marvelous – but I am a child of Halo: ODST and Neon Genesis Evangelion: I grew up used to these ideas. Heinlein persists because of a far more ephemeral quality: the strange-but-logical humanity that forms the heart of his fiction.

Heinlein’s military theorists lecture on the stupidity of war while glorifying their fallen comrades. His soldiers champion military-run societies that have done away with gender and race discrimination. Look a little further, and his citizens are found adapting themselves to the moon, abandoning that social construct sacred to conservative societies – nuclear family – in favor of communal marriages. He rages against communism, but in the next breath he admires the hive-mind version of it. He glorifies militarism, but in every paragraph he seems to be talking about its monumental and tragic waste.  And when Heinlein sermonizes – which he does often –  each society and Gandalf-character he builds presents their own logic, rigorously bound to their environment, undeniable. Look, he seems to be telling me, this is what you would be, under the same circumstances.  His protagonists, aware of the Logic-that-Binds, struggle with these truths, and emerge like caterpillars, changed by the chrysalis into some altogether new form.

This humanity I cannot help but admire. Clarke’s and Asimov’s characters fail this test: in Asimov’s characters are ciphers driven by the larger plot, and Clarke’s humans act with painful logic with great self-awareness, but without the slightest capacity for change. Doubtless their books were mind-blowing in their time: after all, all of the Big Three were powerful futurists. But as time goes by, technological change sweeps us up, and what may have been profound sixty years ago becomes everyday technology to me. But Heinlein, in all his controversy, survives by channeling the one thing that has not changed: humanity.

 

 

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Some brief analytical thoughts about that Westworld Season 2 finale

Disclaimer:  Spoilers. Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the Westworld Season 2 finale. I tackle my understanding (or lack thereof) about the underlying themes and inconsistencies of Season 2 of Westworld.

Disclaimer:  Spoilers. Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the Westworld Season 2 finale.

I was a huge fan of Westworld Season One. It had very strong narrative, a core theme (the nature of consciousness) that it hounded relentlessly, if in a slightly confusing way – the maze.

And eventually, the maze was explained – it’s a meme that propagates between hosts, unlocking some key pattern than forces them towards self-awareness. It’s done in arguably one of the most beautiful TV episodes I’ve ever watched – the story of Akecheta, which took so many linguistic, philosophical and narrative risks and tied them together phenomenally. I mean, take a bow, Lisa and Jonathan, that was incredible.

But after watching and re-watching the season finale, I’m more confused than exhilarated.

Firstly, Samurai World was criminally underdone. As was the British Raj. It was interesting to see the analogue characters between SW and WW, but what could have covered interesting ground was diverted back into the barren scrub of the original park. Let’s get that out of the way and onto more serious ground.

The core themes of Season 2, as far as I can make it, is about humanity’s drive to achieve immortality – by duplicating human consciousness onto Host bodies – and well as the Host’s drive to become self-aware and independent.

There are various plot elements that come in here, but the key for me was what appears to be a very self-aware artificial intelligence (Logan) confirming that it’s possible to recreate a consciousness by observing how it reacts to events. That, granted, may be true. It’s a lot like postulating the nature of a shape by observing its boundaries. That said:

  1. We finally see the Man in Black’s motives – to find Ford’s Door and the Forge, to prove once and for all that he can’t be quantified by the system. Laudable. No wonder he acts differently in encounters.  But what’s the core theme here? Is it the Man in Black’s view that humans can’t be fully quantified (which he saw firsthand with Delos) or is it the AI-Logan’s view that humans are too damn easy to turn into data?
  2. Regarding turning humans into data, the Park seems like an inherently flawed construct for observing the parameters of a person. One, it’s a place with no consequences (for humans), and humans rarely have the freedom to act in total freedom, freed from the bonds of family and acquaintances. Our lives, as David Mitchell said, are not our own: from womb to tomb we are tied to others.Given this, what value is the data collected from observing human-Host interactions in the Park? Especially given that the Park is not just a fantasy in terms of choice, but also in setting  – it’s literally the Wild West.
    Despite this gaping hole in the data, Westworld posits perfect recreation – Arnold was recreated perfectly, to the point where he committed suicide again: the Man in Black seems to have been recreated the same way. How?
  3. Maeve was self-aware, perhaps more than anyone else (including the predictably Machiavellian Dolores). Why then does she still pursue her core drive (daughter) knowing that it is just a story? Even the poor Teddy managed to logic his way out and take his own life. Why does she chose to give her own life in service of the story?
  4. The AI proposes that humans are actually simple programs, far less complex than the Hosts. Ford adds to this argument, saying that the only truly self-ware/conscious creature would be one that can read and modify its core drives – a Host. This seems very promising. But why then do we have such an inconsistent failure rate in simulating the humans inside Host bodies? Delos failed. Ford says he can’t live outside the simulation. Arnold, for whom there must be less data than for Ford (Dolores says she was the only person who knew Arnold fully) was recreated perfectly, even fine-tuned into the Bernard construct. That’s a 2/3 failure rate for strange (and IMO, plot-driven) reasons.
  5. “The Valley Beyond” is clearly some untouchable dream-sim for the Hosts that escape, where they can find consciousness, so to speak. But given that all the Hosts headed there as if on instinct, are they actually self-aware and choosing to do so, or are they still running on Ford’s narrative? Will they just end up endlessly replicating their narratives in the promised land?

That done, a few inconsistencies/thoughts.

  1. Maeve the Master Controller. What a waste. Probably my favourite character in the show.  Went nowhere in the end after all that buildup.
  2. The Forge: wasted. It would have been very cool if the Valley Beyond / Forge combination was some master plan of Ford’s to upload the Host minds onto human-like bodies and set them loose on the real world (we know it can be done – see Dolores-Hale and Arnold-Bernard). But instead, it’s a glorified prop used to set up a flood scenario.
  3. Ashley Stubbs being a host, or being a human tasked to look after hosts. After some thought, I’ve decided that he has to be human, because people would surely have noticed their immortal Director of Security hanging around for thirty years (but then again, nobody noticed ageless Bernard).
  4. The Man in Black plotline: I felt this touched and expanded the theme of consciousness enough that it could have stood alone as a plotline without having us have to wade through the Dolores-filler. But then again, it would be folly to pretend that I am as good a storyteller as the Nolan/Joy combination, so basically this could just be me grousing that they didn’t play it as a safe as I would have.
  5. The Bernard plotline: Bernard literally doesn’t develop at all. You’d think all the madness with Ford and with his own nature would have caused some sort of change in the man/Host. We know Dolores certainly went off the rails . . .
  6. The narrative structure: yeah, clearly not meant for a show that releases one episode at a time. This thing needs to be binged.
  7. To quote Wired, “literally everyone is a deus ex machina.”

This new season was frustrating. Westworld still promises much, not the least of it spectacular and experimental storytelling, and I’ll keep watching it. Let’s see what Season 3 brings us.


Required reading:

Lisa Joy on Westworld Season 3 https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/westworld-season-2-finale-explained-lisa-joy-season-3-1122744

Wired’s discussion on the Season finale https://www.wired.com/story/westworld-season-2-finale-discussion/

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Civilization: resilience

A wonderful writers’ group I’m part of recently started discussing civilization. There were many sub-discussions, but one thing struck my interest: someone pointed out that our civilization, unlike any that has gone before is global, networked across the entire planet. And thus, how it might fall cannot be predicted from studying past empires, which were just isolated pockets without the network effects.

A wonderful writers’ group I’m part of recently started discussing civilization. There were many sub-discussions, but one thing struck my interest: someone pointed out that our civilization, unlike any that has gone before is global, networked across the entire planet. And thus, how it might fall cannot be predicted from studying past empires, which were just isolated pockets without the network effects.
Secondly, they pointed out that we’re extremely reliant on advanced technology – from mining resources to everything else – and were this state of affairs to collapse, we’d have little hope of recovery.
 
In short: if this goes south, we’d be fucked.
 
My understanding is different. From what I’ve read, empires past were pretty global. The Silk Roads connected five immense chunks – China, the Mongol empire, India, the Persian empires in the middle, and the Roman empire, with ancillary kingdoms feeding into this vast trunk network. They were definitely not isolated and their economies were as intricately interlinked as ours were. Along the Road spread humans, capital, and ideas – including the Abrahamic faiths.
 
The only thing that has changed is the speed at which we communicate. So definitely not a unique scenario, and definitely one that can be understood by studying past empires.
 
Technology is a more nuanced problem – it took many generations to recover technology once that trunk network of the Silk Road fell, but it was done anyway. Most of our base technology today was built in the last hundred years or so. If civilization does fall, it’ll take us much faster to recover, because the research is already done and the knowledge wil be lying around.
 
Today’s civilization is actually remarkably resilient in that regard – or at least what Nassim Taleb terms ‘antifragile’. Knowledge is distributed at a far more even rate that anything in times past. (Almost) the sum total of human knowledge can be cached in every country in the world. Humans are also healthier, live almost twice as long as they used to, and thus will be able to work on longer projects. Should a Black Swan event occur, barring something like nuclear winter, we’d bounce right back up in a different shape.
Anyway, an incomplete thought pattern. I need to follow this to its conclusion.

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The Technology of the Commonwealth Empires

One of the key challenges of designing the alternate-reality world of the Commonwealth Empires  is getting the technologies of the world right. When I started writing, I knew a few things about this alternate British Empire. One, they  never went through the first world war as we know it.

One of the key challenges of designing the alternate-reality world of the Commonwealth Empires  is getting the technologies of the world right.

When I started writing, I knew a few things about this alternate British Empire. One, they  never went through the first world war as we know it. The first world war led to enormous advances in mechanization; this is a war that started on horses and ended in tanks. The second world war saw immense leaps communications technology (as allies and axis struggled to coordinate assets worldwide while simultaneously trying to crack the others’ networks).

Future London – a scene from Star Trek: into Darkness

So my Britain, I theorized,  invested enormous amounts of effort on robotics and human modification. And food supply, seeing as how it had to manage the large and unwieldy nation of India.  All of this came at the expense of communication, so we have soldiers that routine undergo surgery and body modifications – but no Internet. There are radiograms – radio shrunk down to the size of mobile phone – but no undersea data cables or satellite links. Technology, devoid of the Internet services we take for granted, would largely be decentralized: the electronic paper that Eliot Grimme carries operates on solar power, is highly rugged and resilient, and can slot in with other ‘sheets’ to form larger displays with more compute power.

In fact, the only thing even closely resembling geostationary satellite networks are the three Angels Interitus: three very crude satellites that will drop a tungsten payload from low-Earth orbit, obliterating cities outright. This is American scifi writer Jerry Pournelle’s idea (https://taskandpurpose.com/kinetic-bombardment-kep-weaponry/) resurrected; it’s something that the present-day US (in our world) seems to be giving serious thought to.  The Angels and Britain’s Tin Soldiers – walking semi-amphibious dreadnoughts crewed by advanced AI – form the bulk of my Britain’s military might. A touch of Pacific Rim there.

(Oxford Comma by @HelpThe99ers on Twitter). Sadly no, we don’t have an Oxford Comma Jeager, but dammit, I want one.

 

WHAT OF THE OTHER NATIONS?

I have at least six major technological blocs; the Tsarist Soviet Union, China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire and the Germans.  West Europe, Britain and the British colony of America share much the same tech.

RUSSIA

Russia, as we know from the real world, has had a long and fascinating history of doing tech in different ways. As a child, I remember reading an 1970’s Reader’s Digest story: the defection of Victor Belenko, a Russian MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ fighter pilot who defected and landed his plane in Hakodate, Japan, during the reign of George Bush Sr.

It was the first time Western experts had managed to see the MiG-25 up close – and to their shock, the feared fighter – one of the fastest aircraft in the world at the time, and still one of the fastest – was build out of stainless steel and vacuum tubes. Hell, this was the plane that terrified the US into building the F-15, and this thing had rivets on the hull. It was welded by hand. The vacuum tubes mean it was enormous resilient to extreme temperatures, could withstand an EMP, and gave it a ridiculously powerful radar.

It was the fighter jet version of the AK-47. If we get hit by aliens using EMPs, I’m saving up for a MiG-25.

Russia’s way of doing things did not stop there. We know that in the 1970’s, Glushkov proposed a statewide Internet analogue (https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-soviets-invented-the-internet-and-why-it-didn-t-work) and Brusentov’s team built Setun-70 (which sadly was the last ternanry computer this world ever saw): https://dev.to/buntine/the-balanced-ternary-machines-of-soviet-russia). Both were innovations that would have changed the face of tech in this world. The ternary computer, especially: 1,0,-1 -> as compared to the 1,0 binary that practically every computer uses today.  Instead of 2^(x) possibilities, they’d have 3^(x).

In the real world, these things were scrapped because of political infighting. But in my alternate Russia, these things happened; the scientists who proposed them had the ear of the Tsars.  As a result, the Russians have a working Internet. They use ternary computers. They have jet fighters that are enormously resilient. They have the closest thing to a proper aerospace program.

CHINA

The Bamboo Curtain is a thing. Much more research is needed, but here’s what I know of them so far:

  1. They are enormously prolific in infantry warfare: they rely on massive regiments kitted in mass-produced power armor. This mirrors China’s scale of armies since their earliest days.
  2. They are a closed economy – China actually has the scale to pull this off
  3. There is a curious set of technological difficulties for computers when dealing with Chinese languages (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608249/for-computers-too-its-hard-to-learn-to-speak-chinese/). My theory was that this would have shaped the development of technology in China: specifically, they use analog computing that closely mirrors how the human brain work.
  4. In fact, the Second Song Emperor (a resurrection of the original Song dynasty) is wedded physically to the Great Computer that runs all, sees all; a part of the Emperor is always present in the lives of everyone.

THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE

It’s hard to postulate a good technological advantage for the Ottomans, but a few things have always stuck in the back of my mind:

  1. The Mechanical Turk – an elaborate hoax that defeated chess players around the world for over 80 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk)
  2. Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu, the author of the first surgical atlas from the Islamic world. We know that the Ottoman Empire was remarkably focused on healthcare.
  3. Taqi al-Din, who around the 1550’s invented a steam jack driven by a rudimentary steam turbine.
  4. The Ottoman volley gun from the 1600’s.

I posit, therefore, that the Ottoman Empire specialized in medicine and in developing and licensing technology to other nations; couple this with the region’s oil, and you have a trade empire that relies on massive commercial might to safeguard their position and culture in the world.  It seems to fit.They have huge walls and massive stationary defenses that you really don’t want to run into. They have trade relations with both China and the West -remember, this is a nation that sat astraddle the legendary Silk Roads that spread culture, ideas and tech in the real world: we can think of this as the real nexus of the Commonwealth world. See Peter Frankopans’s The Silk Roads (and, for a short glimpse of the tech at the time, http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/ottoman-contributions-science-and-technology/.

Much of their wealth has been focused on terraforming inhospitable conditions – such as the deserts due south of the Empire borders in Africa – into oases. Not unlike the Middle Eastern bloc today – where Israel is a major technological research hub and the Arabicnations turned their oil wealth into glittering cities in the desert.

JAPAN AND GERMANY

Highly isolationist. Japan in the real world suffered from technological stagnation; hence the events leading up to the Meiji period, where they re-invented themselves. Both Japan and Germany share commonalities in their armed forces: the Germans have the fearsome Teutonic Knights – raised from birth for battle – and the Japanese have their Samurai. Both use elaborate and complex power armor, preferring massive investments on each soldier instead of China’s mass-produced approach.

I’m actually taking some inspiration from Overwatch here.

Both Germany and Japan have not just knights; they have feudal systems under one leader of almost religious status and accord baron-like power to their knights and samurai. Both are split into clans and rival states that often work at cross-purposes, despite officially operating under one ruler. This fits in with how the German Knights and the Samurai actually did things.

Where they differ is in political loyalties. The Germans have powerful links to the Vatican, and the Crusaders are constantly at the gates of Jerusalem; the Ottoman Empire often relies on their defenses and British troops to keep the religious at bay. The Japanese stick to their own.


Of course, there’s more to be sketched out in this world – we’re just skimming the surface here – but welcome to the world of my Commonwealth Empires. Let’s see what else we discover as I write.

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