Archive for March, 2010

Fits and Starts

March 30, 2010

Before I launch into today’s blog I’ll remind you that the first review of my novel The Wildcat’s Burden follows immediately below this post. TWB, the fourth novel in the Iskander series adventures of Gisel Matah and the Iskanders on the 17th century world, Gaia, features Gisel uncharacteristically limited in her options and movement. She has good reason – she’s now the military governor of the turbulent city of Skrona, and she’s pregnant.

I had formed a desire to write stories like Gisel’s quite early in life, but study for other activities stood in the way. Sometime while I was studying engineering, and losing interest, I decided to snatch some spare time and take one of the correspondence courses offered in the newspaper. I was probably little different than any of the would be writers who took the opportunity to submit something to the school for their critique and advice. I submitted my first ever short story – in first draft – and was advised that I’d do better learning freelance journalism.

This wasn’t my ideal but I gave it a go. It turned out that at 19 I knew far too little about the world and had done so few worldly activities that all my attempts at articles were devoid of information any presumed reader would find useful. I’m sure that from my present position, fifty years later, I could have turned any number of my early adventures into passable commentary, but I had no clue how to do it, and the ‘writing school’ instructor was no help. I remember plugging away at a couple of exercises after I joined 47 GW Regt RA in Germany, but gave up the hopeless task soon after.

I didn’t take up the pen again for about 8 years. I was then working in Libya for a geophysical exploration company, and often had free time on my hands. I remember offering to remain in camp in the desert over the Christmas break 1966 so that all the others could head off to spend time with family and friends. I had a lazy week with about five or six of us in camp – one a member of the Libyan kitchen staff, so we could eat – and spent several days working on some articles for the local English language newspaper. See – I was still trying to succeed at journalism.

Just for illustration, and because I’ve found the newspapers with them in, I’ll offer a bit of the first published one. Yes – you see that my very first attempt found a publisher ( which made me suppose I was brilliant enough that all my other first attempts would be equally successful. Ha ha, or as we say on line ROFLMAO.) It turned out that Mr Cedric Hugo Johnston, proprietor of the Tripoli “Sunday Ghibli”, had been searching for a correspondent able to write about the desert for some time.

This article appeared in the Sunday Ghibli for 29th January 1967 under the headline “Those Sahara Trails”, subhead “Habit – and the best worn path” by Man o’ the Dunes (my nom-de-plume to disguise I was carrying out some activity not on my work visa).

“It has been said before, and in perfect truth, that we are creatures of habit.

We may not think so because by being natural and comfortable things, habits are difficult to recognise. It is only occasionally that they allow themselves to be seen.

Such an occasion happened just the other day and I noticed one. This whole business of following roads has become a habit. Of course, most of us have been going places down roads for all of our lives, so it is understandable.

As drivers, except for a few early lessons on an open space, our whole experience has been gained on roads. A circumstance much appreciated by farmers and householders who would otherwise be forever repairing fences.

But there are no fences or walls out here on the desert – though there are roads, many of them.

Now, we may except the main desert roads, which are surfaced and follow pipelines, and those that connect fixed centres so take the easiest natural routes between, as we can easily justify our use of them.

But there are many more that have no apparent reason for being there.

They are those made by the modern desert nomads, the transport drivers, the rig technicians, the seismic crews, whose centres of activity migrate.

For them, travelling between locations often requires only that they point in the desired direction and go. Yet they are habitual road users. Once a set of tracks is laid down it will be followed for as long as interest remains in that direction, although in time the tracks will sprout a bewildering profusion of turn-offs.

Are they followed because the track makers alway pick the best route? Hardly: let us consider the origins of these roads. There are three main philosophies in use in the desert. They can be summed up as the “hell-for-leathers”, the “happy wanderers”, and the “inflexible”.

Those tracks stemming from the first are generally fast but swerving, and require a good deal of attention to avoid running off them into rough ground. They are created by drivers who must travel at the highest speed possible and are easily recognised by the frequent heavy brake applications necessary to avoid taking to the air over rock patches.

The second are the opposite of these. The drivers that created them didn’t care how fast or slowly they were travelling, nor even the direction they were going. They are recognisable by the fact that it is possible to follow them while almost asleep or in animated conversation with passengers.

The “inflexible” is the compass road that takes the shortest route between two points, regardless of the terrain, making vertiginous descents off scarps, and riding roughshod over the rocks even when smooth patches are in sight.

The driver making the first journey from A to B will have made one of these types of track, according to his temperament. His track will not appeal to everyone else, but almost without exception they will follow. For short distances they may recover their own initiative and start their own form of road but as soon as those original tracks are visible over the hood the driver will follow them.

Months or years later those roads are still in existence. They lead from abandoned origin to abandoned destination, but they still hold the old fascination. Other oilmen may now be working in the area, going to different sites from different camps, but wherever the new roads meet the old they are diverted along the same path.

Sometimes the earlier road leads the later for long distances in quite the wrong direction before its hold over the newcomers wanes. Any traveller in the desert can see examples of these occurrences engraved by the tire marks in the ground. There is no doubt that any set of tracks in the sand are an irresistible invitation to follow.

The reason? Sometimes the nagging feeling that those earlier travellers had a better sense of direction than oneself; more often the belief that over a period of time they found a more obstacle-free path – but in most instances I think it is just good old habit.”

Well, that wasn’t so bad – was it? I resisted any number of urges to edit as I typed from the original, except once or twice. Duplications of words had to be changed. I was even paid for that – a few Libyan pounds per article for the first three or four I left with him to fill empty spaces in the paper. I was never paid for the last two – after he reported events in Libya during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war a bit too candidly for the pleasure of the authorities he was bundled onto a plane for England and deported. Since the paper ceased to exist with his departure I know I can re-use the article without seeking permission. Have to admit we had no formal agreement on copyright – as far as I know. Looking back that seems as a golden age of trust and innocence – for me, at least.


Review of “The Wildcat’s Burden”

March 22, 2010

The Wildcat’s Burden
Written by: Christopher Hoare
Science fiction / Fiction / Time travel
Rated: Very Good (****)
Review by: Lisa Haselton

Gisel Matah is back! She has a public and powerful leadership role now that has her in the center of the action, but can she handle the responsibility and her personal life, too?

Gisel proved herself as a reliable and crafty soldier at a young age. She’s since been promoted in the ranks, and now has a governorship in her twenties. Being a woman in charge of an entire populous in a world where men rule and women obey causes conflict on its own. Creating alliances and dealing with men in powerful positions is a daily challenge for Gisel, as is having to keep secrets from her husband.

The Wildcat’s Burden is full of action. Allies and enemies and traitors and underground supports fill every page of this adventure that plays out over a handful of weeks. It’s hard to know who to trust, and when the reader thinks he has it figured out, another twist comes into play. It’s a personified chess game, where any move can be counter attacked in a moment and the final champion isn’t clear until all the dust settles.

This story takes off on the first page and doesn’t let up until the last word. So many characters in this novel bear a “burden” to help the cause they believe in, whether rightly or wrongly, but the reader can only admire their passionate stance and watch to see how the scenarios play out.

Author Christopher Hoare has created a unique world that mixes futuristic technology with a time before technology. It’s an interesting mix of a future world with a new world as Gisel and her people from the Iskander try to find a way to live on the young Gaian planet. Hoare has developed the female protagonist to be wise beyond her years. She’s intelligent, strategic, and yet still a woman. The entire novel is visual and intriguing. Never a dull moment.

This is Christopher Hoare’s fourth novel in the Iskander series. Arrival is the beginning of Gisel’s adventure, currently followed by Deadly Enterprise and continuing with The Wildcat’s Victory. The books don’t have to be read in order to enjoy the overall storyline, but allows for insight into characters that move with Gisel through time.

Chris Hoare writes full time and lives in Alberta, Canada at the eastern edge of the Rockies with his wife of almost 40 years, Shirley, and two shelter dogs.

I recommend reading The Wildcat’s Burden if you enjoy exploring old worlds with a modern twist, time travel, military strategy, and a bit of romance. The Wildcat’s Burden is a great story that gives the reader the scoop behind Gisel’s life.

Title: The Wildcat’s Burden
Author: Christopher Hoare
Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-55404-729-1
Pages: 271
Price: $5.99

Do you hear me? Over…

March 18, 2010

Last posting I mentioned some of my own connection to the steel and steam that features in the Iskander stories. I suggested that those developments have the advantage of being known to work, whereas trying to introduce people from a technologically simpler society to electronics and modern transportation systems requires a huge jump in courage and understanding for those trying to learn. I saw that when I worked in the Libyan Desert in the 60s.

Readers of the series may notice that one modern system that becomes essential for the Iskander people on the 17th century world is radio communication. It became so important to me, putting  stories together for people living in the Internet and cell phone age that I even introduced a primitive spark transmitter radio telegraphy system for the Iskanders’ enemies.

The thing is, people develop a whole different mindset when the only way to communicate is by handwritten letter sent across the ocean, say, by a sailing ship that could take two months on the journey. People in the 17th century had adjusted their lives to this glacially slow means of communication – it would drive us crazy. When I came to write the chapters in Arrival where the difference between the Empire learning of the Iskander’s raid in the new world and the Iskanders’ exploitation of their success stretched into months it threatened to slow the novel down into an excruciating slow pace and push the whole plot into an unacceptable timescale. That was when I had to show the Empire using at least a vintage 1890s wireless telegraph to pass essential communications across their empire.

The radio telegraphy setups that I envisaged and described were based upon the old Naval radio station that existed near Yeovilton airfield in the wartime and post WWII years, and that I used to see when we took the bus to visit relatives who lived nearer to London. The rat’s nest of wires, like a hundred clothes lines criss crossed on high poles, stretched for hundreds of feet – they were the antennae. If you look at a photograph of a WWI battleship you’ll see the same string of antenna wires stretched between the masts. These were needed when a radio operated on a few fixed frequencies and transmitted Morse Code.

My own introduction to radio communication started when I joined my Artillery regiment in Germany in 1959. The army decided I would be most useful to them as a driver-op – I was to drive an officer’s jeep and be his radio operator. The first officer I drove for was the commander of the US Army unit stationed with us – responsible for the nuclear warheads for the missiles we were equipped with in an allied NATO formation.

I suspect he wasn’t impressed with our radio equipment – the same old #19 sets that had been used in tanks 15 years before during WWII. They had limited power and range, were tuned labouriously by twisting dials, and worked with vacuum tube amplifiers. They broke down regularly and the first remedy was to drive the vehicle containing the radio cross country over the roughest track you could find as fast as you could manage. Shaking up the tubes would often jar them into working again. We had more modern radios by the time I escaped the army some three years later, but frequent radio excercises were always necessary to keep the operators on top of their equipment.

One thing emphasized in the Artillery was to pass short, precise messages as quickly as possible, because the Russian army, our presumed antagonist, used a lot of radio direction finding equipment to locate hostile communications – and bring down a barrage of artillery fire onto the hapless operators. Later, when I used field radios extensively in the oil industry, where windbags would waffle for agonising minutes trying to pass the simplest of instructions, I would wince and wish I had a radio direction set and a few field guns to put a boot up their asses.

When I worked in the Arctic I found the radio became such a nuisance that I normally kept it switched off. If I was accessible by radio at any time, the party manager was bound to ask me to check that the drillers were working well and had no problems – his job to watch them but a lot warmer in his office than out on the tundra. If I were to respond to his message I would waste the rest of the day trundling down the line to the drills at the 4mph speed of my tracked survey machine to babysit fellows who were getting a bigger production bonus than I was. After a few days’ of queries why I hadn’t responded to his radio call and I put it down to an inconvenient hill in the way between us, he finally ‘got the message’.

What about training desert Arabs to handle modern technology? It actually varied according to the individual, but only a small percentage we able to break out if the thinking they’d grown up with. I had a survey driver who merely by watching me work began to form an accurate picture of the survey layouts we used to capture the geophysical data. But we also had a mechanic’s helper who, when told to ‘fill it back up’ when all that was left for a truck oil change was to add the new oil, attempted to pour enough oil in for it to appear at the filler cap. When the oil began pouring out of the dipstick hole he ran to get the mechanic crying the motor had sprung a leak. Most of our desert labourers were capable of one, very simple repetitive task, and when they came to the end of their spread would lay on the sand until the truck driver brought them the next string of phones to lay.

I read somewhere that it takes three generations to train a somewhat proficient technical workforce. The first generation are baffled by the challenges, but fascinated enough to encourage their sons to take them on. The second generation can handle the ‘grunt’ jobs needed in a technical society – and see that their kids get a good education. The third generation can handle the everyday technology in society without supervision and advance to supervise others and make competent decisions about the work – about as much as one can expect from the average workforce in the West. This is what I have Henrik Matah and his engineering staff working on in  their industrial setup at Bergrund but, again for the plot pace, he has to find enough above average individuals to train in order to maintain a pace of development that works in fiction.

Time to come back to nowhere:

March 6, 2010

Continuing with the gripping story of a writer’s early laugh – sorry, life. Before “The Wildcat’s Burden” was released and I dived into an orgy of publicity – no, I’m not serious – I had reached as far as twenty years ahead of where I started. Of course I’d skipped a lot of detail to get there.

The point I was after was to explain how Gisel Matah had been lurking in my head ever since I was a kid. I think she’d been trying to get out and into print for many years, but I had taken the safe route and gone into some profession that offered a living wage, I thought, and kept away from living the dream. Ah yes, aeronautical engineering – safe as houses. You probably notice that this is the opposite of the advice all those life coaches offer.

Ever notice that they are not offering to pay the rent while you live this dream?

Aircraft engineering was definitely interesting, but by the end of my second year I wised up to the fact that I was never going to design Britain’s next Spitfire (if you’ll excuse the hyperbole). If I worked really hard and studied until my hair fell out, I might get to design the fastening widget for the left flap override safety stop on the next aircraft to be cancelled. The romance just wasn’t there.

When I imparted my decision to depart to my instructors they asked – very reasonably – what was I planning to do instead. Oh, I’m going to find a few adventures and then devote my life to writing. Yah sure.

I propose to keep from mentioning these great adventures right now – a stratagem to keep you coming back to see if I’m writing anything interesting. I intend instead to delve into the origins of some more artifacts out of my head that prompted other features of the Iskander series.

When Henrik Matah, Gisel’s father, is faced with planning a development strategy that will make the Iskanders wealthy by plunging Gaia into an industrial revolution he fixes on one sure way to go from pre-industrial society to high technology. It was sure because we already did it in our history. What we need is steel and steam.

I was raised in the final flowering of the steel and steam age. Just out of sight at the side of the picture of Cockwood harbour (see photo somewhere below) was the main railway line to Plymouth and the West Country. Right up until the late fifties you could face that track and see a steam locomotive dashing past pulling a train – every day of the week, and almost any hour. I became one of those small boys who stood on train platforms with my Ian Allen train spotter’s booklet marking down the number of every locomotive that came past.

It just wasn’t the same when they were replaced by diesels. For a start, they didn’t even have a steam whistle. Gone was the shrill desperation of a high pitched whistle calling out a warning to everyone who may have strayed onto the track. In it’s place was the dull honk of a klaxon that sounded like a somnolent goose. They always reminded me of the Urg–ur–Gah sound of a 1920s Austin or Morris Minor.

The railway people tried to gussie up the diesels – they gave them names instead of only numbers, but they didn’t have the same ring as King George V, or Powerstock Grange, or Launceston Castle. In fact the most fascinating of the new dull green boxes was called 18100, if I remember correctly. (It may have been black.) It was almost the only gas turbine electric locomotive to go into service. When we moved to Dawlish, when I was 10, I could always tell when 18100 was standing at the station with its train bound for Plymouth and Cornwall – the smell of partially burned kerosene would drift across the town and fill every nostril.

I spent other portions of my life with steam. When I went to work in an oil refinery, the plant I operated was a sulphuric acid alkylation unit that turned some natural gas ingredients into octane. The plant had been built in WWII to provide the anti-knock gasolines that aircraft engines needed, but my luck would have it that almost all the pumps were steamers, both turbine and reciprocating. The fractionating towers had steam heated reboilers to maintain operating temperatures, and hardly an hour of a shift ever went by without the need for us to run a steam hose somewhere to ginger up a part of the plant that needed help. It was an old and cranky unit by the time I got to it.

When I went to work in a gas processing plant the management insisted on everyone studying for the steam engineer certificates. I won a prize for the best marks of the year when I took the 3rd class stationary steam engineer certificate but it was a bit of a fraud. When we went to the award ceremony I found that all the men in the regulating department were Scots (a real cliche, eh Scotty?) And all had the same Brit certificates I’d taken in my aeronautical engineering days – clearly I’d been on the same wavelength as the examiners, so no wonder my answers had impressed them. I decided to stay at 3rd, while I was ahead.

Anyhoo, at that plant I got to run quite modern steam generators – boilers to you – with 650psi superheated steam and a couple of large turbines that almost bounced off their moorings when going through their out-of-balance phases when starting up. Shut off all the safety interlocks and start them by spinning open the steam valve by hand and ignoring the thoughts about the thing flying to pieces like a huge bomb. But I have to admit, I’ve never driven anything steam powered that moves. Maybe one day …

I did get to see a steam loco come past the home I have now. CPR sometimes dust off their old locos to run promotion trips, and one of their big steamers, #2816, brought a variety show train a few years back and parked at Blairmore in the mountains to give everyone a free show. I have a number of pics, but unfortunately none are digitised – maybe I’ll do something about that. But I have to tell you a little story. My wife sat in the Explorer beside the track when the train was due, so I could take some pics with the mountain range behind it. The train was quite late , no comment, and someone drove up to ask if we’d seen some particular vehicle come past. We hadn’t but he asked what we were doing sitting in a vehicle at the approach to a field in the middle of nowhere. “Oh, we’re waiting for a train.” There has been no passenger train on this line for 50 years. He gave us a strange look and departed rather quickly.

Please look at the first chapter of “The Wildcat’s Burden”, it’s next.