Screenwriter and novelist

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Babylon Run Intro

You've made it this far, so I know you're interested. But before I let you go on, I feel that there are a few things that I ought to explain.

The Babylon Run is something of an oddity from what I count as my early career; in fact, I consider it to mark the point at which I launched out of the rock pool and into the ocean. The ocean was wilder and less hospitable. But its horizons were considerably greater.

Some history, first.

My first professional sale - skip this part if you've heard it before, because I've trotted it out in innumerable interviews and convention speeches - was of a six-part radio serial called The Last Rose of Summer. The fact that only the first half-hour episode existed on paper when I made the sale was a cue for a very concentrated crash-course in structure and technique. Considering the disaster that it might have been, I suppose it wasn't so bad; a bunch of us put it together in spare evenings and weekends at the studios of the local commercial radio station. Even I got to read a couple of lines. You can easily spot them if you can get hold of one of the old recordings; my appearance marks the point at which all credibility hangs fire for a couple of seconds. My other major contribution was to fall around on the floor for the fight scenes. There can't be many people whose CVs can rightfully include the job of Radio Stuntman.

I was not without ambition, even then. In fact we'd barely stuck our demo reel together to play for the Programme Controller when there I was, mass-mailing publishers with the series outline and offering them the rights to the same story in novel form. When I say mass-mailing, I actually sent details out to three different paperback houses. I'd have done more, if one of them hadn't taken the bait and sent me a contract by return. I signed it and suddenly I wasn't just an unproduced playwright, I was an unpublished author as well. Things were moving at speed and I still hadn't even written the damned thing yet.

But I wasn't worried. I had more than ambition on my side, something even more valuable.

I had bullshit.

Because I have to explain that, at the first scent of actually getting somewhere, I'd promptly scaled my plans up. One series and one novel had become related trilogies. So it wasn't simply a matter of being an author who hadn't written a book yet - I was an author who hadn't written three books yet. And there were about ten hours of radio drama still waiting to be worked on as well.

God only knows what heights I might have reached if I hadn't been obliged to stop hyping myself and get down to some actual writing.

They reckon - and whoever they are, I agree with them - that writing is a skill that has to be learned, but which cannot be taught. Having created the pressure to learn, I sat down in front of the typewriter and went to school. I'm still there now and if I should ever be heard to say that I've graduated, I hope there'll be somebody to slap me down for my vanity. I've written much better stuff since The Last Rose of Summer. But I don't think I've ever picked up quite so much craft in such a short space of time.

The radio serials worked out pretty well, one a year over the next three years. By the time we'd got to the last, we'd all become reasonably professional and that, I suppose, was the reason that I could sense a lot of the fun going out of it. What had once been muck-in and no money was now a matter for real contracts and creative differences. But the dramas had a following and they made their way around the world and the last of them, The Babylon Run, was reckoned to be the one in which we managed to surpass anything that we'd achieved in the other two.

On the publishing front, things hadn't been going so smoothly.

Corgi, my original publisher, had put out Last Rose in '78. They'd then reached the stage with the second book of having the manuscript set in type and the cover artwork proofed, when the editor who'd commissioned the trilogy left the company. She left to become an agent - my agent for a while, as it happens, but that's an entirely different story - and in-house responsibility for the project was passed along to somebody else.

Dying of Paradise image

This can be something of an author's nightmare, and it's the best argument I know for the practice of screwing disgustingly large advances out of publishing houses. It isn't a matter of greed on the part of some of the more powerful agents, as some people in the business would assert; it's purely practical. The average gestation period of a book is around two years and in that time, anything can happen - editors can leave, boards of management can change, companies can be taken over… in the present climate, it's almost guaranteed that the set of people who bring out your book will be a substantially different crowd to those around when it was bought or commissioned. Even where most of the faces stay the same, the same is rarely true of the business plans within which they have to work.

In short, the whim or the faith or the admiration that lay behind the purchase of the book can offer it little protection when the personnel or the priorities change. But a big chunk out of the balance sheet - well, that always concentrates the business mind wonderfully. When serious money's been spent, that has to be followed through in order to ensure a return. It's the small bets that are the ones that you don't mind writing off.

It has to be said that the amount committed to my trilogy was somewhat less than huge. You could call it a five-figure sum, but only if you were to include punctuation in the count. This meant that when my editor left, the second book wasn't placed into the care of another editor; it became the responsibility of an editor's assistant.

Oh, the shame of it. There were all kinds of reassurances, of course, but the outcome was that the book was rescheduled for some indeterminate date, and the date never came, and in the end the contract ran out and I got the rights back.

The Ice Belt image

By then I'd written and sold Chimera, and my new publishers showed an interest in the old material. They bought the two completed books on the condition that I made a few changes and used a pseudonym on them. The reason given for this was that because the books occupied two distinct genres, I'd have to have two distinct writing personae or else risk the confusion of readers. I don't know how much validity there is in this logic; I suspect there's none. But I was a newly-turned freelance and I couldn't afford to argue. Nor, I have to say, was I particularly inclined to; I'd broken in via science fiction, but it clearly wasn't where my future lay. So Last Rose became Dying of Paradise and was followed by The Ice Belt, both with the byline of Stephen Couper. We might have gone further, but then that relationship cooled as well.

The Babylon Run, by now, had been written. But what do you do with the third book of a trilogy, when the other two books have already had their whack at the marketplace and one of them's even had it twice?

The answer is simple. You do nothing with it. It sits on the shelf, and you have to accept the fact that times have changed and the tides have moved and you've been left with something which is orphaned and unpublishable, and will bever see the light of day.

Until now.

Extract from THE BABYLON RUN

Spacers' quarters were deep down in Rat City, insofar as the concept of 'down' had any meaning in a structure designed for mainly off-planet use. Kyle had a strong feeling that he was entering alien territory as he descended a metal stairway into a tangled darkness that was punctuated by harsh, unshielded lights. The stairway had once been painted grey, but use had worn clean steel down the centre of the treads.

The spacers had made themselves a social area in the large volume between the two drive tube housings. Cleared of the benches and the lockers and the tape decks, the place would even be big enough for a limited game of handball. They'd also panelled out individual quarters with private doors where gaps in the tubing and cable rigging allowed - that made it two counts where they had it over the junior officers.

The noise was a lot heavier here, nothing harsh or industrial, just the steady beat of a hurt ship staying alive. Kyle counted two figures lounging, and looked around for a third.

'On your feet, spacers,' he called with authority as he approached, and two heads turned lazily to watch him coming.

'Up yours, Kyle,' Sarrat called back, and 'Yeah, shove it, Kyle,' chorused Cain.

'Glad to see everybody's happy. Where's Willis?'

Sarrat was the larger of the two. He generally shaved his balding head but just as often forgot, so that it was covered with a fair stubble. The solid-looking dome merged almost seamlessly with his neck. He said, 'Who cares?' and unzipped another hash cola.

'He's monkeying with the computer lashup you had him do,' Cain said, indicating some vague location up above with a stab of his thumb. 'The one that nearly got us all killed.'

'You want to make a complaint, make it formal and make sure you spell the Captain's name right. She's sensitive. Sarrat, go and get Willis.'

Sarrat hiccupped and looked around, as if there might be some other Sarrat handy to take the work off him. No luck. 'Why?' he demanded.

'So you can all pool your knowledge and reach half-wit status.' Kyle sat down on one of the scratched lockers and reached for a can from the five-pack on the bench, not bothering to wait for the invitation he wouldn't get. 'And because I've got officer stripes and you're a spacer. Also because you've got to haul your backsides up to the hotel lobby for the free drinks and peanuts.'

'Free drinks?' said Cain, looking alert for the first time, but Kyle waved him back. 'You stay where you are, I want to talk to you. Move it, Sarrat.'

Sarrat couldn't summon the intellectual horsepower to argue, and he'd already used his best line of rebuke. He glanced at Cain and got a slight nod, and then he picked up his can and moved off towards the steps, muttering as he went.

'I heard a two-syllable word in there somewhere,' Kyle called after him. 'You're improving.'

They both watched as Sarrat climbed the steps, and then waited a while longer as the sound of his boots echoed back to them. Then Kyle turned to Cain.

'All right,' he said quietly. 'What the hell went wrong?'

Cain shuffled a little, coughed, looked around, considered, and when it was obvious that there would be no alternative, he said lamely, 'We had a bit of an accident…'

'Damn right we did. You were supposed to foul up the drive enough to slow us down, not blow the back end of the ship away.'

Cain reddened, anger and embarrassment mixed. 'I didn't exactly plan it like that. The computer kicked in with a course correction while I had the dampers out. The tube started to overheat, so the damn machine jettisoned the drive. It happened so fast, there was nothing I could do.'

Kyle looked across at the curved outer wall of the drive tube, a housing large enough to hold a subway train, a two-layered cooling jacket with an access door to the drive within; except, of course, that this tube was now empty, and of the two exposed sections that bounded the recreation area only one was anything more than decoration.

'So,' he said, 'we end up doing a black hole drop, and Ella Desmond saves the day with a plan that's a shade more chancy than suicide.'

'Maybe you can still make her look bad,' Cain suggested hopefully, but Kyle gave him a pained look.

'What? After this? I can do my best, but there's not much hope. Not when Kittivale thinks it through and comes to the conclusion that she saved his neck. That kind of consideration can be awfully persuasive when you're giving character references.'

They sat in thoughtful silence for a moment, and then Cain said, 'What are you going to do now?'

Kyle sighed. 'Let it all blow over and wait for another chance. The agents have got short memories. All we'll need is a few charters brought in over budget, a few deadlines missed - nothing obvious.'

'You'll still need me.' It wasn't a question. Kyle narrowed his eyes when he looked at Cain, searching for the meaning behind.

'What's the matter?' he said. 'You feeling unwanted?'

'I'm feeling insolvent.'

'It's likely to persist. And if you don't like it, just remember who it was had the dampers out when we waved goodbye to the number two tube.'

Cain shifted uneasily, and tried to change the subject. 'I've talked to Sarrat, like you said.'


'He's with us, same conditions as me. Full share in the rackets we set up when you get command. Drugs, spice, everything.'

Kyle nodded. 'What about Willis?'

'I haven't talked to Willis.'

'When are you going to?'

'I'm not.' Cain was no longer evasive, he was emphatic. Kyle started to object, and Cain went on, 'Look, Kyle, let's leave Willis out of it. There's something strange about him and I don't know what it is. The less I have to do with him, the better I like it.'

'I'd be happier with all the spacers behind me.'

'Yeah, well, in a perfect world maybe that's the kind of thing you can hope for. Right now you'll have to make do with Sarrat and me. What about Scortia?'

'He's my problem.' And likely to be a touchy one, Kyle thought; there didn't seem to be much of a motherlode of self-interest to be mined in his fellow-officer. But there had to be some hook to hang persuasion onto. If not -- 'I'll do him up at the same time as Captain Desmond.'


'I'm watching for the chance. Might turn up while we're at the hotel, might be later.'

Cain spoke carefully. 'If you're thinking of something kind of final, you could think of including Kittivale as well.'

The idea hadn't occurred to Kyle. 'Why?'

'He's greased.'

'Anybody who can charter an intersystem cruiser all to himself has got to be well off,' Kyle conceded, but in a tone that said so what?

'But they don't all lug it around with them in negotiable crystals. Right?'

'I'll think about it,' Kyle said.

'Do that.' Cain got to his feet and stretched lazily. 'Now, where are the free drinks?'

'Right,' said Kyle, and followed as Cain moved towards the steps that would lead them out of Rat City. He felt slightly unsettled; somewhere during the conversation he was sure that he'd lost the upper hand, but he couldn't exactly say where.