Gamebook store

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Dish of the day

I've posted before about the genesis of the Starship Captain books (The Wrong Side of the Galaxy and A Galaxy Too Far). The first book began in the style I would have enjoyed when I was eleven, but fifty years on publishing is a very different world. Some of the material I wrote ended up on the cutting room floor and Jamie rewrote much of the rest. The finished book is about 20% mine in terms of text, but hardly mine at all in tone.

Here's an example of a chapter from my version of the book. Skip right to it now if you don't want spoilers. Taking inspiration from the thought that being a food animal for humans is a winning evolutionary strategy (where would pigs, cows and chickens be today if we didn't rear them to eat?) I wondered how an alien politician might act to preserve his species in the face of an all-conquering genocidal civilization. The Leptira are that civilization, here described as "insectoid" -- another thing that would have annoyed 11-year-old me but that is standard practice in modern sci-fi. Don't judge Poltro too harshly, will you? What else can he do to save his people? It isn't so crazy that turkeys might vote for Christmas, after all, if the alternative is extinction.

A Hard Bargain

“Sir, are you feeling all right?” said the applicant, his young face scrubbed and shining with concern.

“I’m fine, thank you,” said Poltro.

It was a lie. Being aboard a Leptira flagship was enough to give anyone a terminal case of the jitters, but the main reason he was feeling peaky was the two litres of insect poison he’d forced himself to drink that morning. He pulled out a silk handkerchief and dabbed at his pudgy face. Was the room spinning? They were in orbit, of course, but this seemed worse. I mustn’t pass out, he told himself. That really would be the end of the world.

Poltro had an antitoxin to neutralize the poison, but that was back on his bedside table, about forty kilometres straight down. He could hardly bring the antitoxin to the meeting in case the Leptira searched him, but he didn’t think he’d need to. Everything would have been fine if they’d stayed on schedule – by now he’d be on the shuttle home. Except that the ambassador had already kept them waiting almost an hour. Poltro should have anticipated that. By now the stuff was really working its way into his bloodstream and, although it was meant to be fatal only to insects, he was getting to feel as if somebody had put all his internal organs in a smoothie blender.

“Ugh.” Poltro clapped his hand over his mouth. Between the effects of the poison and guilt at what he was about to do, it was a struggle not to throw up all over the ambassador’s waiting room.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” said the applicant, fidgeting on the seat next to him. “Only you’re sweating rather a lot – ”

“They keep it too hot in here,” Poltro shot back.

“ – and the sweat looks sort of… well, green.”

Poltro didn’t look at him. He didn’t want to see the look in the applicant’s eyes – eagerness, honesty, decency. That’s why he’d kept everything so coldly businesslike up till now. Getting to know the fellow would only make it harder.

“A new mineral supplement I’ve been taking,” he said. “It’s good for the liver.” He didn’t add that unless he got the antitoxin quite soon, he’d probably need to buy a new liver.

He could feel the applicant’s relief. “Oh, I haven’t heard of that one. I’ve got a whole range of vitamin and mineral – 

The door to the ambassador’s office hissed open and a Leptira official in stiff grey-and-orange robes emerged holding a slate. It scanned the list of names and appointments with eyes as unreadable as lumps of polished coal.

There was no-one else in the waiting room. Finally the wretched creature looked up at them.

“Senator Poltro Gnaktagurr,” it declared in a scratchy voice that sounded like an off-key tune played on an instrument stringed with raw nerve endings.

Poltro winced. Typical Leptira disdain for local customs. As a member of a noble family, most of the letters in his name were silent. It was supposed to be pronounced just “Nak”, like somebody starting to say “no” but hiccupping instead. Still, what was the point of correcting it? Most of the young people of his own planet could hardly be bothered with the old customs, and when you had dealings with the Leptira, your name was whatever they chose to call you.

 “I’m here.” He got slowly to his feet, shrugging off a helping hand from the young applicant.

The ambassador’s office wasn’t quite as big as a throne room, it only seemed that way because of being built across three levels of a converted docking bay. Poltro traced a fresh dampness in the air to a stream that gave off a soft relaxing murmur as it ran down from the carpeted upper area through a garden of heavily over-scented flowers from Leptira’s purple moon to a replica beach. The white sand of the beach area had been raked into the careful geometric patterns that the Leptira loved to create and then destroy. Beyond that, a view of Poltro’s home planet of Mondress filled three-quarters of the vibroglass window that looked out into space.

Despite himself, Poltro was impressed. He could easily imagine the Leptira sitting on that beach with cold drinks and a plate of bar snacks at the end of a long day, gazing out of the window and discussing the planet they intended to destroy.

It didn’t surprise him that a Mondressan ambassador like himself wasn’t considered important enough to merit a meeting on the garden or sand levels. The Leptira ambassador sat waiting directly in front of them at a transparent desk inside which luminous eels swam sluggishly. Behind him – or her, or it – stood half a dozen other officials, all wearing the distinctively hexagonal-patterned clothing, armour and weaponry of the Leptira diplomatic corps. There were no other chairs.

“Your Excellency,” Poltro bowed and then held out his hand, confident that the ambassador wouldn’t shake it.

To his surprise, however, the ambassador got up and came around the desk. A feeler reached out to stroke his fingers. Poltro felt the briefest touch of buzzsaw-sharp bristles, like a horse flicking at flies with its tail, then the ambassador drew his arm away. Perhaps he sensed the poison in Poltro’s blood, or perhaps it was just natural rudeness.

“So this is your applicant,” said the ambassador, fixing all his eyes on the young man.

“Pleased to meet you, Excellency.” The applicant extended his hand and the ambassador took it in both sets of feelers, stroking it with the careful attention of a gourmet judging the ripeness of a piece of fruit.

“Mmm,” buzzed the ambassador in satisfaction, and looked at Poltro as if to say, “Ah, so you didn’t put any nasty poison in this one.”

Poltro was feeling sick again. He just wanted to get the whole business over with. “Show His Excellency your résumé,” he told the applicant.

The ambassador stared at the folder that was offered to him, then waved over one of the officials, who snatched it from the applicant’s hand. Laboriously – because Leptira diplomats were given more training in warfare than in foreign languages – it read out the list of accomplishments.

The ambassador gave an impatient flick of his antennae. “So you can type, manage a database and you know how to file a report in octupilicate…”

“I also have a degree in Interstellar Relations,” said the applicant, looking hurt.

“I’m more interested in – what would you call it on your planet, Poltro?”

“The inner man?”

“Precisely. This position calls for a well-rounded individual.”

“Well,” said the applicant, his enthusiasm kicking up a gear, “my hobbies include painting miniature  – 

“I’m sure that’s marvellous,” interrupted the ambassador. “Those miniature whatevers don’t paint themselves. But a healthy mind requires a healthy body.”

The applicant looked to Poltro for reassurance. It was beginning to dawn on him that the interview wasn’t going the way anybody would expect for a secretarial position.

“His Excellency just wants to be sure that you are in proper physical condition for this job,” said Poltro hurriedly. “It’s not just pattering fingers on a keypad and lifting the phone, you know. There could be travel – to the galactic main, even to the Hub.”

He turned away to look at the aquarium desk so that he wouldn’t have to see the gleam of excitement in the young man’s eyes.

“That’s a coincidence, the senator and I were just talking about vitamin supplements,” the applicant told the ambassador. “I’m quite a health nut, I’m afraid. Exercise and a good diet are hobbies of mine too.”

“Don’t apologize,” said the ambassador. “That’s exactly what we like to hear.” He took the folder from the official and went so far as to glance at the cover. “You don’t smoke, drink, mash or steep, I take it?”

“Mash? Steep?” The applicant hesitated for a moment, puzzled at the bad habits of far-off worlds, but soldiered on through. “Er, no, I don’t do any of those things.”

“There’s only one more question,” said the ambassador. “You’re not, I trust, a vegetarian..?”

“I suppose I ought to be,” laughed the applicant, “but I just love meat too much.”

“Mmm.” The ambassador looked up. “Me too.”

Poltro couldn’t take any more of this. “If that’s settled, Excellency, I expect we should be getting out of your way.”

“Oh, you can go, Poltro,” said the ambassador. “I was thinking that Mr –  he looked again at the résumé – “Mr Kolvubar here – 

“It’s pronounced ‘Kolbar’, actually,” said the applicant. Everybody ignored him.

“I’m so impressed with Mr Kolvubar,” said the ambassador, “that I’d like to keep him for lunch.”

Poltro was boarding the shuttle back down to Mondress when his phone beeped.

“Ambassador!” He forced a smile into his voice. “Everything satisfactory, I hope?”

There was a sound that might have been a belch. “Oh yes. I’d go so far as to say your sample exceeded all our expectations, Poltro. I believe we have a deal.”

As the shuttle nosed out of spacedock, Mondress appeared in the porthole, a sun-blazing jewel of clean blue seas and greenly wooded continents. Yet already there were brown scars of deforestation visible. And there in the darker zone where night had fallen, Poltro could make out the dull fiery gleam of Leptira factories, huge disfiguring patches, spreading daily from coast to coast. “Where’s the harm in economic development?” people had been saying. “Let’s face it, Mondress is a backwater. We should be flattered that the Leptira wish to invest in our world.”

Poltro knew what “economic development” by the Leptira really meant. Was everybody else blind? Why did he alone have to save – ?

“Are you still there?” snapped the voice on the phone.

“Yes.” Poltro shook his head. “That’s… marvellous news, Your Excellency.”

“Of course it is. So we’re going to be putting in a larger order next time.”

In between the waves of nausea, Poltro felt both elation and despair. He knew what was coming, but he had to ask. “A larger order?”

“Yes. Shall we say: your entire species?”


  1. With perfect timing, Dave, I finished reading Dark Lord to my son last night (albeit he's now reading bits himself). I thought there may be a tantrum, but at the end of the book was the intro to Starship Captain which was helpful, as he now wants to read those too. They're really good, I'd describe as Hitchhikers Guide for kids, although I wouldn't put them in quite the same league as Dark Lord myself. Actually, thinking about it, I'm not sure a 45 year old should really be having such a strong opinion on this! We'll see what my son thinks and I'll feedback in due course if you want the feedback, albeit given his reading waiting list currently consists of Mirabilis (too early?), Uncle and The Roald Dahl Collection, that might be well into next year!

    1. Are the Uncle books back in print, then, Andy, or have you just been saving them for him?

      As for Mirabilis -- I watched a 12- and a 9-year-old read it together (daughters of a friend) and the 12-yo was quite withering about the bits the 9-yo didn't get. But that's 12-year-olds for you. From the age of 5 or 6 I loved plunging into stuff that went way over my head, and after all you can always revisit it years later to see what you missed.

    2. The first Uncle is, Dave. A few of the others seem to be on Kindle, which I don't have, but I'll cross that bridge should we enjoy it. I missed it first time around so we can all hopefully enjoy that one together. Are there any children's books that you'd recommend?

      We'll do Mirabilis after than, then. I'm sure my son will appreciate the artwork, if not the writing! One of the things I've found actually reading books out loud is get to read it at the pace it was intended, so all the more enjoyable for it. I think Jamie also said on that FF day that he struggled to read a few of the paragraphs of Dark Lord out loud so he just changed the words! That happened to me a few times too. I'm guessing as you're writing, you don't read it out loud to ensure it's not a tongue twister!

      My son quite enjoyed Tim and the Hidden People, that series I tried in vain to check out the rights to (I didn't get a response from any of the publishing houses, maybe they don't even exist anymore). Although there were far more eating of breakfasts, apples and cakes than battles with Wind Witches, Stump People and Stone Men, than I remember. In my enquiries I did find out that is was published very locally to me, so perhaps it was a regional not a national series.

    3. John Whitbourn is a big fan of the Uncle books, Andy, and I think has a complete set. I may have mentioned that. Also I heard somewhere that Neil Gaiman loves them too. A rare point of agreement between JW and NG there.

      I often read what I've written out loud to get the taste of the words. Not blog posts or emails (I'm terrible at those) but certainly if I'm writing fiction, and doubly so when it's dialogue.

      As far as I can tell, the original Hidden People books were published by E J Arnold, which was acquired by Hodder. Ah, I thought, I can chase that up with Oliver. But no, because Hodder sold the rights to all their educational books to SAGE Publishing ten years ago.

      However, it looks as if Sheila McCullagh probably recovered the rights from Hodder before the sale, because the reprints in 2004 were by McCullagh Publishing. It might be worth writing to Oliver at Hodder and saying, "Look, these books were great, and you had the rights but you let them go. Why not reacquire them from Sheila McCullagh's estate?" You never know.

    4. Thanks for looking into the Hidden People books, Dave, very kind of you. I might just do that. Would that be @hachette do you know? It's amazing how emboldening e-mails allow you do be, where ringing would be far too lazy or embarrassing! I could never understand why they were labelled Flightpath to Reading and down as educational given the subject matter. Although I'm not sure I'd have read your work without having first read them from an early age, so it was a flight path to something at least. I'm sure Oliver will have a better understanding as to whether boys own fantasy adventures with flared trousers has any room in the modern market! I think I've mentioned before, it wouldn't surprise me if JK Rowling has read them. If you could put a sticker on to that effect, you wouldn't then be able to cut down the trees fast enough.

      Interesting re you reading work out loud. I'd never given that any thought. That will bring an added dimension to when I read Starship Captain out anyway!

      All this talk of elephants has just jogged my memory on another series I enjoyed when I was young, Jeremy James. They're also now on the list. You can now add children's literature to that expanding and diverse "blog added value" list, Dave.

    5. I'd better not put Oliver's email address here in case it's found by bots, but you ought to be able to find it by rooting around on the website, Andy:

      Maybe somebody should ask JK Rowling on Twitter if she read those books?

    6. Thanks, Dave. I'd better buy Oliver's Lightbringer Trilogy first. Dear Oliver. As a lifelong fan and proud owner of all your published works.

      I'm not on Twitter (and in truth, still not entirely sure how it works!) I'll see if any of my mates are. Failing that, perhaps one of your other blog readers can help?! Perhaps better secure the rights first, just on the very remote chance she says yes!

      Out of respect for the authors, I won't ask you to expand why points of agreement are rare between JW/NG.

    7. That's odd, I thought Hodder used to list editors' emails. Maybe they think Twitter is more hip! Still, I don't think you'd need to necessarily secure the rights, Andy -- if you can convince a publisher the books are worth taking a look at, I'd say it's up to them to do the hard work.

      I'm completely speculating as to JW and NG, but based on their opinions of things like Trump and Brexit I'd be willing to put a fiver on any meeting between them being frosty.

    8. Thanks, Dave. I was referring to asking JK Rowling, but having just followed the link to politely enquire, I see what you mean. I suspect that the figure would be about one zero more than I'd be prepared to pay and two zeros more than my wife would be prepared to let me pay, so just as well!

      I'd also have done a pitch based a on a probably unoriginal idea inspired by A Minotaur at the Savoy and the post above, that I'd have neither the ability or knowledge to write myself. A string of letters between dead acronym fantasy authors (JRRT, REH, CSL, AAM, HPL etc), trading increasingly irritated political opinions and insults. Working title PPS. GRRM could do the foreword.

    9. Actually, I didn't think that one through, Dave. Perhaps that pitch not in the best of tastes given recent events, sorry.

    10. Don't apologize on my account, Andy, I like the idea. I'd certainly like to be at that dinner party.

    11. Thanks, Dave. In which case I'll also invite MLJ and ELJ. :)

    I am here to share the wonderful work Dr. Jumba did for me. After 7 years in marriage with my husband with 2 kids, my husband started acting weird and going out with other ladies and showed me cold love, on several occasions he threatens to divorce me if I dare question him about his affair with other ladies, I was totally devastated and confused until a old friend of mine told me about a spell caster on the internet called Dr. Jumba who help people with relationship and marriage problem by the powers of love spells, at first I doubted if such thing ever exists but decided to give it a try, when I contact him, he helped me cast a love spell and within 48hours my husband came back to me and started apologizing, now he has stopped going out with other ladies and his with me for good and for real. Contact this great love spell caster for your relationship or marriage problem to be solved today via email: or text him on WhatsApp messenger:  +19085174108