Cheeseburger Gothic

The Cruel Stars. Spoiler thread

Posted September 11 by John Birmingham

Lord Bob of the Nowhere System requested a spoileriffic discusion thread for either Zero Day Code or The Cruel Stars. I guess we'll work backwards into the future and go with Stars first.

Some of you got in on the beta read and so you saw the first draft, but there were a couple of significant structural changes in the final version. Most significant was the compression of Lucinda's arc. I always imagined TCS as being her story, and with this in mind the first run at the manuscript alternated chapters on HMAS Defiant (see what I did there?) with the introductions to each of the other 'supporting' characters.

My editor, Sarah, suggested this slowed things down too much and so instead we got a long first look at the Armadalen stealth destroyer, before cutting away to McLennan et al. I think she was right, but there were a few reviewers who struggled to tie together the larger narative from the five individual threads. I'll bear that in mind next time.

The next book, The Shattered Skies, is due Jan 24. That's a self selected deadline, to make sure I hit the British/Aust pre-order date of 20 August, 2020. I want the books to be stand alone stories, as much as possible, with closure at the end of each. There's a prequel sitting part-done in a folder on my hard drive too, a joint effort with Jason Lambright called The Javan War. Be nice to drop that into the channel some time in the next six months.

But before then, I'm open to questions, discussion, whatevs. I'll see if I can dig up the pitch document and post it here in the next few days.

24 Responses to ‘The Cruel Stars. Spoiler thread’

Sparty asserts...

Posted September 11
I think the editor suggestions were right on target. Stopped it becoming the "Lucinda story" not that anything wrong with that but the book wanted to be "bigger" than that. I love (and maybe its only me) that on a geopolitics scale i cant work out whose side I'm actually on. With Speph et al it seems you were doing a bit of a Micheal Moorcock eternal champion type thing (or at least eternal pirates)? So many good things - everything pretty much on target (Rutger Hauer tribute well timed!). one nerd question :-) Flesh eater rounds are illegal (when Steph used then) but by the book Royal Aramadala Lucinda also loaded them?
5 Genuine Cruel Stars from me

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted September 11
Flesh eater rounds re illegal for someone awful like Seph, not a good girl like Lucinda.

Respond to this thread

FormerlyKnownAsSimon reckons...

Posted September 11
How hard was it not to write "we don't need no stinkin badges" when Coto thought there were pirate badges?

Respond to this comment

The Admiral mumbles...

Posted September 11
Overall: bloody loved this book, enjoyed it thoroughly from end to end. I saw a few comments on Goodreads etc about confusion with the introduction of the characters but it honestly was zero issue for me - I start to worry if people can't keep a handful of arcs happening in their heads.

I was going to ask if we could get the Javan war backstory but you've answered that one. One thing I'd love to see in Book 2 is a map of the galaxy / inner dark etc. I know that's easier said than done but it would help me keep things a bit straighter as far as locations etc.


Between TCS and ZDC you have me rabid to re-start my own hack efforts but sadly study stuff takes precedence.

Again - brilliant stuff and counting the days until Book 2.

Respond to this comment

FormerlyKnownAsSimon would have you know...

Posted September 11
Also like to add that this has been the first book in ages that i felt like annotating with a pencil on all the references/cookies in there so i wouldn't forget them . . .i didn't (annotate) and i did (forget). Fastest read ever.

Respond to this comment

she_jedi mutters...

Posted September 11
I came to TCS cold, and your editor was correct, and is also a genius. The longer Defiant intro gave me a great grounding in the book’s universe, and then the addition of the other plot lines fleshed it out while you wove those strands together.

I’m on my second read through at the moment (was temporarily diverted by beta reading Mr Lambright’s latest opus), and what has struck me on the second read through is how gosh darn tight everything is. Your characters, your plotting, the tech and the rules of the universe, nothing is out of place or a weak link. It’s a frigging work of art is what it is. I know I sound like a deranged fangirl but anyone who’s read it will know what I mean.

Once i’d finished it the first time I immediately started it again because I couldn’t let go of these characters or the world/s you’ve created for them. I felt truly horrified for poor Defiant being jettisoned the way he was, and Chief Trim better survive. In fact we need more Chief Trim; the only way this series could be improved is additional space faring kitteh!

jl would have you know...

Posted September 11
Read both versions, Beta and Actual. Really liked what happened with the structure, agreed, She Jedi.

Respond to this thread

NBlob swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 11
1. TCS is a triumph JB.
Easily my favourite Birmo 'spolosions (in paper) since Pete got f*cked by the fickle finger of fate. Cover to cover in first read, then arc by arc second.

2. You delivered 'plastic pals who are fun to be with' beautifully, I was particularly impressed with the Sun Tzu-ish use of them as both strength and vulnerability. I imagined it going further as Habs entirely managed by them begin to fail, complex structures like them wouldn't be set & forget, rather they'd requiring constant tweaking & management -eg our ISS periodically has to boost back up to counter minimal but constant atmospheric drag. Things getting uncomfortably toasty sun-side & chilly dark-side, air getting thick & stale, no water in taps, waste systems failing, won't be long before occupants cracking open the neighbours skulls and feasting on the living goo inside. The relationship between McLennon and his AI were (again, for me) more engaging than Princess stick-in-her-butt and her urchin friends. Was there a discongruance between rocks/no rocks in his whiskey?

3. I stumbled on when FTL was & was not viable. Our protagonist seems to walk >half a K before winking through to the bridge.

Things have been fiscally tricksy out in the Nowhere System, so I was unable to cash up for the Patreon process. With hindsight I hugely enjoyed TCS in a giant gluttonous gulp, I doubt little demitasse servings would have been as enjoyable.

More soon.

FormerlyKnownAsSimon is gonna tell you...

Posted September 12
Hey NBlob, i think you got your books mixed up - its the apocalypse 'zero day code" which is the one being watched over through patreon and coming out in what seem like short bursts . . . until you do a word count. I didn't get in on the beta for TCS because i think at the time when the offer went out i had shit going down. I think i picked a good one to miss! Although JB, i think i picked up an continuity error with a bit on McLennan (although i was drinking beers at the time . . . on a Monday night). It is when McLennan is sitting in his stealth sledboat and Hero had packed some whiskey? and some shortbread biscuits (iirc it was whiskey . . . may have been a hot drink in a thermos?). Then a page later you said he tucked back into his jam sandwich - which is what he was eating back at the dig site. I think i only noticed because of the american cookie vs biscuit. If i am way off the mark here please forgive my meat sack brain and carry on.

insomniac mutters...

Posted September 12
He had the coffee/whisky plus the biscuits, and there was another sandwich as well, not jam, although that was referenced as being the last thing he had eaten since the morning.

FormerlyKnownAsSimon has opinions thus...

Posted September 12
ahh right. Never drink and read folks :)

NBlob reckons...

Posted September 12
FormerlyKnownAsSimon you are correct, I knew of a Beta-Reader thing and got my Birmo'Splodey mixed.
Drinking & reading are a fine combination.

Respond to this thread

Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted September 12
I think the editor was right. This was a pretty pacey book, almost as if Matthew Reilly was rapping on your window, shouting things things like "Kick it in the guts JB!"

Respond to this comment

jason swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 13
One of my fave parts of the book was the character voice. Each character had a style of speaking that clearly defined them. A lot of books don't have that and it's easy to muddle characters.

Respond to this comment

FormerlyKnownAsSimon mumbles...

Posted September 13
Any chance of a Master Blaster combo between Coto and the Princess? :)
I also have some very divergent finger crossing on how McLennan ends up . . . . . 1) drives a ship into the enemy dreadnought saving earth/humanity at the expense of self sacrifice. 2) goes completely bonkers and genocidal in his effort to wipe the Sturm off the face of the universe which will inadvertently wipe all humans and so Hero whisks them both into a sun 4) is the last meatbag standing and resigns himself to a long life of seeing all this happen again in a few hundred years heading off into a multiple sun sunset with his trusty horse Hero.

Would also like to add: does using the word Sturm for the baddies bring the Dragonlance chronicles to mind for everyone? I can't divorce the idea of the noble paladin of a dying order of knights that in the end were corrupt and self serving douchebags of purity as compared to the space nazis. Every time i read the word Sturm it brings with it a touch of sadness (and a "thank god that guy is dead - he was boring").

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted September 14
Funny thing about the Sturm, they used to be the Khan. In the series mythology the Republic’s Generation Ships left from the Sandakan Peninsula. Hence the nickname. But Sarah thought the Khan was too reminiscent of Star Trek. She was probably right.

FormerlyKnownAsSimon mumbles...

Posted September 16
Yeah - Sandakan also brings to mind the Sardauker from dune. I always wondered about how authors manage a name generator for these things. Does it worry you at night or does it roll off the press? Not being in on the beta and not knowing about the Khan it's nothing but The Sturm all the way in my mind.

Nocturnalist ducks in to say...

Posted October 1
Never read Dragonlance but Sturm was the name of a nasty, arrogant and ultimately traitorous general in the Gaunt's Ghosts novels so the name came with a solid "boo hiss" factor for me.

Respond to this thread

beeso reckons...

Posted September 19
I was a DL reader but thought Sturm was perfect word for a nazi like bad guy race. Is there a market for a fully annotated book JB?

Respond to this comment

Tregonsee is gonna tell you...

Posted October 1
Cracking good yarn. David Weber should start looking over his shoulder.

Only howler: an object being in geosynchronous orbit over the southern continent. Of course it would drift north and south of the equator once an orbit.

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted October 1
Damn it! This is exactly why they kicked me out of astronaut school.

Respond to this thread

Naut has opinions thus...

Posted October 9
It felt like the story arcs were in sync - going well, unexpected obstacle, despair, unexpected hope. Worked for me, but is that a deliberate thing? I can imagine doing it so the reader doesn't have to change emotions based on the character's situation, but more on the stories overarching situation?

Or is this just going to be whatever the individual reader brings to it?

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted October 9
It is a very deliberate thing, mate. Has been since Plato.

Respond to this thread

Naut asserts...

Posted Tuesday
I guess this is why I am not writing a book :)

Respond to this comment

Respond to 'The Cruel Stars. Spoiler thread'

The weird little origami-like folds of dictating your story

Posted September 4 into Writing by John Birmingham

I'm being crushed by deadline. The sequel to Zero Day Code. So naturally in the middle of this, I lost my mind and decided it was time to have a look at my productivity. I bought a book about voice recognition software. 15 Minute Dictation by Sean Platt and Neeve Silver. Although I've been using Dragon’s dictation software for more than a decade now, it was still useful.

Honest! I didn’t waste my time! There were a couple of tricks to using dictation software, weird little origami-like folds of understanding exactly how you hold a story in your head, I suppose, that I hadn't really thought about before. And they were interacting with the way I use the pomodoro method to fuck me up, just a little bit. So I tweaked my method.

I normally work in half-hour bursts if I'm doing something I really don't want to do. That is the beating heart of the pomodoro method. Even if some writing task is completely fucking loathsome, you should be able to gut it out for twenty-five minutes. And by focusing for that small window of time you normally get past your resistance to doing The Bad Thing and the job starts to move.

When I'm working on something that I actually do want to do, I can stretch the pomodoro timer out to nearly an hour. Either 50 or 55 minutes is best. But it's not easy to talk to yourself for just under an hour. Not if you want to maintain steady progress on a narrative. It's always tempting to go back and fix up every phrase or sentence or scrap of dialogue you’ve just written. This is a completely natural process when you're typing. You don't even think about it. The words come out, they could be a little bit better, you tweak them and move on. A simple, intuitive, almost thoughtless process when typing. But not when you are using dictation software.

Oh my fucking God no.

So one of the tips for young players that this book recommended was knowing what you're going to write before you write it. This is an old hack’s trick. It is why so many of us plot out rather than just plunge into the story. You are at your most glacial when you’re trying to figure out what you are writing while you write. But you're even slower if you’re also correcting the grammar and the aesthetics of the language as you go. So slow in fact, that you can lose all of the benefits of dictation, which can be three or five or even ten times faster than composing something by hand.

So what I tried to do was reorganise the way I move through those 55-minute blocks of writing time. Rather than trying to just talk to the software for nearly an hour without a break, I wrote out the entire chapter, paragraph by paragraph, in the form of a one line summary for each par.

I then had a blueprint to refer to while I was ‘writing’ (ie, dictating).

But—and here’s the money shot—I wouldn't just look at the blueprint and try and talk my way through it, expanding each one line summary as I went. Instead I looked at the synopsis of the first par and asked myself “What is going to happen in this?”

I spent about a minute figuring it out, imagining the scene in my head, and all of the dialogue to be spoken in it. I wasn't looking for a perfect word-by-word facsimile in my head of what would soon appear on screen. I simply wanted to know what was going to happen. The story beats of the paragraph, if you will. The narrative waypoints. There’s not many of them in a single par.

This meant I was dictating about two- to three hundred words in the space of 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat the process over an hour and you get about five or six slabs of wordage, totalling 1200 or 1300 words in all.

Fuckin' romantic, innit, eh?

I didn’t edit or second guess myself as I went, I just tried to move as quickly through those short bursts of ‘writing’ as I could - after roughly figuring out where they would go, narratively. A short break followed, five minutes or so, and then I moved onto half an hours editing of the just transcribed copy.

It’s always best to edit dictated sections on the same day. The software is much better than it used to be, but there will still be errors and you’re more likely to clean them up accurately when the composition is fresh in your mind.

A developer who (I think) also writes video game storylines asked me on Twitter how I changed gears between creation and the ‘analysis’ of editing. She found it difficult to switch. It might be as simple a trick as thinking of those short, immediate bursts of editing, not as editing, but simply as more writing. You’re expanding and sculpting and refining the copy you just threw at the screen. I normally add another 25% in volume at this point. Structural and copy editing are different and can wait until later.

4 Responses to ‘The weird little origami-like folds of dictating your story’

Nocturnalist mumbles...

Posted September 5
+++But it's not easy to talk to yourself for just under an hour.+++

Oh, I don't know, I manage it pretty well when I'm on a task or out walking and have something on my mind and forget there are people around. And then I stop to take stock, or waiting to cross a road, and see all the looks I'm getting and get that sinking realisation that my internal monologue wasn't quite so internal for a little while there.

Anyway. Probably not what you meant. Carry on.

Respond to this comment

Doccs has opinions thus...

Posted September 9
Thank You JB-I’ve been struggling with VR software as part of my work.
Your idea kinda gels with what I’ve learnt that you have to speak in phrases, ie ones you’ve already thought out.

Will give your method a try.

Respond to this comment

NBlob would have you know...

Posted September 11
#SausageMaking
In a previous career I schlepped AV equipment. One day a very casually dressed bloke asked if I minded him working in the back of a room I was setting for a show. Of course, so we each got on with our work. I noticed he wore a headset and would occasionally talk. I assumed a phone call. As I finished up we had a brief conversation. He is/was one of the lord high poo-bahs of the Federal Family Court. He was reading submissions and dictating notes via Dragon. I mentioned I knew a bloke who wrangled words professionally and who was down one arm at the time who spoke to the Dragon. He showed me how it learnt to understand him and the specific arcana of law-speak. He mentioned how unlike Ye olde memorex cassette & typist transcription, he composed each note in his head before speaking. An additional 30 seconds before clicking resulted in a significant decrease in edit & revision. Also some sweet ass tagging methods for subsequent analysis.

So when can we have a Spoilerific Spoily thread on 0DC &/or TCS ?

Respond to this comment

Doccs mutters...

Posted September 12
Thanks Nblob-helps me understand a bit more.

Respond to this comment

Respond to 'The weird little origami-like folds of dictating your story'

She’ll be back

Posted September 4 into Movies by John Birmingham

Great profile of Linda Hamilton, aka Sarah Connor from the best of the Terminator movies. She’s back with James Cameron and Arnie for the new one. There's some fascinating stuff about how she turned some pretty shitty moments of her personal life into the completely remade Sarah of the second movie:

What she hadn’t dreamed of was a sequel. Years later, when Cameron contacted her out of the blue to see if she’d commit to “Terminator 2,” Hamilton had only one request: Instead of playing the damsel in distress again, she wanted Sarah to go crazy. “I wrote it to the hilt based on her directive,” Cameron told me.

This version of Sarah Connor, locked away in a psychiatric institution, had war in her eyes and a body trained like a weapon. In order to play her, Hamilton would have to get into staggeringly good shape, since Sarah’s robo-apocalypse training included pull-ups and, eventually, bicep-straining shotgun pumps. There was just one thing: “I was six months pregnant when Jim came to me,” Hamilton said, “and I carry my babies big...

Her then husband left her shortly after the birth of their child. She channeled the rage and fear from that into her role.

Totes worth a read at The New York Times.

4 Responses to ‘She’ll be back’

FormerlyKnownAsSimon swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 4
i know the world is never just black&white but is there a douchier move than to dump someone after they give birth to their child?

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted September 4
No. There is not.

jl ducks in to say...

Posted September 4
Agreed. Pretty bad.

Respond to this thread

she_jedi asserts...

Posted September 5
I'm so excited for this, the Terminator franchise is nothing without Linda Hamilton. Sarah Connor had such an impact on my younger self.

Respond to this comment

Respond to 'She’ll be back'

Burgertime in Canberra

Posted August 23 by John Birmingham

I’m at the festival tomorrow, doing sessions at lunch time and in the evening. The night time one is a bummer cos it’s 7.30-8.30 so it craters the evening for any catch up.

But I could be talked into a fizzy Herbert before. I’m meeting Abe after the earlier session. If you’re around let me know here or on the twitters.

2 Responses to ‘Burgertime in Canberra’

Dave W swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 26
I ambushed JB at the Capital Brewery, I was sunburnt and 5 pints deep at the time. I saw him leaving with his entourage and launched out shouting JB JB JB, it's me, Dave! I hope he didn't mind.

FormerlyKnownAsSimon ducks in to say...

Posted August 26
bahaha. I'd have to make a bloody long trip to coincide with one of these. Although i do have to go to Brisvegas next week for a work thing . . . but Mon/Tues night conference trips is usually reserved for a beer and a book in some likely pub (those types of nights don't come often). Actually - does anyone have any recommendations for me? Staying on the South Bank. Elgoog shows a place called the tipplers tap is near where i'm staying. Closed Monday (boo).

Respond to this thread

Respond to 'Burgertime in Canberra'

The Cruelest Stars

Posted August 23 by John Birmingham

After a book drops into the world I like to cast the movie. It's much cheaper than actually making a movie and you can get anyone you want. Before I even had a chance to think about casting The Cruel Stars, however, one of my handlers at the Penguin House emailed and asked if I'd like to write a blog post for Marshal Zeringue who's particular kink is casting unmade movies from just published books.

I was totally up for that and you can the entry here. One pick wasn't just obvious, it was virtually compulsory.

See if you can guess who before...

Of fuck that. No. It's just too obvious.

I dont care how much money Steven Spielberg is offering. Unless Frazer McLennan is placed by Peter Capaldi this movie is just not fecking happening...

You can read it all here.

20 Responses to ‘The Cruelest Stars’

insomniac is gonna tell you...

Posted August 24
10 years ago a Google search for my name might have revealed half a dozen results, then I started writing articles for work and things took off, now it's going all splodey. Some doubts but no regrets.

Respond to this comment

Rhino would have you know...

Posted August 25
Book - read.

Review - submitted.

Respond to this comment

Rhino swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 25
I was thinking Batista for Jaco. But then I thought, CGI character. So, go with Serkis to bring to life and have Batista do the voice work. Or, possibly Vin Diesel.

Strom - The Austrian Oak.

The voice of Hero - Sirs Hopkins or Guinness. No, wait, Michael Caine.

Dave W puts forth...

Posted August 26
Re Jaco- he's a tech savant. So despite the body mods, I genuinely have whoever the dude is who plays Sheldon Cooper as the voice.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted August 26
Rhino's Strom pick is brilliant!

Respond to this thread

she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted August 26
Once you pointed out who should play McLennan I couldn't unsee it, and now it's hardwired into my head canon. Brilliant choice.

FormerlyKnownAsSimon would have you know...

Posted September 2
Capaldi definitely strikes me as the "hang your wrinkley bits out in the air like you just don't care" kind of guy.

Respond to this thread

Bondiboy66 ducks in to say...

Posted August 27
Halfway through the book - I keep envisaging Coto as Dave Bautista too. Peter Capaldi as McLennan (only in Malcolm Tucker mode though) is a given. Let Jay Lambright play himself! I honestly can't think of any others at present...ask me again when I've finished the book!

Respond to this comment

jason is gonna tell you...

Posted August 28
I know its off topic but...
DAMN YOU BIRMINGHAM.

Do i really have to wait until 2020 for the sequel? I just can't wait that long. Sleep less, forgo any family time, ignore all other projects, get em the sequel sooner.

she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted August 28
I support the spirit of this comment, while acknowledging the logistical difficulties in acceding to its demands.

jason would have you know...

Posted August 28
If JB really loves us he will find a way.

insomniac has opinions thus...

Posted August 28
I concur

Respond to this thread

Therbs puts forth...

Posted August 28
I think Hero also needs to be Scottish. Robert Carlyle, Ewan McGregor or Gerard Butler.

Bondiboy66 asserts...

Posted August 29
I'd have thought something more Shakespearian ala Patrick Stewart or a Richard Burton imitator (as the original model is off-line). Or Micheal Caine for funzies!

she_jedi is gonna tell you...

Posted August 29
OMG Capaldi and Stewart, can you IMAGINE? This needs to happen.

she_jedi puts forth...

Posted August 29
Although Ian McKellen would give good Hero too

Respond to this thread

HAVOCK21 would have you know...

Posted August 28
FK THAT SHIT!...WHEREs HAVOCK!!

Therbs ducks in to say...

Posted August 29
No room for magical time travelling submarines in this one Hav.

Respond to this thread

Dave W swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted September 1
5 stars. 5 cruel cruel stars. Thank you, Mr Birmingham.

Respond to this comment

balri ducks in to say...

Posted September 11
I pictured Stellan Skarsgard as McLennan. And I’m thinking a young Lori Petty, a la Tank Girl as Sephina

Respond to this comment

Respond to 'The Cruelest Stars'

The sci fi machinery of publishing

Posted August 22 into Books by John Birmingham

Jason Lambright has a really lovely piece over at his Interstelar Valley blog pondering the wonder that is the production and release of a book...

A book launch by a major publisher is an astonishing display of logistics, marketing, programming, and execution.

As I stood in the little book store thousands of miles away from the author, these thoughts went through my head. I picked up a copy, leafed through it, and carried it to the register. It seemed that I wanted to purchase another hardcopy as a gift to my old Team Sergeant, so this book, copy XXXX of who knows how many thousand, left the store with me.

It rode on the back seat of my car. As I drove, I marveled at all the threads that came together to make the book’s journey complete. Had the idea to write this article, put the book in front of some Indian corn and took a picture. Sent the picture via my phone to the computer. This is another technological marvel that we take for granted.

Totally worth a read at the Valley.

2 Responses to ‘The sci fi machinery of publishing’

she_jedi has opinions thus...

Posted August 22
That was a really lovely piece, I enjoyed reading that.


However, is Jay Lambright mostly sensible space tourist related in any way to Jason Lambright author? :)

jl mutters...

Posted August 22
Maybe. If so, I wear my redshirt with pride.

Respond to this thread

Respond to 'The sci fi machinery of publishing'