Maps

I’ve written before about how Steam Highwayman I and II are both based on Ordnance Survey Maps in the Explorer series – specifically OSE 171 and OSE 172 But in fact these are more than just inspiration. The nature of Steam Highwayman as an open-world gamebook, like Fabled Lands before it, depends on having a network of locations and routes between them on which to string the various encounters. Once I had decided which towns, villages and locations I wanted to feature, I then drew these out onto a simplified map and began allocating pages. These first two books are really built around these maps.

While I was writing Highways and Holloways I went looking for older maps to complement my plotting. Did you know that the Library of Scotland has a searchable database of old maps available online? Well, it does and it’s amazing. It’s amazing.  Here it is: https://maps.nls.uk

For example, here’s a shot of Marlow in 1897 – a bit late for Steam Highwayman, but fascinatingly Victorian and basic.  Compare it with the modern satellite image beneath.  The difference isn’t massive – in fact, if you visit Marlow, you can feel a bit like you’ve travelled in time.  There’s more development to the west, but very few buildings have been replaced.

Old Marlow – 1897

New Marlow – 2018

But now look at London.  Steam Highwayman III will be set in central London, and nowhere has changed in the past hundred years more than the city of London.  The alleys and garrets and markets and old churches and tunnels and tenements…  Oh wow.  Much more exciting than the ridiculous post-modern glass and sliced-granite banks that occupy an entire block.

Old City of London – 1893

New City of London – 2018

Now Steam Highwayman isn’t set in a real past – but it’s purposefully set in a realistic past.  My conceit is that I can take a England that was real in around 1785 – when Prince George married Maria Fitzherbert, if you want to know – and imagine a similar but parallel historical development from that point.  This is called the ‘departure point’ in the study of allohistory, or alternate history, which is really a sub-genre of science fiction or speculative fiction.

So having maps that strip back England to a pre-electric age, before urban sprawl and before the petrol engine, doesn’t have to restrict me but can inspire me.  When I made the first Steam Highwayman map I began by taking the map of Marlow and the surroundings and removing all the A roads and motorways, imagining that the highways and holloways and tollroads became more important, rather than being superseded by carriageways that crush and swerve and…  Well, perhaps you get the idea that I am quite an old-fasioned sort when it comes to roads.  In this respect, Steam Highwayman is my fantasy about an older, slower, kinder England with no bypasses.

And the old maps of the National Library of Scotland do the whole job for me- with a pleasing sepia tone.  Go on – see if your house was built in 1897.  The London maps come down to an amazing scale, at which the owners of businesses and even houses are named.  Incredible.

Terrorist Sympathies

I rather doubt he’s had the time to watch Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle, but if David Cameron were to find an hour or ten to stream the digital flagship, he would have real cause to eat his words. Rather than simply needing to apologise for a little exaggerated rhetoric, he might find himself with sincere terrorist sympathies.

In fact, I don’t think he’d really need more than three or four hours. That’s how long it took for me to watch the transformation of an apolitical, apathetic pragmatist into a fanatic with an improvised weapon, a plan and the desire to assassinate a head of state. Frank Frink, a man with no previous indication of a violent nature, is working a skilled and secure job. However, abuse at the hands of the occupying forces, interrogations, imprisonment without charge and the murder of his family eat away at his principle of self-preservation until he decides that terror and violence are his only ways to react.

The series is fantastically conceived and executed with the highest production values. Individual actors do incredible work in making us sympathise and understand characters with deep, disgusting contradictions. But this is really one of the piece’s greatest successes – because of its timing. Terrorists aren’t born. They’re made. Or perhaps, they’re ruined from a man or woman who once lived for another reason until that reason was taken away. However despicable someone’s views or actions might be, what right have I to rob them of sympathy?  Feeling for them never has to mean agreeing with what they’ve done – I come up against this daily, constantly.

As a primary school teacher I daily engage in conflict resolution. This is at another level to the High Castle and to Isis – or ‘Daesh’ as the Prime Minister would rather we now refer to them. To change his term at this late stage smacks of cynical marketing. I’m very sure that he’d rather not be associated with a war on a religious group. But back to my playground. When Tom has plainly hit Murad on the face in a jealous fit, he may need to cool down. The school policy may require sanction or punishment. But for Tom to be able to participate back in the class, he needs sympathy. He needs someone to listen to his as well, however childish, inaccurate or self-serving his version of events is, he must be heard.

Perhaps too many of us never learnt this lesson at school. Thankfully we have art and drama and stories to refresh our thinking, challenge us. In the High Castle, Frank Frink does not carry out his plan to murder – although he associates with terrorists and ‘freedom fighters’. It isn’t fear of reprisals that stops him – he is a man who has ‘lost everything’. It’s the look in the face of a child.

The story has been rather actioned-up as it has been adapted from Philip K Dick’s original. Just as the lead actresses’ hairstyles reflect the current re-imagining of forties/fifties glamour with our own time’s sense of taste, so the role of the ‘resistance’, almost absent in the book, has been given a greater role. You can hear the show’s cast and creators talk about their need to sell the story to a modern American public – who might otherwise be rather challenged to watch a story in which they are so thoroughly colonised and controlled. I read that several advertisements have been pulled for their ‘provocative’ Nazi imagery already – although it was actually one of these large re-imaginings of the Statue of Liberty underground on the Victoria line that alerted me to the adaption in the first place.

I like allohistory – counterfactual history. I think that science fiction has a scientific method inside it – the testing of a hypothesis. To say, ‘What if…’ and to follow through is a creative and an enlightening way to write. The ‘What if the Nazis won the war’ hypothesis is so widely explored that it has become a cliche in its own right, as well as the basis for several excellent novels.
But doing this demands the writer create sympathy. Sympathy with terrorists, spies, liars, deceivers and, wait for it, Nazis. Up to and including the big H himself.

The journey of hope and idealism into pragmatism that we follow in the High Castle leaves the audience in truly strange place. By the end of the final episode, we’ve been tricked into following one of the few likeable characters, Wegener, into another assassination attempt. Hitler stands there in front of him, a pistol is in his hand, and if he shoots… If he shoots, he will become responsible for a nuclear war as Hitler is replaced by the warmongering Heydrich. Both Empires dominating the world, the Japanese and the Nazi, are founded on abuses, genocide, slavery and murder. But war between them cannot be the answer. That way, the strange newsreels warn, is devastation.

What of justice, then? The series touches on the holocaust, whispers worse and more recent atrocities – the ‘enslavement of Africa’. Shouldn’t Hitler die for these?

Until something better is on the ground and until someone who will not push the button on Japan, the Fuhrer lives. So justice must be delayed… Or given over to someone more qualified to judge.
Now I realise that the High Castle is a fiction, both as a novel and as a Amazon Prime series. But in it’s half-real setting it engages much more directly with the state of affairs in Syria and in my playground far better than most of the hyperbole around terrorism.

That doesn’t mean I entirely agree with it. I have a personal conviction that there is a better option, that we don’t have to settle for the best of bad leaders. I follow Jesus – and I know how well that resolves personally, although I am ready to say that I don’t yet now how that resolves politically or nationally or internationally. I get called an idealist quite frequently. My schemes only ever work if everyone joins in – the same in the classroom, actually.

But he had terrorist sympathies. He had terrorist friends. And it didn’t make him a terrorist. I wonder how he trod that line – informing on Simon the Zealot? I don’t believe he took the initiative to go to the occupying Romans and offer them the addresses of all the freedom fighters he knew.  But scripture does tell the story of his personal sympathy for everyone he met, occupier, opponent, beggar and lord.  And that was his answer for the politics of the world too – to meet everybody, one by one, and change their minds through sympathy.

Sorry about all the spoilers.