OK, so I’m going to do something I don’t normally do today and show you a short extract from my writing. Please remember that this is only a first draft at the moment so it’s slightly overwritten in places. It’s also an extract taken from approximately a third of the way through the book, so it mentions a lot of places and characters that will be no doubt unknown to you. I only mention this so you won’t think me a hypocrite following my latest post… which in a way I am, but there we go.
|An inspection at a Nazi concentration camp: This picture was the direct inspiration for the extract below.
The inspection was called just for Brian. At his behest, five bunkees were chosen at random and dragged before him in the security lodge next to the bunks to answer his questions. Were they involved in the riots? Did they know who was involved in the riots? Had they volunteered for shiftwork recently? Did they know anyone who had volunteered for shiftwork recently? One by one they stood before him, each a mirror image of the last, heads down, cloth caps in hand, some of them openly trembling.
These men aren’t fit to work, Brian thought with a flash of annoyance as they mumbled their way through their answers. They were more skeleton than man, each with the same shaved head and simple duds of woven haircloth. They had the shapes of men well enough: head, arms and legs all where they should be. When you spoke to them, they turned their heads to listen and their eyes were full of understanding. When you told them to move here or do this, they responded as flawlessly as if they were machines. But when they spoke…
“I don’t know no’ing m’lord. Honest. It all happened when I were sleepin’, I swear it.”
Their answers were all the same.
Brian sighed and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. He tried to ignore the snorts of contempt coming from the other officers sitting at the table with him.
“That’s five for five,” Commander Hathaway sneered from his left. The young master-at-arms lounged back in his chair, his nightstick tap tap tapping against his thigh as he glared at the bunkee before him. “Anymore of this and we should just turn it into a drinking game.”
“Only if you’re buying the drinks, sir,” joked Lieutenant Whittaker from his right.
Brian ignored them both. “Bunkee 65211C: you’re telling me you slept through the biggest riot this ship’s seen since Gellar? You slept through the deaths and the gunfire? The alarms didn’t wake you?”
The bunkee squirmed under the barrage of questions but to his credit he stayed firm. “I were tired m’lord,” he insisted. “God’s honest truth but I were. I were working all that day. Scrap metal sorting. Tough work. I just wanted sleep.”
“That so?” It was an easy enough story to verify; Second Lieutenant Whittaker was here today for this very purpose. As master of the Book of Summons, Whittaker had access to all of the bunk’s records going back over the last 50 years. Births, deaths, which bunkee went were and why and for how much, it was all recorded within those neatly printed ledgers.
Whittaker flicked through the books with a practised ease, his blunt finger trailing down the lists of figures until they came to rest on the right one.
“Here it is,” he confirmed. “Day shift. Maintenance work. Scrap metal.”
“Two extra ration credits.”
A pittance. Still, it showed that this bunkee wasn’t lying and that was something. If there was one thing more contemptible than a bunkee, it was a bunkee who tried to pretend he was better than he really was.
“Very good. Bunkee 65211C: please take off your duds and turn around.”
Again, the bunkee responded as quickly as if Brian had just pressed a button on a machine. There was no modesty, not even an attempt at resistance. The bunkee simply unbuttoned his duds and stepped out of them as they tumbled to the floor. In moments he was naked.
A skeleton, Brian thought again as he looked him over, and not a particularly good example of one either. Like many bunkees, this latest specimen was a wretched thing, his growth stunted by years of malnutrition, his legs bowed slightly and his back twisted so that his left shoulder sat higher than the right. His skin was a sickly, lifeless film of flesh, pocked all over with bedsores and old whip marks turned hard and shiny with age. Even his cock was a twisted, tiny thing, the hair around it a thatch of pale, fragile hair that looked almost transparent in the harsh overhead light.
And to think there are people on this ship who are scared of this like. The only person likely to be scared by this wretch is the wretch himself. “All right 65211C, get dressed,” he commanded. He was done with looking at bones.
Alright, so straight away you’ve probably noticed the flamingly obvious parallel between the ‘bunkees’ in the extract above and the Jewish people during the time of the Second World War. Yeah, it’s pretty damned transparent isn’t it? I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it actually. Being neither Jewish, Polish or over the age of 65, I feel like I’m coming across as the writerly equivalent of Godwin’s Law (if any discussion goes on for long enough, the the chances of the holocaust being brought up becomes 100%). But, unfortunately, it’s true. The bunks = Auschwitz. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not.
Now, in my defence, at no point when writing this novel did I ever think to myself “You know what would be great? A novel all about the Jews during war-time Poland… IN SPACE!!” Why? Because no one wants to read that book and I certainly don’t want to be the one to write it. It’s crass. The golden axiom is to ‘write what you know’ and (thank God) I know nothing of what it was like to live in that hell-hole knowing that every day could be your last.
Instead, my vision of bunks came about through an entirely organic process, a series of logical steps that evolved over several years. Essentially, my thought process went like this:
- The Ark-ship Ulysses is a huge ship but it can’t get any bigger.
- When the ship was launched, it was running at pretty close to full capacity.
- The events of this novel take place 1,000 years from the time of the ship’s launch.
- That means… well, that means a lot of babies being born during this period.
- A lot of babies on an already full ship = nowhere to put them = space shortage.
- Space shortage = communal living.
Thus were the bunks created. I envisioned them as starting out as a purely temporary thing. Essentially, a large communal living area where the people could be held and looked after until a more permanent solution could be found. The problem is, there is no permanent solution for over-population short of killing off the excess. Over the generations, this situation would only get worse.
A big problem would be jobs. Since the ship only needs a crew of 10,000 to remain operational, I realised straight away that this means a lot of people sitting around doing nothing. You would end up pretty quickly with an ‘us vs. them’ situation. There would be the educated officers who operate the ship and keep everyone alive and there there would be everyone else… essentially walking mouths good for nothing more than cheap labour and odd jobs. The officers would get the better quarters, of course. They would be prioritised with better health care, better education, better wages. After all – they’re the ones doing all the work! The bunkees would get the leftovers.
Over several generations, this difference between the officers and those inside the communal living space would become all the more obvious. The people of the bunks would start to resent the officers lording over them. They would become lawless, unruly.
At the same time the officers would start to fear the bunkees. Instead of policing them as they had before, security would exist just to keep that horde of people away from the civilised parts of the ship. Over 400 years… you end up with the equivalent of Auschwitz In Space.
Here’s a description of the bunks taken from near the beginning of the novel:
Once, people would have referred to spaces like this in terms of numbers of football pitches or aircraft hangers. It was a gigantic space, almost 500 metres from end to end and a full 20 from ground to ceiling. It was so massive, that if you stood in the middle of the main thoroughfare and looked towards the far wall, you could see the curvature of the ship as the ground bent away to kiss the ceiling. And all of it was filled with nothing but beds. Row after row of steel frames stacked three, four, five high. Ladders and catruns, hastily assembled from reclaimed girders, crisscrossed the frames like layers in a cake. Curtains of cloth marked out one person’s territory from another but over the years the lines had become blurred, distorted, so that in places it was impossible to say where one row started and another finished and in other places they no longer looked like beds at all. For every bed there was a blanket, a bucket, a spoon and a bowl. For every bed there was a ration of three cups of water a day, 150 grams of bread, two bowls of vegetable stew and a mug of oil. There was no privacy. There was no escape except to work. They called it the bunks and it reeked.
The years had left their mark on this place. Alleyways had been carved between the rows. Beds had been unbolted from their original positions, shifted and butted up against one another to become store fronts and bazaars, whorehouses, restaurants and latrines. It was an entire world in miniature, and somewhere inside it, Stuart knew, lived the remnants of his family, the once proud Leightons.
An electrified ghetto fence ran across the front of the room, sealing away that hive from the foyer in which Stuart now stood. Around him, armed officers moved with practiced precision, truncheons in hand. Over by the wall, a handful were rounding up volunteers for day shift work.
“All right now. Day shift!” Hathaway called through the ship intercom, his voice hard as a whip as it echoed through the steel canyon around him. “We need 3,000 of you gutter rats for grunt work in the arboretum and 200 of you for… ah, scrubbing down fuel lines, now doesn’t that sound nice? First come, first serve. Pay – two credits. Twenty minutes for lunch. Time wasters will be shot. Thank you.”
Stuart saw everything in one glance and felt himself go cold. He saw the beggars pushing themselves up against the ghetto fence. He saw the cold, uncaring officers who watched them with jaded eyes and passed cruel jibes among themselves. He saw the listlessness, the suffering. He saw the crumpled shapes piled up on nearby carts that could only be dead bodies. But it wasn’t the things he saw that were the worst part. It was the smell: like piss and rot and sweat and death. And the noise. Being inside the bunks was like being inside a nuclear explosion.
Am I justified in writing about this subject? I leave that for you, oh people of the Internet, to decide. Certainly, when I first realised the parallel between the Jews and the bunkees I tried to downplay it. I was worried some readers would think I was deliberately glorifying the violence of the holocaust or using it for the sake of simple shock to somehow propel my book sales. But over the last few weeks I’ve started to realise that this isa story that needs to be told.
Jews In Space it may be, but the simple fact is that as a writer – and a science fiction one at that – my job is to explore human nature. It was human nature that led to the Nazi’s rising to power in the first place. It was human nature that led to those same Nazi’s ‘following orders’ and leading to the almost complete extermination of an entire race of people. Human nature does not change. We must never be so foolish as to think that the holocaust was a historical fluke.
My hope is that by writing about the bunks, shocking as it may be, I am reminding people of the inherent selfishness, prejudice, suspicion and sense of self-preservation that lies at the heart of every human being. When used in the hands of a wise man, such features are a boon. But during times of crisis, they can lead to our darkest hours as a species.
If science fiction as a genre exists to hold a mirror up to society and show them a reflection of itself then this is the part of that society that I would like to show. It took me a long time to realise this and even longer to decide if I was qualified to write it. But at the end of the day, I feel I am. Because I too am human and those same flaws exist inside me. It’s very easy to look back on the times of the Second World War and simply condone it all with a wave of our magical ethics wand, but the fact is if the same set of circumstances came around today, the holocaust would happen again. That’s a fact. To deny it is to deny human nature.