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The Alternate Lavender Island: Andy Cooke

Marooned Guest: Andy Cooke.

Need I say more?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Once again, we interview our guest who is about to be marooned, or maybe Lavendered, on the Lavender Island, to see what aspects of AH they’ll be taking with them to their isolation.

This time, our guest is Andy Cooke. Andy has a rather exotic and fascinating CV; ex-RAF, fencer who captained the RAF team and represented the Combined Services, skydiver, microlight pilot, student of destroying the world, prolific author, former editor of this very blog, and probably the wisest and most respected member on the forum.

I said prolific author: his books range from political punditry to ending the world. These include the series The End and Afterwards and The Fourth Lectern , which predicted the rise of UKIP on the British political scene. He has also written the portal fantasy series for young adults, The Shadowlands Chronicles , and Skyborn , a post-apocalypse story with airships. Just to round things out, he’s written two “How to...” books: How To Build a Moonbase , and How It Works: Apocalypse , which details all the known ways of destroying the world.

It’s quite the CV.

Welcome to the isolation of the Lavender Isle, Andy. What’s the first AH book you’ve chosen?

Hi, David.

First off, I’m rather assuming that all the essentials and some basic comforts are available – otherwise I’m not going to be doing much recreational reading or listening! I’d even be at risk of charging off on a list of things I’ll need, because I’ve seemed to default to writing books where the protagonists really need to know how to survive – either due to establishing humanity of a new world (can’t get more isolated than that) or after an apocalypse.

So – I’m going to assume that I’ve got water and sanitation, access to food (and those basics available without taking up too much of my waking hours), shelter, and the like. Even access to electricity (so I can power whatever my music choice is on. True, an archaic hand-cranked phonograph might be available, but I’m choosing to believe I’ve got electricity. Which helps with my luxury item, as well).

Ah – your first AH book?

Oh, sorry. Yes. Well, there are so many excellent choices, so I’ve gone with ones that have special meaning for me. It was in the 1990s that I started reading AH, and whilst I did read Turtledove (like so many), the book that really made an impression on me was by Stephen Baxter: Anti-Ice.

It’s a steampunk alternate history based around the unexpected availability of antimatter in Victorian times (including a rather shattering conclusion to the Crimean War) and its effects geopolitically, technologically, and socially. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the fact that Baxter was very careful in the science and technology of it definitely influenced me when I came to write.

Anti-Ice, Stephen Baxter.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

And the second AH book you’ve selected?

One of the great things about Alternate History is that it’s a sort of super-genre. A category that contains many genres within it. A book that made an impact (and that I sorely need to re-read) was Mary Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History. Dancing around medieval alternate history, fantasy, and science fiction, and very difficult to categorise, it’s the sort of book that stays with you.

The fact that it’s a doorstopper of a novel will help on Lavender Isle, as well. I read quickly, so it should keep me occupied for a while, at least.

Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Moving on to your third book. What is it?

Around the same time that I read Ash: A Secret History – maybe a year or two later – I stumbled across Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke.

I like “urban fantasy”, where you run into fantasy in our day-to-day mundane world. This takes that and sends it back to the time of the Napoleonic Wars. An alternate history of England, with lost magic, rediscovered magic, magic as something that everyone accepts once existed but is a dead art, revived, and making a big difference.

It’s another chunky book, and one I found fascinating. An element I loved was that the greatest application of magic to warfare in the Peninsular War was (minor spoilers): simply being able to create roads. The logistics of moving armies trumped the more direct options for using magic. Brilliant.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Can you talk about your fourth book?

You know, I thought I could (knowing which book I’ve reserved for Book 5), but I’ve been shilly-shallying here. I feel a bit bad that I’ve not flagged up any SLP or SFP books yet – but my formative experiences predated me even coming to, let alone the founding of SLP or SFP. In addition, I prefer narrative stories over “traditional” history-text style alternate history, which ends up excluding a whole bunch of excellent books.

Not An English Word , Six East End Boys , Agent Lavender itself – they all leap to mind as stories I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – and in each case, followed through the drafting and writing of them, which is always impactful. Originally, though, I’d chosen the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik, an alternate history of the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons. And dragons always make things more interesting. If I’m allowed an entire series (or if I could have a huge omnibus edition that doesn’t actually exist in OTL, but might in an ATL?), that’s where I’m going.

But if I am being too cheeky here, then there’s another one that had an impact on me a long time ago (and influenced my real history book choice, below): Voyage, by Stephen Baxter.

Interestingly, this and Anti-Ice were the only Baxter books I really enjoyed. But enjoy them I certainly did. An alternate Space Race, involving sacrificing the rest of the Apollo programme after the first couple of landings (and so much else, such as the unmanned Voyager probes) for a push on to Mars.

It is very detailed, drawing upon a lot of real space history and tech of which I was unaware. Yep, this one makes it in.

Voyager, by Stephen Baxter.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

What’s the fifth and final AH book you’ve chosen?

This one was fairly easy: originally, it was a total surprise. I tend to dislike surprise presents – I find that people, even those who know me very well, find it very difficult to guess what I’d actually like. Hell, I often have difficulty in guessing what I’d like. My wife, however, insists on trying the occasional surprise present – and from her, I’m definitely amenable to them. Not just out of being lovey-dovey (words that few would use to describe me), but because she has a freakishly high success rate. And so she often comes up with books (or other presents) that I’d have passed by without a thought but that actually ended up really appealing to me when I gave them a try.

One such was Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. Yes, that Ben Elton.

I’ve just had a quick search for reviews, and it turns out that Jared Kavanagh also stumbled across this novel and enjoyed it. It’s a “change history by going back in time and averting hideous was” story, but that’s just the starting point for quite a bit more. No spoilers, but – especially as it was a surprise gift that I’d never have picked up myself – this one has to make it into the list.

And yes, I’ve managed to sneak in more than just five – but in my defence, you didn’t say I couldn’t muse out loud about others that nearly made the cut and only didn’t due to my specific self-imposed criteria.

Time and Time Again, by Ben Elton.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

I suppose it was inevitable that a keen gamer would be the first to see how far the rules could be stretched. You’re also allowed one history book of OTL history. What will you be taking?

This one’s straightforward: A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin. It’s an incredibly detailed history of the Apollo programme, bringing the astronauts and engineers to life. It was the basis for the Tom Hanks 12-part miniseries: From The Earth To The Moon, which was also excellent, but I don’t think I’m allowed that one as well.

Those are your books. Music. What AH music would you like to have with you?

This gave me real trouble, as you know (when I lamented to you that I had no idea). However, then it finally came to me.

Music that exists in an alternate history, but not here. To be honest, there’s always a gamble here: will I actually like a piece of music that, by definition, I’ve never heard before? I discarded ideas like: “Freddie Mercury lives longer and Queen releases more songs,” or “Meatloaf and Jim Steinman never fall out and release more music together,” because whilst I love tracks and albums from both of them, there are also quite a few pieces from them that just didn’t work for me. Who’s to say that I’d enjoy any such never-made music?

But then thinking “Meatloaf” sent me down a certain track. In my teens, I first heard (at a friend’s house) The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack, and that marvellously weird yet catchy music stuck with me. In fact, while I was at University in London, an amateur group were putting on regular Rocky Horror Show nights and one of the main members of this went to the Imperial College Science Fiction Club while I was there. She tried to talk me into joining the group to portray Rocky, and I’ve always regretted not giving that a go. Of course, it would never have led to anything more, but it would have been an experience.

For quite a few years, I thought that this was a highly unusual experience of mine. A few years back, though, I saw a movie where exactly the same thing happened, albeit in America. Well – not exactly. The young man in question: 1 – actually did it, and 2 – was asked to do it by literally Emma Watson. The latter might explain the former. I guess, though, it’s not as remarkable as I’d assumed for so long. At least in America.

After rambling on for a bit, this is where I’m going: Richard O’Brien repeatedly tried to get a sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show produced. Eventually, Shock Treatment was made, and this was rather disappointing. However, at least three other scripts were written and scrapped between those two shows. So, this is my choice: the soundtrack to one of those – whichever one would have been the best (yes, I know, I’m cheating). They were: Rocky Horror Shows His Heels, The Brad and Janet Show, and Revenge of the Old Queen. Of these, I’m thinking The Brad and Janet Show would be most likely to have been disappointing, as much of it was refashioned into Shock Treatment. I have heard one song from Revenge of the Old Queen, a demo that O’Brien made: The Moon Drenched Shores of Transylvania, and I found that pretty catchy, so possibly that one?

The final item you are allowed is a luxury item taken from Alternate History. What have you chosen?

I can’t think of a specific luxury item from any particular ATL, so I’m going to cheat again (big surprise, I know): I noticed that Tom Anderson managed to get away with a games console or computer in order to play Red Alert. I’ll therefore go for a computer (which is one reason I need to establish that I’ve got access to electricity!) that can play Kerbal Space Program (where I can play around with all sorts of possible space programmes) as well as have a word processor (so I can write) and a spreadsheet (so I can use it to think externally).

Those are all your items. How well do you think you will cope on Lavender Isle?

Well, it depends if my original understanding of having access to the essentials was right. If so, I think I’ll manage OK, for a while, at least. I’m usually pretty good with solitude, and that’s the big risk here. Other than untreated injury or illness, which would probably see me off eventually.

Of course, if I don’t have access to the essentials of food, water, shelter, and so forth, I’ll probably have a great deal of activity initially, a bit of targeted panicking, and probable death.

On reflection, if I could arrange to be rescued at some point, that’d be great.

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