Hello Space Cadets, how are you today? I’m doing well, finding my groove and organizing my time so I can better optimize my work after some big life changes. There isn’t much to say at the moment, by way of life updates, so let’s skip the pleasantries and get right to the interview! I wanted to introduce you to another author from my WARRIOR WEEKEND INTERVIEW SERIES. But instead of reading what I have to say, let’s let the author introduce himself!
Prior to my SF novel series set in the galaxy of The Deep Wide Black, JCH Rigby (Charlie) wrote well-received short stories and professionally-performed plays, on subjects as diverse as a comedy about a medieval bishop who takes up piracy, and a satirical near-future in which motorbikes are forbidden until a covert brotherhood of bikers reclaim their ancient freedoms.
In the 1990s I published and edited the Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine FarPoint. Later, he developed “Nano Futures”, mini short stories which distill SF tropes into one hundred words.
After Ampleforth and Oxford, I served with the Royal Air Force Regiment in Cold War West Germany, in Northern Ireland, in Cyprus and in the Falkland Islands. When my first military exercise was launched, I watched from underneath my steel helmet as a squadron of Vulcan nuclear bombers scrambled from a Cambridgeshire runway. There and then, I knew I’d made the right career choice. The “big boys’ toy box” thrills continued with Scorpion and Spartan light armored vehicles, cross-country motorbikes, helicopters, Hercules transport aircraft and a huge range of things which went bang, generally when they were intended to. Much of the rest of my service seemed to involve carrying heavy things while running, generally in bad weather.
I subsequently worked in the print industry and in publishing. Born in Newcastle, I live in Grantham, Lincolnshire, with my extremely tolerant wife and the world’s fastest Labrador retriever. Father to three daughters, I am joyously surrounded by smart and wonderful women.
Now that he’s had his say, let’s jump straight to the Q&A! So, without further ado, let’s get this interview cranking!
Tell me a little about your military service?
I served in the Royal Air Force Regiment, initially during the Cold War. For those who don’t know it, the RAF Regiment are the ground defense specialists of the RAF. Configured in company-sized squadrons, the regiment is equipped with light infantry weapons – machine guns, medium mortars, antitank weapons and so on. They are highly mobile, aggressive in defense and very closely integrated with the air bases and flying squadrons which they protect. No soldiers understand air power better than the RAF Regiment.
My experience as a Cold Warrior varied from air base defense duties in old-style West Germany to counter-insurgency security operations during the troubles in Northern Ireland. At one end of the scale – armored vehicles, vertical take-off Harrier jump jets and building our readiness for nuclear, biological or chemical warfare. At the other end – soft-hat patrolling of the beautiful Ulster landscape, looking for weapons caches, stopping and searching cars and people. Not always welcomed but needed.
My final major role in the regiment was a period in command of a light armored squadron. Then, dammit, the bloody Soviet Union folded up and everything went very quiet for a while! But it’s wonderful to see the fantastic progress that has been achieved across Eastern Europe, and in Northern Ireland. I love that fabulous place
How do you feel that your military service has influenced your writing?
The Cold War was a dreadful balancing act on the brink of a precipice, but the unending round of conflicts which has afflicted the world since then has left me with a deep respect for the men (and, increasingly, women) in military service today. It’s matched with an equally deep suspicion of all kinds of politicians, everywhere. And Northern Ireland operations taught me so much about the intense loyalty which people feel for their own communities, and which soldiers feel for their units and comrades.
But if you look closely at any conflict since the Second World War, you’ll see national leaders and governments who should have seen it coming, and who should have done something less bloody and a lot sooner. Or – even worse – leaders who wanted to show the home crowd how tough they were.
Sometimes we aren’t well served by our leaders. It’s a dreadful cliche, but it’s rare to see the children of the powerful serving in harm’s way, although there are one or two very honorable exceptions.
Do you think your military service, and more specifically your training, adds to the realism in your books? If so, how?
Service taught me valuable lessons about the importance of soldiering skills, of self-discipline and of personal determination. The soldiers in Cyborg and its follow-up, Thousandeyes, have the same problems that we all had – or that I bet you have, if you’re serving now. Baffling orders, logistical and equipment failures, decisions taken for short-term political ends – if those maddening events weren’t part of the story, it wouldn’t be military service.
But skills matter most of all. I don’t care if you’re in the North Korean People’s Army, the German Bundeswehr Fallschirmjäger, Alexander the Great’s Macedonian cavalry or among the Boer War gentlemen troopers of Paget’s Horse – you won’t last long unless you know your weapons, your fieldcraft, your unit tactics and your transport (whether it runs on wheels, tracks, legs, wings or rotors).
A phrase which has stayed with me, since a sergeant instructor first yelled it in my ear: “In a fire fight you’re either firing, observing, or moving so you can do one or the other. If you’re not doing any one of those, you’re a useless bleeding passenger.” You know it, I know it, the Imperial Yeomanry gentlemen of Paget’s Horse knew it. Alexander’s sarissa-wielding foot soldiers and irregular skirmishers knew it. The cyborgs will know it. It’s all about skills, discipline and determination.
When did you start pursuing your writing more seriously?
I’d always wanted to write, and I’d always wanted to be a soldier, and I’ve always loved science fiction. So, it was almost a no-brainer to try and write about something inspired by my military experiences in a speculative future setting.
It really started to come together when I was on garrison duty in the Falklands. All the pieces were in place. After work, there was a lot of spare time down there, and there wasn’t much to do. And at that time the internet didn’t exist as we know it now. So, I ran a lot, and pumped iron, and got fit, but there’s only so much beer you can drink, and eventually I’d run out of excuses. “You say you’ve always wanted to write. If not now, when?” And of course, once you start…
Of all your work, which was your favorite to write?
Each has been great fun in its own way, but Cyborg and Thousandeyes have been completely absorbing. The interesting stuff in The Deep Wide Black series has been figuring out how the “cyborg” enhancements might function, and what the designers might try to achieve. Designing the orbital habitat of Orchard was also fascinating, and you’ll see more of that in Thousandeyes. But for the enhanced soldiers nothing comes for free, and every enhancement has a cost. I wanted to understand that human cost.
How wonderful it would be to think, react and move faster than anyone else! Great for a soldier to have zoom-capable eyes, in-built secure comms, adaptable cam-pattern skin and so on. Clench your trigger finger slightly, and the range-to-target and wind details pop into your visual field. A heads-up display of your ammo state? GPS data on where the rest of the unit are? Satellite views of what’s the other side of the hill? You see what I mean. It’s fun to think about.
But what would “normal” people think of you? Look at how easily we humans despise each other. If we don’t share your religion, culture, skin color, ethnicity, language or nationality – we start to use words like “those people”, “others”, “them”, “not like us”. So, if we ever start to see upgraded humans walking our streets, I reckon that we’ll be pretty suspicious of them. And if they’re fighting our wars, how long will it be before we start to think of them as machines? That was where the story lay, for me.
How many of your characters were inspired by your military service?
Many! Some are very definitely inspired by specific individuals, others are amalgams of various characteristics and types. Leon Richter is actually a mixture of an English special forces soldier and an Austrian engineer. The cyborg Freddy Irwin is based on a former Royal Marine I knew; dry-humored, methodical, unflappable. Pavel Kirov, the unit comedian, was a mixture of the personalities of two RAF men – an aircraft engineer, and a squadron signaler. Competent, technically adept, intensely focused on finding a solution – but an irreverent non-stop joker.
And I’m saving one character whom I got to know pretty well for use later in the series – an Englishman who had served in the uniforms of several nations, in countless wars, over many years.
How many of the specific scenes you wrote were inspired from your service?
There were a few. The geography of one battle scene is inspired by the rolling moorland above Mount Pleasant in East Falkland. I spent several months there, so I got to know the hills pretty well, and I carried the layout straight across into the “Dennison State” battle in The battle scene around the lunar Hevelius Mass Driver was developed from large scale armored warfare exercises in Germany. And some of the thoughts and emotions from internal security duties came back to me when I was writing the battle in the shopping mall.
Do you feel like your writing has served any therapeutic value for you? Has it helped you process your military experiences?
I’ve been fortunate; I finished my service uninjured, and psychologically fine. But not everyone does, and some experiences are physically and mentally shattering. And many people carry the damage for years. We all know what soldiers are like – many of the guys with a lot of experience don’t talk about it much, unless they know you pretty well. I’m glad to say that our government now seems to recognize the need to treat mental as well as physical scarring. It wasn’t always that way.
But sometimes you have an extraordinary opportunity to see things clearly. Years back, I was on an armored warfare training course. There were a number of foreign students, and two of them discovered they had been on opposing sides of a serious contact in Africa. Hearing the two contrasting views of the same action was a truly rare opportunity. Five years earlier, these same guys had been trying to kill each other. Now they were drinking beer together and taking the piss. I don’t want to romanticize the event; a lot of people had died. But it was extraordinary how similar in outlook these men were. I used that experience in The Deep Wide Black series to help me portray battle scenes from both sides at once.
If you could serve with any of your characters, who would it be and why?
Leon Richter is decisive and focused, with a deep commitment to his unit and his mates. But he listens and thinks, making sure he knows what he’s doing before he gets in too deep. He’s not faultless, but he’s an honorable man. And Pavel Kirov will always lift your mood, however bad the situation. Every unit has someone like him, disrespectful and silly, but reliable in any crisis.
If you would want to avoid serving with any of your characters, who would it be and why?
Sergeant Gerhard Krause is overly hasty, certain he’s right and not eager to listen to anyone else. He’s the kind of guy who makes snap decisions instead of considering all the factors, and he doesn’t want to hear other ideas. If it’s not his idea, it’s no use to him. I’m happy not to have served with too many like him.
If you could serve in any of the worlds you created, which one would it be, and why?
I don’t want to reveal too much about Thousandeyes just yet. But in that book you’ll hear about a campaign being fought on a planet called Harmony, which leads to some major revelations about what has happened to the cyborgs. The planet is a beautiful place, with a temperate climate, agreeable wildlife and a peaceful society. It’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it.
There’s a unit there under the command of a Russian colonel. He is one of those easy-going types who effortlessly commands your respect, and who has a genuine respect for his soldiers. And yes, he is based on a real person I know well. A fine place to live, with a good leader commanding your unit? I’d serve there.
And since you’ve finished that novel, what are you currently working on and when do you expect it to be ready for publication? I mean, you don’t need sleep right?
How can people find you?
If this convinced you to find out more, go look up JCH Rigby (Charlie) on the social media platforms he shared! I hope you all had a great time getting to know about his debut novel Cyborg, of The Deep Wide Black series, which you can find here.
Until next time, stay frosty and don’t forget to keep your powder dry!
->As usual, all images came from the Google’s “labeled for reuse” section or are screen grabs taken by JR Handley for use under the Fair Use Doctrine.