The Importance of Trade Island

So I haven’t put up a Sojourners in Shadow blog for a bit, and as I’m planning on bringing the shorts out (somehow) soonish, I had better get back into it.

A great place to start would be to talk about Trade Island. This is a place that has a lot going on, with a variety of characters and groups involved, and has an important role in the world, with that role getting more and more significant as times goes on. As I write the shorts, I have a general rule of writing two shorts set in Trade Island among every ten stories, all of which will be set around the world. Sometimes I may only do one, but no place in the world of Sojourners in Shadow has even that level of consistent coverage. Trade Island is a special place, a melting pot that reflects the world and yet also is unique, carrying its own history and future, both of which matter. A lot.

Trade Island is a fitting title, but not the full description, as you can imagine. It is an island and it is essentially a capitalist society, built upon trading with each other rather than killing. Of course, there is a lot of killing still, yet this is typically for gain or competition rather than old grudges or speciest warfare. Also, while it is an island, the domain stretches beyond that. There is a city on the island, a packed one, but there are also rundown settlements across the water where humans reside who want to be a part of the place yet can’t get there. To be accepted into Trade Island, you either need to be in it from the start or prove yourself useful. Both is best.

To explain the place we have to start with its past. As with everywhere else in the world, things were in turmoil due to the arrival of the Shadow World, but the real history comes slightly after. When society was collapsing, as order was cracking apart, humans fled to the city on this island. A mutant army was on its way, filled thoughts of revenge. People already lived on the island, obviously, but many more dwelt around it and they all crowded on, with what forces they had destroying the bridges and then setting up to resist the enemy. As the story goes, there was brief conflict, but the mutants couldn’t get far and they ended up settling nearby – in part to get their revenge at a later date, yet also as this region had been their home too. Here they could have a new life. So these two groups sat in a wary stalemate while the world around them tore itself apart.

When it happened isn’t certain, it is highly unlikely there was a specific day that everything changed. But eventually the humans, with their gathered resources, found the mutants, who had sat there for some time, were open to trade. The mutants weren’t starving or lacking for too much, but they were trying to build a new society up, whereas the humans were already set. Of course, the city that had once stood had taken a lot of damage, mostly from the mutants, and there were sporadic acts of violence as people tried to settle into a new way of life. The city before had been hectic, dangerous and capitalist. It wasn’t weird to anyone who lived in the transforming place that these ways continued. So, if the mutants couldn’t be driven away by force, then perhaps trade was a way forward. The mutants saw the sense too. It is very likely secret agreements went on for some time before it became an open thing, and yet it was made public, and it went well.

It was better to try and get along, for a price, than to destroy each other. This became the thinking of Trade Island, and also of the people around it. The mutants became a nation of their own, electing a president, having a standing army (which I can get into more another time), and benefiting from trading with the humans. Then machines arrived, and they saw this transaction, and they saw the logic in it. The humans and mutants were very cautious, but if they could overcome their mutual hatred, then they could overcome that. They did. Monsters came too. More beings of all types started to gather, hearing rumours of a city, of a living that didn’t involve scavenging and raiding.

That is to say, there was plenty of both among the lower classes, but still, the droppings of the city were better than out in the wastelands. Over the two centuries since the Shadow World came, Trade Island has developed from a place with a suspicious understanding between two enemies, to a gathering of various races and beings, where the city sits between a mutant nation, a machine nation and a kingdom of monsters, while within its border thrive humans, monsters and mutants, and even the odd machine. There are seven bridges and across them trade and people go back and forth. More recently, the docklands are becoming important as ships have started to reach to settlements across the seas. Word has spread of this place and is still spreading, so that far off lands want to get into a trade relationship with it, while others hear of it as a story, and often laugh at the idea of beings living together.

Trade Island has a mayor and a police force, along with public buildings like a library and a bank. It has the trappings of civilisation. It works and runs like a society should in many respects, with elections and taxes, crimes and arrests, with homes, taverns, the docks and more. Yet this isn’t how the city truly lives, and everyone knows it. Crime is so widespread it is the norm. The police are there for show mostly, usually paid to look the other way; also to make people feel safe by patrolling. They do act, but often when it suits the authorities or their wealthy allies. There is no justice system. Most of the arrests are on poor scumbags who get dragged to a prison and thrown in, with a sentence being handed out at some point, but who knows if anyone will remember it. Some escape, but if you know the right people, you can be escorted out with dignity. Crime pays.

The driving force behind what Trade Island is remains the business families. From the beginning there were a number of wealthy and influential groups in the city, and for all the necessary cohesion due to the threat from the mutants, these people were always intent on staying on top. The best residences were secured, private security was arranged, and a strong if quiet word in the ear of any form of leadership ever since has occurred. They made sure commerce was the dominant force and pushed for outside trade. They even chose new identities. They searched history, found people to imitate and then did so. Alliances were made, mergers took place. They evolved over the centuries. By now, only seven business families remain, yet their power is as undeniable as ever.

The gangs are almost as important. Again, they have been there since the beginning. In fact, if any had access to older history, the inhabitants would know that gangs have been tearing up the streets since well before the Shadow World came. But afterward, once humans had crowded on and the mutant attacks had subsided, criminal activity began to soar. To survive was to have to fight to keep and to strive to take. People endured as best they could, but for many the best way was the way of the gang. Join up, play your part and get by. There have been many famous gangs and most people can tell stories passed on of what gang did what and when. The gangs are so ingrained into Trade Island’s way of life that even the business families can’t remove them, but then they have no wish to – the chaos they cause helps hide their own activities and the criminal element can easily be hired to work for their betters. Sometimes a gang is so strong it sits on top, as Leopold’s gang does right now, yet often they are all a vicious, whirling mass of rivalry and resentment.

A quick note should be made here that only humans are among the business families, but all kinds rank in the gangs. Leopold has a machine working for him, which has given him a useful edge. The machine nation itself tends to keep its distance as the locals aren’t keen on them. Machines have a reputation for trying to eradicate and replace all other life. This group has thus far been benign, so it is tolerated and traded with, but Leopold is a rare being who has close links to them. He helped them trade, and so they gave him a destructive robotic henchman, and while he no longer counts himself as a businessman, he keeps his contacts. Just in case.

While Trade Island does good business with its neighbours, there’s no doubt the old fears haven’t left. As mentioned, machines are rarely allowed in. When it comes to the mutants, they can come over in groups, but nothing too big, and while it is normal for people to be armed, groups of mutant soldiers will be watched closely. The president, whoever that may be, can come and visit. After all, how else can business be done? Yet the military head is another matter. Right now, General Bracken leads the mutant army, and her belligerent manner has meant she is not welcome across the river.

Even the Demon King puts on a polite front. This devil-beast has created a kingdom to the south and his court makes many visits. His own son is a known presence in brothels and gambling dens. But then his son is a lazy brat, so the people tend not to cower before him. The same cannot be said of his father. Ballathane, the Demon King, is a very focused and powerful being, and for him to stride the streets of the city evokes deep-seated dread in many. Therefore, he can visit now and then, but not too often. He has allies and enemies within the city, and he finds the ways of humans fascinating, so the odd tour appeals to him. Otherwise he can sit on his throne and plan his way to greater glory.

Then there’s the Enchantress. The single surviving member of a powerful business family, now a mysterious woman none has seen for years who has the ability to capture people’s minds. Her followers are utterly subservient to her, not least the highly intelligent Hugo, her able assistant. Together they wield influence in slight and subtle ways, using people without them knowing too much about it, backing the current mayor into power, seeking to gain advantages to use. The Enchantress is a clever person, she knows she has to make the right moves, and yet she is perhaps one of the most ambitious in Trade Island. Needless to say, she and the Demon King are rivals.

Thus, with some significant individuals and groups stationed in Trade Island, it follows that power attracts power. Those who live, fight and die in the city have some idea that links have been established with other settlements, that goods are coming in and going out, that more mercenaries are arriving hungry for work. However, those at the top are working hard to establish greater and stronger links. Ships have already begun to create a trade network with the Northern Federation of Africa as well as European market towns. But Trade Island has scouts and agents who are setting things up for future profits. Word is spreading of a place where goods from everywhere are pouring in and can be sent out to anywhere else – not a true statement, and yet if enough believe it, maybe it one day will be.

There are a number of world powers, ranging from the Order of Mechanised Tyranny, to the Sect of Shadow and Steel, to the mutant army based at Constantinople, and there are lesser forces such as the militarised people at the Carpathian Mountains and the Coalition of the South. While to many people around the world the tale of Trade Island is just that, to those who run such organisations, they know it is much more. Or, if they really have fingers on the pulse of the world, they know it exists, where it is and who to talk to. This means that the business families, and others like the Demon King and the Enchantress, have a strong insight into the workings of the world. To them, to others in power who use it to search out and study their rivals, the world isn’t such a big mystery. Trade Island is a major factor in bringing leaders together.

Of course, it won’t work as well on a global scale as it does in the city’s local environment. There things are more stable. Fewer components, fewer variables, and a more balanced playing field. The mutants and the machines and the monsters sit around the city, and the humans clutter around it, and the families and gangs and others thrive within, and no one can try to take over without facing the full wrath of everyone else. Not so around the world. Too many power-hungry beings. Too many risks and unknowns. So while Trade Island has brought people together, often in secret, it has created potential conflict as well. Now powers are even more aware of each other. Secret pacts can be made. Plans are being concocted. As Trade Island furthers its own ends and pushes commerce out into a war-weary world, others are more than ready to spy out weaknesses and prepare to attack. Eventually. After they have gained more resources, of course.

The V.C.s – Hell in the Heavens

Finally I got to read this!

When I was young, I somehow read the last few issues of the V.C.s in 2000AD comics. I think my brother was given or loaned a few and I got to read them, I’m not sure. But I certainly remember the V.C.s. I thought I had just read the very last issue, I only remembered a few things, but once I had read this graphic novel, I recognised moments from the last few chapters. So turns out I had seen more of the V.C.s than I thought.

So what hit me? Why had I remembered this for so long?

The scenes I remembered was mostly a showdown between the main character and a scummy snob called the Dishwasher, and another character who hated the main character for being from Earth yet still stepped in to kill the Dishwasher. I also recalled that the humans attacking the Geek world by the end.

But as I read toward the end of this book, I realised I had already seen that moment when Hen-Sho forced the other two to take the only escape pods. Then I knew I had seen Smith and Loon landing, and that I had seen what happens to Loon.

Whenever I thought about this weird sci-fi comic I had read once as a teenager, I knew I loved the showdown, the dark tone of the story, the vivid war with an alien race and how brutal it was depicted. Later I found out it was the V.C.s from 2000AD. I read over the wiki page I think, remembered a few things, but it wasn’t until I got Hell in the Heavens for Christmas (finally) that I was able to sit and truly appreciate this. It might sound weird to claim that a comic I had only read a final piece of somehow left a strong impact on me, and yet this one had all those traits I love. Gritty war stories. Dark scifi. Brutal depictions of conflict that cost the characters we are following. So yeah, that brief glimpse of the V.C.s stuck with me, even though I didn’t know the names.

Which leads me to mention Bad Company. This is another story from 2000AD. I picked up the first graphic novel years back and I devoured the first series in one afternoon. I literally couldn’t put it down. My book contained the first two stories; I later bought another graphic novel that had the third series. To be blunt, I didn’t love the other two stories as much as I revered the first, yet I did enjoy them a lot and became a Bad Company fanboy. This was just like the V.C.s yet on an alien planet instead of being set in space. It became a huge influence on me. I can’t imagine what kind of hold it would have had if I had read it when young, like I did with the V.C.s. Still, it hit me.

I bring up Bad Company because I feel there is a worthy comparison between the two. I think if you have read either of these, you’d enjoy the other. Both deal with humans versus aliens in a war in the future, with a high body count and a grim, macabre tone. I would say I still much prefer Bad Company. You can’t beat Kano, Thraxx, Mad Tommy Churchill and co. There are more V.C.s stories and I hope to read them later. Maybe there are better ones to come. Maybe, like Bad Company, the first run was the best. I would say I really liked the universe created in the V.C.s story and would love to see it developed more. It could make a great tv series, as we’re seeing more and more of now, like the Expanse and Sense8. Small cast, strong characters, lots of action, a universe to be delved into.

Okay, so I’ll finally get into the V.C.s – Hell in the Heavens. Oh, and I will get spoilerish.

To give a quick overview: the humans are fighting an alien race called the Geeks. At the beginning it is mostly a space war with the Geeks raiding human territory, so ships with startroopers patrol to intercept and destroy. Our main character is Steve Smith, a human from Earth, newly trained and placed on the ships of the V.Cs. Here, his five crewmates are all humans from other worlds, so they dislike the earthworm and he has to go through a lot before they even see him as tolerable. As the war goes on, things escalate between the humans and the Geeks, with major attacks on the solar system resulting in a revenge mission in search of the Geek homeworld. It has to be said, the humans get a real arse kicking for a lot of the story.

The characters are the strong point for me. I do think they could have been developed even more, yet they each have strong definitions and change to some degree over the course of the series. Smith is very eager to prove himself and often oversteps or screws up because he is trying to impress the rest. This makes him flawed, but I also liked that he didn’t shrink away as the others put him down. He gets proactive, even aggressive, in order to help win the war and become a true V.C. He goes from rookie to hardened fighter and leader. Jupe is the leader of the crew for most of it. His phrase sums it up – suck it in. Anything, everything that goes wrong for anyone, they get told by Jupe to shut up, take it and get on with things. He is the tough grizzled sargent you often see in films and shows, and you’d certainly hope to have in real life. He keeps people alive. He is tough on Smith, but stands up for him and listens to his ideas over time. Ringer hates Smith. Ringer is the nasty antagonist for much of the story, if also an excellent pilot. He can get a bit one note, but his turn at the very end made all of it worthwhile. The other characters are Loon, Dwarfstar and Hen-Sho. Loon is mad, having spent time on the Moon’s prison. Dwarf is more different looking, having been mutated in space travel. Hen-Sho is a proud Chinese Martian, who is also a bit easier on Smith than the rest. It has to be said, these three have the least depth to them, yet each have their moments. We meet Dwarf’s brother, spend time on Mars where Hen-Sho boasts of his people’s accomplishments, and Loon has a freak out in which he nearly skins Smith. I’d have liked more of these moments, but the crew’s overall story, their differences with Smith as he settles in, the ongoing war and how it changes – these become the bulk of the series. I loved Bad Company’s first story because it was character focused and driven. The second run was more plot driven. The V.C.s story is very much a mix of the two. There was a point toward the end where we were spending a lot more time on Smith alone than the crew together, which I wasn’t so into, but that wasn’t for long. In truth, I would say this is more a Steve Smith story than a story about the V.C.s as Smith is the main focus constantly and gets more to do as he gets sent on important missions. Still, Jupe and the rest stand out enough to make you care. At least, I thought so. As the war starts to cost the crew, I felt for the losses and certainly wished at least one happened differently. That was something I admired the story for. The V.C.s get sent on more and more dangerous missions, and those high risks can’t be avoided for ever.

As much as I say the characters are a strong point, I also felt the world – or universe – of the V.C.s was the other strong seller for me. Yes, it is a fairly typical space war and the Geeks are pretty much just faceless baddies to get vaped. Some might not appreciate how it is very much a good guys versus bad guys war, or rather, the characters are fine with killing the enemy and never question this conflict. The questionable aspect comes in when we meet the Dishwasher. The diplomats are, as can be so, the real enemy of the soldiers. If the Geeks are the opposing force to be defeated, the Dishwashers are the ones the V.C.s really come to hate as they screw up and get startroopers killed. One Dishwasher proves to be Smith’s mortal enemy. That’s certainly the viewpoint depicted in the V.C.s – much like Bad Company and other war movies like the Iron Cross and Paths of Glory – that when you’re the soldier fighting the war, you’re stuck in the middle and have to get through it as best you can with your comrades, struggling against the enemy in front of you while watching out against your superiors behind you.

What is unique with the V.C.s is the variety of humans. Unique might be pushing it, I’m not sure what else touched on this idea by the time the story was printed (in 1979!). I know I read some books by Anne McCaffrey which had heavyworlders in. Pretty good they were too. But few other things have gotten into the concept of humans being different because they are from different worlds. We’re too used to Star Trek and Stargate I think. Babylon 5 at least showed the issues of the Mars colony and others wanting independence.

In the V.C.s, we have Smith, an Earther, who is looked down on by the others. Ringer is from Saturn, Loon from the Moon, Jupe from Jupiter, Dwarfstar from Neptune and Hen-Sho, as mentioned, from Mars. There are indications that the others are tougher and better than Earthers. Jupe and Ringer are certainly stronger. I got the feeling they also saw those from Earth as arrogant and probably having gone soft. In return, though, the V.C.s are looked down on by the command of the human fleet. I’m not sure, but I think most of the frontline startroopers were colonists, and the commanding elite were Earthers. So this story dealt with prejudice going both ways, of conflict and variety among humanity, of the human race spreading out but not staying a happy and united family, as some scifi likes to present. The war with the Geeks is a bit straightforward, yet the current state of the human race is presented as being anything but.

Oh, and as I come to an end, I should say what the V.C.s means. Of course, any Brit with a knowledge of military history knows the VC stands for the Victoria Cross, which is the highest honour a soldier can get. So VC has a resonance. Yet in this case the V.C.s stands for the vacuum cleaners. Basically they are there to go around and clean up the mess. It is a neat little philosophy that tells you a lot about the crew early on – matter-of-fact, with a grim sense of humour and a disdain for the enemy. Geeks are rubbish to be removed. These blokes get the dirty work done.

Obviously I really enjoyed this graphic novel and plan to get the others sometime to see how they go. But for more, this had a special, personal side to it. When you’re young and developing your tastes in fiction and entertainment, certain things just click. Often, you become a fanboy/girl and they mean more to you than the same story does for others. Any remake or renewal usually doesn’t have the same power. You seen it all before. You’ve read this story. Little can get to you the same way that first glimpse into something you didn’t know you were into until you met it. That’s how the V.C.s were for me. A quick read when I was young, and yet I never forgot that image of the power-disc cutting through that fat neck. That bitter conflict and deadly exchange.

Very happy to finally be fully acquainted with you, V.C.s.

Random Shakespeare

I have nothing much to post right now, so here’s a random piece of something I wrote on a forum back in 07 (I think). It was done as Shakespeare in a western, and I always remember that my dear, late friend Janrae responded by simply saying: what hath Steven wrought? That, I recall clearly, was the first time she called me by name and I was so tickled as she was the one I was desperately trying to impress at the time.

So here we go:

“Why stand you there, grim visage set, hand but a breath from your gun? You think yourself unequalled; a man of such swift action and reckless nature that the Devil himself would stop from barring your way, instead preferring to skulk to the saloon with the other cowards? Let me assure you, fool youth, that speed of action does not necessarily mean speed of thought, and while you would blaze away in frenetic gusto, my one shot would prove true.”

“As usual you are quicker to words than you are to offer proof with deeds. Your time is past, you are a mere illusion of that deadly spectre who once ruled this town. Arrogantly you claim to perfection, yet how can any aim be honest when my gun, swifter to obey my call, sends shrieking lead to burrow deep in your frame? If I waver, it will be but a little, and you will react to pain as all living creatures must. So come, let us draw, and let loser taste the earth we stand upon, while winner will forever more have his name toasted as the greatest gunslinger of our day.”