The Price of Democracy, or: My Descent Into Fascism and What I Found There

The City of Silk and SteelGollancz is delighted to be able to bring you a series of guest posts from Mike, Linda and Louise Carey to celebrate the publication of The City of Silk and Steel. Today, we are thrilled to bring you a guest post from Mike Carey.

There’s a remark you hear bandied about a lot, mostly in relation to Mussolini.  He may have been a filthy fascist dictator, people say, and he ran with a bad crowd there for a while, but he made the trains run on time.

I think it’s mostly said in a fairly jokey way.  People aren’t seriously offering this observation as an upside to filthy fascist dictatorship.  Like, on the one hand, all your personal freedoms and human rights get trampled on and you have to subsume yourself utterly in the demands of the all-powerful state; but on the other hand, you can get to Hemel Hempstead station at 8.33 and know that the 8.34 to Potters Bar will roll by a minute later.

No.  Because nobody sane would ever say that, would they?  Even on a day when it’s pissing down with rain and Hemel Hempstead station is in danger of drifting out to sea even though Hemel Hempstead is technically landlocked.  What they’re saying is that democracy has a cost, sometimes, and that you can measure the cost fairly precisely – not in pounds and pence, but in days, hours and minutes.

Democracy takes TIME.

I knew this, really, but I didn’t know it in my gut until I collaborated with my wife Lin and our daughter Lou on the writing of a novel.  I mean, the planning alone took from… ooh, about the end of the last ice age up to a week ago last Tuesday.  That’s seven centuries per chapter, give or take.  But we saved a decade or so when we agreed to number the chapters sequentially rather than, say, each picking some numbers we liked and then looking at all the numbers in a range of typefaces before drawing up a shortlist and whittling it down by qualified single transferable voting.

When it came to complicated things like character arcs, we had a device called “the working lunch”.  We’d all go out to the local Chinese restaurant, spread our notes across the table and canvas all the options.  Once we’d decided what to order, of course, but that process seldom took more than an hour or so.  And then we’d get right down to business, except that the notes had to be collected together again so the waiter could put the noodles and beansprouts down.  And then we had to eat, of course.  And then when we dealt out the notes again some of them wouldn’t be there, and it wasn’t always clear whether they’d been left behind at the house or we’d just eaten them thinking they were the pancakes for the crispy duck.

You see?  Mussolini would just have said “Hmm.  8.33.  Lie down on those train tracks, would you?  I won’t keep you more than a minute.”

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m complaining, because most of this was fine by me.  It was all academic, in any case, because we didn’t have a publisher, we didn’t have a commission and we didn’t have a deadline.

Unfortunately, we then acquired all those things (at Eastercon 2010) and we suddenly had to get serious.  We rushed through the rest of the planning in less time than it takes to become a practising orthopedic surgeon, divvied up the chapters between the three of us and got writing.

Which was when I turned into Mussolini.

Okay, not then exactly.  It was a little bit later, when we decided to look over each other’s chapters and harmonise the tone and expression before we submitted the finished draft to our editor.  As the only one out of the three of us who doesn’t have a day job, I of course reached each milestone first – leaving me plenty of time to look over Lin’s and Lou’s chapters while I was waiting for them to catch up.

And I was happy to offer suggestions for how their chapters could be improved – a little streamlining here, a different adjective there.  Only they were too busy writing to listen to me as I hovered at their shoulder with my little nuggets of wisdom.  “You know, sesquipedalian is an unfairly neglected adjective…”  TYPE TYPE TYPE.  “And this bit here would be great if you told it from the camel’s point of view…”  TYPE TYPE TYPE.  “And the frozen yogurt in the dream sequence is anachronistic, because in ancient Arabia yogurt hadn’t been…”  TYPE TYPE TIPPETTY TYPE.

Democracy takes time, and time was in short supply.  So I took the liberty of just inserting my changes directly into the manuscript.  I marked them in red for easy reference, which I thought was a considerate touch.

Man, at least they gave Mussolini a lamp post!  I did not get that kind of red carpet treatment.  Anyone would think I’d… well, you know, changed Lin’s and Lou’s words into my words, completely disregarding the choices they’d made while not even bothering to explain or justify my own choices.  Whereas in fact, what I’d done was save us a lot of time.

But, you know, at the expense of democracy.  And it turns out that’s not a good trade-off.  Who knew?  So I apologised and promised never to do it again.  (Fun fact: I’ve had it done to me since by an editor on one of the comic books I write, so I know how it feels.  It feels like being under the 8.34 to Potters Bar.)

Anyway, my two co-writers let me off with a caution and a light bludgeoning.  But they made it clear that any further acts of random editing would result in the calling of an emergency summit meeting.  Which, being democratic to its very core, will still be in session right up to the heat death of the universe.

If we’re lucky, there’ll be noodles.

The City of Silk and Steel is out now where all good books are sold.