When Biba and I went to YALC in July we had the good fortune to stop and speak with Rachel Chucher who was there to promote her Battle Ground series. The series sounded like the kind of thing that I would love as I’m a sucker for a dystopian as regular readers will know! I got a book and Biba got a sticker, happy days 🙂
After reading Battle Ground one of the things that really stood out for me was the creativity and imagination behind the weaponry and the armour, which only increased when I read False Flag. When Rachel Churcher reached out to me I knew that I would love to know more about the process behind this and she kindly shared her thoughts with this amazing guest post, happy reading!
The Pacifist’s Guide to Guns and Armour
Here’s what you need to know about me.
I’m a pacifist, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that there are some things I would fight for.
I would describe myself as anti-military, but my first two novels are based in a military training camp.
In real life, I don’t like guns, but some of my favourite books and films feature beautiful weapons and very satisfying fight scenes.
I’m a British child of the 70s and 80s, so I grew up watching bombs and riot police on the news, and Star Wars and Star Trek on TV.
So what made me write the Battle Ground series, and what inspired the shiny military tech that is central to the story?
To answer that question, you need to know a few more things about me.
I’ve been reading Science Fiction for as long as I can remember.
I’ve been watching Science Fiction for as long as I can remember.
I consumed so much SF that I went and got myself a Master’s Degree in Science Fiction Studies (yes – it’s a thing!).
It is safe to say that my worldview has been shaped by generations of SF writers and film-makers. A lot of SF is concerned with conflict – conflict between oppressor and oppressed, between lawless factions in a dystopian setting, between old and new, and between expectations and reality. There are sub-genres of SF that are simply Westerns wearing spacesuits, or fairy tales with starships. In SF, conflict is everywhere, technological advancement is a common theme, and shiny weapons are part of the furniture.
Writing the army
So why Battle Ground? Why set a dystopian story in the very near future, and then populate it with high-tech weaponry and armour? It’s a character-driven story, after all. Sixteen-year-old Bex and her friends are conscripted into a branch of the Army, and trained to defend civilians from terrorist attacks. They don’t have a choice in what happens to them, and they are expected to use guns and defend themselves, starting on their first day at training camp.
The easy answer is that this tech is cool. Shiny black-and-grey armour with integrated radio, contamination monitoring, and clips across the back for a prototype next-gen power-assisted rifle. Who wouldn’t want to try it on, just to see how it feels? Like Han Solo’s blaster, a Jedi’s lightsabre, or Iron Man’s suit, there’s something satisfying about a personal defence system, fitted to you and your abilities.
It’s also vital to the story. I needed to be able to send my characters into dangerous situations, and give them a realistic chance of making it out alive. Guns and armour provided the obvious solution, and their training gave them the knowledge they needed to use the armour effectively. Acquiring and using armour is essential to the decisions made by the characters, and the protection against chemical weapons allowed me to ramp up the danger without killing the plot.
Writing the people
What about the effect on the characters? Bex and her friends are ordinary schoolchildren, recruited without their permission, and sent out in public to deter attacks from terrorist groups. The armour gives them confidence, and allows members of the public to see the uniform, not the individuals inside. They describe themselves as looking like ‘space-age badass ninjas’ while they’re wearing the armour, and the anonymity provided by helmets and identical outfits makes them feel supported, and part of a team.
But Bex also finds the armour isolating. Putting the helmet on blocks her senses, and takes away her awareness of the outside world. She finds herself disoriented when she is expected to communicate using the radio, and when she can’t hear the background noises she’s used to. She wants to feel the air on her face, and see clearly everything around her, but the armour breaks that connection. She wants to connect with her friends, but the armour keeps them apart.
So it’s a metaphor, as well as a plot point. Bex is used to looking after people, and building relationships, but the training camp aims to take that away. The recruits are expected to look out for themselves rather than helping each other, and Bex’s isolation is increased by the uniform she is expected to wear. It’s my pacifist comment on the dehumanising effect of training people to be soldiers, backed up by the characters’ experiences.
Writing the future
Advanced technology is also a signal to the reader that this isn’t the world they are used to. SF relies on a sense of difference, or ‘cognitive estrangement’ – throwing the reader in at the deep end, and allowing them to figure out what’s going on in the story. To create a convincing SF setting, the furniture needs to make sense.
In the Battle Ground series, a totalitarian government has taken control of the UK to protect the population from an increase in terrorism following Brexit and Scottish Independence. There’s no civilian Internet access, and the mobile phone network has been switched off. The setting could feel confusing to readers – it’s set in the future, but it feels like the past – so advanced military technology provides a way to bridge that gap.
The inspiration for the series was the 2016 Brexit vote, the lack of accountability that characterised the campaign, and the apathy surrounding the vote. Dreaming up a suit of armour for my conscripted child soldiers helped to illustrate these threats to our democracy. The recruits become a faceless fighting force, stripped of their individuality and expected to follow orders without question. I wanted to show my readers the UK without democracy, where citizens no longer have a voice. Lines of teenagers in identical armour and anonymous black-tinted helmets provide a visual demonstration of a totalitarian society.
Writing the story
Of course, in the world of the Battle Ground series, the armour is none of these things. The armour is just armour, designed to protect the recruits and impress the public. The design is drawn from every book I’ve read, and every film I’ve seen. There’s some Ray Bradbury in there (Montag’s ‘black-beetle coloured helmet’ from Fahrenheit 451), some Lois McMaster Bujold, some Elizabeth Moon, some Hugh Howey. There’s some real life, too – lines of riot police facing protestors in Hong Kong or Rio de Janeiro. And the obvious visual ingredients – Stormtrooper clones from Star Wars, body armour from Starship Troopers, and combat uniforms from Ender’s Game.
As an author, I’m a magpie. I pick up ideas everywhere, and hide them away until they merge and grow. Until something triggers the start of a story, and I have to write it down. Until all the subconscious signals I’ve been picking up come together and become something bigger – something new.
Battle Ground is one of those stories. The inspiration has been building since I first picked up a book, and since I first watched Star Wars: A New Hope and the original Battlestar Galactica in a world without mobile phones and Internet connections. Since I watched Miners on strike facing police on horseback on the news, and waited for the details of the latest IRA bomb. I remember the IRA attack on my home town, and I remember feeling afraid. And maybe the guns and armour I’ve given to my characters are a reaction to that fear. Who doesn’t want to cheat death? Who doesn’t want a way to defend themselves when something unexpected happens?
Maybe it’s my 7-year-old self’s fantasy – a way to take control over terrifying events and make them safe again. Give me a suit of armour and a prototype next-gen power-assisted rifle, and maybe I can get through this. Maybe I can survive. And maybe my characters can, too.
Darkest Hour, Book 3 of the Battle Ground series, is published today. Book 1, Battle Ground, and Book 2, False Flag, are available on Amazon. Find international download links on the Taller Books website.