Tip of the Spear

Miles Cameron in conversation with Simon Morden

Miles Cameron, aka Christian Cameron, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1962 and grew up in Massachusetts, Iowa, and New York state. After graduating from the University of Rochester with a degree in history, Cameron joined the United States Navy and flew as a backseater in S-3 Vikings in the First Gulf War, and then on the ground in Somalia, and elsewhere. After spending time as a human intelligence officer with Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Cameron embarked on a career as a novelist.

In addition to writing science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and thrillers, Cameron is a dedicated historical re-enactor.

Author, rocket scientist, and fellow historical re-enactor Simon Morden spoke to Cameron about the Bronze Age, Platonic power, and violence porn.

Against All Gods (Gollancz/Mobius, 2022) by Miles Cameron and The Red Planet: A Natural History of Mars (Pegasus Books, 2022) by Simon Morden are available wherever books are sold.

Simon Morden: Against All Gods is a Bronze Age story. For those who may be unfamiliar with the delineations of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, can you talk us through the broad technological advances that mark the transitions between them and if we know what caused them?

Miles Cameron: I can, but I want to say up front that I was more interested in the feel of the Bronze Age, with its birth of writing, administration, and totalitarian government. The art was incredible, and so was the oppression, or that’s my read. I’ve never struggled with the notion that human beings could build the pyramids or the gate of Mycenae or the Tomb of Atreus; but I struggle with the sheer amount of misery such creations cost.

Anyway, that’s not what you asked, is it? So the Stone Age sees the rise of agriculture and its necessary attendant, ceramics. Agriculture provides the basis for what we call civilization; ceramics probably caused the exploration of the interaction of heat and minerals, leading to the discovery of smelting copper, bronze, and eventually iron.

The Bronze Age was fuelled in the Mediterranean by the ability of some widespread cultures to (apparently) cooperate in getting tin and copper together; apparently they occur in very different places. Bronze, when work hardened, is as hard as iron (or harder) and very easily worked, melted, poured, cast, etc. compared to iron. But iron, when hardened with carbon, makes steel, and that’s a whole different ball game.

But the Bronze Age didn’t end because iron replaced bronze; the bronze age in the Mediterranean ended because of the spectacular full collapse of the societies that were supported by among other things, the bronze trade. It was a vaster and more interesting collapse than the end of the Roman empire; it may have had a major climate change component, and it was devastating from Spain to Syria.

People in the late Bronze Age had access to iron; I think King Tut had an iron sword. But widespread use of iron only came when the tin from Northern Europe was no longer available in the Mediterranean. Or so I believe.

Simon Morden: I don’t have a classical education, but even I managed to spot a turn of phrase from Homer. How heavily did you lean into Bronze Age literature, and how much were you set on creating an antithesis of the type? I imagine it was difficult to avoid deus ex machina when you have actual dei involved in the plot.

Miles Cameron: I have quite a few homages in the book, from Homer to Zelazny. But it was The Iliad that started me on this road; The Iliad and the early works of the Old Testament. Let’s face it; the world of The Iliad was hell. Hell for women, hell for slaves, and really, not that great even for Achilles and Hector. And that, to me, is an oft-overlooked aspect of Iliad (which is itself a mid-iron-age epic that may or may not have hints of a Bronze Age past carried within). This is a world where everyone is a chattel for the Gods, who are utterly without anything we’d call morality. Aristocratic warriors like Achilles treat women and other men as objects at least in part because their gods treat them as objects. Yuck. And I thought…what if someone like wily Odysseus or brilliant Penelope got fed up one day and started a revolt?

Simon Morden: Is the distinction between a historical novel and a fantasy novel moot here? Your characters are living in a world where the gods are manifest, and some can use what we’d describe as magic, and yet this doesn’t feel like a secondary world.

Miles Cameron: I know my point of view on this annoys some readers because when I muttered it on a panel, the room got ugly…but there’s not much difference to me between fantasy and historical fiction. Either way, I have to create a world. Either way, I do a ton of research. It’s not that I can’t invent stuff; I think my Dry Ones are fun and original…not based on anything…but. And it’s a big but; for me, the systems have to work. I need to know that people get fed (or starve), winds blow, magic is or isn’t generated…and the easiest systems to emulate are those we understand from our own past, whether it’s a Chinese past, a Mayan past, or a Greek past. This is equally true whether you are describing food or weapons, martial arts or graphic arts. If I write an historical novel, I have a different duty of work to my reader; to create a believable version of a real past. But in a fantasy novel, I still have to make the world believable, and in an historical novel, I still have to create. So, I accept their differences, but from my perspective as creator, it’s pretty much all the same. And it is very much an original world, not our own! It’s part of my Neo-Hermetical universe, as are the worlds of the Red Knight and Cold Iron, and eventually I’ll wrap up my meta-plot.

Simon Morden: But isn’t it all just hubris and nemesis? How is personal agency possible if powerful gods are pulling the strings of fate?

Miles Cameron: I’m a big believer in free will. But leaving that aside, my Gods are merely hyper-powerful mortal beings. They have made themselves gods through war and violence. But their godhood is a lie. I leave open (Back in the Red Knight books) whether there is actually some greater being or beings above the fray; but in my Bronze Age world, Enkul Anu and his minions are, in fact, bloody handed tyrants precisely because they fear the revolt, just like all tyrants.

Simon Morden: The cover of Against All Gods carries a version of Lord Acton’s famous aphorism prominently. Does power corrupt? Is it inevitable? And is it possible to stand on the side of the powerful without becoming tainted?

Miles Cameron: I wrote these books with a definite political intention. I have enjoyed some serious cries of outrage (mostly from North America) because apparently some readers have just discovered I’m a leftie. I assume they didn’t’ read any of my other books. Yes, I think it is possible to acquire power and remain untainted, but I agree with Plato (maybe not in detail, but in broad brush) that the leaders have to be trained to resist the temptations. I’m portraying a world where almost all ‘nobility’ (odd word, as nobles are hardly a byword for moral behaviour) has been kicked out of the mortals. Evil triumphed a thousand years ago; not the stifling evil of Sauron or Morgoth, but some nice selfish hedonistic evils. And they’ve left their stamp even on the protagonists. Hefa Asus will spend all three books just realizing that the feelings he has for someone else are love.

Simon Morden: Metalworking – especially the smelting of ores – is still an almost alchemical process, so it’s no surprise that myths have formed around both metals themselves and those who smith them. How much of that goes into Hefa-Asus, the Dendrownan smith?

Miles Cameron: Hefa-Asus is an amalgam of the many brilliant craftspeople I have the honour to know, but with a very healthy dose of a Masai smith I met in Kenya, a veritable mage as well as a practical man who could fix a Landrover. But to some extent, Hefa-Asus represents not just craft but science. He’s fascinated by the hows and whys, to the exclusion of the myths and taboos.

Simon Morden: One of the interesting subtexts in Against All Gods is that the pantheon are actively repressing the knowledge about, and use of, iron. Am I right to assume that there’s an entirely deliberate analogy here?

Miles Cameron: On the one hand, these really are fantasy novels intended to be fun, entertaining, maybe moving, if I did my job right. But it’s definitely a set of analogies and the whole series might just be seen as a call to action. After all, their climate is collapsing, and the Gods don’t care; cannibals are eating them, and the Gods don’t care, the Gods have a surveillance system to monitor even a sparrow’s fall…and the Gods really only care that they get their rapacious share, regardless of who starves or dies. It is just possible all of this is an analogy.

Simon Morden: During Covid times, you authored the ‘Writing fighting’ series of tweets, in which you showed various fighting styles and weapons, and how they might be used and, importantly, countered, for the benefit of authors. Was this merely a lockdown hobby, or does the depiction of melee combat in fantasy and historical novels genuinely vex you?

Miles Cameron: I think this is dangerous ground, but I’ll give an honest answer. There are many, many examples across all of media of completely fabricated, impossible martial techniques that… are great. Fantastic, moving, fun to watch. The whole Marvel universe; the movie Gladiator; far apart in many ways, but both offer utterly fantastical fighting scenes that are nonetheless really… fun? Anyway, I don’t wander through the multiverse cursing anything that doesn’t follow the rules of Aikido or Kendo or Fiore or whatever.

But. There are a lot of tropes that I loathe; and then there are little tidbits of ignorance that I think are fun to explore, often because I didn’t know about them myself… And I like to think I’m helping other writers, but honestly, I’m not sitting here reading other folks’ fight scenes and cringing. At least, not always…
One trope I hate? The male hero who must be beaten to a pulp before he can rise and triumph. Just the mechanics of getting to your feet with a shield after you have fallen are … stressful, much less some bruises and a concussion and the fact that in a real fight, almost any advantage, no matter how fleeting, is probably a fight-ender.

I do have a different hobby horse; violence porn. Most fights are very fast; the better fighter can usually rid himself of a lesser trained opponent in seconds. And writing fight scenes that way allows me to avoid making it all, I don’t know, too gorgeous. Because when a really good swordsperson faces a lesser, it’s not a fight. It’s murder. And if the reader gets that, then we all understand that war isn’t glorious. It’s terrible.

Simon Morden: The trope of redemptive violence – that the protagonist will gain victory by physically destroying the antagonist – is the basis for many of our stories, and yet we know all too well that, in the real world, violence is psychologically incredibly corrosive and harms not just the perpetrator, but all those around them. You have the pacifist traders, the Hakrans, as a contrast to the otherwise universally warlike cultures around them, and yet they are also compromised in their philosophy by the end of the book. Where do you stand on this?

Miles Cameron: I knew you were a dangerous interrogator! I wanted to offer an alternative point-of-view to the usual ‘solve everything with violence’ heroes, but I also wanted to challenge the idea of the purity of pacifism. Eventually, if you stand back and allow evil to happen, you are failing even if internally you are resisting.

That’s my view, and it is reflected in my treatment of the Hakrans, who may just be my favourite characters. But just wait; their arc is one of the main arcs of the trilogy, and their passive resistance and their willingness to sacrifice will give them an edge, because I truly believe that altruism gives you an advantage.

Also, I wanted the character of Miti to have an arc, and she was the Hakran who seemed most likely to revolt against non-involvement. I’m surrounded by brave young women; it seemed fitting that she should be the one to suggest that involvement was the correct moral path.

Simon Morden: Your bibliography is startlingly extensive, as Christian Cameron, Miles Cameron and one alias I didn’t know about before, Gordon Kent. Your work ethic is clearly formidable, and yet you seem to spend a lot of time having, for the want of a better word, fun. Assuming you don’t have access to a time machine or an army of ghost writers, what’s your schedule like?

Miles Cameron: I think my schedule is way too busy and I’m looking forward to slowing down, only I don’t appear to be very good at it. Right now I’m writing the last scene in ‘The Treason of Sparta’ which is my historical novel about the events after the Battle of Plataea in 479-477 BCE. At the same time, I’m one of the leaders for a re-enactment in Greece – let me add that reenacting in Greece is both the most rewarding and most incredibly difficult, so in addition to a fairly hefty daily load of reenactment bureaucracy (registrations, food, etc) I’m also making stuff for five people, helping my daughter get her kit together… right. I write 3500-5K words a day, and I occasionally have 15-20K word days. When I’m working, I work 5-6 days a week, straight through. But it’s all related; the reenactment gives me the passion for the period to write the book; writing the book challenges my need to look at things new ways, which leads to research, often to travel. As I like to tell people, it’s a complete lifestyle.

Simon Morden: How do you feel your writing has evolved over the years? Do you keep coming back to worrying at the same themes, or are you able to put them aside and tackle something different?

Miles Cameron: I certainly want to believe I’m a better writer now than when I started out. There are a bunch of different ways I can go here, but I’ll start by saying that unlike many writers, I had the incredible boost of writing with my father (novelist and scholar Kenneth Cameron), who had twenty some novels of his own under his belt when I started writing with him, and who relentlessly and ruthlessly said ‘no’ about a whole pile of things that richly deserved it. I learned to ‘kill my darlings’ and also to look carefully at the people around me for character inspiration while also being painfully aware of the strange line between ‘reality’ (as in, things that really happen) and the appearance of reality in a text.

We wrote eight books together. I got a lot of training. My dad had some very strict views on what he thought of as good writing; very old fashioned, but really pretty good even now. And the military trained me to write fast. When I was an intel analyst, I wrote one or two articles a day, every day, twelve days in a row; sometimes 15K words.

But I don’t even believe the same things now that I believed when I wrote my first novel. Or rather, I do: I still believe that hope is more important to describe than cynicism; I still believe in heroism, although my take on it has changed profoundly. I’ve always been interested in writing about ‘teams’ or groups, but where I used to see a single leader, I’m now more interested in a jigsaw puzzle of working parts, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. I’m much more suspicious of Medieval European backgrounds for my fantasy books, despite my own love of the European Middle Ages; I don’t know if I count as ‘woke’ or not, but I’m definitely and increasingly aware of the long term results of those Middle Ages and their impact on others. My love of Ancient Greece remains undimmed; I suspect I’m a romantic who still sees Ancient Athens as the Ur-code of democracy and sees a great many lessons there as yet unlearned.

Simon Morden: Historical reenactment is something that we have in common, even though I’m very much a jonny-come-lately to it. What’s the appeal of it for you?

Miles Cameron: I think that for me the appeal is so total that I’d have a hard time peeling it apart. I met my spouse in reenactment; my father in law, who ran the biggest reenactment group in Canada (and one of the best and largest in North America) and I are never at a loss for conversation. I love the material culture; the shear craftsmanship of the stuff is so much more interesting to me that anything in modern consumer culture. I love the clothes; I feel modern people are massively short changed on fashion, and whether it’s 18th c. England, 14th c. Italy or 6th c. BCE Greece, I enjoy the ‘dress up.’

But the learning is part of the lifestyle; I learn when I make stuff (I’m making a 6th century BCE gymnasium bag right now), I learn when I do research, I learn when I sit in camp and drink wine by a fire. People have been kind enough to say my fiction is ‘immersive’ and that’s a product of reenactment. It’s a garbage in garbage out situation; you need to put good research in to get a valid experience out, that’s for sure.

Also, the people. Sure, there are a surprising number of people for whom ‘heritage’ and ‘history’ mean something very ‘alt-right’ and that can be very difficult, but most of the best reenactors are also deeply thoughtful people who really want to know what really happened, not participate in dress-up mythology. Most of my closest friends are reenactors; either I met them there or dragged them in. Also, my two other favourite pastimes wrap into reenactment neatly; wilderness camping and martial arts. My reenactment group has, for thirty years, packed up its period kit and gone camping in really deep wilderness; it teaches you incredible things about learning in the past, and none of them are about fighting, killing, or war. By contrast, martial arts, especially historical martial arts, allow you to study fighting systems in isolation, although really, at this point, for me, martial arts are mostly about fitness and self-awareness; I’m about to turn 60 and I’m unlikely to compete anywhere again after this summer. Rueful smile.

Simon Morden: Sword or spear?

Miles Cameron: Why not both? I mean, I love using both, myself. For fun, with friends, and having a beer after. But if I must pick one, why, this week it’s spear, because I’m about to go off to Plataea to reenact a Greek hoplite, and we’re all about our spears, aren’t we?

Dr S. J. Morden has won the Philip K. Dick Award and been a judge on the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He is a bona fide rocket scientist with degrees in Geology and Planetary Geophysics. His novels are the perfect fusion of his incredible breadth of knowledge and ability to write award-winning, razor-sharp science fiction.

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