Angel Station

by wjw on December 18, 2011

I have to admit it, Angel Station was not one of the books I was looking forward to reading during the process of converting the book to e-formats.  (Wherein it is now totally available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.  Just in case you forgot.)

I’ve always had a problem with Angel Station.

But before I get into all that, a little bit of history.  I wrote the first part of Voice of the Whirlwind around 1980 or early 1981, and I know this because the original typescript is in fact a typescript— it was written on my IBM Model D typewriter, before I got my first word processor in mid-1981.  Anyway, I put the manuscript down in order to do some paying work, and there it sat for years, because I wasn’t sure where those opening chapters were leading.

I finished Hardwired in the autumn of 1984, and was casting about for the next project.  Instead I got a raging kidney infection, fever along with tooth-shattering pain, and spent several days in bed slamming down antibiotics and Schedule II narcotics (both duly prescribed by a physician, I hasten to add).  Thanks to the fruit of the poppy, I had several days’ worth of hallucinations, and one of them turned out to be Angel Station.  Having nothing else to do but lie in bed and dream, I worked out the story in obsessive detail, much as I had scripted Hardwired on the long, long drive from Austin to Albuquerque the previous year.  No Person from Porlock interrupted my musings.

I mean, how stoned do you have to be to think: Hey, King Ubu in space!  Awesome!  I’m totally gonna write that!

(Why Ubu Roi, you ask?  Because he’s the guy who gets all the money and eats all the food, that’s why!)

(By the way, Angel Station is the only novel I’ve ever conceived while in an altered state.  Writing is, pretty much, a sobering profession.)

When the kidney infection finally succumbed and the narcotics wore off,  I found myself with a lot of pent-up energy, and I went to the keyboard and wrote the first 100 pages of Angel Station in a couple effortless weeks.

And then, for some reason, I remembered Voice of the Whirlwind (maybe there was still a certain amount of narcotic-related free association going on), and— click!— I figured out how to finish it.

So then I leaped from Angel Station to VotW, sold the latter, wrote it, and sent it to my publisher.  I intended to follow this with Angel Station, but— as I have related elsewhere— Tor wasn’t ready for a new hardback from me, and I ended up writing the first two Maijstral books instead.

Maybe I’d gone cold by the time I finally got to it, or maybe I had some other problem, but writing Angel Station turned out to be much like pulling teeth.  Out of the jaw of a mule.  With tweezers.

Damn, that book was work. (And, I want to reiterate, I didn’t become an author so I’d have to work.)

Possibly there was just a little too much going on in that book.  You have space adventure, caper stories, espionage, rivalry between clans, economic theory, and a first-contact story with aliens.  All with a couple juvenile protagonists who have lots of sex (particularly once they hit port), and play lots of music, and there’s all sorts of drugs lying around.  Plus Ubu’s a four-armed synaesthesiac with weird memory problems, Maria’s a subatomic witch, and they’re both haunted by the ghost of their father, who’s insinuated himself into the ship’s computer.

Also there were a few serious ideas floating around.  I wanted to work with the idea of frontiers.  On the American frontier, first contact between nations wasn’t between Colonel Launcelot of the U.S. Cavalry and Big Chief Thundercloud, it was always between guys nobody ever heard of, between Little Big Fart and Hans Dypschytt, and both of them so terrified they were pissing their drawers and liable to make crucial mistakes.  Contact was between people on the margins of their own worlds, people who were on the frontier because they were despised or down on their luck or had nothing to lose.

And conversely, these were also the folks who had the most to gain.   Colonel Launcelot and Chief Thundercloud were already at the top of their societies: they didn’t have anything to gain from interacting with each other, and quite a lot to lose.  Whereas the marginalized characters on the frontiers, if they could manage to overcome fear and its accompanying homicidal impulse, could maybe work out some way that each of them can profit.  (Hans gets beaver pelts!  LB Fart gets pins, needles, and some really cool weapons!)

That’s why Runaway and Beloved are willing to deal with each other.  They’re both desperate, their both pretending to be something they’re not, and neither has anything to lose.

Plus, I wanted to write a space opera without guns and missiles and beam weapons an’ stuff.  Because all that makes it too easy.

I also wanted to do something new with the idea of a hive mind.  I’d seen hive minds done in SF, but they mostly took the societies of colony insects like bees or ants and made a one-on-one translation to the science fiction medium.  I wanted to show how a spacefaring hive mind didn’t have to be ants in space.

Anyway, it was all a insanely complex thing to write, and I wrote it like a Western pioneer digs his root cellar, one shovelful at a time.  Angel Station was the first novel where I blew my deadline.  (The manuscript turned out to be 30% longer than I planned, and I took 30% more time to write it.  My estimate of the amount of work necessary was wrong, but at least I understood my own pace.)

The last third of the book was absolute agony.  I wrote pieces of it over and over.  I got caught up in subplots, like a computer doggedly plodding through a subroutine, and I thought I’d never find my way out.  I was horribly aware that I’d made a botch of it, and that the plot took far too many pages to resolve.

That’s why I wasn’t looking forward to re-reading it.  My only consolation was that maybe I could maybe rewrite it and make it better this time.

And then I read the book and— guess what?— I liked it.  I didn’t see any pacing problems at all.  The story flowed smoothly from beginning to end.  The whole thing worked.

All of the toil and sweat and pain that went into the book paid off.  I had put immense amounts of effort into trying to solve the book’s problems— and I had solved them— but I’d been so close to the work that I hadn’t seen it.  I thought I’d delivered a horrible mess to my publisher, but I hadn’t.  What I gave them was a freakin’ great novel!

Imagine my surprise.  Imagine my relief.  Imagine me jumping around my office going Woo-woo-hoo! (Actually, don’t imagine that last bit.)

Angel Station.  I sweated bullets over it so that you could have a trouble-free reading experience.

Go forth, reader, and read.

Ken Thomas December 18, 2011 at 6:57 am

Angel Station was always my least favorite WJW book, then I went back and re-read it a few years ago and had much the same experience.

I don’t know why the 40 year old me liked it so much better than the 25 year old me. It’s certainly complex, but I was reading and enjoying plenty of other complex SF at the time. Maybe I was already guilty of pigeonholing you, and it simply wasn’t what I expected.

Whatever the reason, I have to admit I envy the people who will purchase the e-book and get to read it for the first time.

Kathy December 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Having just reread Angel Station as a copyeditor, I was also pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. It engages on all levels: economic theory, food, and rock-n-roll.

Kristin December 18, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Now I’m intrigued. I read Angel Station when I was about 18ish and enjoyed it. I think it’s time to revisit several of these books and see what I pull out of them a second time round (plus 20 years later).

Ralf The Dog. December 18, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Angel Station is on my top five all time books list. It has been from the day I read it. Perhaps, now that you are done with Dagmar, you might start thinking about writing a bit more on the edge again. (I think the market might be ready for it.)

Pete Johannsen December 18, 2011 at 8:11 pm

I didn’t like this one when I was very young, but loved it once I grew up a little. And I really think that’s it. The characters in this book really have to make compromising choices about who they are going to be, and what they are going to give up. It’s not a comfortable thought for someone who hasn’t seen the elephant yet.

wjw December 19, 2011 at 8:42 am

Thanks for the kind words, guys.

You are intelligent and discerning readers, and completely immune to flattery.

Shash December 20, 2011 at 3:35 am

I’ll have to Kindle it. I planned to anyway when I say the artwork you came up with. My original copy disappeared during my years of moving from place to place to place. I seem to have lost tons of books that way. Perhaps my friends were tired of lugging them around for me and just ditched boxes of them along the way.

DensityDuck December 20, 2011 at 7:24 am

According to Amazon, because I purchased “Voice of the Whirlwind”, I am recommended “Knox’s Irregulars”.

Sample from a positive review: “[The author’s] blog was so effective in its defense of a vigorous Christianity and an unashamed western civilization, that it was actually hacked at least once by islamist radicals.”

Sample negative review: “If you are looking for Left Behind only with science-fiction powered battle armor, this is a book for you.”

Michael Martin December 20, 2011 at 7:21 pm

I read this after I had read Hardwired, Voice of the Whirlwind, and a bunch more of your words. I really liked it. I really liked the shovel after shovel of ideas thrown out in it. (Same reason I like Stross’ Accelerando and Iron Sunrise, etc.)
It’s kind of cool to find out that it was your Xanadu (the poem, not the movie), and that you finished it.

Allen December 21, 2011 at 1:28 am

I read Angel Station back in 1995-ish, when I was 24-ish.

I liked it a lot – especially Volitional Twelve’s attempts to grasp all of the goings-on. I laughed out loud several times at his shenanigans.

However, it was harder to warm up to the other characters. They lacked…charisma. Zing. Or something.

There was definitely some good stuff in there, but I think still a notch below VotW and the Metropolitan books.

I agree with Ralf The Dog: on your next book go weird – very weird!

Steve Pritchard December 21, 2011 at 3:47 am

Angel Station is probably one of my all-time favorite of WJW’s books. Knowing the backstory behind the ordeal of it’s birth, I have an entirely new appreciation of it.

DensityDuck December 22, 2011 at 5:55 pm

A bit of a nitpick, but the Kindle version of this one seems to have the same “large margins” formatting issue as you’ve had before.

wjw December 23, 2011 at 8:48 am

Aw, crap. The margin problem didn’t show up on any of the readers I tested it with.

Of course, I didn’t actually load it on my Kindle. I just used the Kindle emulators that Amazon provided.

Brian Renninger July 20, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Well, I am a little late on this thread, but having just reread Angel Station, I can concur with the other readers. I enjoyed it the first time I read it 20+ years ago but this second time I really came to appreciate it.

One thing I totally missed the first time is all the symmetries between Ubu/Maria’s situation and Beloveds.

Also, given it’s age, it doesn’t feel that dated either though it does in retrospect have a bit of a Duran Duran in space tone. My mental image of Ubu is a young Simon Le Bon with four arms.

Brian Renninger November 29, 2012 at 12:41 am

Another Angel Station observation. This is likely unrelated but I was rereading Poul Anderson’s novel Mirkheim recently. Mirkheim centers around a number of races fighting over a planet with a lot of rare heavy metals. Like Angel Station, in Mirkheim, independant traders are being forced out by conglomerate cartels allying with government to limit competition. In Mirkheim the plot is set in motion by the independant traders (and less affluent alien species) finding Mirkheim,keeping it secret, and portraying the mined minerals as the product of secret trading with an unknown advanced technology civilization. This ruse is discovered and a war breaks out over possession of the planet. However, I noticed that Angel Station looks is essentially the set up for Mirkheim except the ruse is reversed (with a different commodity of course).

wjw November 29, 2012 at 6:48 am

Hmm. I haven’t read that particular Poul Anderson, but then the story probably didn’t originate with him, either. How many Westerns have been written around a desperate prospector who strikes it rich, only to trigger a whole lot of gunfire?

Though one of my goals in Angel Station was to avoid gunfire entirely, just to show it could be done.

TJIC August 4, 2013 at 12:57 am

I think this is the one book of yours I haven’t read – so I purchased it just now. Looking forward to it!

Btw, I really REALLY appreciate stories about writing a novel being like pulling teeth. I’m now on draft 4 of my first novel and while parts of it flew from my fingers onto the page, there are so many hard lessons that I need to teach myself, so much utter dreck from draft one that needs to be fixed, etc. that I get irrationally angry when I read some authors blog about tossing off four new novels per year. I read those posts and I feel like they’re doing some process that has the same name “writing a novel” but is entirely unlike what I’m experiencing. So: thanks for saying that sometimes it doesn’t come easy.

Kathleen M December 3, 2013 at 12:46 am

I just finished Angel Station… and it completely lives up to the ridiculously high expectations i have for any book by WJW. My only disappointment: this book doesn’t have a sequel. Please, WJW, come back to the Now and show us how humanity evolved as a result to Ubu and Beloved!

Jacob W. June 15, 2017 at 4:41 pm

Just re-read Angel Station, and absolutely loved it. The world building is superb. The characters are, at least to me, relatable. There is an insightful socio-economic commentary. And I love how you juxtaposed hardware, and wetware. A comparison which has grown more relevant today given the state of synthetic biology, and the promise it holds for future technology, and industry. Well done! Hope to see more with kind of ambition, depth, and scope.

wjw June 15, 2017 at 7:55 pm

Thank you very kindly!

Stay tuned for an announcement about Angel Station, within the next day or two.

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