Out Of The Past: Ambassador of Progress

by wjw on September 26, 2012


I thought I’d talk about Ambassador of Progress, my first science fiction novel, which (as I mentioned in an earlier post) is newly available in ebook form via Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Smashwords.  (Plus iBooks and Kobo and Baker and Taylor and other places for which I have no actual links.)

The most remarkable thing about Ambprog, as I’ve always thought of it, is that it was an accident.   I wrote the proposal more or less by accident, it sold after a series of ridiculous accidents, and once it sold, I found myself an accidental science fiction writer, which I’d never consciously intended to be.

The proposal, to begin with: I was bored.  I was between books in my historical series, and I was looking for something with which to amuse myself.  I’d just written a number of books with a cast of  200 males on a sailing ship, and I wanted to write something that was more or less the opposite of everything I’d just written.

So: a novel with a female protagonist, set in a distant future, on an alien world, and on dry land.  That’s about as opposite as you can get.

I wrote it at more or less the same time as the opening bits of Voice of the Whirlwind— which is about as different an SF novel from Ambassador of Progress as Ambprog is from my historicals.

I was really looking for variety.  And I was looking to become a better writer, because writing a variety of stuff will do that.

I can’t say which chapters of which book came first,  but I can say they were generated in 1980 or 1981, because those chapters were written on my trusty IBM Model D typewriter, and I acquired my first word processor in mid-1981.

Anyway, I stalled out on Whirlwind and actually finished three chapters and an outline of Ambprog, so that was the one that went to my agent.

I am not 100% confident regarding the exact sequence of what happened next, but it was something like this: The agent sent it first to Susan Allison at Ace, but Susan then left Ace for Berkeley, and Ace put a buying hold on manuscripts till they had a new editor.  So the proposal then went to David Hartwell at Timescape, where it was lost in the mail room.  (I think it took about six months before that became clear.)  By the time the proposal’s disappearance became evident, Timescape had put a hold on buying, so the manuscript then went to Susan Allison at Berkeley.  But Berkeley just then acquired Ace Books, and had far too many books in inventory, so they put a buying hold on new acquisitions.  So back the proposal went to Timescape, where it was lost in the mailroom again.  And by the time we found that out, Simon & Schuster cancelled the Timescape line.

I wasn’t actually worried about any of this, because I was happily writing historical novels and doing well at it.

Somewhere in there I fired my agent, and it took a few months for the manuscript to come back.  Then my new agent sent it to Jim Baen at the newly-formed Tor imprint, and Baen read it within a few days and bought it.  And this happened about six months after my career as a historical novelist went in the dumpster, and I was really grasping at straws, so hurray!

I can therefore legitimately boast that my first science fiction novel sold to the first editor who read it.  It just took two years to get an editor to actually leave eyetracks on the pages.

(More about all of this, from a business and financial perspective, in my memoir on the writer’s life for 1982.)

In those days, Tor had only three people in the office: publisher Tom Doherty, bookkeeper Mrs. Doherty, and Jim Baen.  This made for efficiency.  Within a week of the initial offer, I had a contract in my hands.  Within five days of returning the contract to my agent, I had a check!

Gawdamn!  I could get used to this!

(Unfortunately this was the only example of this sort of efficiency that I can cite in my entire career.  In fact, I was blackmailed over the advance for my next novel, which is something that, so far as I know, never happened to anyone but me.)

The book is kind of an oddity, very unlike my other work in tone and subject matter.  In style, it’s a lot closer to my historical novels than to the writer I later became.  As for subject matter, it’s an example of anthropological science fiction, which I’ve not written since.  Not because I’ve lost interest in anthropology, exactly, but because I’ve layered a lot of other concerns on top.

For the book I created two cultures, each with their own language, plus the diplomat/anthopologist Fiona, who’s visiting from another planet.  Each views the others from the perspective of their own culture, and with no small amount of suspicion.  There’s a massive amount of potential and actual conflict between the various cultures, with treachery a constant, and it’s Fiona’s self-imposed task to prevent genocide and bring peace to the world.  (She’s the absolute prototype for the smart, driven, secretly insecure women who appear in my later novels.)

The other point-of-view characters are Tegestu, from a warrior culture, and Necias, a sort of renaissance merchant prince.  These two leaders are trying sincerely to understand one another, but their own cultural assumptions keep getting in the way.

As I wrote, I realized that my original ending for the book was inadequate.  After a brief attack of angst and despair, I came up with a newer, much better ending, far more devious and complex and bloody, and the book was done.

It’s the first book I wrote with more than one point-of-view character, one reason why the book came in long (125,000 words) and why I blew my deadline.

 Reading it now, I’m finding it a lot better than I remembered.  It’s coherent, the storyline is clear, the characters are well-developed and each have their own arcs leading to their own resolutions.

The prose, I have to say, was pretty good.  In the editing I improved it a bit here and there, mostly to get rid of the lengthy strings of adverbial phrases to which I was addicted back then, but the text didn’t need a lot of work.

One surprise was: Hey, cyberpunk!  Because cyberpunk didn’t exist back then.

I was of a generation of writers knocked on their butts by Samuel Delany’s Nova back in the day, the first novel to deal with mind-machine interface via implants.  It struck me as a sort of obvious thing to put in one’s SF, so I put cybernetic implants in Fiona.

Not that anything else in the book is cyberpunk.   Because it isn’t.

Another sidelight is that Fiona is a person who, were she to exist in the contemporary U.S., would be considered a person of color.  But she doesn’t live in the contemporary U.S., and she’s probably never even heard of Africa, and so she doesn’t think of herself in those terms.  (And today, black people don’t go around looking at themselves in the mirror and thinking, “Gee, I sure look African today.”) She thinks of herself as an ordinary person who finds herself among some really pale people.

No one else in the book is interested in her color, either.  They note that she’s very dark, but that’s as far as it goes.  The cultures among which she finds herself have some very strong prejudices— prejudices of class, ethnicity, and status— but they don’t have color prejudice.  If they don’t like Fiona, it’s not because of her color, it’s because she’s a foreigner— and a foreigner with some pretty strange abilities, too.

Naturally, by the time Fiona appeared on the cover, she became an ethereal blonde somehow floating above a battlefield.  I just sort of shrugged.  Nowadays writers can complain about whitefacing, but back in the day it was different.  I don’t know that I expected anything else.

Because of the strange way the book came about— first as a kind of self-amusement, and then as a rather imposing deadline— I didn’t have a lot of time to think about the book before I wrote it.  So I must admit that there are a few things I could have done better.

First, some elements of the story are sort of off-the-shelf.  The catastrophe in the distant past that cut the planets off from one another, and the lone ambassador to another world are pretty much out of Ursula LeGuin’s Ekumene stories, along with a lot of other writers in that mode.

Tegestu’s warrior culture is also off-the-shelf, pretty much, a Spartan-Samurai mashup.  Not that I don’t do some interesting things with it.

Next, I was too in love with my invented languages.  I’m pretty sure that I wrote the glossaries before I wrote anything else, and then I started throwing the made-up words into the narrative thick and fast, even when an English word would have sufficed.  If you’re a reader who doesn’t like stumbling over strange words, some parts of the book could be heavy going.

(Now, I could have fixed this in my latest edit.  I didn’t, because I wanted to honor the book that I wrote thirty years ago, and though I was willing to make it better, I didn’t want to make it different.  I wanted to let Ambassador of Progress be Ambassador of Progress.)

So here’s my first science fiction novel.  Just like it was then, but improved.

Bill M September 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm

I read it last week. It’s absolutely terrific!

John Appel September 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I’m reading it now (well, not this very minute) and expect to finish while laid up after ankle surgery tomorrow. I’m enjoying it, although the invented languages club very nearly beat me away for the first half-hour or so.

Clyde October 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Just finished it. Good stuff Jon — you had some serious game back then. As for the invented language stuff, I just bulled my way right through, picking up the meanings from context. Not so tough really.
And, you left some nice hooks that you could hang more stories on, should you wish to revisit that world. (That is just an observation. Would love it, but not really asking you to do so as I am quite happy to have more Dagmar, and Martinez, and Sula, and … well, I think Implied Spaces may be the best SF I have read in the last few years.)
You keep writing ’em, we’ll keep reading ’em.

Alan Malcolm November 21, 2013 at 4:14 am

Loved the story, the prose, the characterisations. A well written well researched tidy bit of writing. Refreshing after so much badly written stuff is now on the market with the advent of self published e-books. Dammit I liked this book! Really didnt want it to end.

wjw November 21, 2013 at 5:52 am

Thanks, Alan! I hope you like the other books, too. (Not that this is a hint, or anything.)

Sam June 6, 2014 at 4:31 am

Would really like a sequel to this book… just finished reading it again, have lost count how many times I’ve read it! Excellent read!

Bill Imler August 25, 2016 at 1:34 pm

I don’t see any comments in the last couple of years, which seems a little too long a time, thus I thought I would add my 2 cents worth. I found Ambassador of Progress refreshing. The scope of time described is extensive but is realistically staged with setbacks and positive in that humans continue to learn and attempt to push forward via the Ambassador’s work. That the Ambassador is forced to modify her mandate and rules some seems to add a sort realism to the story. The now reworked and improved version is much appreciated since the unexpected ending closes-out the story leaving this reader, as others have commented, wanting another installment in this same universe and time frame.

Robert Williams October 6, 2016 at 7:05 pm

Possibly my memory is playing a bit of a trick on me, but when I read this a number of years ago, the way in which Fiona dealt with Tegestu’s treachery was rather different.
Don’t recall the details perfectly, but what she did was to create a situation in which he dared not suicide or even try to shorten his life because of the consequences to the Brodaini that would follow his death.
Was sort of surprised by the change.
Still liked the story.

wjw October 7, 2016 at 10:27 pm

No, the current ending is the same ending as the first printing.

The ending was changed =before= I ever submitted the manuscript, not after publication.

John myles August 16, 2019 at 9:34 am

I stumbled onto your historical novels looking for a cheap read on my way to work. I read and enjoyed them all. I then read Aristoi, which is, imho, a masterwork and one of my all tine favorites. On a par with Niven…Gibson…Asimov- a fantastic job of world building, sublime narrative….beautiful story. Ambprog is…i believe the last of your novels available for me to read and i enjoyed it…hell of a first sci fi novel.

John November 5, 2019 at 1:28 pm

I just finished this, and it is one of my favorites of yours. I am extremely surprised to find that it was such an early work, it certainly doesn’t seem like it. Thanks for the book, and for this background piece.

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