Monday, May 22, 2006


Happy Accidents

I love the internet. A few years ago, I included an offhand reference in my novel Cybermany Incorporated to a secret British intelligence agency, MI8, operating in the 1960s. Diana Bonaventure was one of the agency's operatives, and in the chapter in question she came into contact with her American counterpart, Jake Carmody, agent of Bureau Zero. Like MI8, the Bureau "handled matters unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad." (This is the Diana Bonaventure, incidentally, who appears briefly in the first chapter of Here, There & Everywhere.) Familiar territory, and I don't kid myself I'm even among the first few hundred to have mined this particular vein. Kim Newman's Diogenes Club was an obvious inspiration, and Charles Stross's later Laundry stories captured much the same vibe.

In any event, Stillman Waters, one of the supporting characters in the forthcoming End of the Century, is intended to be another operative of MI8. It occurred to me this morning, though, while walking my daughter, that I'd been a callow, ignorant kid when I coined the name of the agency, thinking it amusing to think there'd be an intelligence agency two steps beyond MI6, three steps beyond MI5. I'd done some cursory research at the time, which suggested that the sections of Military Intelligence stopped at six, but never delved into it deeply. So I figured I'd check before I got stuck too deep in writing the new book.

Well, it turns out I was wrong, and that there was in fact an MI8 in the days of WWII (and, in fact, sections all the way up to nineteen, at least, with lettered sections beyond). But the remit of Military Intelligence Section Eight, listening for enemy radio broadcasts--signal intelligence, essentially--actually fit well into the backstory of my secret agency, and served to provide a nice bit of historical grounding. Some research turns up the fact that MI8 was headquartered in Devonshire House in Piccadilly in the war years. I recognize the name, but don't know too much about it.

A bit of googling reveals that Devonshire House refers to a block of offices facing Piccadilly, named for the residence of the Duke of Devonshire, demolished in the 1920s. For 200 years, the original Devonshire House was a fixture of London society life. Then I stumbled upon an amazing collection of photos, documenting the Devonshire House Ball in 1897.

And then I started jumping around the kitchen, waving my arms and shouting like a lunatic. In a good way.

Without going into any spoiler-level detail, End of the Century takes place in three time periods: fifth century CE, 1897, and 1999. Romanized Britons crowd the scene in 498CE; Sandford Blank, Roxanne Bonaventure, Lord Arthur Carmody, and W.B. "Little Bill" Taylor are featured players during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria; and Samantha Lake and Stillman Waters scramble around the streets of millennial London.

In the outline for the 1897 sections of the plot, there are several scenes involving Victorian-era British socialites dressing up like King Arthur and his knights. This bit was strongly inspired by the photos of Julia Margaret Cameron, possibly best known for her shots she did illustrating Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Cameron had been dead for some time before the events of the novel, but I'd solved that minor difficulty by introducing another photographer who was following her example.

Then the aforementioned googling led me to this photo. Of a British peer. Dressed as a Knight of the Round Table. At a party in 1897. On July 2nd, to be exact.

Have I mentioned that I love the internet?

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