Friday, February 13, 2009


Secret Services: MI8

We've reached the end of my breakdown of Secret Services, my completely arbitrary list of "secret government agencies policing the supernatural." There's just one more entry to go, though you'll be excused if you've never heard of it before. If you blinked, you would have missed them.

I first started writing about MI8 ten or so years ago, when I first started putting together the Bonaventure-Carmody family. Diana Bonaventure, the mother of Jon Bonaventure Carmody and the aunt of Here, There & Everywhere's Roxanne Bonaventure, was briefly mentioned to be an agent of MI8 in the story "Secret Histories: Jake Carmody, 1961." Then in the vignette "The Funeral Affair," Spencer Finch's uncle Sterling says that he was once an MI8 agent before going off to work for the UN--but no one saw that story until I put it online here recently.

Aside from a few quick references in the out-of-print Cybermancy Incorporated, readers haven't seen much of MI8, but I've been quietly noddling away with them over the years, working out the agency's origins and history, its operations and agents, gradually adding detail to the fairly skeletal original conception.

Finally, this month, I've put some of that detail on display in the pages of End of the Century.

WARNING: Spoilers lurk beyond. Minor spoilers, to be fair, and nothing that regular readers of the Ramble wouldn't have already worked out on their own. But if you're the kind of reader who prefers to approach stories completely cold, best to stop reading now and run right out and buy a copy of End of the Century. This post will still be here when you get done.

Now, for those of you who are left, here's a little glimpse behind the scenes at my process. Years ago, inspired by something Tobias Buckell had said on his blog, I set up a personal wiki database for my research and worldbuilding. Rather than just littering my harddrive with Word documents and text files, and filling my closet with countless notebooks filled with my barely legible scrawl, I started to systematize my process. I created gazetteers for the fictional settings I worked up, detailed "Who's Who" entries for each of the characters (or "Official Handbook" entries, if you prefer), annotated chronologies and timelines. Now, a few years on, the research database is massive, with subsections for the Bonaventure-Carmody stories and the Celestial Empire, as well as "series bibles" for the space opera and epic fantasy I've been writing in my spare time.

Following is the entry for MI8 in the research database, including some background and detail that doesn't get revealed in End of the Century. (Those who know something of my process know that I do ridiculous amounts of research for everything, and this is no exception. I think I read something like seven or eight biographies and histories just for the first two paragraphs of this write-up alone.)
During the Second World War, the Y Services of the armed forces and the Signals Intelligence Directorate of the Special Operations Executive began to intercept German wireless traffic encrypted with some new code. Ultimately, the SID and the cryptographers at Bletchley Park were able to decode these transmissions, which were revealed to contain information about top secret investigations carried out by the SS Ahnenerbe. These were immediately classified Above Top Secret. The Ahnenerbe, it was discovered, was involved in attempting to establish communications with intelligences in another plane of existence, another universe separate from our own. Operatives of the SOE were dispatched to intefere with these plans.

When the Special Operations Executive was dissolved on January 15, 1946, a secret charter was issued to continue the work of the former Signals Intelligence Directorate, now secretly Special Intelligence Directorate and known by the unofficial title used throughout the war, MI8. The new organization was tasked with policing matters considered too sensitive even to reveal to the other British intelligence services. It came of the Signals Directorate of SOE, which was responsible for signals intelligence and cryptography in the war, began to pick up strange communications during the war years. The Y Services of the armed forces were eventually instructed to divert messages on certain topics unread directly to the Signals Directorate. So from 1946 onwards, MI8 dealt with threats that were unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad.

The head of MI8 is referred to by the codename "D".

Officers of MI8 are unofficially called "Rooks". They are referred to as "Rook One," "Rook Two", and so on. There are typically three
Sterling Finch
Diana Bonaventure Carmody
Stillman Waters

From its inception in 1946, MI8 was headquartered in the disused Tower of London underground station. In 1967, when the Tower Hill station was rebuilt, it was put about that the remains of the old station had been destroyed, when in fact they'd merely been more heavily fortified. With the end of the Cold War, the focus of MI8 was changed, and the organization was relocated to offices in a commercial building.

Longtime readers of the Ramble may recall a few years ago when I revealed that, having always assumed that I'd just made MI8 up out of whole cloth, I discovered quite back accident that there actually was an MI8 during WWII. Here's what I said at the time.
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.

Well, as it happens the mention about MI8 being based in Devonshire House appeared to be in error, upon further investigation, but you get the idea. (The "this photo" link is dead now, as well, so I've left it out. But there's loads about that Devonshire House Ball on July 2, 1897 in End of the Century, even so.)

MI8 is my take on the whole "Secret Services" trope. Well, one of two, to be precise, with Bureau Zero being the other. Well, then there's also the French agency, Cabinet Noir. And the Strangers, another British outfit. Okay, MI8 is one of several Secret Services in the Bonaventure-Carmody world.

If you're interested in reading more about MI8, though, you'll want to pick up End of the Century, in stores now (and online, too!). Heck, if you're interested in Bureau Zero, or the Cabinet Noir, or the Strangers, or any of the others, you'll want to pick it up, too, since healthy sales on this one will help ensure that I'll get a chance to write all those other stories.


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