The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Magic can do many things. It can raise fire. It can rain down dragons. It can make things move with the power of one man’s mind. But how does it stand up to bureaucracy? What if that bureaucracy is of a military bent? These are some of the things author Myke Cole has thought about. Some of the result of thinking is in his debut novel Shadow Ops: Control Point, which mixes magic with the modern military to produce unexpected results. Here’s Cole now to talk more about melding the world of spells with the reality of military regulations.


You read a lot about war. You see it on film and TV constantly. I got cast as a “fighting extra” in the new Batman flick because of my military background. Once we wrapped up shooting, one of the casting agents told me, “We’ll most likely be calling you again. Military types are the most frequently used extras in the business.”

Military schlock is all over the media. You see the explosions, hear the agonized shouts. You hear heart pumping catch phrases:

“You do it for the guy standing next to you.”

“I’m a part of something bigger than myself.”

“Watch your six!”

And so forth.

You know what you don’t hear so much?

“Get in the manual.”

“I know it’s noon, sir. You still have to wear your reflective belt.”

“I don’t write the regs, son. The semi-colon is in the wrong place. You have to fill out the form again.”

Here’s the thing about the military (and not just the US military, but pretty much all militaries). It’s gigantic. You are trying to get hundreds of thousands of people, with all their quirks and neuroses and agendas to move in a united direction, with the price of failure usually pretty damned high. I have trouble getting five friends to agree on where to meet for drinks. So, I understand the contortions an organization that size must engage in to accomplish its goal.

Here’s what the military does to get all those fish swimming up the same stream: It writes rules, and then it sticks to them. Like all ginormous bureaucracies, it’s conservative, rigid and really slow to change. And like all major corporations (and it most certainly is one), it talks a lot about family and putting people first. And it means to, it really does. But you can’t accomplish a mission that big that way. People are complicated and troublesome. They zig when they should be zagging. So, instead, the military puts process first. When the soldier comes up against the regs, guess who wins?

And that’s the big idea behind Control Point.

I began what turned into a lifelong career in and around the military in the American military’s nerve center, the Pentagon. That labyrinth of paper, databases and regulation is so massive that the telecom workers get from point A to B by bicycle. And when you’re a nerd walking those halls (and we’re talking a nerd’s nerd here. Raised on Dungeons and Dragons, graduating to comic books and eventually the kind of compulsive reading that sees you spend your entire weekly allowance on mass market paperbacks off the Borders wire rack) what do you wonder?

Well, the first thing you wonder is where they’re hiding the aliens. Or which office door leads to the underground chamber where they’re training Storm Shadow from G.I. Joe. But after you’ve worked that stuff out, you start asking the cool what-if questions that are the genesis of all genre writing.

What if all the elves, rangers, wizards and goblins I loved from D&D were wandering these halls? You know that Ministry of Magic from Harry Potter? What would the COCOM (Combatant Command) equivalent be? How would the Senate appropriate funding for it? Would there be a special sub-committee? Okay, fine. Only a nerd living in DC would ask those last two questions, but you get the idea.

And, of course, I already know the answers. The military in spite of all its limitations, does some amazing things. You like satellite communications? The Internet? Space travel? Air travel? Military had a hand in all of that. Not to mention being one of the strongest forces for social mobility in America. I’ve been activated twice in the last three years. The first time was to clean up an oil spill. The second time I got to help respond to Hurricane Irene. The military is an incredible force for good.

But rigid. Process oriented. Risk and change averse. More importantly, it’s the arbiter of violent power, reserving that ability for the state. If something is to be hurt or killed, it’s the state’s job to make that happen through its military. That power isn’t supposed to accrue to individuals. When it does, you have an insurgency.

Go ahead, put magic in that mix. Give the power to fly, or call lightning, or raise the dead to your average Joe. How do you think the military would cotton to it? Add in the vested financial interests of all the “beltway bandits,” Eisenhower’s famed “Military-Industrial Complex,” the Haliburtons, the Northrop Grummans, the McDonnell Douglases. There are billions of dollars invested in the current system, and those who make the laws respond to that.

So, yeah. The military does amazing things, but it serves its mission first. What do you think happens when an individual, someone without power or money or influence, suddenly manifests an ability that threatens the state-based military’s monopoly on violence?

Well, they’ve got a reg for that.

Process over people. Just add magic and see what happens.


Shadow Ops: Control Point: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Cole’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

37 Comments on “The Big Idea: Myke Cole”

  1. If you think the Regs within the military are pervasive, try looking at the Regs addressing how the Executive Branch (esp. the Defense Dept.) procures goods and services, and those covering how contractors sell their wares to the Federal government. (Title 48 of the Code of Federal Regulations is a good place to start.) Not only is there a reg for that, but the reg for that is nearly incomprehensible and requires Subject Matter Experts in procurement and in public sector contract law to interpret. And too often, it requires a couple of Court cases to establish the final interpretation.

    It’s clear the author has “been there, done that” and I’m looking forward to snagging this novel.

  2. You know, if I would have just looked at the cover/title of the book…I would have definitely passed on it. Reading about the idea has me intrigued. I’ll definitly check it.

    I’ve been in the military (active, then reserve) for 9 years now. I actually work for an army organization as a civilian. The beauracracy of the thing is just staggering.

  3. Military scifi, as a general rule, doesn’t get me hot and bothered like other forms of SF/F might. However, my uncle was career military for many years (VMI grad, retired after the first Gulf War). My father served in ‘Nam. Kudos to Mr. Cole for not only imagining what magic might do in (or to) a bureaucracy that size, but for putting those musings to print. I think I’m gonna have to read this Big Idea too. Damn you, Scalzi!


  4. You did a good job writing your Big Idea submission. I usually only give the authors a paragraph or two to catch my interest, and they usually aren’t able to do so – but you did. So I guess you got some writing talent – kudos to you!

  5. Mr. Cole (if you’re reading these), have you read any of Warren Ellis’ “Strange Killings”/”Gravel” comics? They play with what seems like a similar theme, with a main character who’s a combat magician for the SAS. I’m a big fan of the series and I was wondering if this has some similar themes (I assume it’s probably not as profane or violent, just because very little is).

  6. I just finished the exerpt. Wow. Just wow.

    I like military SF – this is added to the must read list. I’ll be bringing this to the notice of friends, too.

  7. Happiest day of my life was getting out of the Army. Sounds like a good read, just got my copy on Kindle.

  8. Myke,

    You are speaking to me brother. My saying from deploying in Iraq was “just becasue it doesn’t make sense doesn’t mean it’s not the rule”. It’s a wonder sometimes that anything gets accomplished.

    Just bought it on Kindle. How’s that for results?

    How much, if at all, you were influenced by the Laudry Files novels by Charles Stross?

  9. Been looking forward to this one. Got it this morning. So far I can say the first five chapters are very enjoyable.

  10. Try switching services. I went from active duty Navy radio telecom procedures to an Army telecom shop as a civilian. None of what the Army did made sense from where I started.

    Off to the library!

  11. What Matthew in Austin said . . . I usually skim these and don’t finish, but you totally hooked me. You also made me understand the military in a new way. I’ve always had the perception that the military is bureaucracy-heavy and monolithic, but I just thought they were that way “just because.” You’ve made it make sense.

  12. That looks pretty interesting. I might have to get it from Amazon US as the UK site only has it in the marketplace. It’s on the US list!

  13. I love this concept.

    After reading this post, I had a flashback of Harry Dresden sneering, “Bureacromancer” at the dude who tracked the paperwork for the White Council of Wizards. I’m definitely picking this one up.

  14. I’m definitely intrigued by the book. But I’m even more hung up on a line in the Big Idea piece. What on earth does “Get in the manual” mean?

  15. I love it, and as an ex-military man and an avid reader and writer, I am ashamed that I didn’t think of it first. To Amazon! *whoosh*

  16. Robin – in addition to having a reg for everything, the military has a manual for everything. And I mean EVERYTHING. Want to know exactly how many spaces and line breaks you’re required to put into an intra-office memo? Read the 80-page manual. Which was poorly written back in the MS-DOS days and hasn’t been updated since. To say that military manuals are byzantine would insult the Romans.

    Got Myke’s book on Kindle last night, and it has consumed the last eighteen hours of my life. Addictive, fast-paced, and the military jargon doesn’t make me cringe the way authors normally do. Highly recommend to everyone!

  17. I’m not a big fan of military fiction, but this really seems like it’ll be up my alley. Got it on Kindle, and it’ll go right into my reading queue.

  18. Between your write up and that it’s pulling 4.4 stars on Goodreads (30 reviews) – I’m in. Added it to my To Read list.

  19. Ross — yeah, I got that. I just don’t comprehend why the verb is GET IN the manual, not look in the manual or get out the manual, or RTFM, or whatever.

  20. I almost scrolled right past this article, but after reading it, I’m very interested in reading this book.
    “I know it’s noon, sir. You still have to wear your reflective belt.”-So very true.

  21. I’m not normally one for fantasy or military thrillers, but I think I’ll just have to check this out. Seven and a half years of with those very same “beltway bandits” for military and civil service IT contracts made me jump for joy the day I sold my business and realized the nightmare was over. The Pentagon is the most depressing building I’ve ever been in; Alcatraz has a more human touch!

    Anyway, I look forward to the spin-off I assume is forthcoming: General Services Administration: Gnomes and Ogres.

  22. Yay, Myke Cole has a “The Big Idea” piece! I’m not into milSF and the like, but read about this recently, checked out Myke’s blog, and was intrigued enough to buy it. Great to see it here and this reminds me that it’s time to start reading it. ;-)

  23. I’ve been passively interested in this book ever since I read an article talking about it and the Lost Fleet books. This Big Idea has me sold now, gonna pick it up my next book trip, as I’m finishing up David Brin now.