Jacey Bedford is a British author who lives behind a keyboard in Pennine Yorkshire with her songwriter husband, Brian, and a long-haired black German Shepherd dog called Eska. She’s had short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic and her first novel, Empire of Dust was just released from DAW. You can learn more about her on her website, blog, Facebook, and Twitter (@jaceybedford) as well as on her Artisan page.
Empire of Dust is a galaxy spanning space opera with a twisty plot and a cast of complex characters. I didn’t specifically set out to build in diversity–by that I mean I didn’t have a tick-list: characters of colour, tick; gay, tick; bisexual, tick; amputee, tick, but somehow they ended up in there anyway because people are people. I also didn’t say to myself one day, I think I need a character in here with special needs… I know, how about a Down’s Syndrome boy? I didn’t look for him. Danny arrived all by himself.
Where did he come from?
Some years ago, as part of the a cappella trio, Artisan, I was involved with a theatre production in Stratford at the RSC’s Swan Theatre with a company that worked with young Down’s Syndrome actors. We met the company when we and they were performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
We loved what they did on stage and they loved our music. One thing led to another and a few months later we got a call to invite us to do the music for their upcoming run in Stratford. It would involve a week of intensive rehearsals in Birmingham and a week in Stratford for technical rehearsals and a five night run. The play was Comforters and Candlelight, a retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The theatre company comprised two organising couples and five resident Down’s Syndrome actors plus a further twelve non-resident Down’s actors. All the youngsters were between eighteen and twenty-nine years old, though most looked younger. The speaking parts were to be taken by the organisers and guest actors. The Down’s Syndrome actors would take the weight of the story in mime. Our music was to provide atmosphere and link some of the scenes.
We’d never worked with Down’s Syndrome actors before, so this was a whole new experience for us. We took our lead from C and J who were the main producers and leaders of the company. In advance of the rehearsal week we made several trips to visit the company and took part in some of their acting workshops. Although we were only doing the music, this was no backstage job, we were fully in costume as three somewhat ghostly Victorian figures.
As soon as we met the cast, whatever preconceived ideas I had about Down’s Syndrome quickly went out of the window and I began to see why ‘differently abled’ was a term which could easily and should be applied. The five resident actors may have been short on intellectual ability, but they were naturals when the curtain went up. Completely devoid of stage fright and embarrassment, they had an unaffected self-confidence without any hint of ego. They not only took direction remarkably well, but did research and added ideas of their own to deepen their characters. And at the end of the day, slipping easily back into their non-acting individuality, they’d take themselves to the pub to relax. They were unfailingly generous in their attitude towards each other and the rest of the (non-Down’s) cast, quick to develop and offer innocent affection. In short, they outshone the rest of us brilliantly.
Some years later I needed a character for my book who would fulfil a specific role and Danny popped into my head and on to my page, fully formed.
Five hundred years in the future a system of jump gates spans the galaxy. Megacorporations race each other to spawn colonies and gobble up resources, especially platinum which is an essential catalyst, consumed by the jump gates as quickly as it can be mined and processed. Key to the megacorps’ success are the psi-techs, implant-enhanced humans with abilities which include telepathy and navigating the dangerous void of foldspace.
There are lots of plot layers, with my main protagonists, psi-techs Cara and Ben, being pitted against some pretty nasty corporate characters willing to go to obscene lengths to secure platinum.
Victor Lorient is the leader of a group of settlers who style themselves Ecolibrians. They strongly disapprove of genetically altered and technologically implanted humans, so their dearest wish is to fly off to another world and set up a colony which they can run their own way, with only pure, unaltered humans and a back-to-basics society. Unfortunately for them, the only people who can get them there are my psi-techs.
Enter Danny, Victor Lorient’s nineteen year old son, born with Down’s Syndrome because his parents have refused the genetic treatment that could have cured his condition in utero, Danny becomes a symbol for the Ecolibrians, proof that life doesn’t need perfection to be perfect. Yet at the same time Danny isn’t just a cipher. He has his own hopes and fears, likes and dislikes. He’s unfailingly honest and speaks his truth without fear, whether to his father or to the psi-techs. His naturally sunny disposition, in direct contrast to his father’s often hate-filled rhetoric, wins him friends in both camps.
His uncomplicated simplicity is a joy and anyone who comes into contact with him, is enriched by the experience, but he remains his own man. He’s obsessed by flying and determines to get as much air time as he can, hitching lifts with the psi-techs, defying his father openly and turning up at inopportune moments.
Danny’s speech patterns are simple, open and straightforward. I borrowed them from my memories of time spent listening to and chatting with the Down’s Syndrome actors all those years ago. They didn’t dissemble. They said what they meant and, more importantly, meant what they said.
If I revealed any more of Danny’s story I’d spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but suffice it to say that he’s one of my favourite characters.