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Bill McCay is a “heretic”. At least, he thinks people might call him that if they’ve read any of his Stargate novels.
“If you’re looking at Amazon, you see people saying, ‘How the hell does this clown get to do these books? They don’t have anything to do with the TV series!’” McCay says with good humor during a Zoom interview.
In his long career in publishing and writing, McCay has written over 100 books, including film and TV tie-ins for properties that include Tom Clancy’s Net Force, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Zorro, and Young Indiana Jones. His Stargate titles – Stargate: Rebellion, Stargate: Retaliation, Stargate: Retribution, Stargate: Reconnaissance, and Stargate: Resistance – were published by Roc in the 1990s.
As it has now been over two decades since McCay’s Stargate books were released, you’ll have to hunt through thrift stores and second-hand bookshops to find one. If you succeed, however, you can be forgiven for being confused after the first few pages. In McCay’s Stargate universe Sam Carter, Teal’c, and Apophis are absent, Sha’re is Sha’uri and breaks up with Daniel Jackson, the Stargate program becomes public knowledge, and in the text (although not in the publisher’s back cover synopses), the titular noun is written as StarGate, not Stargate.
Still, anyone familiar with the finer details of the franchise’s metamorphosis from feature film into small screen saga will know there is a good reason why McCay’s stories don’t conform to canon.
“There are occasionally some intelligent people who say, ‘Did you look at the dates on the books? They predate the show’,” McCay jokes.
Put another way, McCay’s universe came first. He was commissioned to write novels that continued the story of the 1994 Stargate movie (or, more accurately, its novelization). His stories were the first expansion of the concept Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich created. Given this, heretic hardly seems like a fair label for someone who was, in a sense, one of the founding fathers of the franchise.
[See also: Stargate | Furlings, Financial Crisis, and the Fall of Stargate Worlds by Graeme Mason]
The write stuff
After leaving Fordham University in his hometown of New York City, McCay had to work his way through a variety of jobs before he had enough experience to support himself by writing books.
“I started out as a Brooklyn kid and quickly wound up in beautiful Queens,” he explains. “I grew up reading a lot and wanted to tell stories. I came out of college with a really useful double major in English and Theater, which I attempted to put to use working in public relations. I had several miserable years doing that.”
McCay’s next step up the writing ladder involved getting in “on the ground floor” with the editor of a magazine that went in weekend editions of newspapers. Although the job didn’t look like much at first, it would allow him to hone skills that would serve him well as an author. Also, it started with what he describes as “the greatest interview I ever had.”
“I came to the address expecting an office and finding a four-storey brownstone, where I got to run up the stairs in my three-piece suit,” McCay recalls. “The person who met me at the door looked like they had spent the time I was running up the stairs getting dressed and getting out of bed. Essentially, I handed her my resume and she said, ‘Did you type this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘Good. There’s a typewriter over there. I need a letter.’ Over the course of several months, she would say to me, ‘Geez, I need something proofread. Do you do proofreading?’ [I said,] ‘Yeah,’ [and she said,] ‘Okay, I need something copy-edited. Have you done copy editing?’ [I said,] ‘Yeah,’ [so she said,] ‘Good. I need about six column inches of story here where I’m short. Could you write something?’ … By the end of that adventure, I was working for her freelance as a researcher and occasionally writing.”
When McCay’s employer moved to another company and found herself without an associate editor, she hired McCay again and he held that position until she left and he “wore out his welcome”. His next job, however, would help to establish him as a novelist and give him a new title.
“My friend said, ‘I just started a book packaging company [Megabooks] and I need book product to sell. Can you write me a novel?’” McCay explains. “So, I wrote a novel and she sold a 12-book series out of that and that was the beginning of her company. I would come in and do freelance stuff for them until finally they had enough and they asked if I would come into the office and work. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’
“It was two female partners and they would go out on sales expeditions … They finally said to me, ‘Look, you need a title because we go in and say, “I am the President, this is the Vice President and this is Bill.” I said, ‘Well, King of Albania is vacant.’ I figured if I go for a title, I should go for something interesting. They said, ‘No, no, something publishing-related.’ I said, ‘Count of Monte Cristo?’ They said, ‘We were thinking Editor-in-Chief.’
“My father had an old joke. The joke is that the managing editor of a newspaper decides he is going to prove his chops and that he still has what it takes. He goes off as a foreign correspondent to the war in cannibal land and, of course, he winds up in the big iron pot. The king of the cannibals, educated in Oxford, comes over and says, ‘Well, old boy, what were you before you became lunch?’ And the fellow replies, ‘I was a newspaperman. In fact, I was a managing editor.’ And the king replies, ‘Well, look at it this way, after lunch, you’ll be editor-in-chief.’ Whenever I have met an Editor-in-Chief, this is what has always gone through my head so that I have a very healthy unwillingness to take these people seriously.”Bill McKay
[See also: Stargate | Continuity Terrors: Finding Space for the Expanded Universe by Michael Simpson]
Many of McCay’s books from this period will be hard for the casual reader to identify because they were written under pseudonyms.
“When I started out I was the spirit behind a whole lot of house names,” McCay says. “That was book packaging. The idea was that we’d have a bunch of people doing the books, and if we wanted them to be on the same shelf in the bookstores, we invented names. I started out as J.J. Fortune. That was the first.”
A web search for the name ‘J.J. Fortune’ will bring up the Race Against Time novels. Published in the 1980s, these adventure novels for young readers were typical of the work McCay was doing at Megabooks. In a 2002 interview for a fan website dedicated to The Three Investigators, another book series he contributed to, McCay explains that as head editor at Megabooks, he was responsible for several Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stories, too.
“Megabooks specialized in series for children and young adults,” McCay told the site’s interviewer, Seth T. Smolinske. “I wrote and edited a lot of books under a variety of pseudonyms and ‘house names’ … [i.e. – Franklin W. Dixon, Carolyn Keene, Victor Appleton, etc.]. Along the line I was involved with several well-known series: The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and The Hardy Boys … Along with the editing job, I was trying to write at least two books a year. I understand the cat is pretty much out of the bag on my participation in another old-time series, Tom Swift.”
It took about 10 years before McCay could get a book published under his name, he tells us. Even then, however, different versions of it appeared on different books and sometimes even on different editions of the same book. For example, the Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Chains of Command, which was originally published in 1992, can be found with him credited as ‘W.A. McCay’ on some copies and as ‘Bill McCay’ on others.
“Well, there’s an ongoing joke about that, which one of my editors coined, which is, ‘If I liked the book, it’s Bill, but if I think the book is not as good as it could be, it’s William,’” McCay jokes.
Opening the Gate
Early in the 1990s, McCay was commissioned by Roc to write a series of books based on a concept credited to comics legend, Stan Lee. Stan Lee’s Riftworld series was a blend of sci-fi action and humor about a comic book artist who manipulates an interdimensional wormhole to bring giant superheroes to Earth. McCay shared the writing credit with Lee on one book, Odyssey (1996), but was exclusively credited on the cover of two other titles in the trilogy, Crossover (1993), and Villains (1994).
In the period during which these books were published, the Stargate (1994) feature film was released alongside a novelization that was credited to Devlin and Emmerich (although some sources say it was ghost-written by Stephen Molstad, author of the paperback adaptation of Independence Day). When Roc was looking for a writer to continue the Stargate story in print, they turned to McCay because of Riftworld.
“I had done that for Roc Books and Amy Stout, the editor there, thought that the Stargate novels would need a bit of humor as well as adventure and asked me if I could do that,” McCay recalls. “Because I had written her a comedy adventure series, she figured I should be able to do this as well. So, that was just dumb luck. I had done another project beforehand, the editor liked my work and asked if I would do some more of it. So, like most of the good things that happened to me in this career, I fell into it.”
[See also: Stargate | How the GPT-3 A.I. Wrote its First ‘Starcake’ Script by James Hoare]
McCay’s first Stargate novel, Stargate: Rebellion, was published in October 1995. ‘The adventure continues in this action-packed sequel to the epic movie’ declared the headline above the title on the front cover. Strictly speaking, though, the book was a sequel to the movie’s novelization rather than the movie itself, McCay explains.
“Use the novelization as your Bible, that’s what they told me,” he remembers. “I believe it’s in the novelization of the movie, that [Colonel O’Neil] is referred to as a Marine, but the way he was dressed in the movie, my Marine friends said he looked like Air Force Special Forces. It was like, well, I’ll go with the book because that’s sort of what I was told. So, he became a Marine.”
Switching O’Neil’s armed forces allegiance did have its advantages for McCay, however, as he had a reliable source who could fact-check his writing.
“I had a writing buddy, an ex-Marine, who read the book and said, ‘It’s pretty good but you know you’re using terminology that military people really wouldn’t use…’ He said, ‘We never even refer to gunfire.’ I actually took him on as an advisor so as not to do stupid things in the second one and in the rest of the series.”Bill McCay
The plot of Stargate: Rebellion revolves around the aftermath of Ra’s death in the movie and the impacts that freedom has on the inhabitants of Abydos. Unfortunately, these are not all good. Whether intentionally or not, McCay’s story can be seen as an allegory for rich nations in the real world exploiting poorer nations’ access to valuable resources. Earth, and more specifically the American government, sanctions a mining company’s attempt to profit from the mineral resources the Abydans (officially named Abydonians in Stargate SG-1) collected for Ra (this was called naquadah in the series but isn’t named in the book).
Although this initially looks like a good economic opportunity for the Abydans, the corporation’s overzealous managers, supported by the American military, impose unreasonable production targets on the Abydans and derisively refer to them as “Abbadabbas”. Naturally, this doesn’t go down well with the locals, leading to conflict and tacit social commentary. Although there was plenty of action, the publishers were concerned about the optics, McCay remembers.
“The first book I just sort of wrote on my own,” he says. “I guess the only thing they said was, ‘Well, if you’re going to be depending on the military to save the planet, you’re really going to have to soften it,’ [because] they come off very poorly in the first book.”
McCay’s publisher was not his only critic. In a subplot that would extend into a second and third book, McCay used Hathor as a powerful nemesis for Jack O’Neil and Daniel Jackson. He gave her a distinctive headpiece representing an animal, which he decided should be a cat. Some scholars of Egyptian history questioned this choice.
“I always laugh because the serious Egyptologists say, ‘Why did you give Hathor the cat mask because in Egyptian mythology she’s cow-headed?’” McCay explains. “I said, ‘Well because I don’t think a villain with a cow’s head is going to fly very far.’ Also, there was a fascinating. Egyptian legend where Ra finally has it with humanity and tasks Hathor with exterminating those pesky humans. She takes on the attributes of the goddess Sekhmet, who is a lion-headed goddess, and starts killing all the humans.
“The other gods go to Ra and say, ‘You know, if you kill all the humans, who’s going to be worshipping us anymore?’ So, they create a lake of beer and dye it red. Hathor comes along and thinks it’s a lake of blood and starts drinking it until she passes out and when she wakes up, she’s her lovable sexy self again. That was how they saved humanity. I couldn’t use that story in the books, but they said maybe I should give her the lion head and just be done with it. I thought the cat was sufficient and she would be more serious.
“I thought Hathor was an interesting character because in the mythology she’s like the Great Grandma of Aphrodite really. She is the God of Love. I think Mr. Anderson once said, ‘Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.’ There’s a lot of stories where Ra gets annoyed with the world and is very angry about something and Hathor changes his mind by flashing him. Indeed, her devotees apparently would go to these big festivals, they’d barge down the Nile, and the people in the barge would moon the people on the shore, which I thought was an interesting religious concept.”Bill McCay
One area where it helped McCay to have the movie as a reference point was in establishing the main characters. Readers that had watched the film would see Kurt Russell and James Spader in O’Neil and Jackson. That meant McCay did not have to establish who they were in his writing.
“I don’t think you’ll find much physical description in the books of the characters, except maybe some of the new ones,” McCay tells us. “I did kind of feel that if people saw the movie, they would know what these people look like.”
As far as the characters’ personalities were concerned, McCay says he wanted to keep Jackson as the “fish out of water” even though he is living on Abydos at the start of the first book, just as he is in Stargate SG-1’s premiere, ‘Children of the Gods’.
“He never seemed to fit into the world in the movie, and now he’s in a completely different world and winds up becoming sort of an annoying Moses for the people who live there, which I thought was an interesting predicament to find him in,” McCay says.
That ‘predicament’ never really goes away for Jackson throughout the entire series of books as he always seems to find himself in the middle of one conflict or another, be it against an Egyptian goddess, between Abydan factions, or with government officials. In that way, this Jackson, unlike his TV counterpart, seems destined to always be an outsider. O’Neil, on the other hand, has a kinder arc that sees his character reject suicide, recover his self-worth, and avoid a broken marriage. Moreover, his redemption relies on much the same qualities as those shown by Richard Dean Anderson’s version of the character, O’Neill with two Ls.
“My editor said, ‘I think he should be a warrior,” McCay explains. “It was interesting because nowadays whenever we talk about people in service in America, it’s always ‘the warrior’. For example, for the people who came back with PTSD and terrible wounds, there’s the Wounded Warrior Project. But that was one of the first times I heard that: ‘Treat him like a warrior’. So, he heals himself by protecting a planet full of people as best he can, and he winds up sometimes at odds with the higher people in the hierarchy because he goes to bat for the Abydans.”
A Creator Calls
Although McCay was getting feedback from friends, academics, and his editor, he got little in the way of direction from the creative minds behind the movie, he says. He recollects that he didn’t hear from Dean Devlin until he was writing the second novel, Stargate: Retaliation.
“I had agreed to go to Britain for Bouchercon, the People’s Mystery Convention, which was being held in Nottingham,” McCay recounts. “Essentially it was two weeks in Britain. I went with some friends, and we ran around London for a few days, and then went up to Nottingham for a few days, then back to London and then home. A lot of my free time I spent writing the second Stargate book. I brought a computer and I had brought a little printer. I was up to Chapter 15 so when I came home from the trip, I called the editor and said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t think there’s a problem with meeting the deadline as I’m up to Chapter 15,’ and he said, ‘Well Devlin finally read your outline and he wants you to call him.’”
As published, the climax of Stargate: Retaliation involves Hathor attacking Abydos in a giant vessel called the Boat of a Million Years. According to McCay, however, his original ending was different and only came about because his call to Devlin resulted in a significant rewrite.
“The novel was set on a planet at the end of an Ice Age, and I had this really very exciting apocalyptic finale for the book where the melting ice is being held back by essentially an ice dam on the top of mountains where this big inland sea is growing,” McCay explains. “The people blow up this ice dam and this enormous sort of tidal wave is running down to destroy everybody as there are only a few places you could live because of the Ice Age. And there was a race to get to the Stargate before everybody got killed. It was a lot of fun, very exciting.
I was just about to start that chapter when Mr. Devlin said, ‘You know, there’s an ice planet in the second Star Wars movie and I don’t want to be seen as copying that so could you come up with an entirely new plot?’ I said, ‘Doh!’ But I bit my lip because I didn’t want to say, ‘Wow, you really are a movie person.’ I managed to not say that and say, ‘Well if you feel that way, the book is going to be a bit late because I am going to have to start the process all over again.’ Instead, we would up with the book that became Retaliation.”
Both Stargate: Rebellion and Stargate: Retaliation, which came out in September 1996, feature plot developments concerning Hathor that are strikingly like those that occurred in the SG-1 Season 1 episode that bears her name. [SPOILER ALERT!] In the first book, she is awakened after being in her sarcophagus for thousands of years, while in the latter she attempts to seduce Daniel (which, unsurprisingly, contributes to his marital friction). It could be coincidental that similar events happened in ‘Hathor’ (S1, Ep14), but McCay suggests his writing may have influenced how the evil goddess was introduced in the TV series.
There are also similarities between events in McCay’s third novel, Stargate: Retribution, and the episodes that spanned the end of SG-1’s first season and the beginning of its second, starting with ‘Within the Serpent’s Grasp’. In the show’s scripts, SG-1 uses the Stargate to board Apophis’s ship, which is on course to attack Earth. In Stargate: Retribution, meanwhile, O’Neil and Daniel lead an attack party through the Stargate to board the Boat of a Million Years, piloted by Hathor, which is also en route to Earth. [SPOILER ALERT!] Both plots end with the boarding party successfully destroying the attacking ship after allying with enemy turncoats who are already on board.
McCay’s book was published in October 1997, about six months before the SG-1 episode premiered, so he couldn’t know how SG-1’s Season 1 cliffhanger would pan out, nor could the production have been aware what he was up to at time of shooting. When he was writing his third book, however, he was concerned about the impact of a new film project that Dean Devlin was preparing.
“I called him, and he was working on editing Independence Day, so I was sort of like, ‘Oh, Christ, we’ve got the big spaceship coming to destroy the Earth. Am I going to hear that’s too much like Independence Day?’” McCay remembers. “Luckily, there was no comment on that.”
With Hathor thwarted and the mythology officially rebooted by Stargate SG-1, McCay might have been spared accusations that he was akin to a heretic if his series had ended with Stargate: Retribution. Roc had other ideas, though, and saw the potential to get more mileage out of his universe, even though at that point it was heading for a literary black hole.
“Initially, this was going to be just a trilogy,” McCay says. “That was why we introduced Hathor: she makes trouble in the second book, and we kill her in the third book and hoorah, we’ve saved humanity! Then they came back to me and said, ‘We’d like to do a couple more stories, as people are still buying the books, even if not as tremendously as the first couple. So can you come up with a sequel to this?’”
Daniel Jackson’s discovery of a database of gate addresses on the Boat of a Million Years in Stargate: Retribution meant McCay could now let his characters explore new worlds and new civilizations away from Abydos. His fourth novel, Stargate: Reconnaissance, is largely set on the forested planet of Ballas, which is used as a destination for repatriating Abydans who have been living on Earth. McCay also introduces a technologically advanced, warlike feline species, nicknamed “Pussies”, to replace Hathor as the new enemy.
“What can I say?” he says. “It was the best I could do. Some people liked it, some people didn’t.”
Stargate: Reconnaissance was published in May 1998, 10 months after SG-1 debuted on American television. Undeterred by the incongruity between McCay’s novel and the TV, series, Roc sought to capitalize on the latter by putting “Now an original series from MGM Television” on the cover above the book’s title. To make things more confusing for the show’s fanbase, in October 1998 Roc published a novelization of ‘Children of the Gods’ as the first book in a new SG-1 series by Ashley McConnell, and added on the cover of both that book and Stargate: Reconnaissance the credit ‘Based on the story and characters created by Dead Devlin and Roland Emmerich.’ Anyone might have got the impression that the books were connected.
“It was all a big surprise to me,” McCay says about McConnell’s novels. “I didn’t know it was coming. I just was writing my books.”
McCay’s last Stargate book, Stargate: Resistance, which came out in October 1999, features a climactic battle between the cat people (now more formally known as the “Successors”) and an alliance of “Urt-men” and Abydans on Ballas. It also brought a measure of closure to some of the characters’ personal stories. McCay linked the story back to the movie’s lore by explaining that the cat race had ties to Ra, which he had also previously done with another alien race, the Setim, that he had introduced in Stargate: Retaliation.
Wisely, Roc did not reference SG-1 on the cover of this book, saying only that it was “inspired by the blockbuster movie.” Nevertheless, some fans who didn’t get the subtle inference in this have since given McCay a hard time in reviews for not playing in the same sandbox as the TV series. Even so, McCay is genial about how his universe was cast adrift by Stargate‘s convoluted beginnings and he feels positively about his brush with the franchise.
“There was some fun stuff in there,” he says. “I have, I think, two or three fat binders full of Egyptology information. I had a lovely map of early Egyptian sites to pull for planet names and things like that. Abydos was apparently an early Egyptian city and Ballas was another one. That was why that became a new planet. I tried to define some things, some grounding in fact for this stuff. There was a lot of research, a lot of reading. I read a lot of mythology, to come up with the background.”
He never received letters from readers of his books, he says, although he adds that maybe this was just as well as “the only letters [Roc] passed on for the Ripworld books was fan mail from people in prison.” Still, he seems pleased to hear that one person, at least, doesn’t think he’s a heretic. Recently in an interview with GateWorld, Dean Devlin said that he considers McCay’s books to still be part of the movie’s universe.
“It was nice of Devlin to say that he backs them,” McCay says with a smile.
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Mike is a journalist, writer and scientist living in British Columbia, Canada. He really wants the film industry to get back on its feet because going to the sets of geeky TV shows (like Dark Matter, left) is like his favourite thing ever. Cheese is up there, too.
Follow him on Twitter @PopCan_CA