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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

Crisis? What Crisis?

I see the words shambles, crisis, clueless, hopeless, disaster, fury, anger, not fit for purpose and half a dozen other key words in the paper most days.

I wonder what happened to create this febrile sense of disaster that seems to hover over us every time something happens that we weren’t expecting.

Don’t get me wrong, these phrases are often used for events that are, undoubtedly, tragic and demanding of our compassion and generosity.

Yet in the scheme of things we’re still here (bar the one real crisis I can see right now, which involves the US and DPRK in an increasingly worrying and shrill stand off – there’s no doubting the eventual victor but real uncertainty about the number of people who might die and the impact on relationships across dozens of allies and opponents in the wake of this being resolved).

Then I look back at history and think about the number of people who died young, the children who died before they reached the age of five. I think of the pogroms, the persecutions, the real disasters that wiped entire civilisations from the earth and I wonder why we get so incensed.

I’ve got one, really simple explanation. That we, in the rich late capitalist nations of Western Europe, North America and APAC, have never had it so good.

Until now. In the face of communities creaking from the first decline in life expectancy in  generations, in the first generation to be poorer than their parents since 1945 and with a rapidly changing tech environment that leaves people feeling quite insecure we find our expectations about what normal is to be completely skewed.

We’ve had it good – medicine, travel, food, jobs – all abundantly available within historically stable societies. This is a massive miracle cast by humanity like a spell that’s now starting to expire.

I propose that we’ve got so used to the good stuff that now we see the cracks appearing – rather than remembering the fights that had to be committed to in order to win these freedoms and luxuries, we stand around lost as to why this is happening to us. In our short termism, we lose the strength we could have in remembering just how bloody hard it was to get to this point.

I think that if we remembered how hard it was for those who were there at the time to win enfranchisement for women, rights to reproductive decision making, the end of slavery, gay equality, prohibiting discrimination based on physical identity, the gutting of the class system and LGBT rights we’d realise that those fights will never (unfortunately) be over because cultures flow like tides, responding to scarcity, the need to have identities that keep others out and certainty of material wealth over and above others.

I’m not saying we should be depressed! Far from it. I’m saying that we should smell some of the good things we’ve got going and decide if these are the things we want to leave to future generations. If they are then we need to alter what we think of as normal. Normal isn’t a state of having it good – that’s a momentary achievement we should always celebrate. Normal is fighting for what we want – collectively, constructively – and channeling some of our energy into making sure we’re ready to stand up for it. Not once, not twice, but all the time.

In some ways, I’m saying that the lethargy we feel about politics is misplaced and comes from a feeling of powerless that arises not because we’re powerless but because we’ve forgotten just how hard those who came before fought for what we’ve got.

Preach over.

Nineworlds – observations from my first con

I went to #Nineworlds this weekend just gone in Hammersmith (which is in London, UK for those of you who may be unfamiliar). It’s a fan led conference that’s deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves and how those help (or hinder) us when we try to construct our identities (whatever those might be). This could be dry, pretentious, domineering or just plain pedantic but #Nineworlds manages to engage with all of the things it cares about successfully – being witty, passionate, respectful and intelligent.

It was also very welcoming, compassionate and wonderfully cool.

I was lucky enough to be speaking on two panels; the first on how we might deal with historic texts which present us now with themes and subject matter that are difficult to reconcile with what we think of as acceptable – be that explicit/implicit racism, sexism or views on what gender identities are acceptable (or even normative). It was a really fun/deep panel and my co-panellists were interesting, from very different backgrounds to me and together I hope we managed to discuss some interesting angles on this subject – I’ve got a post on this theme coming soon and I’ll use that to re-present some of my thinking on this.

What was most wonderful about that panel though was that during the questions, one of the audience members was brave enough to challenge us on something we had been blind to – the trope of the disabled person being morally deficient and how villains were often disabled in some manner as if they deserved it and specifically because the physical circumstance tagged them as evil. That contribution meant the world to me because I was worried about the discussion being didactic and that someone could contribute as they did meant we succeeded in not speaking at the room but in talking among a community.

The other panel was on AI, Robots and the future of work – and was really an excuse to talk about all those subjects we read about weekly where another advance creates something for us to scratch our heads over – be it machine learning running data centres more efficiently, Amazon warehouses being in the dark because the robots don’t need lights or medical diagnoses being done through automated pattern spotting. And yes, we did also talk about socialist utopias, work, the price of labour and the impact of class, race and location on how we live that experience.

My favourite moments being twofold – a story that made people gasp with shock and seeing David Thomas Moore turn into Citizen Smith.

Aside from that I bundled along to a number of panels – my favourite ones being Dr Magnethands, which is a game I shall be inflicting on friends at parties and one on writing from different points of view. That latter one was the writer in me wanting to learn, wanting to see if how I approach my work makes sense and how I could be smarter about it.

Anyway, I’m now knackered, but home. So adieu to #Nineworlds and thanks again.

Oh, and particular thanks to people who shared drinks and panels with me like David Thomas Moore, Jon Oliver, Joseph Adetifa, Sasha Garwood Lloyd, Dolly Garland, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter Smallridge, D Franklin, Ed Boff, Sarah Groenwegen, Matthew Blakstad, Peter Ray Allison and Jeannette Ng to mention just a few. (And obvious apologies if I’ve missed you off this list – the fault is mine, not yours!)

Half Way

I’m half way through the Qilin’s Gambit. It’s come at a real pace (for me at any rate) and despite planning to story in more detail than anything I’ve ever plotted out before I’ve been surprised by two things.

The first is the politics in the story. The world is (obviously) the same as for Dreams of Darkness, it is book 2 after all. However, it features an entirely new set of characters set in a parts of our world and the Dream not seen before. Most notably the city of Kunlun (in different forms) out of Japanese and Chinese legend.

The structure of the world is such that the cultures within it are supposed to be ancient, living breathing societies and one of the main protagonists is a refugee who was once a very important person in the land he had to flee.

As a result I’ve found that my characters are very concerned with the threads and ties to their societies, their roles, their positions and the implications of their actions. It’s been a wonderful surprise to have to explore this and I hope it will be as interesting for readers as it’s been for me to write about power like this.

I guess this reprises discussions about power from the other trilogy, The Oligarchy. I know some people simply want action but for me the impact of any violence in what I’m writing takes its foundation from the groundedness of the world in which it happens.

The other surprise for me is how my female protagonists (book 1 had two male and one female. Book 2 focusses on two female and one male) are growing. I’m super conscious of trying to treat them as people with their own agency with their own battles and pasts but they’ve also surprised me in demanding that their responses are their own. To be honest it’s been a real lesson in dwelling on what they’re facing before simply letting my fingers get on and write them.

Anyway, I’m only half way, so I better get back to it…

Wonder Woman

I’m going to start with a couple of short points – in case you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing. This is effectively spoiler free, so you can read it without ruining your lunch.

  1. This is the super hero movie all the others want to be
  2. If you have boys – take them to see this movie because it’s damned important they see it
  3. If you have girls – take them to see this movie because it’s damned important they see it
  4. If you are alive, go see this film because it’s important and we could only wish that more like it get greenlit by a moribund and imaginatively bankrupt English speaking movie system.

More substantially? Wonder woman had me sold long before the point where I couldn’t dislike this film no matter what happened. The origin story was so creatively presented, so quickly delivered and then so smoothly led into the establishment of a character driven by goodness (like Superman but warmer, with real heart).

But the defining moment where I knew I’d love this film? The point where they’re at London Bridge railway station (I presume) and we see soldiers on the platform. Soldiers wearing turbans, brown soldiers, white soldiers, black soldiers. ALL the soldiers of empire. It respects the armed forces, it respects the empire as it was then and it respects me, as a brown man, because it showed something that was true then and is true now – there are non-white people in London, in the UK and we’ve always been here, fighting for this country. It is a more honest representation of this country than a dozen other war films I could mention. Ironically, when you look at the separation of colours it’s a peculiarly modern (i.e. victorian) thing. Ahem. Moving on.

Representation is in the marrow of this film. Not anachronistically. Those soldiers belonged there. What you don’t see out and about in London are other women. Diana Prince is all alone out there – and her demands for equality are from the bewildered who doesn’t even begin to understand why a man would utter the words ‘who let that woman in here?’

I was excited beforehand for my wife and daughter – because with literally dozens of hero movies, there’s NONE in the modern era where a woman in the hero. We could talk about the disastrous cat woman or elektra but really? Those were movies for teenage boys – they were the ones with agency not the heroines who were lingered over and sexualised as their main selling point. Now Gal Gadot is very easy on the eyes but the ogling? It’s over Chris Pine. Her beauty? A distraction according to those around her. They’re interested in what she can do, in what she has to say. It’s as remarkable as it is uplifting.

Additionally, this film doesn’t offer easy answers around good and evil. Not by a long shot. There is evil, but it’s in actions, not in peoples’ souls per se. No one is beyond redemption. This dilemma is central to the film’s story and it’s handled well.

In that sense the lack of overt discussion about feminism is to miss the point – this film is so focussed on Diana’s agency that it doesn’t need to tell you that. It get show don’t tell so right it hurts me with joy.

Now to the sad bit. We saw this tonight – Friday evening, prime showing and the cinema was only two thirds full. This is a tent pole movie and it’s bloody good as well but the cinema’s capacity didn’t reflect that. I’ve seen people (ok, men) say this isn’t a film for them. I’ve had men and women surprised that I’m interested in seeing it. Not being someone to let the opinions of others go unquestioned I’ve probed on their reasons every time and most are capable of saying it’s because they’re not excited about it because the hero is a woman when pressed with questions designed to get them to utter what they really feel.

This makes me sad Stewart.

Boys of ALL ages should see this film so we can learn about respecting the agency of women. It’s not a ‘woman’s’ film. It’s a film with a woman in it who is capable, intelligent and a real person. Boys should be shown this image of women all the time, but they’re not and the truth is, when a movie like this comes and she’s there centre screen, they have what I’d call a ‘Hilary’ moment…they find reasons other than the real one not to give it a chance. I told my son tonight that he should fall in love with that kind of woman – intelligent, knows her own mind, who cares about justice and doing right.

He said, ‘you mean someone like mummy?’ My work there is done (until he hits puberty at least).

Girls should see this because, like Rey, in the Force Awakens, she’s all those things I’ve described above. Even better than in the TFA, where her independence is pointed up for laughs, here it’s simply a given. More than that, it’s inspiring, it brings out the best in others, washes away their cynicism (and if there’s one thing we all need it’s an antidote to our world weary cynicism).

I want MORE movies like this. I worry that with a half empty cinema on it’s biggest night that I’m going to be disappointed. I worry because I fear for why people aren’t going to see it. I worry that they don’t even understand the depth of their own prejudice.

Go see this film and, hey, if you agree with me – share this post as widely as you can. Maybe we can convince a few others to give it a chance too.

Right, I’m off to book my second viewing.

Do we improve?

I’m not a fan of self improvement. I’m pretty much the cantankerous bugger who emerged out of being a clueless but unaccountably angry teenager twenty years ago. I suspect friends who know me well probably stop telling me what new diet they’re on, what new method of giving up this or that habit they dislike because they know I’ll sneer and ask them to show me the peer reviewed papers that suggest the method will work to change who they are.

It’s not that I’m some sort of essentialist about human character, it’s just that I’ve reflected on my own utterly inability to overcome (for any real length of time) my own predilections and gut responses that I simply don’t buy that a book or course can manage it – especially when the best studies show that such ideas are nonsense dressed up in respectability to fleece those who should know better via their anxieties. As Maria Konnikova would say – we’re all of us capable of being conned.

However, there are some things we can get better at. Skills being one of them.

My first book, A Family War, came out last May and did ok for itself. People bought it and, if the reviews are genuine, they seemed to enjoy it. However, at the risk of putting anyone off buying it I wasn’t completely happy.

I wrote the first draft of that book in 2005. It lived many lives, losing characters and chapters, before I believed that someone might take it seriously enough to publish it. After a long journey involved a couple of agents and a couple of publishers it got there via Matt at Alternative Realities.

However, I felt it dragged a little in the middle. I felt it wasn’t as tight as it could be. Looking back now I wistfully wish I could have led with the writing I’m delivering now because I think it’s so much better.

That hasn’t happened by accident. It’s also not largely happened just by magic, or me writing more. It’s happened by me listening to people, seeking out other, better writers to give me honest feedback. Asking readers to say what they liked but also what they found a bore, or off putting.

Writers like Adrian Faulkner, Sarah Cawkwell, Jo Zebedee, Adam Nevill and James Brogden. All of them have helped me immensely at various points – if you don’t read their books, then you should. Except for Adrian. You’ll have to wait for his proper debut – it’s going to blow your socks off.

Of the readers? I’ll spare their blushes.

I’ve also learned the rudiments of editing – which has taught me some of my own blind spots in the process.

I have always believed in the stories I’ve written but where I hope, and trust, that I’ve improved is in the character work and the tightness of the writing. Hey, I’m still at the point where entire openings or characters have to be lost or changed to work, but these days I can see them a bit clearer.

The other big change was that in my first novel I didn’t plan. I had an end I wanted my character to get to. I had a world that had been built from my own experience in tech and science. But I had not chapter plans, not character arcs already determined in my head.

I was lucky – it largely worked. But these days I plan. I look at my characters and feel what motivates them, where they’re going and what they’re going to experience along the way. I’ve found it far from being constraining (my original worry was that knowing the future course of the story would mean its actual writing was boring). Instead I’ve found it allows me to deliver something tighter, something much better connected to its own sense of purpose.

Now, you might come across Dreams of Darkness later this year (and an awesome cover reveal is going to come soon) and think this post was just me stroking my own ego. Even if you do, I think I’m more comfortable about my writing now than when I first wrote A Family War.

Part of me is saying – if you didn’t finish A Family War, don’t go away! Try Dreams of Darkness.

Part of me is saying – if you did like it? Well wait till you get a load of what’s coming!

Fiction and Lies

There comes a point when sane people should stop repeating the same mistakes again and again in the hope that this time it’ll be different. I’m watching a lot of people fall into the following trap:

X utters verifiable lie

Y shouts “That’s a lie, how could you be so dum to think we’d believe you!?”

X Ignores Y and utters verifiable lie.

Y shouts “That’s another lie. My, you’re dumb. How could you believe that? Why would you believe we’d do it. Here’s a reference that proves I’m right.”

X ignores Y and utters a verifiable lie.


If the above seems familiar to you it could be because you’re watching political and media discourse here in Europe or in the US right now.

If, like me, you’re tempted to be Y in the above dialogue, I have some advice. X is not interested in what you have to say because what you’re saying isn’t challenging them.

Lying like this in individuals is considered by most to be a symptom of mental ill health. We don’t consider people suffering from these symptoms to generally be appropriate figures for taking on responsibility (hey, the EU and the UK have entire sets of legislation designed to stop obviously dishonest people taking up roles in finance now).

They do this because there’s no other way to deal with them. You cannot reason or debate with the person whose trade is lies. You cannot shout them down and you can’t turn your back on them. It may seem that this leaves you with little that can be done.

In the ordinary scheme of things you can remove them from their position for not being fit. You can, where the law allows it and someone appropriately qualified signs off, impose a medical solution.

But you can’t give them the oxygen of debate or a sniff of public credibility. You can only call them out for lying – not debate the facts, not try to prove them liars, but simply call them for what they are. This may seem to stoop to their level but debate is fruitless in the public realm with this kind of counterparty because they aren’t telling lies because they’re mistaken or because they are wrong. They’re telling them because it’s in their interests for these lies to be what people believe. Facts are irrelevant in that moment.

Now, facts remain vital but not in the public debate. They remain vital in making decisions, in thinking about risks and in how to handle these liars in private, in places where influence can be brought to bear where ‘face’ won’t be lost.

But ultimately, you simply can’t allow liars to continue lying. And you don’t win that battle with debate. You win it with power.

That’s all very well but what when organisations become ‘mentall unwell?” What about when an organisation suffers from a psychosis which means its real ends are served by inveterate lying? The lying is not the point. It’s the ends towards which the lying is advancing the organisations goals. We must be careful of worrying about the lies and not the reasons for them.

If I think of the lies around Brexit, or Trump’s barefaced making up of a massacre this week, it’s not the lie that’s important. It’s the goal behind the lie.

How do you combat this? I can only offer some suggestions because the real test is in the application.

The first list is what we can ALL do.

  1. It’s not in protest on the streets – not yet at any rate because that should be our last resort when all other mechanisms have been denied us. As as Milan Khundera made abundantly clear – this kind of protest is, ultimately, inauthentic. It’s the equivalent of giving a beggar a few coins when really we need to challenge the entire system that brought them onto the streets in the first place.
  2. It’s in engaging with the liar’s support mechanisms. In this case with their supporters, personally and financially.
  3. It’s in encouraging those ON THE FENCE to take a stand. Because in the end when less than 70% of any electorate takes a stand then there a HUGE amount to play for.
  4. It’s in making sure that the companies we work for take a stand, that they understand that their employees have a morality that they expect them to take a stand on. Consider Uber CEO’s resignation this week from Trump’s board of advisors. It’s a pyrrhic victory, because he could have been persuaded to swing his authority around in Trump’s face rather than walking away (a pointed but ultimately short lived point of influence).
  5. It’s in convincing people to change their sources of information, in stopping them buying the news sources that tell the lies.
  6. It’s in convincing people to put their money where their mouths are and to stop buying or start buying – whatever.
  7. It’s in making sure that, every chance we get, we work to re-humanise those the lies are making into monsters. Don’t allow a single chance to go by.
  8. help the liars friends see that you’re prepared to pay a price to challenge them. Most liars get by on the basis that people only talk about them behind their backs and not to their faces. They rely on not getting challenged, on people preferring to hope that it won’t impact them until it’s all too late and they’re isolated and powerless. At which point? Well, good luck.

With the lies themselves?

  1. Call them out. Don’t let them stand. Don’t wait.
  2. Have facts but don’t think they’re going to help you in public, on the internet or anywhere where personal relationship won’t pull you through.

With the people?

  1. Be compassionate, forgiving and never step back from confrontation. It’s only with grace that we can win this sort of fight without giving up what we held as valuable in the first place. If it’s a shouting match or we fight like them (like some idiot said this week about fighting fire with fire…to which I suspect a few firefighters shook their heads) then we’ve lost already because part of their game is to make us like them because that will justify their own narrative better than any lie they could tell.
  2. Do Not close down your social circles to include ONLY those people you already agree with. They might exclude you but you shouldn’t exclude them. The world’s already divided enough and if you really consider freedom of conscience important then having people you disagree with in your life (and who aren’t family) is important. Without these links across otherwise unconnected networks things can get really bad.
  3. Don’t attack PEOPLE. Demolish arguments, call out lying for what it is the moment it starts but don’t make ad hominem attacks because then you’ve lost.
  4. Understand that people aren’t going to like you. That the point of the argument isn’t to be liked because you’re right, progressive, full of hope or just plain nice. It’s to make sure that the things you value continue to have a say in the decisions we make as a society.
  5. Finally, and this is the most important point, understand that the root of what has a lot of people shifting one way rather than another is because they have legitimate concerns. These concerns are rarely articulated for what they are. Instead of ‘how am I going to pay for cancer treatment, or help my kids, or feed myself or grow old without being in poverty,’. Rather they’re articulated as ‘why are they going to get cancer treatment? How did they help their kids when I couldn’t help mine? Why have these people prospered when I haven’t?’ The answers aren’t easy, but the questions are real, valid and call into question a lot of the easy assumptions we make about progressive, liberal capitalism. Be careful of the speck of dust in their eye when we have planks in our own.

That’s not to say we should worry about why ‘we’ lost the election rather than how to deal with an upsurge in racism. That would be to entirely miss the point. Rather I’d advocate thinking about how we can actually have a debate.

Ultimately, liars without power find it hard to step back from the brink. It may well mean power has to be applied more directly but I pray for all I’m worth it doesn’t come to that.

Zero K review

Don DeLillo is a Big American Writer. A gorilla in the jungle of authors feted by critics and publishers alike. This book appears, at first, like it might be science fiction – it’s about cryogenics, end of the world politics and billionaires hiding away their wealth so that they can have it when they wake up. Except these things are really nothing more than surface details. The story follows an estranged son whose step mother is dying, who is going to be frozen so that she can be awoken when technology is advanced enough for her to be healed.

The son has a father, a billionaire who he’s never forgiven for leaving his biological mother. He has daddy issues. But then the father has existential issues of his own.

The themes are deeply wrought throughout the text: the death of babyboomers who thought mortality was a thing they’d never have to contend with if they only worked hard enough; the pain of children whose parents have everything, whose standard of living can only fall by comparison; the alienation of the rest of the world who has watched the West’s prosperity pass them by. Except it’s also about how one would chose anywhere other than the West for the emergence of the future, about how our identity is, in the end, in what we are, the space we fill, the people we live among. And finally, but far from least, the idea that art is what makes life worth living, what gives it meaning and that without it, we should be bereft and ready to pass on the the next world.

I don’t know if the book succeeds in addressing these issues, but it does lay them out and ask the reader questions of their own about what it is that makes us, us and whether we find meaning in the lives we lead. I enjoyed it but more as an exercise in thinking through the ideas contained within than in the journey of the characters themselves.

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Imagine if we found a way of letting the rest of the galaxy know we were there? Imagine it was a mistake, that it happened at a period of time in which your culture was undergoing violent upheaval. Imagine if you hated everything about the world in which you were forced to endure.

This is the premise of Cixin Liu’s opening book in the Three Body Problem trilogy.

It’s fascinating to see a story of this type told from a non-western point of view. It’s also fascinating to see it develop according to good science as well as exploring the issues of such a situation without resorting to cheap gimmicks or requiring the characters to have melodramatic awakenings or background ‘issues’. There’s no sense of the maverick detective with personal issues cliche here.

It’s a tremendous book and I’d heartily recommend it – it’s real companion is the recent movie – Arrival – which talks through some of the same issues but from a completely different starting point.

In terms of downsides, there is a reasonable amount of plot discussion and sometimes a little more internal monologue could have been used to help the reader understand what was going on but these are small quibbles.

And it’s out

Final checks passed! Launch buttons pressed. A People’s War is out.

Hope you enjoy and as always – regardless, if you do read a copy, please could you do me a massive favour and pop a review up for me?

Stu Keen
Stuart Keen showing a cool demeanour under immense pressure

Not to forget the competition – as per A Family War, the person who posts up the best photo of them with the novel will get the final instalment for free. The winners of the original competition are Bex Cardnell Hesketh and Stuart Keen, both of whom have now received their free copies of A People’s War.

Thanks and merry Christmas

S

 

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