Someone once said ‘don’t tell me about your craft. Tell me about your influences.’
We have to start with Martin Gilbert’s immense book on the Holocaust, simply called by that title. It’s this book that caused me to write Helena’s story. At nearly a thousand pages long it charts not simply the rise of the ‘final solution’ but also how it was enacted across Europe – not just Nazi Germany but among the Axis allies who continued to kill Jewish people even after the war was officially over.
My heart and head were both torn apart reading the history of such slaughter and the one question I couldn’t answer no matter how I asked it was how such a thing could come to pass.
I have read a lot of history of the period between the first and second world wars yet those accounts focus on the politics, the economics and the unfolding collapse of Europe’s great empires in the wake of WWI. They don’t address how one group of humans came to think of another as so far from having dignity and worth, as so alien, so other, that it wasn’t simply acceptable to treat them as rats but morally valuable.
I wanted to write a story in which that could happen – as an exercise in which I could explore how it might be that individuals could go along with such horrific ideas. You see the answer is not that people silently acquiesced – as with many forms of institutional despair – it’s that people actively play their parts because without that no organised form of oppression can survive.
On top of that I wanted to explore (as I often do) the idea of perfect worlds falling apart when it seems like nothing can assail them. I’m a massive fan of two books about how world views, whole cultures, can come apart at the seams and this was a perfect opportunity to pull them apart in the service of stories.
The first of these is Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. The second, far more revolutionary book, is Feyerabend’s ‘Against Method’. They both seek to describe and explain how our views about how the world works are built up and then overturned. Feyerabend in particular was a revelation for me as a younger man. Coincidentally, Kuhn is where we get the idea of a paradigm shift from – although it’s been bastardised by management consultants and means something much more fundamental in his scheme.
The third leg of influences on me once I’d begun thinking about the need to explore the sense of how a holocaust could happen came from an extended debate I was having with a friend of mine who was a professor of philosophy at the university where I did my post graduate work. We had talked for a long time about how one might devise a system of justice where everyone had equal opportunity (not wealth) without that becoming ossified and also acknowledging that each of us have our own peculiar talents. Obviously Rawls, Hayek, Nozick and Sandel played important benchmarks in that discussion, but then so too did Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavksy’s essential works on the five ways in which societies organise themselves (including the hermit there btw). From their work one could trace how different systems of justice might arise and then put people like Rawls (not to belittle his monumental efforts in any way) in their particular time and places.
The above are the fundamental philosophical underpinnings to Helena’s world and the journey she will travel. Yet why choose science fiction?
I couldn’t see that travelling back in time to a period before Nazi Germany made any sense. It felt ham fisted and without the nuance or profound impact of mass mechanisation. How could a medieval world compete with the industrial despair of the gas chamber?
So I dismissed fantasy for the same reason. Magic can too easily absolve the ordinary person from responsibility because they can point to the wizard who did it and claim that they could neither resist them nor could they be responsible. It had to be a world in which such events could only happen with the complicity of ordinary people (Normals if you wish). Which meant the future.
This fit neatly with my wish to explore what could lead to it happening again. I wanted clean tech though, like Geoff Ryman’s philosophical approach to Sci Fi, I only wanted tech that could be plausibly real. I wanted that feel of the actual world we know.
On top of Ryman I hoped to channel Clarke’s embryonic writings about AI. Artificial Intelligence plays a crucial role in the story and there are few nuanced writers out there who explore the deeper implications of such otherness. Clarke does so and nowhere more successfully than in 2001. An Intelligence that comes of age in a mental breakdown as it’s forced to reconcile two mutually exclusive sets of orders.
It wasn’t until long after I finished my first draft of this novel that I came across Adam Roberts, but if someone was ever to compare me favourably to his writing then I’d be a happy man…