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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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Helena Woolf

A People’s War is out Dec 17!

I’m relieved to say that the team at AR have agreed to still get the second book in the Oligarchy out before Christmas. The aim is for tomorrow…although that now depends on submission processes to retailers such as Amazon. I’ll give an update to you all when it’s actually available.

However, get your fingers ready to order or download because it’s coming soon!

Stewart

Just who is David Chalmers

No spoilers here!

In A Family War, David’s a policeman. In A People’s War he shows a different side. Helena always thought it was strange that an Oligarch wound up as a policeman, even one with as broad a remit as Chalmers.

It’s worth explaining a little about the Oligarchs. They are those whose families were rich enough or powerful enough that when longevity technologies first arrived they could secure these advantages for themselves. They were and remain the 1%. There are, at the time of Helena’s story, about 6 million Oligarchs on the planet. That sounds like quite a lot of them, but it’s not when you consider the planet’s population is closer to 9 billion. These 6 million are tracked and watched for the large part, they have what the media call Adherents, or followers in today’s parlance. Adherents are those who have latched onto specific Oligarchs for whatever special properties they perceive in them.

One of my key drives in building their society was celebrity culture, not simply saturday night television or the movies but how that plays itself out in boardrooms, academia and politics. Even there it’s not really the Trump effect, it’s more about the cult of personality, the idea that the person at the top deserves to earn a thousand times what their lowest paid staff members earn. We all acquiesce in that structure and you see this in how these people at the top are venerated, deferred to and respected as if they alone are responsible for all the good that’s done and profound decisions made. I found the work on organisations by Charles Handy invaluable in trying to figure out how large corporations would engineer this kind of social structure. When I cross referenced that to Richard Sennett and Zygmunt Bauman whose work on modernity, capitalism and the workplace is superb, I realised I wanted my corporations to be miniature dynasties whose boundaries were electronic as much as they were product driven and physical.

If you’re one of just six million among 9 billion ordinary people, something strange must have happened for you to end up as a policeman. Just saying.

Image is from the film Hot Fuzz and is not my own!

Helena Woolf

Book 2 of the Oligarchy is nearly ready to go. We’re aiming for the third week of November – more on that when we have a firm date. In the meantime, I realised that I’d never really talked that much about Helena, the main character throughout the trilogy.

Helena’s an Oligarch. By that I mean she’s solidly within the 1%. Don’t hate her just yet (no…wait until you read about her and what she does before you make the decision). She’s blessed with access to technologies that the 99% are denied. For instance, she’s functionally immortal, although the reality is no one really knows just how long her generation will live. She’s benefitted from genetic therapies that mean she won’t get any of the more common diseases associated with ageing or those we might ordinarily say are heritable.

Add to that the fact that she’s had the best education, the best opportunities and you’d be forgiven for thinking she had everything going for her. A woman who might typify #firstworldproblems. Except Helena is also completely human, just like and I. Well, almost.

In the first book she discovers something terrifying about the world humanity has built for itself, about how it could follow its own logic and destroy the very thing that gives it substance. In A People’s War she’s following through on what she discovered in the first book, not least of which is that her missing father might just be the very man around who everything now revolves.

I’m showing two pictures for Helena above because she has changed her appearance more than once in the story so far. She has, via internal AIs, control over her pigment, hair colour and a limited ability to change her basic features given enough time. For me it’s a sign that in a world where you can change your appearance at will you’re not going to be worried about looking a certain way (except to be fashionable). While that doesn’t exclude racism, nor implicit bias, it does mean that people like Helena aren’t wedded to a certain way of appearing. You might comment that both the women whose images I’ve shown are beautiful (depending on your POV). I’d say, yes. Given the option, most people would probably choose to adhere to symmetry and current norms for beauty. It’s an issue I don’t tackle all that much I’ll admit, but I am very aware of what kind of messages are constructed in choices like this and wanted to highlight that this is deliberate and, hopefully, satirical.

Helena is complex (and I hope that comes across on the page) just like the rest of us.

A People’s War

This is the blurb, well draft 1 anyway. It’s always had to give enough of what makes a story cool without giving too much away, either about the first book or about what happens in the story itself. Suffice it to say that there’s no spoilers below. 🙂

“Helena’s father went missing a century ago. He took his team of researchers and their findings with him so that none could benefit from his work. For Helena this is a problem since someone’s finished up what he started and is looking to benefit from creating a war between the largest corporations in the solar system. A war in which there’ll be no winners.

Throw into this mix a third side, one intent in freeing itself of the Oligarchy and Helena is propelled into finding her mother, who may just have a clue to where he went. Except Edith is slumming it in a war zone far from the City, refusing to cooperate with anyone on anything while she satisfies her own agenda.

Helena is going to have to risk everything to persuade Edith to help. Even if she does there’s no guarantee that any of them will make it out of the war alive because this is a people’s war, a war of rebellion against the 1% and Helena is very much in their sights.”

A People’s War – Cover Reveal

It’s here. At least the cover is almost here. Lawrence Mann has done another bang up job.

This is the cover for the second book in the Oligarchy trilogy. It’s due sometime towards the end of November, but we’ll make sure there’s lots of advance warning. I am looking for a small handful of people who want advance copies in exchange for honest reviews, so please let me know if you’re interested.

The process for creating this cover was simpler than the first one – after developing a sense of the visual representation of the world, Lawrence was quickly able to capture what it was I was hoping for in this cover. It’s not a spoiler but it does represent a key scene from the book.

The story here moves on from that in the first, starting just a few days after the events of A Family War. It moves in a very different direction though as Helena heads off somewhere new for…(no spoilers, Stew!) Reasons ™.

I’ll have a proper blurb in the next week which I’ll post here too. In the meantime, enjoy the cover.

The price of free

I decided last week in discussions with Matt at AR, that we should put the kindle version of my debut novel up for free at Amazon for 72 hours. That 72 hours runs out tonight. This post is about what’s happened and my feelings about it.

The first consideration was this: lots of people, including a not inconsiderable number of friends, have stumped up proper money for either a physical or ebook copy of A Family War. A decent number of those have then gone on to post very kind and honest reviews about the story they experienced.

I have been really concerned that they’ll feel a little bit cheated that the book has gone for free for a short period. I worry that it might put them off buying anything more of mine in the future because they’ll think ‘I can get it free later on anyway’.

I also worry because they’ve bought the fricking thing, have been supportive and have given me great feedback.

However, at the same time, I’m a fledgling author who’s is trying to establish an audience not just for this novel but for its sequel and all the other ideas that are trapped in my skull screaming to get out. I want this book to get to as many people as possible and create that market that an unknown author like me simply doesn’t have through the machinations of a massive marketing department.

So we come to the event itself – the book has been free since Saturday morning. In that time at least 2,000 downloads have occurred – definitely more as I’m still waiting for today’s numbers to come in. I have NO IDEA how people have found it, I have NO IDEA how it’s got to where it is in the charts – #1 in US Sci Fi, #1 in US Sapce Opera, #111 on the whole kindle store while in the UK it’s been #4 or 6 in the same categories.

I truly don’t understand how people found it at that point or how it’s propelled itself up the charts among other authors who’ve written lots of novels and have well oiled marketing programs. I’ll be trying to figure that out in the coming days with Matt as getting this kind of attention was exactly the kind of outcome I was dreaming of (even though not expecting in any way). It’s something to learn from, to understand and then to figure out how to make it work for me when book 2 comes out.

At the same time, I’m waiting to see if any more reviews pop along, if people continue to buy it when it returns to the heady heights of two bucks a copy and if this does actually help build an audience over time.

I’m an author – loving writing. However, I’m also an author who wants to get his work out there, selling for real money preferably, but also who has just enough self belief to think my work is, on a good day, worth reading. So I wrestle with the idea of creating something and then having to think about how to present it in the best way over time (and by time I mean weeks and months) in order that my secondary wish of getting it in the hands of as many people as possible bears fruit.

The free offer has paid dividends in terms of getting my work out there to literally thousands of people. I have been really tempted to make it permanently free, to ride this wave of people downloading the story to see how far it will take me – the heart gibbers madly, saying thousands could become tens of thousands or even more. Yet I’m listening to those around me who have advised ending the promotion as planned and seeing what happens…Part of me thinks it’s about momentum and that it should stay free, but in the end the argument that it’s actually worth something wins out. We’ll see if readers agree.

Free is tough. I love the people who spent their own money to buy a copy, (I don’t see book 2 ever being free). I truly hope they’ll stick with me as I continue to write and hopefully get published. However, I also really hope that as more people find my work, as some of them even like it, that they will, in future, also think it’s worth paying out their money too!

It’s not that I don’t appreciate anyone who takes the time to try my writing out – trust me I’m humbled that among all the choice out there, you’ve taken the time to pick my stuff up. But I’m trying to figure out how to make this all work and how to ensure that Matt as Alternative Realities thinks it’s worth publishing the next one I send to him.

Future Perfect – why politics, culture and people matter when building a world

A Family War is set in the nearish future and, as importantly, it’s set in our world. I’ve written about world building elsewhere, about how it’s vital to think through how technology and science might impact upon the world one is building but today I want to talk specifically about the other part of world building – the people and the politics. This is a fairly dense post – I’ve had some people say to me that SciFi isn’t their thing – especially stories that are as much about the questions by which we live as they are about technology. I can only apologise and promise that the book itself is a proper thriller with running, jumping and shooting of guns. Yet underneath all that there’s a living breathing idea of how things might be.
In A Family War I was primarily driven by a number of real world concerns and non-fiction pieces. Primarily, Martin Gilbert’s harrowing history of the holocaust (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Holocaust-Martin-Gilbert/dp/0006371949) which was what prompted Helena’s story in the first place. I had read this over the course of three months and apart from the horror of the events themselves I wanted to understand just how it was that so many people went to their deaths without resisting. I always felt it was anathema to how I’d respond but then reading about tens of thousands of people who ‘willingly’ boarded trains knowing it would be the end of them – it’s not something I’ve ever been able to process (I saw willingly, I simply mean nothing more than they didn’t attack the soldiers, who they outnumbered, in a bid to live – I’m not judging, I’m simply saying I don’t understand it). I think I understand it a little bit now – with a family of my own who I might consider taking short term decisions for in case it meant that we could walk away in the long term. However, I fight with proper swords every week so I’m probably not the average person anyway.
I wanted to examine how a society built with full post war clarity about the Nazi regime could head back there. It was clear to me it wouldn’t be based on the same surface level detail. There wouldn’t be another Hitler or national socialism. Globalisation appears too deeply embedded or that to happen. Of course, by most measures we’re only really obtaining a similar level of free trade now that existed in the 1920s, so what goes around could still come around. Veering away from Nazis in the future, I decided to explore the impact of technology on human society. This fell into how tech would impact human well being, human productivity and our freedom to engage in leisure – the last of these a subject that’s only really a couple of centuries old.
Looking at productivity first, one could easily see that many people are shifted out of the middle class into lower paid and less secure jobs as machine learning optimise processes far more quickly than human/manual control could ever do. The Luddite call of ‘tech is destroying our jobs’ is never wholly wrong even if it is most often a futile protest – new jobs arise to replace the old but look at how many people you need to man a farm or build a car if you want to see how technology can impact an economy, a society and their communities. Add to that recent research by Saez, Bloomberg and Macquarie that shows that although income inequality hasn’t gotten markedly worse since the 1990s for the advanced western democracies, the middle ground has been eroded. More people work than before and they work in less secure jobs demanding fewer skills. Although the overall measure of inequality (GINI) shows a status quo, inside this data we are seeing the rich remain rich while the majority become poorer overall even while the poorest are better off now than they have been before. It a complicated picture but has some specific implications for what I wanted to write about.
Namely that tech would reduce people’s freedom to act economically even while giving them freedom to connect and express themselves. In other words a rise in freedom of self-representation would run in parallel to a decline in individual economic autonomy. For me this meant that the dividends of peace, economic growth and democracy would consume themselves as capitalist forms of governance slowly shaped the most advanced societies on the planet (be they democratic like Europe or Technocratic like China). In the end, I don’t think most forms of democracy are self-sustaining as they’re too open to being hijacked by demagogues. The US has great forms of protection from these kinds of attacks and even it finds itself twisted far away from what its founders imagined. The UK has always had a democracy designed to empower the elites but this has, ironically, provided for much stability. It too is now facing a turbulent period although the system itself does not appear to be under threat.
However, democracy can destroy itself simply through attempting to appease the majority when the majority decide they don’t want freedom of choice, movement, thought or opportunity. It may take time to get there but for most people in prosperous environments (and by this I mean they have enough food, medicine and movement to want to be left alone on a day to day basis) the pressure to protect the system that provides for the stability to deliver that prosperity is hardly felt.
In trying to arrive at the world in which Helena exists then, I wanted to undo democracy but leave behind the sense of prosperity it delivers. The easiest way for democracy to be undone is for commercial interests to undermine it – for instance corporates whose profits are large but whose products are damaging to either their consumers (eg. smoking) or the world at large (eg. petroleum). If entities in the same vein can impose proper free supranational free trade agreements – especially around how they pay tax to individual sovereigns it becomes hard for those countries to exercise any kind of influence over them. Over time they will seek to protect their goods and property (in a similar evolutionary trajectory to how nation states arose) and become principalities in their own right – but ones who boundaries are no longer physical but instead technological.
For the average person on the street it means that the following is a reasonable trajectory to the kind of society they find themselves in – democracy, increasing state strength, failing state strength, rising corporate influence, subsuming of weaker states, mutual patronage of stronger states with corporates. Can and does democracy ever come back around? Hard to say, but looking at the violence, political physical and ideological that was required to get universal suffrage in the first place it seems that once it’s gone it’s hard to get back.
So I assumed that democracy of the kind we in the UK enjoy now (of the John Hyland variety of representative democracy) faded away, replaced with a technocratic system which eventually evolved into an oligarchic system as is already observed in much of the rest of the world. This was obviously easier to justify when one considered that for the richest, life spans had increased into the centuries, so companies and influencers did not get naturally recycled by old age. As justice for most people is unaffordable, I could then implement a Rawlsian system of relative merits where as long as their immediate peers weren’t perceived to have unfairly prospered, most people would accept their lot if they were left to get on with it. One day I’ll write a system where the justice on offer is that envisioned by Amartya Sen
I’m waffling here, so a little summary before I finish up. We go from here to Helena’s world, a world of material plenty but of spiritual and social poverty for the majority quite easily. Although I’ve used the impact of technology (gene therapy, automation of skilled jobs, impact of machine learning (not even AI)), the same trajectory of declining democracy, a hollowed out society without a middle class and a corporate strength that overrides sovereign states is not one that’s hard to imagine occurring anyway.
Helena’s story is about how this dystopia comes into question, how it’s own centre falls apart. In that sense I think it’s a story for our times and I hope you do to. Book two, A People’s War will explore these issues further because Helena will face events she could not have realised were behind what happened to her in A Family War.

A Family War – Sample Chapter

Hi there. As promised a little while ago, here is the pdf: A Family War – Sample Chapter

If you like it you can get a copy here: UK or RestofWorld

In case you hadn’t seen the synopsis – the story is an action thriller set in the near future with a strong female central character.

“Helena is one of the Oligarchs, genetically-enhanced, centuries old families who rule the world. As a new world war begins, she is ordered to find a boy who could save the human race from genocide. Yet all is not as it seems; Helena finds enemies on all sides, intent on bringing about the war with all its horrific consequences. To make matters worse, Helena’s own integral AI challenges both her motives and her identity. Yet she has no choice but to accept its treacherous aid if she is to have any hope of surviving those who want her dead.”

As always, let me know what you think.

Also, as far as promotions go, is this a good way of convincing you it might be worth your time?

The first reviews

I’ve had my first reviews! From people who’ve actually read the book.

It turns out they enjoyed it – which is pretty amazing. So now I sit waiting for others to voice their opinions too, whether they like it or otherwise.

The dreaded bad review is probably inevitable, and then I’ll discover whether I have a thick enough skin. It’s all very well surviving rejection between agent/publisher and author – but that has the benefit of being in private and often being completely unemotional. Most rejection letters are barely more than a ‘thanks for coming in’.

However, in asking for reviews (and I’ve got a long list now of reviewers on Goodreads who are reviewing for me), you open yourself up to public comment. I have to say, that’s something I’ve avoided like the plague most of my life.

Mates and family reviews should (you know, they’re biased!) be favourable, even if they don’t really dig it, but strangers? Well, you’ve read the comments pages on newspapers, right?

So, as the blog tour starts tomorrow, I’m holding my breath again – hoping that reviews actually arrive in ANY form, but when they do they’re ok – for a given value of ok.

In the meantime, I’ve added a photo of Stuart, who is currently winning the best photo with the book. A reader called Bex is second with her shot of the book in a whisky distillery and on the RSS Discovery (not just any old boat as I was reminded just now). Can you get more bizarre/exotic?

 

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