Stewart Hotston

Hope, Anger and Writing



Post Cyberpunk Larp

Got your attention? I hope so.

I challenged a friend of mine a few months ago on whether they’d be interested in and whether they could think of a way of turning the world in which A Family War exists into a LARP.

The problem with any sci fi LARP is really getting into the details of scifi – you know, those computers, AI, futuristic weaponry, hacking and the like.

My mate Andy has come up with a neat solution for the physical aspects and I think I’ve worked out how to do the electronic side so that players could experience both.

There are pinterest boards, ideas for plot and I’m going to start thinking about approaching the site and asking a small, select bunch of people if they’d be part of the team that could put this together…

However, the other important thing to note is that it’ll be kind of a post-cyberpunk theme. Beyond the cybernetics and implants that made cyberpunk such a thing. Gibson has been writing it for ages (ie, he moved on from cyberpunk a long time ago) and I realised in talking to Andy that The Oligarchy is also post cyberpunk.

Funny how these things emerge…

More news as it’s ready but for now this is very much at ideas stage. One thing though…if you were interested it would be great to know.

The game’ll be limited numbers and limited run – and it’ll be openly pvp (although pve will be the main focus), cos what’s drama without conflict?

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.

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?


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…

World Wars and World Building

Helena’s world is our world. Helena’s story is set here, on earth. She’s shifted in time, although the exact date is deliberately never mentioned – for people whose lives are stretching out into the hundreds of years what’s a decade or two?
Yet to build the future isn’t easy. For sure you can create all kinds of futures – retro futures, post-apocalyptic futures, even sterile futures. I wanted to avoid a stylised view, I wanted to create a future that felt credible, even plausible. That’s a different kind of challenge.

My goal in this form of world building was to avoid a sense of setting my story among science fiction trappings in order to give myself tools to get out of poor plotting. I will never reverse the polarity. Another element I wanted my world to have, because of the subject matter, was a sense that the people were real, that their problems aren’t ones technology can solve.

In my mind this added up to creating a world in which the technology didn’t resemble magic and formed a backdrop rather than the object of the story itself. To build that world I set about pulling together a huge file on current cutting edge science and thinking about where it could go. I put items together under a number of headings – drugs, biology, physics, computing, energy, cosmology, economics, commodities. Each of those subjects was then broken down further. For example, in physics I split out a number of areas I thought were going to be transformative including nanotechnology, fusion, metamaterials, and quantum gravity. For biology I concluded that genetic therapies, organ printing, tailored medicines and other such personally focussed developments would be transformative.

From each of these I then looked at what it would take for them to be a reality. It helps that I have a couple of degrees in the hard sciences and spent some of my life as a researcher – I hope it gives me an insight into just how scientific knowledge is generated.

All of the above is before I sat down to think about how the science would be translated into the technologies you’ll find in Helena’s world.
The technologies didn’t emerge simply from the science – they never do. Tech, just as with science itself, proceeds from the space within society in which it operates. Take one bitter example – we are running out of effective antibiotics. Not because there aren’t any more out there but because the world in which we live has created no incentives for researchers to develop new ones. Science is as much a politically and economically live activity as anything else – regardless of what some of the more naĂŻve doyens of the community would tell you about it being dispassionate and objective.  

Hence, in order to create the tech, I had to write the future history of our world, to make it plausible. I wanted us to still be here, so there was no nuclear armageddon or any other world shattering events. Any view of the future carves out possibilities that would render it unrecognisable.

The key developments in Helena’s world were thus ones in which politics, economics and science interacted. In her story there are hints at wars waged with nanoscale weapons, poison designed to target only certain groups and other such horrors. Except the reality is that in any arms race that doesn’t destroy the participants they typically end up in a stalemate where their weapons are effectively countered. I considered her time as one in which these horrendous innovations would be neutered, obsolete.

All of this builds towards a world in which those who can will make decisions about the rest of us, who decide whether we’re fit to live or die. Such an outlook can develop quickly (you only have to watch the dialogue around refugees at the moment) into something that utterly dehumanises swathes of the population. I don’t believe technology exacerbates that process of dehumanising the other but what it does do is give us the means to act on those feelings rapidly at a scale our grand parents couldn’t have even imagined.

In many ways Helena’s world is perfect – there is enough for everyone, sickness is handled with ease, it is stable. Yet in others I explore in the story, it is far from wonderful and ripe for overturning. For me, to make that story meaningful the world I set it in had to be one we recognised even if it was alien enough to allow me to ask some difficult questions of what we believe while, hopefully, still entertaining the reader.

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