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Stewart Hotston

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science fiction

Influences

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 naïve 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.

Inspiration for covers and the roll of Pinterest

I’ve been using pinterest as my store of inspiration for covers. The cover for A Family War focusses on London, the City, as it’s called by those of us who live and work there both in Helena’s world and ours. I love the image by Jeremy Mann that I’ve used to headline my post. It’s glorious and a part of what I want to capture about the City in my story.
However, in working it through with Lawrence, we saw three others that helped set the tone.

The first is this one from the Art of Animation tumblr:

From the Art of Animation tumblr

We liked it because of the angle, the way that as an observer you’re not given to the normal flat view of the world, but are presented with an exploration of a strange place.

The second one we liked was this one:

ffab1ad083b3ea73fe72fb16d2405ae0
Daniel Dociu

What is amazing about this piece is how it captures the light and how that process tells the story. The darkness and shadow around the bases of the buildings, the purity of the light at their pinnacles. Imagine a city of spires whose bases are shrouded and without sunlight and the dank foreground in this image sets that tone.

Finally this one:

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mingrutu on Deviant Art

This brings the scale we love of grand cities down to the human. It picks up a story from the scale of the body and places it within the vastness of the cityscape.

All my pins are here if you fancy taking a look. It’s from this board that the cover is going to come.

Happy days!

Timing

So I had a great set of conversations this evening – not least with Lawrence Mann, whose art work can be found here and is likely to do a cover for a series of books for Alternative Realities.

We also decided on our first two anthologies today – although that’s still top secret!

What I really want to talk about is timing though. There’s lots of hard work in creating anything of value and although we’re off to a great start we’ve got a lot to do before we forward with any products.

I’ve witnessed a couple of unfolding disasters over the last couple of days – and they are pretty tragic for those involved (for a relative value of tragic) and I was left reflecting on whether our own venture will do any better, deliver any more than so many of those who’ve come before us.

I can’t say we’ll do any better until we’ve done it (or not). I hope we will. Matt and I are very driven guys used to getting stuff done ™ and I hope that will translate into success. However, one thing we will do is be professional. The other thing we’ll do is aim to be realistic and try to achieve exactly what we set out to do in plausible time frames.

That means we’re only going to do two anthologies in this first year. We want them to be the best they can be – from the stories to the production values and that means it will take time to get it right.

Although if you fancied reviewing them we’d like to book a slot with you now! Because the other art in getting stuff done is knowing what needs to be done when. 🙂

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