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Stewart Hotston

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world building

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.

WIP

As promised earlier this week, please find attached a 1,500 word sample for a new novel that’s completely unconnected to the world of Helena Woolf and the Oligarchs.

The novel is provisionally titled ‘Dreams of Darkness’ and stands alone. It’s currently with Ian Whates at NewCon Press, although he’s yet to read it, so there’s no guarantee at all that he’ll a) like it and b) want to publish it. However, Ian has carved out an amazing business in publishing superb stories, so regardless of my involvement you should seek him out and read the people he publishes cos he has a great sense of out of the ordinary writers.

The story asks the question, ‘what if all our myths were true,’ and then says, but if that’s the case, how is it we have the world we have today where science appears to rule and magic, mystery and legends are footnotes in history books.

The sample takes place very near the beginning and features one of the three main characters, a Fae called Maela from one of the Seelie houses. She’s discovered something of critical importance to her people, whose import she doesn’t understand and is travelling home when this part of the tale takes place. Once you’ve read it you’ll understand why I chose the image 🙂

I’d love your feedback on this, especially whether the action is interesting and if you think it would be something you’d read more of.

Cheers – link below

Dreams of Darkness WIP

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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