Living Among Leviathans: An Interview with Stewart Hotston

A science fiction and fantasy author with a background in physics and finance, Stew Hotston is something of a Renaissance man (right down to the sword-wielding bit). Vector sent Robert S. Malan for a friendly duel of words …

Tell us a little about your work to date – are there distinct strands linking the stories you tell?

Yes, for sure. Despite moving around across SF, fantasy, horror and the just plain weird, there are a couple of themes which recur. One theme is family. Not always blood, but always who we choose to be vulnerable with, who we choose to have by our side when we’re facing challenging times. I think asking who those people are and what we’d do for them are interesting questions, no matter the setting. 

The other recurring theme for me is worlds on the edge of collapse. I like returning to the idea of how times and places, which at first appear idyllic, have nearly always required bad decisions to get there, and these will lie in wait, festering until their time comes again. It’s a little of dealing with the past, but also about asking what price we are willing to pay in order to get what we want. 

Finally, you’ll see a lot of dreams in my books. Not in an ‘it was all a dream’ kind of way! But as ways of characters processing what’s going on, as ways of communication and, even in the hardest SF, to remind us there’s more out there than we’ve dreamed of (literally).

What motivates you when it comes to storytelling, which can be a hard and lonely craft at times?

I love writing and I have long been a proponent of the idea that fiction can help us talk about subjects which are just too hard to confront face-to-face. Taboos, prejudices, ideologies — all these can come under the microscope. I’m an ideas kind of writer — all my stories started life as questions in my head about technology or society or simply ‘What If?’

Just as importantly, what if no one else ever reads anything I write? Well, I started writing for my partner and, as long as they request more, I will keep on going.

Your novels Tangle’s Game, A Family War, and A People’s War contain a strong central theme concerning the conflict between technology and individual freedom. Is this a deliberate reflection of your own thoughts in relation to our current reality?

Short answer: yes. Long answer — communities are able to create structures which make life easier for their members. However, to access these easements, you must be a member, and to be a member you must abide by the community’s standards and rules. In small communities this can be hard but, typically, everyone knows everyone else and you do have a voice.

In larger communities — especially late capitalist ones — the means of deciding the rules is often explicitly separated from the benefits. Then you have to pay to become a member, while also surrendering your rights to having a voice and to how they are developed. This is obviously a route to disenfranchisement and (at best, benign) forms of enslavement. 

I’m fascinated by how people trade small conveniences for potentially massive restrictions, and this drives a lot of what I’ve written about in my published novels.  An ongoing inspiration for how I write societies are the works of anthropologists Aaron Wildavksy and Mary Douglas. Both are philosophical children of Levi Strauss and both are transformative in understanding ideas such as belonging, taboo, the concept of crime, and belief systems. 

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Mary Douglas and Claude Levi-Strauss are well-known theorists, perhaps even outside anthropology. Aaron Wildavsky maybe less so. What is it that interests you about his work?

Wildavsky was a political theorist who, among other things, focussed on risk. His work with Douglas explored how communities structure themselves. These contributions were profound, and are still highly relevant today. For me, so much of how we organise, how we approach the world and how we structure our beliefs either arises directly from or is influenced by the risks we face.

By ‘risks’ I do mean day-to-day risks to health and wellbeing, but I also mean more existential risks around the lives we take to be examples of the good. If you think about many taboos, they often relate directly to situations which we can show are detrimental to the individuals involved or to the continuity of the communities of which they are a part. However, Wildavsky showed that many taboos are based on beliefs about how the world ‘should’ be, and these then go on to be excellent predictors for how our communities will be structured.

So if you like, his explanatory work was around showing how ideas such as taboo feed directly into public policy and perception of risk. The latter often then being presented as purely factual, rather than being both factual and ideologically selected from a host of other risks we could have also elevated as worthy of managing. When you’re writing worlds into being, understanding how these kinds of belief can create communities is interesting to explore as well as providing authenticity to your world-building. It’s a good dose of umami in the story recipe.  

Ultimately you don’t have to think about anthropology to make your worlds feel real and the stories you’re telling feel grounded, but I think it helps.

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You’ve written a lot of short fiction too. Are there aspects linking those, or is it more a case of exploring each good idea to its logical conclusion?

My short fiction is a bit more disparate but they are linked by this kind of structure: an idea explored through an ordinary person’s experience of living with it. I’m not interested in the hero’s journey. I’m not interested in the orphan who’s actually a king of a chosen one or the most powerful magician ever. I don’t dig that kind of power fantasy. What interests me, and what’s in all my shorts, is the idea of how people on the edge of great events might see those events and how they might change them — by hook or by crook. Most of my characters aren’t interested in saving the world but rather in surviving it and keeping their way of life intact. In some ways it’s not revolutionary but I think it is kind of radical.

Kind of radical — in what ways?

Screenshot 2020-01-26 at 20.16.54I guess by radical I’m deliberately rejecting the traditional view of the hero’s journey. I’m not interested in the magical orphan who’s the saviour. I’m not interested in the challenge of those who are privileged except perhaps where they lose that privilege never to get it back. What I’m interested in exploring is: how do the people we don’t read about in real history navigate its storm tides? I realise that means my voice won’t be for everyone because the perpetual popularity of ‘farmboy is actually super hero/rightful king’ never appears to wane and it may be that by refusing to explore those kinds of (in my mind, infantile) power fantasies I’m not going to get your heart going in exactly that way. But the parts of the story that fascinate and compel me are where ordinary people accomplish amazing things in part because they’re simply trying to survive while leviathans all around threaten to crush them. It’s a political statement for me as much as anything — that anyone can make a difference — that special blood is anathema to good society and, generally, being good.

I wrote a specific story which distils these elements called ‘Farm Boy’ in my collection Tales of Wild Light, in which a farm boy discovers his parents were military and royalty who’d run away from their ‘destinies’ as foretold by the empire’s prophet. It’s about how the boy who dreams of the larger world comes to terms with his parents’ choice to walk away, to live among giants rather than be them.

You’ve also edited a number of anthologies. How do you find that experience? Is it difficult having the necessary conversations an editor needs to with authors (being one yourself) or do you find that one naturally complements/enhances the other?

Anthologies are a lot of work! Much more than I’d originally envisioned. I ended up doing the first one because the editor dropped out and I was really proud of the story I’d written!

I do find knowing how a writer feels helps me talk to other authors. I’m always a bundle of nerves and insecurity when talking to editors and there are definitely moments when I can put myself in those shoes and see both sides. When I edit, I try to explain why I’m suggesting what I’m suggesting — I find it difficult when an editor simply changes text without explaining their rationale. 

Fortunately, I’ve never had a ‘difficult’ author — they have been responsive and keen to see their work benefit from editing. I have heard horror stories but am fortunate not to have been through that.

As if all of that isn’t keeping you busy enough, you’re writing for the computer game Age of Ascent. How does writing for that differ from book form?

It’s less linear. You’re writing backgrounds which inform game design (assets, we call them), feel, etc. However, these then need to sit alongside the necessary constraints of the products. Even in an open world like AoA factions, plot and resources define a huge amount of the structure and mechanics of what can be written. It’s lovely to write a world and see it take flesh — in game design it’s a little cart-before-horse in that these other considerations determine a lot of what’s possible in that world. 

Additionally, for an open world/sandbox type experience, the narrative is specifically designed to be emergent. There’s no ‘Go here and do X’ or ‘Meet Y’ or ‘Work through your emotions about Z’. It’s very much a case of players arriving and meeting, with conflict and outcomes as a result of those interactions. I’m also a keen LARPer and help referee the Curious Pastimes LARP in the UK. I write a number of plots for that and it’s very similar — the art of a good plot is one that gives the players agency and allows them to solve it (or fail it terribly) in their own way. One maxim in game design you know for certain is that the players will create a solution you haven’t thought of, no matter how long you spend trying to game it yourself. As you can imagine, this is fundamentally different to telling stories in text where you really are the god of all things. 

Having said that, I’ve found that what hooks players in games, and the types of drama they get excited by, is very similar to what they find enthralling in books and other linear media.

Earlier you mentioned worlds on the verge of collapse. You spoke at the recent event Productive Futures about science fiction, energy, and economics. Are these important themes to you?

Personally? YES! I look at these existential issues and worry about how they’ll impact my children in the future, and so many others around the world who don’t have my privilege right now. I believe science fiction should lead us into thinking of better worlds, into thinking of solutions to our problems. The reality is such an aim is an ideal. In my experience the best science fiction doesn’t present definitive solutions but helps us recognise and think through the problems. Often it can’t present the solutions because the language and ideas literally don’t exist in which those solutions will be framed until actual real-life politicians, visionaries, artists and scientists invent them. In other words, fiction helps us articulate our issues but they can only point us in the right direction — the real work also takes place in the real world.

I also think these are the issues which show us how fragile the worlds we build are. I talk to my kids about this with Lego — it’s hard to build something nice and sometimes, when we’re done building, it’s easy to think just how simple it would be to do it again because we immediately forget the concentration, planning and time which went into our achievement. We forget the price paid to create complexity. However, the right force in the right direction can bring everything crashing down without any warning. Society is like this — strong, robust in many ways, but often terribly weak in others. All my collapsing worlds have hope woven into them because what can be built can be rebuilt. Yet. Good societies still have losers, and long term societies tend to siphon off those losers in ever increasing numbers, while telling stories about how those losers deserve their lot in life. Often when our worlds collapse they take these social stratifications with them and give everyone a chance to reset. Well — the survivors, at any rate.

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In the end all storytelling is political. There is no ‘entertainment only’ version of storytelling because for someone in the audience the axioms others take for granted are painful, disempowering and even oppressive. Only those who are privileged to the point of being blind to their own world view can see stories as being (a)political. So science fiction is political, and because of its natural bent to look at the ‘what ifs’ of the world, its biases become magnified. If it extrapolates only what the majority or a particular interest group are evangelising, fine — but it should expect to get scoured in the court of public opinion. In my mind science fiction which doesn’t consciously explore politics is a failure of a curious kind, because it is certainly exploring politics unconsciously! 

Tell us about School of the Sword? How does that feed into your writing, especially when you’re creating action sequences?

Yes, so I’m Treasurer for School of the Sword, which is a fencing club here in the UK. We specialise in historical fencing — especially focussed on Italian styles from the 14th, 15th and (sometimes) 16th centuries. I focus on rapier, sidesword and their companions (such as dagger, buckler, rotella, spear and cloak). I have been fortunate enough to represent the UK internationally and at the club we spend a lot of time thinking through how duels and larger melees would work.

So my combat writing does try to reflect what I’ve experienced in actual fights (whether simulated or actual ‘I’m going to get messed up if I lose this’ fights). Combining this with the massed combat of LARP has shaped how I want to deliver fight scenes to readers. I am really careful though in what I think’s valid — I don’t really care if you have combat experience or not — making a fight scene compelling is about the stakes and the emotion, not the techniques. For me, knowing the techniques and the physics of it means I deliver fight scenes in a certain style, but that is no judgement at all on writers who take a different approach.

So what’s next on the horizon for you?

I’m a judge for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award so I’m working my way through the stack of books eligible for that. It’s huge and so many of them are really good — I want to take my time and savour them properly. I’m not yet dreaming about how I’m going to get through them all but the pile is very, very high. 

And I have a couple of novels out with publishers at the moment. Waiting is always deleterious to my health but that’s the nature of the beast. They’re both quite different to what’s come before – one is a high fantasy about a world in which man enslaved the gods and the other is set here in modern London and is about how we (re)make the city and the city (re)makes us. 

So we have a lot more to look forward to. Stew, thanks so much!

Stewart Hotston lives in Reading, UK. Stewart works in high finance and, in a completely unrelated subject, he read for a PhD in Theoretical Physics, taking great interest in philosophy, theology and economics (some of those even involving additional academic qualifications). He has previously been published across more than a dozen different publishers of short stories and three novels. When Stewart is not writing or working he’s probably fighting with swords at The School of the Sword. You can find him @StewHotston on Twitter or at his blog

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Robert S. Malan is a BFS and Nommo award shortlisted author and editor, hailing originally from Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a passionate advocate of storytelling across various media formats, whether that be in books, graphic novels, films, TV, or gaming, and is a regular on the convention circuit. You can find him @RobertSMalan or Facebook.

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