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?
When and why did you begin writing speculative fiction and where did you get your inspirations?
I’m not sure when exactly I started writing speculative fiction. I think I’ve always loved the genre. When I was about twelve, I thought about writing a story with a character inspired by ninjas. At that time, a certain type of shoe had become popular in my small town, Tororo. They called it North Star (I think), and it was fashioned like a boot made of cloth. It was a cheap shoe, maybe a pirated brand, but seeing something that looked like a ninja costume made me think about a ninja in the town. I did not get down to writing it. I only played with the idea, but every time I walked in the streets I saw my ninja running on the rusty iron-sheet roofs.
I wrote my first speculative story in my early twenties. At that time, speculative fiction from African writers was frowned upon. Writers like Amos Tutuola did not get as much attention as Chinua Achebe because the latter wrote ‘realistic’ stories, often those that could be taken as a social or political commentary. It became expected of African writer to tell stories that were anthropological in nature. Even today, some blurbs do not say what the story is, but rather tell how a book talks about this African city or that African culture or the other African country. Though the first stories I published were ‘realistic’, the pull to the fantastic was very strong, and elements of it kept slipping in. Like A Killing in the Sun, which I wrote sometime in 2001 or 2002. I wanted it to be a mundane story about uncontrollable soldiers, something that had scourged the country for decades, but it turned out to be a ghost story. Finding a home for these stories was very difficult, and it left me frustrated and hopeless.
Then I discovered the internet and its plethora of ezines willing to publish spec-fic, and that’s when I ditched everything my education had taught me about what it means to be an African writer.
I can’t say why I write speculative fiction. Maybe because I have an ‘overactive imagination.’ My brain is always cooking up fantastical things and creating magical backstories to every mundane thing I see. I love to daydream. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. Today, I love to spend hours in my bed, doing nothing, just staring at the ceiling and dreaming up fantastical worlds. When I was a little boy, I did not have this luxury. People would see me sitting idle somewhere and they would chase me to go and find other children to play with. Being a recluse was frowned upon, staying alone for long hours was frowned upon. Yet I loved to do it, to wander away to magical lands, and so I would look for any place that gave me absolute privacy to daydream. The bathroom was one such place, the only one I remember spending a lot of time in. It was a room at the back of the courtyard, and we shared it with four other families. Sometimes there was a long queue to use it. I avoided bathing in the evenings, when the queue would be long, and preferred afternoons. Whenever anyone saw me go into the bathroom, they would say, “Let me bathe first. If you go in, you won’t come out.” It was not a nice place. It had a broken water heater, and the window shutters were wooden, and the taps were not working, and the floor was a little bit slimy with dirt, but I loved it for the privacy it gave me to daydream, and I think allowing my brain to wander away in that bathroom was training ground for me to write speculative fiction.
Why do you think speculative fictions from Africa and the African diaspora have become more popular in recent times?
There’s been a push for diversity in fiction and in films. We all know the majority of readers are people of color, yet the majority of speculative fiction works are by white people, and so people wanted to see themselves in these artworks.
But I think many Africans are simply finding the stories they love to read in written form, and stories that are about them. Most people still enjoy oral stories, and these are often fantastical in nature. Not in the classic way of sitting around the fire and telling folk tales, but some of these stories end up in newspapers, with headlines like ‘Witchdoctor sues Parliament Speaker for failure to pay him.’ (This is a recent case, of a traditional healer who claimed the speaker of the Ugandan parliament owed her success to him, and she did not pay him for the charms he gave her to succeed). I think people on the continent are beginning to appreciate reading these kinds of things in good fiction, not just in hearsays.
You are both a writer and filmmaker — how do these creative processes feed into each other?
I am more than just a writer and filmmaker. With an overactive imagination, there’s always a story lurking in my subconscious, and if I stick to one media I wouldn’t cope. I’ve written radio plays, stage plays, poetry, and recently I went into digital arts and fell in love with it at once. I love telling stories and it does not make sense to stick to one format. Whether it’s a book, or a poem, or digital art, the uniting factor is story, and I believe I’m a storyteller.
From the idea stage, I know whether a story will be prose, or film, or radio play. Only recently have I started to think of multi-platform stories, like the one in AfroSF v3, “Safari Nyota,” which I want to be prose, a web series, a video game, and a graphic novel, each platform with a slightly different storyline.
I started as a writer, and it taught me a lot about developing characters, for with prose, you have a lot of freedom to give the reader a character’s backstory. Writing radio plays and stage plays helped me master dialog. When I went into film, I learned a lot about plotting, since films are time-bound. This kind of made my prose writing sparser than it used to be, and led me to develop a visual style. As I go more into digital arts, I’m beginning to pay a lot of attention to details. There are things I used to ignore in my writing, especially when describing characters, but now, when making a piece of digital art, I have to think about the minute details, and I find myself thinking about this when writing, and I believe it will help me grow.
Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington are authors of It Takes Death to Reach a Star(2018) and In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon (2020) — fast-paced, action-packed, post-apocalyptic thrillers set in the 23rd century — as well as various solo works. It Takes Death to Reach a Star was a Dragon Award Finalist, a Cygnus Award First Place Ribbon recipient, an IPPY Award Winner, a New York Book Festival Sci-Fi Award Winner, and a Feathered Quill Gold Award Winner. Vector caught up with Stu and Gareth to ask them about their collaboration …
In the Shadow of a Valiant Moon is out early next year, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it.
Gareth:Moon — as Stu and I refer to it — is the sequel to It Takes Death to Reach a Star. It’s set four years after the events in Star. Star was dark, but Moon is darker. Even the team at Boilermaker Entertainment — they’re the ones we’re working with to bring this series to the screen — commented on how much darker it is, compared with the first book.
Stu: And yet, even with all the bleakness and despair, there is this central thread of hope. Just the flicker of an idea that maybe, just maybe, humanity is worth saving.
Organized and translated by Emad El-Din Aysha. Emad comments:
This is a roundtable discussion among several members of لجمعية المصرية لأدب الخيال العلمي, the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF). The ESSF was founded in 2012 shortly after the Egyptian January 2011 revolution. In that moment, a group of people who had largely lost hope of all change in Egyptian life—scientists, academics, artists, writers, poets—felt that everything had changed, and that they could now make a constructive contribution towards building the future. This conversation took place in late 2018, and was conducted predominantly in Arabic. Discussants were Manal Abd Al-Hamid, Ahmed Al-Mahdi, Emad El-Din Aysha, Hosam El-Zembely, Muhammad Naguib Matter, and Kadria Said.
Thank you all for participating. First off, how did you learn of the ESSF and the Shams Al-Ghad [‘Sun of Tomorrow’] series of anthologies?
Muhammad Naguib Matter: Via the internet! I saw an advert for an ESSF salon and I attended it, and since then I haven’t missed an event. For me, something like the ESSF, such a group, used to be pure fantasy. The literary scene here in Egypt is completely void of SF workshops. Yes, there are some cultural salons, like the one in Giza, dedicated to the memory of Nihad Sharif, the dearly departed pioneer of Egyptian science fiction. There’s also a salon for science fiction in Aswan, in southern Egypt. But these events are lacking: they essentially do one thing, which is to host big names in the world of literature to talk about their works. They leave no room at all to learn something. There are no workshops. So that’s what drew me straight away to the ESSF. It’s filling that gap.
Sandra Newman’s fourth novel, The Heavens, is just out from Granta and Grove Atlantic. We think it’s a remarkable book, and we’re not alone. The New York Times has called The Heavens “heady and elegant … a chameleon, a strange and beautiful hybrid.” Tor.com says, “How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations.” The Washington Independent Review of Books praises the book for its humour and style, but above all for its knack for portraying the unstable reality of its two central characters. Vector recently got the chance to chat to Sandra about her writing …
Oh, well, I’ve always liked Nine Worlds! I missed last year, but that’s the first year I’ve missed. This year, there have been some fantastic panels – the Hidden Histories panel was a favourite. But probably my highlight was playing four hours of The Good Society. It’s a Jane Austen based tabletop RPG. And it was really intense.
Who were you?
I played the heiress, the daughter of the lady of the manor. You know, beset by suitors, having to choose the one that was least awful … and you can’t choose nobody.
Oh my God. What happened?
Well, the misconception is that in Austen novels nothing happens. But imagine if you watched somebody trying to defuse a bomb, and you didn’t know what they were doing …
You’d assume they were doing nothing?
Yes! Every tiny movement in Austen is immensely high stakes. Everything is life or – okay, if not death, then at least permanent disgrace and penury. It’s massively mercenary and exciting. What’s really interesting was watching people who are used to playing swords‑and-sorcery games adapt to those mechanics. And we had a fantastic game as well.
That sounds so cool. I wanted to ask you, actually, about the role of conflict when you write fiction. In a lot of writing advice, we’re told how important conflict is. I wonder what you think about that from a craft perspective?
I mean, I’m not the most accomplished fiction writer. We’re sitting at Nine Worlds here, and I guarantee you that within this three-hundred square metres, there are people …
We stare in quiet awe at a nearby group of people.
I don’t know these people here, but I absolutely guarantee you that there’s probably somebody better to ask just sitting around.
We’re all fucking brilliant.
Everybody’s fucking brilliant. But to answer your question, I guess ‘tension’ is as good a word as ‘conflict.’ If you’re writing about something that’s problematic, something that’s tense …
In August we caught up with Florence Okoye at Nine Worldsin London.
How are you enjoying the con?
I loved how you get a proper introduction to everything when you come in. They’re so considerate of every single thing, from pronouns, to whether you want to be spoken to, whether you want to be photographed – like, every single thing! And also accessibility allies, which is a fantastic concept. So I’m actually very impressed.
I came fairly late, so I’ve only had time to get to one panel before the one I was on. That was ‘Let The Past Die: Sacrificing Sacred Cows in Star WarsThe Last Jedi.’ It was a really interesting panel – a lot of unexpected connections being made by the panellists, some great questions being asked.
It’s a very informal collective I started up in 2015 with some friends, back when I was living in Manchester. We were just like, ‘Well, we’re really interested in Afrofuturism, and nobody around us really talks about it … so let’s just do a thing about it.’ We started with a conference in October 2015, where over a hundred people turned up, which was amazing. It was just the power of Black Tumblr and Twitter at work to be honest.
Since then Afrofutures UK have done conferences and events, working with other organisations, trying to raise discussions at that intersection of race, technology, and speculative fiction from a variety of different perspectives. We tend to make sure that there are practical things like workshops – Arduino and programming or zine making workshops, for instance – really going for an approach that is intersectional, holistic, and creative.
Creating cultural infrastructure, as well as talking about culture that already exists. Awesome. So the theme of our next issue of Vector (#288) is economics. Would you like to talk a bit about Afrofuturism and economics?
I think at some point you realise how much everything is dependent on economic infrastructure. So you might say, okay, we want more Black people to be writers. Then you think, hang on, this is also to do with funding, this is also to do with levels of education attainment, this is also to do with just having spare time. I know plenty of creative people who have literally no time to do their creative work. So if the funding isn’t there, could Black communities provide funding ourselves? Oh, but we don’t have the money either, because we’re historically disenfranchised! And so very quickly you come back to this question of economics and the impact of institutionalised racism.
One thing I’ve found really interesting – really through Tumblr at first – was how Black people have been really good at taking advantage of digital infrastructure. So that might be someone using Patreon to fund their education, for example. And that can be a very practical quid pro quo: ‘You’re giving me money to help with my education, I’m going to make sure I write this number of books, and share them.’ Or that might be somebody using Etsy, and saying clearly, ‘Look, this is a Black-owned business, this is how we work, come and support us.’ So there are all of these interesting things that have happened through the internet. It’s really about people saying, ‘Okay, how do we support each other, in financial terms?’
Circumventing structures that might have systemic bias.
Well, yes, even though we’re still all using those systems in a sense. It’s about doing what we can. And maybe one day, as we have more amazing software developers specialising in financial software, maybe there will be like, say, a Black, co-operative version of PayPal. So we can be like, ‘Actually, yes, this is the right infrastructure to use to share our work.’ Personally, I like to think what you’re seeing now are prototypes.
Right, because the big tech companies that provide this infrastructure are still problematic. They’re still bound up in various ways in systemic racism. But the model is there.
Exactly. The co-operative model is there.
So tell us about what you’ve been working on recently.
In August we caught up with Dave Hutchinson at Nine Worlds in London.
Are you enjoying the con so far?
I always enjoy Nine Worlds. It’s different to Eastercon of course. The emphasis isn’t quite so much on fiction – it’s more multimedia and general culture. Just saw a panel about villains, which was good … that was Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jeannette Ng, Anna Stephens and Mike Brooks.
Oh yeah, I saw that. That was good.
There was some conversation there about the Bond franchise, and the way the villains are frequently ‘othered,’ whether that’s a racialized other, or what-have-you. It struck me that it’s always been that way. Bond was always fighting the Russians, it was always the West versus the East. The Russians disappeared as the geopolitical other, although perhaps that dynamic has returned to some extent. But we are sort of looking for different ‘others.’
And meanwhile, there are increasingly plausible rumours about getting our first Black Bond.
Idris Elba? He’s a terrific actor. He’d be really good. One of the many reasons I hated Prometheus is that it totally wasted him.
I’ll watch anything that’s got him in it.
Haven’t seen Prometheus though! Maybe that’s …
You may want to draw the line with Prometheus. [Laughs]. It really is a terrible film.