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.
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.
Earlier this month Frances Hardinge was the BSFA’s guest at the AGM/Minicon jointly held with the Science Fiction Foundation. Transcripts of her interview with Tom Pollock and a panel item with Frances, Niall Harrison, Farah Mendlesohn and Virginia Preston are now online at Strange Horizons. Thanks to Niall and his SH team for arranging the transcription and hosting these, and thanks of course to Frances for being an excellent guest.
The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Lauren Beukes, author of Moxyland and the forthcoming Zoo City. She will be interviewed by Jonathan McCalmont.
As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.
Also as usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.
Beukes is also doing a signing at Forbidden Planet, London on Thursday 29th July between 6 pm and 7 pm, and is the guest at a British Fantasy Society Open Meeting, in the George, The Strand, London, on Saturday 31st July, from 1 pm to 5 pm.
I’m still in Cologne at the moment, but have some links to keep you amused. One: Paul Witcover’s Locusreview of The Secret History of Science Fiction:
Kelly and Kessel have selected stories from inside and outside the genre to demonstrate that, in fact, despite the continued reliance of publishers on such marketing labels as science fiction and fantasy, “the divide between mainstream and science fiction is more apparent than real,” and that “outside of the public eye,” writers on both sides of the supposed divide have been producing work that, on the one hand, has the ambition and sophistication of literary fiction, and, on the other, makes use of the tropes of speculative fiction, though not necessarily labeled as such by writers, critics, or readers. This is the secret history to which the title refers.
It’s a bold assertion, and I have a lot of sympathy for it. In fact, before I read this anthology, I was inclined to agree with it. But as I read these stories, I began to doubt it more and more, and finally I became convinced that Kelly and Kessel are wrong in an centrally important way, and that there really are substantial differences between genre speculative fiction of literary ambition and what is written outside the genre, even if it contains speculative elements. And I think these stories prove it: that is the secret history of The Secret History.
Note that John Kessel turns up to discuss in the comments.
I’ve never known tie-in novels receive so much fanfare and review coverage as [Sebastian Faulks’ Bond and Eoin Colfer’s Hitch-Hiker’s]: because that’s the other bizarre thing – franchise fiction tends to be ignored by reviewers, especially in major genre magazines. They treat it as a lesser product, and hate to give it air time. I’ve heard some talk that, because it’s assumed tie-in fiction always involves a one-off payment and no royalties, the author gets little benefit. That’s certainly not the case for several franchises, and Some tie-in books make careers.
Sometimes I find that genre magazines are ignoring the very “brands” that sell hundreds of thousands of copies – brands, therefore, that readers want to know about.
I merely note that I was out at dinner the other night, and my colleagues were discussing Harry Potter and some other franchise I temporarily forget, and expected me to know all about them; when in fact neither interests me in the least. [EDIT: still can’t remember what the other franchise/series discussed was, but I did remember the other thing I wanted to say: Faulks’ and Colfers’ books may have attracted a lot of attention, but not much of it was positive.]
There are a lot of problems in writing utopias, but they can be opportunities. The usual objection—that they must be boring—are often political attacks, or ignorant repeating of a line, or another way of saying “No expository lumps please, it has to be about me.” The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.
And if we did achieve a just and sustainable world civilization, I’m confident there would still be enough drama, as I tried to show in Pacific Edge. There would still be love lost, there would still be death. That would be enough. The horribleness of unnecessary tragedy may be lessened and the people who like that kind of thing would have to deal with a reduction in their supply of drama.
But this rapid change, in turn, leads to another sort of crisis. “Depending what we do in next 20 years, it’s very hard to be plausible, to say this is what’s going to happen. At that point you can’t write science fiction, [so] the genre is in a little bit of a crisis, and all the young people are reading fantasy.” Robinson himself, however, presses on undaunted. He’s considering future novels set around Saturn or Mercury; he’s looking into a book about Herman Melville, who “after his career as a novelist crashed had another career as a customs inspector”; he’s keen to put what he learnt from Galileo – the work ethic, “the tenacity of the man”, into practice.
But he worries about “the crisis for this tiny genre”, recently launching an impassioned defence of science fiction in the New Scientist, where he accused the Man Booker judges of neglecting what he called “the best British literature of our time”. “It’s a different situation than it was when I began, the relation between world and genre. Back then you could read science fiction and get a sense of what the world was going to be – now, I don’t think you can be prophets in the same way,” he says. “If the world is a science fiction novel then what do you read? What can the literature do for you?”
Oh, and Dollhousehas been cancelled, though all 13 ordered episodes will air. Not in the least surprising, and in some ways deserved, though I will still miss it; there are plenty of failures on tv, but very little ambition.