Stewart Hotston works in high finance in London, teaches historical sword-fighting with an emphasis on rapier and sidesword, and writes fiction that interrogates the contemporary world through the lens of SF and fantasy.
He’s been gracious enough to answer some of my questions, which I’ve been burning to ask since I got to read both the recently published Tangle’s Game and beta-read for his next project, The Alchemist of Parvedan.
Tense tech-thriller based on the growing role of blockchains, encryption and social media in society.
Amanda’s life is perfect. She has a high social credit score, a high-powered job, and all the perks that go with ticking the right boxes.
But when her untrustworthy ex sends her a package, she knows there’s going to be trouble. He’s revolutionising the foundation of the world’s economy, and the package holds the key to destabilising Europe – or revolutionising the world. It’s not just every country who wants control of it; the world of information is alive, and it has its own agenda.
1. From the world of high finance to the elegance of sword-fighting by way of writing video games, near-future cyber thrillers and fantasy with a political twist, it seems fair to say you’re into a lot of different things. How do these various interests and disciplines inform your writing?
I like to think I’m defined by wanting to understand everything I come across. It’s like an insatiable urge to always know more things. What excites me most is looking at how different subjects, ideas and themes tie together even if on the surface they appear to be completely unconnected. What I want to say through my stories is about how we’re all interconnected in ways we don’t understand, about how the systems we exist within channel what is possible and how anyone can kick against those pressures. So my stories tend to draw on my scientific background, my experience of working in complex markets and dealing with powerful people (when I’m not one). As for fighting…I basically look for any chance to shoehorn in a bit of violence just because I love writing about it :-).
2. Tangle’s Game is a clever near-future SF cyber-thriller that doesn’t shy away from shining a light on prejudices and issues prevalent in today’s world through the perspective of Amanda Back, your protagonist. Was this a natural consequence of the dictates of the story or was it your intention from the start to highlight how racism and sexism affects people in today’s society?
I realised quite early that I wanted to cover the impact of surveillance – not in the ‘villain is watching everyone’ kind of way but in how systems can grind us down and when they do there’s almost nothing we can do to set the record straight. I was horrified to read about what the Chinese government is using facial recognition and social credit scoring for and wanted to explore how that might be something we could accept here. It seemed obvious to me we are likely to accept the exact same levels of surveillance and think it’s ok because we’re in an open society. Amanda’s story then quickly because one where, despite being very privileged, she discovers all her precious buffers can be swept away as easily as a computer system deciding she’s untrustworthy. I thought I was writing a story about surveillance but an astute friend of mine (and a proper techie) dismissed that and said it’s really a story about what it means to be free. I think they were right, but if they are it’s a story I didn’t realise I was telling.
3. Some early reviewers of Tangle’s Game found Amanda to be intensely unlikeable which, to me, indicates they missed the point entirely. In my reading, it was clear that Amanda was in no way the typical hero that I suspect those readers were expecting to find; instead she was a woman who very much didn’t want to be in the position in which she found herself. Readers want to inhabit the ‘hero character’ and believe they would act with the same noble intentions if they ever end up in that situation, whereas Amanda was a normal person and reacted accordingly. What made you take this approach to your main protagonist?
Ha. You’re right about her not being a traditional hero. My experience is that most people want to be heroes but when faced with the opportunity they realise they might need to sacrifice a lot of what they’ve worked to build in their lives and stay silent or step away. Amanda’s a successful business woman and this requires a certain type of focus that’s interested in what she wants – this is often perceived by people as being arrogant or unsympathetic, especially for a woman. In my experience men are given more leeway to behave like this than women. There are many people who laud male anti-heroes. I find it hard to call it anything other than sexism when they decide they don’t like a woman cast from the same mould.
Amanda is faced with a situation which demands she makes a choice – try to hold onto what you’ve built or look beyond yourself and do what is right for others. It takes her a while to reach a conclusion to this question rather than just jumping in. I chose to take this approach because I think most people would choose this route and I wanted Amanda to reflect this truth about us.
4. Will we be seeing Amanda again? The book ended with a satisfying conclusion, but still with the option to revisit the story. Is there a sequel planned?
I have ideas, but can’t really say anything here! Actually I can. I would like to explore ideas about how important truth is in the digital age and I’d also like to understand how the ‘geography’ of the internet will change the idea of the nation state and how that will change my and your everyday life. In all these stories I want to examine how ordinary people like us can change that future for the better.
5. Personally, I know very little about the blockchain, so there were a couple of aspects in Tangle’s Game that went over my head. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is and how it works?
For those who’ve read the book you’ll pick up that I’m very cynical about it. Mainly because I think it’s a solution in search of a problem pushed by people who’ve failed to understand what it is they’re proposing it can replace. The basically idea it proposes a solution to is that of the Byzantine General’s Problem. The problem is one of trying to ensure that information is trustworthy. Imagine you had five friends who you wanted to support you on a project. However, each of them can be flaky and even if they say they might help, they could choose to do something else just when you need them. If enough of them flake you’re going to fail at the project. Knowing this the question becomes: should you start the project? Blockchain technology proposes to help you work out if their answers can be relied upon. It does this through what is essentially a mechanical process (rather than a cunning digital solution) which means information stored in a blockchain is by definition unhackable and 100% reliable. You can immediately see there are lots of potential applications for this headline. However…it’s the cost of making blocks, of storing them, of designing the rules for making them where the devil in the detail emerges to suggest it’s a much harder problem to solve efficiently than one might suspect when accepting the simplicity of the idea.
6. You also chose to make social credit score – a new system being used in China, I believe – a major part of the society in which Amanda lives. I actually found this to be one of the most unnerving aspects of the story, as it unfairly prejudices against introverts or people who may have health issues and other reasons for not socialising. It also reminded me heavily of Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley – the relentless insistence on interaction, the sense that the social credit score forced people to interact and ‘enjoy’ themselves, regardless of whether they actually wanted to. Is this something you think will become more common and is it just a way to control people and force them to consume more?
In many ways it’s already being deployed against us. We have targeted advertising, insurers offering us cheaper policies if we exercise and don’t smoke, if we install cameras on our cars etc. I think its scariest aspect is exactly what the Chinese government is using it for – deciding who is a good citizen and who isn’t. And guess what – people who disagree with the government are deemed as untrustworthy and suffer as a result. This might be something we think we’d never accept and you’re right that we’d reject it if the government proposed it here. I think if tech companies proposed it in a positive light – such as get cheaper flights if you’re a ‘nice’ person, skip the queue if you say nice things about our restaurant, hire a car more cheaply if you’re seen as a reliable person – we’d be all over it before we realised the downsides.
Having said that, there are rules against using genetic tests in insurance so it can be protected against. There are also discussions around how learning algorithms reflect the prejudices of those who coded them and what we can do to change that. There is hope. But there is a LOT of risk right now.
7. You’ve recently signed with the John Jarrold Literary Agency – congratulations! I know you have an unpublished book in the works (of course, because I’ve read it!) – is there anything you can tell us about what happens next? Is that the book that will be going to publishers or do you have something else you’re working on instead?
This is indeed the book which will be going to publishers. In a sentence it’s about what happens in a world where humanity enslaves its gods.
8. The Alchemist of Parvedan is, on the surface, a very different book to Tangle’s Game, though there are definite parallels in your presentation and critique of prejudice, power and greed. Why do you return to these same themes in such different books?
These themes are hugely important to me for so many reasons. I come from a mixed background. My grandmother (who died this year) was the only survivor of her family from the Nazi concentration camps. My other grandmother survived Partition and Independence in India. I’ve always wanted to understand how those outcomes came about, what events led to them, how people who lived in them understood their roles. In the end it comes down to wanting to explore what it means to be a person among others. It’s not exactly the hero’s journey I admit. It’s really more about how is it we’ve managed to build a world in which we have laws, wealth, healthcare and space to be what we want to be – there are heroes in those stories but they aren’t omnipotent, they aren’t there to maintain the status quo. They are there to overthrow the status quo and make the world better as a result.
I’ve argued over the years with friends (mainly male friends) who find fiction hard to access. They moan that it often doesn’t speak to issues they find relevant. I decided to write about issues which are important to me, not as a preach, but to find stories in which the implications of these issues can be exciting, thrilling horrifying and motivating. Secondary to that is I like finding worlds which appear to have everything and then destroying them to find out what’s underneath.
9. You’re travelling to Minsk soon to compete in the European HEMA championships. Can you tell us a little about your HEMA journey and what you love about it? How did you start and how long have you been practising. And, of course, good luck!
I’m a keen LARPer. Have been playing for nearly twenty years. About ten years ago I was travelling back from an event and got into an enthused discussion with a friend about how we both wanted to be better fighters. We turned that desire into a search for club and had the luck to come across the School of the Sword in Godalming. We went along to their beginners class and found them to be friendly, inclusive and completely and utterly devoted into being technically brilliant fighters. I never looked back. Since then I’ve really specialised on Italian Sidesword (think the kinds of sword you see in medieval movies) and rapiers (think 3 musketeers). My favourites are two weapon combos such as rapier and dagger and sidesword and shield. We practice now in Oxford, Reading and Godalming as the sport has grown in popularity and, despite our initial scepticism sidesword is a really good proxy for larp swords and is properly transferrable.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
Um. yes. If you haven’t seen Spiderman: into the Spiderverse you really must go and find it now. I could wax lyrical about how amazing this film is…but long and short of it is this: it’s my favourite MCU film.
If readers would like to know more about Stewart Hotston and his work, you can follow him on Twitter or check out his website. And, of course, get yourself a copy of Tangle’s Game from your retailer of choice.
If you’re available in London on 14 May, come along to the Star of Kings pub near St Pancras for 7pm where Stewart, Juliet McKenna and Jen Williams will be reading from their recent works and answering audience questions as guests of Super Relaxed Fantasy Club.