Facts Inspire Fiction …

I wonder how many readers of this post are aware that the “democracy” brokered between Britain and China on behalf of the Hong Kong people, is anything but democratic. Or that the government here owns all the undeveloped land and that despite covering some 1044 square kilometres, its population of 7 million is crammed into narrow strips of land with densities as high as 54,530 persons per square kilometre–in some cases living in apartments where one person enjoys just 12.9 square metres of living space. Or that a jumper-suicide can be cleaned up in less than an hour, with the remaining tenants being none-the-wiser.

Hong Kong is a place of contradictions. It is democratic, and yet it isn’t, not really. It is part of China, and yet it remains separate to it. It is wealthy, and yet, 45.8% of all its housing is either publicly owned or is subsidised; the majority of its people crammed into well-organised, if claustrophobic, sky-towers.

The oddity of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LEGCO) is the Functional Constituency. Fully half of LEGCO’s 70 seats are allocated to the elected representatives of constituencies considered so vital to the on-going development of Hong Kong–to Big Business–that they cannot be trusted in the hands of the people. Instead, they go to industry cabals, representing Finance, Financial Services, Real Estate and Construction and so on. That’s 35 seats for which there are then only 212,227 eligible voters. The smallest of them–by voter numbers–is Insurance: it has only 144 registered voters. This is akin to the boards of JP Morgan and Citibank sending a joint representative to Congress. Yep, this is the democracy that China fears so much that it won’t allow its leader to call himself Prime Minister–he must be called the Chief Executive. And he must be elected by a 1200-strong specially appointed Election Committee, all approved by Beijing.

Land hoarding creates another oddity. Hong Kong is a wealthy-ish place, but the government determines how much land to release for development each year; and there are only a half-dozen companies that can afford to turn up to the auction. This is bound to distort the economy, and it does. It hurts everyone. After all, if you took out a HK$5m mortgage for a HK$8m, 1000 square foot apartment–still more than an hour’s commute from the city–you absolutely need to stay in work (HK$7.80/US$1). And given there are so few employment protections, you need to keep your boss happy. You also need for interest rates to stay low and you need for the currency to remain stable. You crave stability–at almost any cost.

This concentration of power in the hands of generally unrepresentative Representatives and the largely man-made land scarcity distorts everything; and this distortion benefits some more than others. Let’s consider transport. When a new commuter line goes in, the MTR is given the land across which it can lay its tracks. It is also given land on which to put its stations. This then gives the company (the MTR is a publicly owned company listed on the HKSE) a license to print money in the property game. Over each station they build malls. They build residential towers. They operate residential maintenance contracts, they maintain our residential security and organise the clean up after people jump from their towers. They build railway towns.

I live in one such town. It’s a place called Tung Chung, which lies very close to the airport. You can find it on Google maps–I live in one of the long line of 50-storey towers facing the airport. I doubt it is the same kind of railway town that existed in the US Mid-West during the 19th century–there are no evil railway barons that I know of; there are no muddy streets–but I’m guessing it has much the same feel about it.

I find the dynamics that weave their way through this City interesting. After all, if you look deep enough, you’ll find everything you need for a good fiction: a corrupted (at least highly compromised) “democracy”; a dozen or so “too big to fail” families (all of whom caste long, hard-to-see shadows in the corridors of power); the hoarding and uneven distribution of land; a super-power-in-the-making just across the border; and a bunch of local politicians and business leaders kow-towing in that direction looking for hand-outs … there’s even an ageing, weakened super-power, desperately trying to manage the region’s future.

And so Hong Kong is the inspiration for Go Down City, the capital city of Trevon, a planet in the Outer-Rim, as depicted in my novel Scat. Go Down is also filled with well-educated, “can-do” people. It is rich in resources. It is wealthy. But it is also tied to business–a single company–and the residents there live their lives under a constitution that you, and I, couldn’t possibly sign up for. And yet, for a desperate Earth, looking to import the cheap resources that it needs to sustain its population, this is the way forward. This is the compromise it has made on behalf of its 21bn population.

Until, that is, a young man is pushed too far in the wrong direction. When he finally realises he has nothing of value to lose … and absolutely everything to gain.

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Auditioning for SCAT … I wish!

A couple of months ago, I was asked to take part in a game of blog tag. I didn’t have time for it then, so I gave it a miss. It did however make me think. One of the questions was “who do you see playing your characters in the TV series or movie?” I had no idea then, but now I do. Here they are:

 

For the novel, Scat

Sebastian Scatkiewicz (Scat) – Eminem (a risky choice, but then so is Scat. He’s flawed, conflicted, not immediately likeable and a bit of a loose cannon. You gotta respect he’s good at what he was born to do, but the problem would be in aligning his motivations with your cause.)

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Andrew “Birdie” Goosen – Ryan Hurst (I hear he’s lost the beard, and since being clubbed around the head repeatedly in Son’s of Anarchy, I hear he’s free and possibly looking for work. Besides, if we’re to work with Eminem, we’d need the big man on the set to handle the unscripted shootings.)

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Jack Petroff – Ian McShane (He needs more Deadwood-like roles. And as they ain’t going back to finish the series, he can have some fun building another empire–a corporate universal empire–before Earth finds out about it.)

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Samuel Cohen – Charles Dance (Of course, I’d need to prise him away from Games of Thrones, but as my Cohen character is the mastermind behind a universe-wide grab for power–certainly much bigger than Charles could dream of in Westeros–he it might find it quite appealing)

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Mary Sheffield – Emilia Clarke or an air-brushed Winona Ryder, perhaps Keira Knightley or Natasha Henstridge, maybe even Milla Jovovich (I only hesitate because it would take me a while to sort through this lot–though I expect the auditions could be a whole lot of fun;-)

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Of course, this selection might need to change. By the time HBO comes knocking, this lot could be using Zimmer frames to get about. If you’ve read Scat, let me know what you think. I really ought to be ready for that call;-)

In the meantime, Merry Christmas

It’s either Christmas or the end of the world … who can tell?

… but it’s certainly Christmas at Amazon. I’ve just noticed a spike in downloads for Birdie Down. It jumped to #4 in Space Opera and #15 in Scifi Adventure overnight. Perhaps all those Christmas Kindles are being loaded with free books ahead of delivery, who knows. But if this is what the Mayans meant by 21.12. 2012 being the end of the world, I’m OK with it.

If you haven’t downloaded your copy, then go ahead. It’s always free, Christmas or no.

I May be Going Crazy …

Since I began to write Scat, back in summer 2010, I’ve asked myself some deep questions. Of late these questions have been getting a lot more abstract.

Scat was my first novel.  I wanted to write a straightforward adventure with an unconventional, genre-busting ending, but, the further I got into it, the more questions I had, and the more I had to question what I had previously assumed or taken for granted. Now I’m up to my neck, writing the sequel, and the questions are getting quite scary; they are making life, and the writing, extremely complicated. It’s not that I’m a particularly complicated person, superstitious or religious, but, having left Scat where I did, I do want to make sure I’m covering all the angles and offering the deepest possible follow-up story.

Army of Souls is an adventure, it is a thriller, but given the topic, it does need a solid foundation–something based in logic–and one thing I have discovered since asking the questions, is that our belief systems are not based on logic. It is now no surprise that today’s human religions (as opposed to alien, or fantasy religions) are rarely included in scifi.

So, what am I asking myself? Well, they are hardly practical questions; they don’t impact on me right now–I’m not asking anything that affects me today–it’s just that they’re questions for which we don’t have the ready answers. Listing them, they fall into two main categories: matters concerning the colonisation of new worlds, and assumptions about our belief systems. Some are economic. Some are political. Some relate to how our beliefs may follow us into a pure science-based environment. Or not. As the case may be.

Which nation will be the first to travel to an Earth-similar planet? Or will it be a company? If it is a company, which company? And will it claim this New World for mankind or their shareholders? And, if these planets are operated on a pure profit motive, how much will it cost for man to migrate to them when Earth is finally depleted, exhausted–ie what will be the one-way ticket price? Will this method of space exploration benefit all of us, or a small group of one per cents? If the latter, what happens to the billions of us who get left behind? And what are the social consequences of that? Will my DNA ever get off world?  And if it did, to whose world; and what kind of world will my descendants travel to? Will it be yours and mine, or will it be the company’s? And how many Earth-similar planets and alien species will we screw up before we nail down our emigration procedures? When we colonise other Earth-similar planets, will we subjugate the current occupants, or integrate? Will we impose our ways or adapt? And who’ll decide which or how? Who’ll regulate it? And with so much at stake, what are the chances of corruption?

Theoretical problems aside, what of the practical problems of writing about something for which we have no experience; where the economics and social pressures will be so very different from today? Do I attempt to draw on loose historical comparisons? And what of the development of the main characters in such an environment? Just how different will they be from the heroes we are used to? If they answer to companies and not to well-meaning governments, and are selected for space migration based on their psychological profiles,  does this affect their priorities, their attitudes, and base-line thinking–does it affect their likeability? Do our heroes need to hold our values? As readers, must we like our heroes, or just respect them? And given the dramatically changed environment, would our hero’s problems and his personal challenges be recognisable in today’s universe?

Army of Souls asks even more difficult, more controversial, questions related to our belief systems. It’s a given that religion isn’t based on science. It is based on faith. Atheists point out there is no empirical evidence of a God. Cynics point out that God can’t exist. They tell us to look at the facts. They point out that much our modern knowledge disproves so much of the Bible, and yet, Stephen Hawking offers us theories (Big Bang, String theories) that, ironically, require us to have faith in an, as yet, unproven science. And we spend Billions on projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, largely on faith, hoping they will give us answers. They say religion is based on faith, that it’s hardly scientific. But isn’t our belief in the Big Bang based on our faith in scientists?

Now let’s assume science eventually proves we do have souls? Would our religious houses believe them? How would the competition for followers between these houses change? How disruptive would this knowledge be? Would God prefer we had faith, rather than proof? If not everyone is suited for space (even if we could afford the suits), how many of us are suited for heaven?

I’ve written two sifi novels, both of them based on the same universe, largely with the same characters, but in different styles. The first, Scat, is the bigger story. That one made me talk to myself. The second, Birdie Down, is a more straightforward rebellion story–it’s less complicated, more for adventure junkies– and it didn’t bend my brain like Scat did, and as Army of Souls currently is. The difficulty in writing AoS it in keeping it moving and to let the questions pop up (and to show how I might have answered them) inside the wider story, without slowing it down. The focus is on writing an original, memorable scifi story, not in solving the universe’s unsolved mysteries. And this is why I may be going crazy.

I’ve got to say, Army of Souls is proving a tad more difficult than Scat was to write. In Scat, the question of belief in, and the existence of, or not, of souls, was not the central issue. In Army of Souls the existence of souls and the alien dominance of them, changes everything, and drives the story on from the get-go.

So, to keep my head straight, I take regular breaks; I watch The Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead and Dexter to chill out; and look forward to the uncomplicated innocence of Christmas. It appears to be working–I am at least muddling through;-)

Army of Souls should be ready late Spring, 2013.

New York, New York

Am off to NYC tonight for a Christmas party. Hangover expected. I’ll be enjoying myself so the social media gadgets and pc get left behind. No tweets, FB ‘likes’ or voice mail for 6 days. Back Wednesday.

Meanwhile pick up a free copy of Scat from Smashwords in any format you prefer without the annoying DRM. Just use code HZ56P when you check out.

Best

Jim