How to write about future Europe

So, on a day as historic as this, when the UK has voted to leave the EU, maybe you could distract yourself by reading Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Sequence books.

No-one’s promising you hope, by the way, but at least Hutchinson’s England doesn’t seem much different from the one we know now:

Fabio was fifteen hours late coming in from London.

“Fucking English,” he said, when Rudi finally met him at Jan Pawel II/Balice. “They spend about a thousand years trying to decide whether or not to join the Union, and when they do they become absolute fanatics. I mean, it’s totally offensive.”

… It transpired, between the arrivals gate and the taxi rank outside, that the English were having one of their periodic paranoid episodes – drugs, terrorism, immunisation, whatever – and Fabio had been held up while they confiscated and checked his passport and travel documents.

“I mean, not allowing one in, I can understand that,” he fumed. “But not allowing one out. What sort of mind thinks like that?”

Europe in Autumn, followed by Europe at Midnight (and soon, Europe in Winter), are geo-political sci-fi thrillers that deal with an imaginary (but not too far from possibility) near-future Europe, splintered by breakaway polities and countries.

If you ever wondered what Europe will look like in the near future, now’s your chance to see one iteration of it – the one where the United States of Europe didn’t work out and the little countries that used to make it up are badly band-aided together with politics, subterfuge, and in many cases, civil war, bursting out of the edges.

Imagination, life experience, or research?

While I was reading these books, I kept wondering how much of the story was real. How much was imagination, and how much of it was due to life experience or research? Sci-fi often gets you like that. Makes you wonder if the technology is really possible, or if the new discoveries and ways of thinking could really happen.

So many people like to tell writers to write about what they know. But that might have worked okay for Miss Read; how does it work out for sci-fi?

So, being a nosy bird, I put it to Dave Hutchinson that I imagined him to be a machete-wielding, invisibility-suit-wearing, ex-chef-turned-organised-crime geezer.

That scored me a laugh, if nothing else.

Imagination at the fore

Consider this: textile technologies.

Ever heard of those before?

Nope, me neither.

Nor had Dave, as it turned out. His laptop made of cloth, so easy to roll up and stuff into a rucksack, disappointingly turned out to be nothing more than the product of a fertile imagination.

Here’s what he says on the matter:

The stealth suit was something which was in the very earliest drafts of the book, back in the late 1990s. I’m not sure where it came from, apart from being necessary for that part of the story, but I do remember not wanting it to be perfect – so bits of it don’t fit properly and although it masks body heat from infra-red cameras, if you wear it long enough it will eventually cook you. I’m kind of suspicious of ‘perfect’ tech; in my experience, it doesn’t exist – I was born in 1960 and back then the internet and laptop computers would have been regarded as science fictional miracles, but as we know they’re full of bugs and quirks. Real life’s like that.

I have no idea where the cloth laptop came from; it’s something that just popped into my head one day and I thought it was rather cool, so I put it in the book. Although the Europe books are set between fifty and eighty years from now, I didn’t want a science fictional future of off-world colonies and flying cars and stuff like that. I wanted the future to be more or less like now, just a bit more run down and with a few odd, quirky advances. In Europe at Midnight there’s a gun made of meat, grown in vats. It’s an assassination weapon, meant to pass through security scanners. How likely any of these advances are is anyone’s guess, but I would love it if someone made the cloth laptop work in the real world. That would be a fabulous thing to have.

A meat gun, anyone?

Research and … well … thinking

No Borders, for those who don’t know, is a radical activist network fighting against borders and immigration control right across the world, and is very much within the bounds of the EU. The Schengen Zone is an area across the EU where people can travel between countries without papers. The idea of No Borders is to extend that area as far as possible, but of course the on-going fears of immigration and security controls in various countries keep on pushing back.

Dave’s Europe books talk about Schengen often – they talk about the spirit of Schengen – and that it should work, even if it doesn’t or it isn’t allowed to. So I asked him, is he a member of the No Borders clan, experiencing this ideology first hand, or has he discovered it through research?

I am a keen European, and a great fan of Schengen, but really the state of autumnal Europe started out as a cold calculation about what sort of book I wanted to write. I wanted to write a thriller set in Europe about people who smuggle stuff across borders, but the problem with Europe as it stands at the moment is that there’s this huge zone where there are no border controls, so I needed to bring those back somehow.

As I started to do background work on the book, it occurred to me that the Schengen era could easily turn out to be an historical blip. Countries have been appearing and disappearing and reappearing on the map of Europe for centuries; it’s constantly in flux. In addition, micro-nations keep popping up – some of them, like Monaco and Andorra, have been around for years. So I just combined all this stuff. It was initially just meant to be the setting for a sort of near-future Cold War thriller, but it evolved in the writing.

Given today’s events in the UK, I wonder if Dave is signing up to the Soothsayer’s Convention this year.

Research and a dose of imagination

Dave knows and understands chefs. That much was clear to me on reading it. He clearly ‘gets’ food, and I’ve had enough experience in kitchens to recognise the hot-headed apathy in a man who knows how to use a knife.  And that’s just his main character, Rudi.

So I put it to Dave that at least I couldn’t be wrong about this.

Not so.

I’ve never been a chef, but I worked in a kitchen for a little while after I left school. The main reason Rudi became a chef was because I realised at some point that I needed to tell the reader who he was, and around then I was reading Anthony Bourdain’s terrific Kitchen Confidential, which is the best book about cheffing and the restaurant business, and something just clicked. I like the idea of having a central character who’s doing an ordinary job and – to an extent anyway – having to juggle that with an increasingly extraordinary life. Everything else comes from research. I do cook, but it’s mostly everyday unexciting meat-and-potatoes stuff. I’d like to have the time – and the money – to be a bit more adventurous one day.

Damnit, imagination just keeps winning here. But what about the Secret Service-style Coureurs? If not a chef, has Dave been someone on the outside edge of society, following a hidden agenda known only to a few shady characters?

I suspected so, especially because the organised criminals in his book were so unspectacular, meeting in such mundane circumstances, it couldn’t fail but be real.

I was very aware that he’d have to kill me if he told me:

A lot of this stuff is very mundane, at least for the people involved. It’s just business as usual and there’s no need to make a big thing about it. Mainly because if they did go around sort of extravagantly being Coureurs and criminals they’d deserve to be arrested. Anyway, I find that understated kind of thing much more compelling than large-scale fireworks. Life mostly is understated, after all.

So that wasn’t a yes, and it wasn’t a no. Draw your own conclusions!

Imagination taking things too far?

Imagine a world where UKIP had colonised Europe. Imagine the bad reindeer jumpers, the paranoid approach to ‘outsiders’, and the blatant racism. “I don’t like to sound racist but [says something racist].”

Just in case our imagination isn’t that good, Dave created an entire community just like that, which stretches across the whole of Europe – in a different dimension (of sorts).

He called it The Community, but denies that it’s definitely a parallel universe:

I’m still trying to decide whether the Community is a parallel universe or just an offshoot of our own. A lot of the characters assume it is, but I’m still not sure. I think I’d like to leave it unresolved. It’s not so much a metaphor as a kind of spoof on Little England, what Europe might have turned out like if it had been colonised by UKIP a couple of hundred years ago – insular, inward-looking, suspicious of outsiders, deeply protective of its borders, but very dangerous when cornered. I could, I suppose, have done that by creating a polity, but this huge Continent-spanning entity is a lot more fun.

UKIP, Europe-wide, could be taking things a little too far, Dave. No-one wants to feel uncomfortable to that extent! Little England, to those who don’t know it, is characterised by the all-white, rural-ish Home Counties in England, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion at best, and Chicken Supreme is a foreign food.

Turns out, Dave isn’t afraid of feeling uncomfortable, or of making others feel that. He also isn’t afraid of turning what we know on its head and giving us a new paradigm to look through.

I asked him why he chose to create a polity from a university. I mean, university culture may be fun for the students and staff, but it surely can’t work as a country … can it?

I hoped he’d based it on some wild idea incubated since he was at university,  but it turned out he’d been reading books I’m too ignorant to know about:

The Community came first – at least Ernshire, the ‘imaginary’ county which was the prototype of the Community, which first appeared in a short story I wrote some considerable time ago. I guess the inspiration for the Campus was John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, a satire of the Cold War in which the world is a huge university, but the spark was the speech Nicolae Ceausescu made in December 1989 where he was booed by the crowd and which eventually led to his fall. All those things sort of clicked together, and I had this image of a repressive regime at a university being toppled by a violent revolution. After that, everything else was backgrounding and filling in.

So, if you’re wondering how much scientific knowledge and political nous you need to create a geo-political sci-fi thriller, you’ve got your answer here. A fertile imagination and the ability to read and research is way more important than writing about what you know.

So go ahead, knock out a great novel purely from your mind, and pick up a nomination for the Hugo Awards. It’s possible, it has been done, and it will be done again.

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