Exclusive Interview: “Hel’s Eight” Author Stark Holborn
Guilt can be a heavy burden. It’s something the character Ten had to deal with in Stark Holborn’s 2021 science fiction space opera Western Ten Low, and something she’s still dealing with in the dystopian sci-fi sequel, Hel’s Eight (paperback, Kindle). And in the following email interview, Holborn has to deal with the burden of my questions about influences and inspiration and connection.
For people who didn’t read it, or the interview we did about it, what was Ten Low about, and where and when was it set?
Ten Low is set on a bleak desert moon called Factus at the forgotten end of the system. It follows an ex-convict army medic, who is attempting to atone for a crime she committed during a recent war by saving lives where she can. Until the day she witnesses a ship crash in the desert and rescues the only survivor: a thirteen-year-old girl called Gabriella Ortiz who also happens to be a genetically manipulated child soldier, a General from the opposite side of the war to Ten. The two strike an uneasy bargain to save Gabi’s life by getting her off-moon…only that won’t be as easy as it sounds.
And then, for people who have read Ten Low, and thus can ignore me writing SPOILER ALERT in all caps, what is Hel’s Eight about, and how does it connect to Ten Low both narratively and chronologically?
Hel’s Eight picks up around five years after the action of Ten Low. Ten, a.k.a. “Doc,” is still trying to atone, living as an outcast in Factus’ desperate Unincorporated Zone. She tries to stay apart from people, haunted by the possible alien presence known as the Ifs; incorporeal beings that feed of doubt and chance and seemingly use her as a conduit. Until she experiences a terrifying vision of a possible future that involves the death of everyone she cares about, and she finds herself dragged back to the land of the living.
Narratively, there’s also a secondary thread set thirty years in the past which features a returning character from Ten Low called Pec “Peccable” Esterházy. It delves into Factus’ history and the experiences of the first convicts sent to the work camps there.
When in relation to writing Ten Low did you come up with the idea for Hel’s Eight, and what inspired its plot?
As soon as I wrote her, I knew I wanted to explore Esterházy’s character more fully. In Ten Low we meet her in her early eighties, when she’s a notorious smuggler and the leader of the outlaw town of Angel Share. In Hel’s Eight I take the opportunity to relate how she arrived on Factus…and more besides. She’s in her late fifties in these sections, a woman who has seen and suffered a lot, who is absolutely tough as nails, while still maintaining a sense of empathy. I loved writing her.
The rest of the plot really came from character. Ten’s arc reached a point of relative conclusion in the first book, but it wasn’t done. Without giving too much away, at the end of Ten Low she had made a promise but hadn’t kept it, because it terrified her. That obligation, and that fear, powers a lot of the narrative.
And is there a significance to the novel being called Hel’s Eight as opposed to Hell’s Eight? I know Hel from Norse mythology — and, uh, the Thor movies…
In Ten Low I introduced the mythical, seemingly immortal figure of Hel The Converter, leader of the organ-harvesting, Ifs-worshipping cult known as The Seekers. I like to think that someone on Factus knew their Norse mythology and named her after the goddess of death and the underworld…
The “eight” also refers to an infinity symbol which is a repeated motif within the book.
Ten Low was a sci-fi space opera Western. Is Hel’s Eight one as well?
I’d say so. Maybe more dystopian science fiction than space opera? There are spaceships but most of the action takes place on planets and moons. It’s not particularly hard sci-fi. In that sense it’s more just science fiction.
Hel’s Eight is your second novel after Ten Low, though you’ve also written two novellas called Trigonometry and Advanced Trigonometry, a digital series called Nunslinger, and the upcoming video game Shadows Of Doubt. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Hel’s Eight but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not Ten Low?
I read The Doomed City by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky while I was writing Hel’s Eight, and was blown away by it. So that was undoubtedly a big influence. Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith maybe… The language in prose-poem (and recent Arthur C. Clarke winner) Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles resonated too; it inspired me to think about the cultural context of some of my word choices within the narrative.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; was Hel’s Eight influenced by any of those things?
Absolutely. There’s a strong streak of Alien 3 in the Esterházy sections; the idea of prisoners trapped together and facing an external threat. Ditto John Carpenter’s The Thing.
As we’ve been discussing, Hel’s Eight is the sequel to Ten Low. In the interview we did about Ten Low, when I asked if it was the beginning of a series, you said, “There’s a lot more to explore in the world (at least in my head). But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a series. More like postcards from that universe maybe.” Are you planning on writing any more postcards from that universe?
Ha, that seems like forever ago. I think I was referring to a non-linear story that I was working up at the time, something featuring (mostly) different characters in a different part of the system. That’s been developed since and is what I’m working on at the moment. But I have written a few postcards since then. Mostly in the form of interactive fiction. One called “Welcome To Factus,” where you can play for your life in Falco’s Bar. Another set on a way-station called “Preacher’s Grasp,” which might be the start of a serialized interactive fiction project (if I find time). You can play them for free over on my Itch.io page.
Also, do you think someone needs to read Ten Low before Hel’s Eight?
It was written to stand alone and be accessible for new readers, while people familiar with Ten Low can jump straight back in. That wasn’t a particularly easy task, so I hope I’ve succeeded. To be honest, the stand-alone sequel concept is something my publisher are keen on. Unless the first book in a series does really well, sequels usually see diminishing sales with every subsequent release. But writing a non-direct sequel gave me some breathing room, narratively speaking, so it suited me.
I think readers who come from Ten Low will enjoy seeing Gabi’s development from the first book, and the way Ten’s relationship with the Seekers and the Ifs has changed. As well as new faces and places, some familiar characters return. And I hope readers will enjoy seeing Factus as it was in the past…
So, is there anything else we need to know about Hel’s Eight?
Only that I’ve hidden a few people’s names among the book, including my editor’s. Sorry, George.
Finally, if someone enjoys Hel’s Eight — and, presumably, Ten Low — what gritty science fiction novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out?
It has a very different style, but one of my favorite recent science fiction reads is The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan, a dystopian mosaic novel set in a far-future Bangalore.