High-Tech Corrupted Worlds: A Discussion with Elias J. Hurst

The narratives that easily catch our attention are ones that were already lingering around in our psyche ghostlike before we encounter them, stories of love, death, and adventure, stories that stir us, reminding us of our duty, reminding us of death. 

These are the stories that Elias J. Hurst spins. His most recent novel, Europa, provides that feeling of distant familiarity that keeps you turning the pages where you learn more about an unknown superweapon that threatens humanity, a mysterious enemy, a conspiracy, and a betrayal. Hurst has written three novels, Planning a Prison Break, Lenny, and, most recently, Europa. We talk about Michael Crichton, climate change, cyberpunk anti-heroes, video games, and upmarket vs. postmodern narratives. 

RT: The most famous early science fiction writers were all scientists by training, but in more recent history, the big science fiction writers are idea guys rather than scientists. However, your background is in toxicology, photonics, and millimeter wave communications. Do you feel linked to that older tradition of science fiction writers as scientists? Does your work in science directly inform the stories you write or are those two worlds separated somewhat?

EH: This is where I show my lack of knowledge of sci-fi classics. I started writing sci-fi because of how much I loved Michael Crichton’s books growing up. From middle school on, he was my favorite author. As I understand it, he started out pursuing a writing degree at Harvard and switched to medicine because of conflicts with a lit professor. I believe the scientific education he received while pursuing his M.D. absolutely shaped his approach to science fiction. The concepts in his books are based on technologies of the time but pushed to an extreme. Sphere may be an outlier there, but I think of Jurassic Park, Congo, and Timeline. His approach to science fiction informed mine. Europa is soft-sci-fi/cyberpunk, but my scientific background shapes the technologies that define the environment in it. mmWave technologies in particular play an important role in Europa. We are rapidly moving toward a wireless world—5G and electronic warfare are only the start of it—and I wanted to extrapolate that forward into future dystopia of Europa. 

RT: Right, Crichton is an interesting figure because while he does have a science background, a lot of his novels have anti-science messages, Westworld and Jurassic Park especially. Both frame the idea that technological advances will threaten humanity--or, in other words, technology moves us backwards, researching genetics takes us back into the Jurassic. 

Where are you with your outlook on technology and the scope of human progress. Are we headed to utopia, dystopia, or something else? 

EH: That’s an interesting angle. I hadn’t really thought of the message in Crichton's books in that way, but I see that there are anti-science tones to it. Certainly, this is what happens when you play forces you don’t fully understand. That idea of moving backward is also present in Timeline. I don’t see us barreling toward an apocalyptic wasteland. The age of traditional war is over. The risks don’t meet the rewards. Now it’s about covert destabilization and monetary warfare. Why fight all-out and risk mutual annihilation when you can slowly motivate another nation to tear itself apart through political and financial tensions? I don’t imagine us reaching a utopian outcome like Star Trek either, for two reasons: the disproportionate benefit of technological implementation and unchecked corporate power. As an example, the most useful and commercially successful electronic vehicle (EV) in the US right now is the Tesla. However, only a tiny percent of the world’s population can afford one. If you are wealthy enough to own a home with solar energy, a battery wall, and a Tesla, you no longer need gas and you no longer pay an electric bill. You are now insulated from fluctuations in global oil and energy prices. As more and more car manufacturers move toward EVs, the accessibility of the technology will expand, but those who can afford to adopt early will have reaped the benefits much longer. In the case of electric vehicles the consequences may not be so dire, but there will come a time where this technology is a medical advancement—something that will prolong our life—and then the impacts on society will be immense. Seeing how a wealthier person can increase their wealth by accessing solar energy and EVs early, it’s not hard to imagine how medical advancements (particularly if they are privatized) could lead to something like the meths in Altered Carbon. That’s by no means a criticism of people who have money, but a critique on how technology is implemented. Often, new technologies are transitioned into commercial enterprises and the need for profit will always make them most accessible to those who can pay for it. As for corporate power, I think of a Canadian sci-fi series called Continuum. In Continuum, there comes a point where instead of the government bailing out companies, companies bailout (and own) the government. I don’t know that I have a good argument for why I envision this outcome. It’s a feeling. But watching certain companies expand their power and wealth rapidly during a pandemic reminds me of the original Deus Ex game. 

RT: Yes, we’ll have meths soon enough, but I don’t think they’ll have to resleeve. Extending life will all be done via genetic therapy. You essentially give the cell the blueprint for what to do and it will do it. Once time travel is possible, I imagine really bored grandsons of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos recreating the Highlander competition, gathering a few hundred dudes together and sending everyone all back thousands of years to hunt each other down across the centuries. It could make for a dynamic reality television show.

I like the possibility of an end to traditional war, but what about the global response to environmental disruptions? What happens once hundreds of millions of people are displaced and turn into climate crisis immigrants? All the sudden land becomes a, excuse the pun, hot commodity. And securing land is the oldest of reasons to fight a war. 

EH: I like the idea that the future super elite will make a live action reality Highlander for entertainment. Remakes, prequels, and sequels are all the rage. 

Agreed, I don’t know that longevity will hinge on the creation of digital consciousness. Genetics is advancing quickly. I also imagine a technology like in The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton, where nanites are constantly repairing the body, making humans immune to aging, disease, the whole show. 

Even in a situation where extreme climate outcomes make swaths of land no longer habitable, I don’t imagine wars like we saw in the 20th century because the risk of mutual destruction would still exist. It may be easier to destabilize and move in under the guise of a peace keeping force than to outright invade. But if things get bad enough, all bets are off.

RT: In traditional cyberpunk, the hero is really more of an anti-hero, following a loose ethical system, surviving as a bottom feeder by scraping data for profit, taking drugs, and existing on the margins. Figures like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have lived out the cyberpunk ethos and suffered the consequences. Does the 21st century still need this type of anti-hero that blurs the lines of legality and pushes toward a deterritorialized existence? Will cyberpunk heroes and anti-heroes change to reflect a changing world and changing values or is what they are here to stay, an archetype or artifact of a particular era and beloved for it--kind of like a World War II era fighter pilot or a Knight of the Round Table?

EH: The protagonists of cyberpunk are anti-heroes by necessity. The systems of governance in cyberpunk stories are often so corrupt that a lawful-good hero would be more an agent of oppression than a hero. The anti-hero, although morally gray, is also a likable trope. Their reluctance, cynicism, and black humor inject levity and balance into stories that would otherwise be too self-serious. The real world will always have need for anti-heroes. Although their morally gray behavior may bring harm to some, they serve as an important mirror of society.

As for Snowden, some argue that he did what was necessary to bring attention to an egregious violation of the US constitution. Others argue that he endangered American soldiers worldwide, and that nothing is worse than loss of life. I’m not sure who’s wrong or right. Regardless, Snowden started an important conversation.

Where the genre is headed? Well, the grizzled anti-hero will always have a place in cyberpunk and science fiction. Some character frameworks are just successful. It’s like this: some cars will always stay in style--some fonts will always look nice on page. It’s important that the genre evolves beyond its current state to embrace a wider idea of what a protagonist in these high-tech, corrupted worlds could be. I recently learned that the earliest cyberpunk writers were highly experimental. I wonder if that’s an element of the genre that has faded. Cyberpunk has this aesthetic that I love. I got hooked after I played the original Deus Ex game. I love the neon-drenched, dystopian mega-cities, but we risk becoming stale when we only focus on what we already love. That’s been weighing on me as I revise my next novel and try to decide where it belongs.

RT: I've never played Deus Ex, but I've been a gamer since unwrapping a NES the Christmas of 1987. My gaming, coming so early in life, predated an interest in science fiction both as a reader and writer, and it poses a challenge to me that the expectations we have of video games inform the expectations we have of stories. I've tried to resist writing tidy Hero's Journey narratives even though I understand that Star Wars rakes it in by recycling Joseph Campbell's hero quest ad nauseam. Instead, I try to write complicated heroes and villains that don't simply exist as the good guy/girl or enemy qua antagonist of the main characters. Does this challenge resonate with you? Does the overlap between video game and fictional narratives come to you more as a dilemma or boon?

EH: Deus Ex is a great series. I'm particularly fond of the oldest one, but that's more based on nostalgia than any arguable difference in the quality of the games. 

I see you have a PhD in literature, so you have a grasp on story telling mechanics that I do not. When you are starting out in chemistry, you tend to work with relatively benign chemicals, but when you reach a PhD level in synthesis, you could quite easily poison everyone inside the building or destroy it completely. So, I tend to stick to simpler narratives, like the tried and true Hero's Journey, because I can use them successfully. I also read a lot of upmarket fiction, like Crichton, growing up. That shaped my approach. Upmarket can have challenging narratives and a complex prose style, but I see its purpose as more about entertaining than advancing the craft of writing or storytelling. Like you say, Star Wars churns out the same Hero's Journey narrative over and over because people like it. It doesn't do much to advance the franchise nor the quality of writing in A-list movies, but it does make for entertainment with wide appeal. 

I see video games as a boon to writing. Video games have inspired some of the tone and atmosphere in my writing, and I'm not sure how much they impact the narrative. What is enjoyable to do in a video game doesn't often translate to something that's enjoyable to read. Do you think they've contributed to over-simplified narratives in popular fiction? 

RT: Short answer, no. Long answer, the pleasure of a play is knowing how it ends. If you look at the history of literature and genre, the narratives have always been fairly recognizable, reflecting the basic certainties of human existence, namely the comedy of love and the tragedy of death. We all live within these master narratives. Human civilization has mainly been defined by the Hero’s Journey for millennia. Yet, I'm more drawn to the ambiguous and indeterminate narratives of postmodernism, where the incoherence of contemporary life is reflected in narrative arcs that don't end with all the pieces tied up tidily together. 

As for video games, that’s a billion-dollar industry. Games are engineered to provide enjoyment, giving gamers little rewards along the journey to the big reward at the end, where everything is set to rights. Though one first experiences games as a child to help prepare for adult life, games take on a much different purpose as one ages. Games entertain. And one of the most entertaining narratives of all is of ultimate victory. Victory isn't simple. It isn't easily understood. We’re drawn to the winners and their stories because we want to share in their glory and maybe learn how to replicate those achievements in our own life. Turning to the final page and enjoying the victory is cathartic, it provides a release, a long exhale before we have to go back to facing all our old fears once again.

I wonder what the title of your next novel is and the premise. Also, where can we find more about your writing online? 

EH: The Hero’s Journey is probably the most engrained in the human psyche, even to the point of genetic memory, and maybe that’s why it’s such a successful framework. I do tend to stick to it, but also craft more complex endings. They're often more rewarding, as they feel more real. Life has victories, but it’s rarely neat and tidy. The ending of Europa is challenging for this reason. 

The dopamine reward feedback system of games is incredibly clever. It’s also dangerous. You can get as stuck in that feedback loop as any drug addiction. I wonder what impact the Skyrims of the future will have? 

The working title of my current novel is Black Maria. It’s about a small-town girl who thinks she has discovered magic but becomes ensnared by a dangerous new technology instead. 

The best place to find information about my writing is my website, http://eliasjhurst.com. All of my books are linked there along with a blog where I post short stories, music I write, and other art.