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Interview: Authoritarianism and free will with Caelan Ho

There is nothing more exciting than a story that transports you to a place or a situation that is beyond our current understanding. In building a world of possibilities, the winners of our sci-fi writing competition 'One Day in 2070' set out to tackle big issues like the role and power of government. We caught up with highly commended author, Caelan Ho, about his story 'The Government' and government, power and freedom,

UN: Your story ‘The Government’ tells the tale of two men living under an authoritarian government. What inspired your story?

C: My story may have been subconsciously lifted from the Hunger Games … like a lot: I will leave it to any readers to connect the dots. In hindsight, I realise that there was a lot of ways that I could have written this better, and the wandering plot line kind of makes me cringe now. But overall, the story that I would have written today would have had the same message.

"Joe sipped at the black, tasteless chemical concoction that was supposed to be ‘food’ and grimaced at the bitter taste of it. Nevertheless, he finished the rest of the mixture in a single gulp, since wasting anything was practically a crime. No matter how many years passed, he would never get used to the terrible taste that the scientists in cell 245, the food nutrition department, managed to conjure up."

UN: There are lots of warnings in this dystopian future. What key message would you like readers to take away?

C: One of the main lessons that I want people to take away from this story is that you always have some element of control, no matter how hopeless the situation might appear or how inconsequential your actions may seem. I recently rewatched Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and they raise the interesting concept that Nazi Germany, and by extension all dictatorships, are founded on the belief that humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. They also mention that for this to work, humanity's freedom must be given up willingly, otherwise the whole system will crumble. A better way of putting it is that we are not slaves to what we think is unavoidable, or what we think must be done. We are what we do and our united actions have power.

UN: What tips would you give young people who want to write a science fiction story but don’t know where to start?

C: I am not exactly in a strong position to give advice to other young people hoping to write science fiction: after all, my English literature grades for GCSE that I received recently were ... slightly inadequate for my tastes. Furthermore, everyone has different styles of writing, through which they produce the best work. I feel that one of the reasons I sense that my writing came out slightly wrong is because I hadn't fully realised what made me "tick", so to speak. My current preference is to focus on the characters, whereas when I wrote my story, I get the impression that I focused too much on the setting, which isn't suitable in a short story context. However, I feel that a universal piece of advice is not to write something that isn't you, even if it is embarrassing like it was for me, picking it up after two years, because it can reveal a lot about who you are.

Lesson one: Year Nine and Ten me definitely lost a few brain cells over the lockdown. Jokes aside, I definitely get the feeling that this story was an expression of rebellion against authority, not so much against the lockdown and more against personal matters in my life. Although it was not intentionally written this way, I feel that reading back on it, I was penning down how frustrated I was by my parents' control over my life. My skills of speaking in front of other people, and putting up a confident face, even when I'm feeling anything but, have improved drastically, for which I will be grateful to the Utopia Now team forever.

We are what we do and our united actions have power.

UN: At the Utopia Now launch event you spoke about how new technologies should be people-centred. Why do you think it’s important for scientists to think about what young people want and need?

C: I feel like I may have misspoken in the questions at the end because I meant to say that it should be any plans for the future should be based on the young. We can't base our hopes on technology that hasn't been developed yet, like the current government is doing, because these are factors that are outside of our control. After all, no one can predict the future; and even if it will happen, there is no guarantee that it will be enough. We shouldn't base our path going forward on what the old believes to be right, no matter how experienced or wise they may think themselves to be, because they won't be the ones living with the decisions. Technology has its limits, no matter what science fiction may say. Therefore, the young should have a say, because we are the biggest stimulants for change.

UN: What three things do you think can help to make the world a better place?

There are a lot of things that could make the world a better place, so defining just three is hard to do. But I believe that most importantly of all, we have to believe in our own strength as a species to change the path that we have set ourselves by polluting the world. In my story, it is described how this leads to an apocalyptic authoritarian state, and it is my hope that humanity can still avoid this fate. We are at a turning point in history, between order and chaos, and when it all comes down to it, the thing that can never be taken away from us is our free will.

Read Caelan Ho's story 'The Government' in our flash fiction anthology 'One Day in 2017'


Bio: A bit about myself: I’m a 16-year-old half Chinese, half Malaysian British student who is going into year 12 and recently received his GCSE grades, which were on the whole fine, apart from English literature, which is beautifully ironic. I play two instruments, the trombone and the tuba, and I’m also a big fan of racket sports, like table tennis, badminton and tennis when I was younger. I am taking maths, music, chemistry and economics for my A-levels, and I’m looking to study economics hopefully at Oxbridge. Although I’ve never liked English much as a subject at school (and am secretly glad I never have to touch Pride and Prejudice ever again), I enjoy reading a lot, especially books like the Percy Jackson series, and I write occasionally, one of the only things about this subject that I sort of like, and that was how this journey started: and believe me, I was not expecting to be back two years later :).



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