Charles Stross Interview
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 0504CSI
Date: April 7, 2005
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- SFRevu: First off, naturally, congratulations on the Hugo nominations. How many were there again?
- Charles Stross: Three nominations. "Iron Sunrise" made the "best novel" shortlist, while two novellas -- "The Concrete Jungle" (from The Atrocity Archives) and "Elector" (from "Accelerando" by way of Asimov's SF Magazine) are on the novella shortlist.
(To say I'm surprised would be an understatement. While triple nominations aren't unheard of -- Cheryl Morgan also got three nominations this year, for her non-fiction -- they're still unusual.)
SFR: How can folks find your nominated stories on the web?
CS: All the short Hugo nominated works are likely to be published on the web, and the committee of Interaction (the world science fiction convention this year) will be linking to them. I believe further information will be added at:
in due course. My stories will be on the web within the next week, both at Asimov's SF magazine (http://www.asimovs.com/ -- "Elector") and at Golden Gryphon's web site (http://www.goldengryphon.com/).
SFR: How many "Accelerando" stories are there, and have they ever been put into one book together? Could you tell us a little about where they start and where they go?
CS: "Accelerando" is both the title of my next forthcoming novel (due out from Ace on July 1st and in the UK from Orbit on August 4th) and of a series of nine stories that were published in Asimov's SF Magazine from 2000 through 2004. I originally wrote them as linked stories, with an overarching plot in mind; if you like, the stories constitute a public first draft of the novel. (It's more tightly organized than the term "fix-up" would suggest.)
One of the weirdest big ideas in SF (and big ideas don't come along that often) is the Singularity -- the idea that the rate of technological change is accelerating, and if you extrapolate this tendency you end up with a point not too far in the future beyond which traditional extrapolation becomes impractical. The idea isn't completely new -- Robert Heinlein originally pointed out the implications of exponentiating change back in a 1945 essay -- but in the late 1980's and early 1990's Vernor Vinge (who then worked as a professor of computer science) took a look at it, and asked himself how it applied to the idea of Artificial Intelligence. His first major public talk on the subject (presented at a NASA symposium in 1993) is on the web, here:
Vinge wasn't the only person working on these ideas -- in particular, Professor Hans Moravec of CMU discussed the implications of AI at length in his book Mind Children (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0674576187/) -- but he was the first SF writer to drag it front-and-centre in his fiction from the late 1980's onwards, in such novels as Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon the Deep.
Because of the unknowability of the post-singularity era, Vinge fine-tuned the background of his fiction to allow him to work with human protagonists (or at least, posthumans comprehensible to mere sentient animals like us). But the singularity itself was off-limits, impossible to write about coherently.
In the mid to late 1990's, I was working for internet start-ups. In
1997 I landed a job as, essentially, programmer #1 at a new company of the kind just then becoming known as a "dot-com". (I signed on -- as a contractor, working for the two businessmen who founded it -- two weeks before the company was registered.) Much to my surprise, the company was a success -- it delivered a service that everyone needed (the ability to take credit card payments over the internet for British
banks) and it grew ferociously. In the 90's, we used to half-jokingly talk about "internet years" -- there were five internet years to a real-time year, as much change in any ten weeks as a normal business would see in twelve months. It took its toll on me: the stress of keeping the company's servers running as business grew at a compound rate of 30% per month nearly drove me into a nervous breakdown. By
mid-1999 I was in some seriously strange head-space, and rather than crack I managed to externalize some of it and inject it into a novelette that tried to encapsulate something of the dizzying sensation of being inside the dot-com boom at its peak. That novelette was "Lobsters", and it seemed to demand a sequel, so a couple of months later I started writing a sequel -- and halfway through it, I realized that I had a nine-part story arc and a theme:
"Accelerando" is a family saga. It covers three generations of a highly dysfunctional family, spanning a century or so of real time and the sharp spike of a technological singularity. And it's seen from the point of view of an entity that starts out as the family's pet robot cat, then develops into something much weirder.
SFR: Mike Walsh (Old Earth Books) suggested that I ask how/why you've
chosen/managed to write in a number of different skiffy niches? (e.g.
Cthulhu Mythos via Le Carre, Space Opera, Zelazny like Amber sequence)
CS: I'd like to turn that question upside down: why would any author want to restrict their creative range to only one niche?
Once you publish, if your first book is successful you come under a lot of pressure from your publisher to do more of the same. That's understandable, because in the final analysis publishers exist to make
money: but it's also restrictive. Writing is a creative occupation, and if you write only one thing, endlessly turning out the same material, you risk going stale.
I don't see myself as an SF writer, or a fantasy author, or any other marketing category -- I write about whatever interests me. But as a general guiding principle, I try to retain my freedom to write different types of fiction without being so variable that I alienate my publishers. Which is why I'm mostly stomping around the closely-related genre turf of hard fantasy, techno-SF, and conspiratorial horror/espionage.
SFR: Are your short stories the "well" from which you draw your ideas
for your long fiction projects or is it the other way around; do you
find your novels to be what your short fiction was aspiring to all
along? Do you find it easier to write short or long?
CS: They're different skills, with some cross-over. Different ideas demand different implementations; for example, a long story arc about a feuding family is better suited to a book (or books) than to an individual short story, while a neat technical McGuffin may not work on its own as anything longer than a novelette.
I wrote short fiction when I was younger because I was learning how to write fiction, and a short story is an excellent laboratory: you don't get to the end of six months' work before you discover you made a mistake on the first page. These days I write short fiction for two purposes: to experiment with new ideas that I'm not sufficiently sure of to include in a novel, and for advertising. (Nobody makes a living from short stories -- arguably, only a couple of authors in the field of SF have ever done so, and certainly not since about 1975 -- but they serve a vital role in introducing readers to new authors whose books they might enjoy. Buying a new hardcover for $25 on the basis of nothing more than a cover blurb is a hard thing for most of us to do, but it's a different matter to buy a new hardcover by an author whose short stories we've really enjoyed.)
SFR: Cold you tell us something about the differences between writing SF
and Fantasy (not just elves) but in world building? What challenges do
you find in writing fantasy now given the various movements?
CS: I don't know if I can identify a difference -- at least, for me. In either field I start with one of more counterfactual assumptions and try to extrapolate their consequences. Fantasy is more obviously politicized insofar as there's a lot of cultural baggage in train with the assumptions assumed by adopting a quasi-mediaeval setting, but fantasy does not itself demand mediaevalism or lack of rigour.
SFR: Why is the interest in Fantasy on the rise? Have people given up trying to make sense of reality, or is reality so fantastic that they can only access it through metaphor, or am I talking out my...
CS: Future shock. Times are changing fast, and most of us sooner or later feel the need to switch off, unplug, kick back from the net, and reach back to an age when things were less disquietingly prone to change while our backs were turned.
Much fantasy is, as John Clute observed, consolatory literature: it makes us feel good. We like to be reassured that there is meaning to our lives, that the world is ordered to a plan, and that everything will work out for the best. Normative fantasy often pushes these buttons by providing as a playground for the imagination a world where these values *are* axiomatic, where order *will* eventually prevail over evil, where evil is identifiable and external, true love is eternal and triumphs over adversity, and change is avoidable. There are disruptive fantasies out there (China Mieville's work springs to mind as the current canonical example) but they tend to disturb readers who are looking for a warm bath of consolation.
SFR: What is Extropianism and where can I get more of it? I'm currently
editing an anthology called Future Washington, and it seems like all
the stories are about failure of society, ecosystem, or rationalism.
What happened to SF's belief in the plucky human spirit?
CS: Extropianism is probably the most contemporary expression of the scientism and technocratic ideology of the 1920's that reached the public awareness through the pages of pulps such as Amazing, in the early days of SF. (Note that scientism is not the same as science, it's a belief in the power of science to solve problems -- a quasi-religious belief, as it's rather hard to falsify.) You can find out more at:
I find extropianism interesting (as does Ken MacLeod) because it's deeply unfashionable to be uncritically optimistic about scientism in this age, and besides, extropian optimism tends to latch on to the weirdest and most mind-blowing discoveries and technological developments. I find it somewhat unattractive insofar as its proponents are frequently doctrinaire libertarians (who place almost as much blind faith in the ability of Holy Market Forces to solve all social ills as they do in the Power of Science) -- I'm deeply suspicious of all ideologies that purport to have a universal panacea for our problems.
SFR: Do US writers seem less edgy to you than UK, CA, AZ and others? Or
am I just suffering from the grass is greener syndrome?
CS: The UK is in the middle of a creative ferment in the fields of SF and fantasy, the like of which hasn't been seen for the past fifty years. The past five years have pretty much blown the doors off the barn -- British SF used to be synonymous with downbeat, depressing, introverted, and miserable, but that's ancient history now. I put it down to the epochal changes in the British political culture since 1979, which (for better or worse) have settled the old questions that we tended to angst over between 1945 and 1984: the empire is history, Britain is post-industrial, the old certainties and the climate of gloom have gone. Lest we forget, a century ago the UK occupied much the same position with respect to global dominance, economics, and rival great powers that the US occupies today -- and subject to the same mix of jingoistic defiance and uncertainty about the future.
I suspect many people in the United States have a subliminal sense that the American Century is more than half-over. 9/11 was only partially responsible for the current malaise; look at outsourcing, the rust-belt, the dot-com crash, for other causes. The optimism of the 1990s has seeped away. The USA -- which in 1945 had 50% of the planet's GDP -- is now down to only 28%, and dropping, while rival powers (the
BRIC: Brazil, Russia, India, China) develop ferociously fast and the EU (with a larger GDP than the USA) slowly congeals into a rival democratic superpower.
These are generational changes and they're by no means certain to transpire: they may well not happen. But if the trend is extrapolated, the conclusion is that by the middle of the century the USA will no longer be the sole superpower. And the corollary of this conclusion for the field of SF is that the gray pessimism that afflicted British SF from 1945 to 1979 is likely to relocate itself west of the Atlantic.
The flip side of the coin is that the pessimism and gloom of imperial decline also produced some master-works of SF; it's a different kind of fiction, not necessarily worse.
SFR: What did you think of the machinima anime of Rouge Farm? What was your involvement with the project? (http://www.roguefarm.com/)
CS: I wrote the short story for an anthology edited by Lou Anders, "Live without a Net", back in 2003. One of my friends, Hugh Hancock, has been involved in machinima for years -- he runs http://www.machinima.com/ among other things, and produces machinima work on a small scale.
Machinima is still a small field. He proposed writing a script and getting funding to produce it, and hooked up with some guys from STV (Scotland's main commercial TV company) to go for a New Found Land award. The original goal of producing it as machinima sort of melted away leaving Hugh's script in the hands of the guys who eventually made the film using some machinima techniques, and a mix of other methods. I had little involvement in the film itself, but I'm happy with the results.
(It's going to be shown on TV for the first time in Scotland next month
-- on STV on Thursday the 7th of April at 11pm.)
SFR: Have you seen Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy? Do you watch anime?
CS: No, and yes -- but not much (I watch about 5 hours of TV a week: after working in front of a computer screen all day it's the last thing I need to spend more time with!).
SFR: Do you remember any of the early fiction you read? What captured your imagination?
CS: The first SF novel I read was Janus, by the late Andre Norton. I think I was about five years old when I ran across it in the public library. When I was eight I saved up all my pocket money for the unimaginable period of ten weeks, so I could buy the Lord of the Rings -- I'd read it a few times already, but I wanted my own copy! I drained the library like a vampire before I was 12. (Adult section as well as children's -- they made no attempt to stop me.)
What really captured my imagination, though, was being woken up and going downstairs at about 5am one morning to watch grainy black and white TV footage of a man in a bulky white suit climbing down a ladder -- onto the Moon. Like every other five-year-old boy I think I spent the next year wanting to be an astronaut when I grew up. Boy, was I disappointed ...
SFR: How did you get into writing fiction? Was it something you'd wanted
to do for a long time or something you've always done? Are you a storyteller by nature?
CS: I began writing daily some time when I was 11 or 12 -- but I think I first tried writing an SF story when I was about 8 or 9. The details are lost in the mists of time, but by the time I was 14 I knew I wanted to be an SF writer when I grew up. Don't ask me why; it's a pretty weird ambition. If I'd known it would take me 25 years to achieve it I might not have bothered ...
SFR: When and how did you get started in writing about computers? Do you
still find them as interesting as when you started, or have your interests moved elsewhere?
CS: I don't come from a computing family, and when I was at school (in England, in the 1970's and very early 1980's) computers were exotic -- the school acquired a computer lab and began teaching computing about 18 months before I left for University.
While at University I bought my first word processor in 1985 -- an Amstrad PCW. The word processing package this all-in-one machine shipped with didn't have a word count, so I began investigating this thing called BASIC. I was studying for a wildly inappropriate professional degree (blame the school careers counselor!) and puttering around in CP/M was much more interesting than learning the minutiae of pharmaceutical law and ethics. Over the next couple of years I became more disenchanted with my career path and more interested in computer science until I managed to crawl back to a University and study for a conversion degree in CS.
While doing that degree I bluffed my way into writing some review features for the British magazine Computer Shopper. Shopper was a rather eccentric mag, edited with a whim of iron by some of the last of the great early-80's journalists, and they believed it was easier to train up an expert in what they needed to know in order to write for a magazine than it was to take a journalism graduate and turn them into an expert. (British journalistic practice -- at least, in the newsstand magazine sector -- is very different from American practice, with much content being written by freelance writers with no journalistic qualifications.) I ended up writing the free software (Linux) column in Shopper, when they decided they needed one, and didn't miss a deadline in over five years. (Hitting deadlines is a skill which is, I think, rather a useful one to cultivate as a freelance fiction writer.)
SFR: Is the Singularity still coming? Do you think it will arrive with a bang, or at least a bell? (I vaguely remember a story in which an awakening AI rang all the phone bells in the world at the same time) Or will it creep over us like the frog in a gradually heating pot? I often wonder if I'm in the vascular system of a giant creature waiting
at a smart traffic light. Is this how we started, I wonder?
CS:Despite carrying a heavy rep around as being Mr Singularity, I'm an agnostic on the subject. The singularity is the Rapture of the Nerds, and all that (or maybe the Rapture is the singularity of the god-botherers): in many respects, the most interesting thing about the singularity is the sociology of our reactions to it.
SFR: Wouldn't Post-Humans make a mess out of society once they've cut
themselves loose from their own herd instinct programming?
CS: First, we need to establish that they would want to cut themselves loose from their herd instinct programming. I'm not sure that's a reasonable assumption to make. Western cultures make some very odd uses of the words "freedom" and "liberty", which are by no means universal among human societies -- and I'm not convinced they're necessarily good for us in the long run. Moreover, we don't know how posthumans will handle social interactions at all -- one pet idea of mine is that they'll simply come with a better theory of mind than we humans possess, and will (at least superficially) appear better socialized than we are -- at least, when they're interacting with us. (Count your fingers after shaking hands!)
SFR: What's the next book? What are you working on now?
CS: I'm currently working frantically on The Jennifer Morgue, a sequel to The Atrocity Archives that's due to be published in December 2006.
(If TAA was a Len Deighton spy thriller, then TJM is the Ian Fleming/Broccoli family franchise remix.)
Behind that is my next SF novel, Glasshouse, a stand-alone set in the universe created by "Accelerando", some centuries later. It's due out in August 2006, but the deadline is later than that of TJM.
After them, who knows?
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