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Is Charles Stross The 21st Century's Ian Fleming? by Ernest Lilley
Charles Stross Interview  ISBN/ITEM#: 0702CSI
Date: February 2007

Links: Author's Website - The Antipope Zone /

We interviewed Charles just last year when we reviewed Iron Sunrise (see: Charles Stross Interview) And thought we'd talked to him again as we review The Jennifer Morgue this month.

SFRevu: Stross...Charles Stross, eh? So you've switched from Harry Palmer to James Bond...how long have you had these dreams that you were the 21st century's Ian Fleming? How many "Laundry" stories have there been now? (And please don't get cured...you're doing quite a nice job).

Charles Stross: Only the two books so far, although I have plans for a few more. No more Len Deighton or Ian Fleming -- the third, when I write it, will pastiche another British spy writer's style. However, other work commitments mean I won't be able to write it until next year, meaning it's unlikely to see print until 2009.

SFRevu: You've taken the MetaBond and updated it in The Jennifer Morgue, though I have to say using the ALT/Bond plot instead of the usual one was a dirty trick. As I'm sure your main character would agree. So, tell us about the arduous preparation you went through before writing Jennifer Morgue. Hadn't you seen all the Bond films before? Like, dozens of times?

CS: Well, Bond is something of a British icon. I'd read all the original books by the time I was twelve; the movies get shown on TV regularly every Christmas Day. So what I had to do was basically play catch-up. Swallowing a couple of Ian Fleming biographies proved fruitful, and I ploughed my way through about three quarters of the movies over a three month period, with a friendly director who was able to point me at aspects of the production I'd have missed otherwise.

SFRevu: Isn't it weird to enjoy stories about secret government agencies that operate with little apparent oversight? Why does this seem like a good thing when we're reading these stories and not as much of one when we're watching the news?

CS: Well, why do we enjoy reading stories about Lovecraftian horrors, squamous and rugose, when our likely reaction if we were to meet the Real McCoy would be to flee screaming?

Escapist fiction gives us a vehicle for vicariously experiencing stuff that's actually quite painful, unpleasant, and undesirable -- and romance and adventure at the same time (which are also about as rare as the painful, unpleasant stuff). There's a wish fulfillment aspect to spy fiction: "imagine if, instead of being dull bureaucrats with a tendency to do sleazy things like listen in on our phone calls, these folks were dedicated public servants protecting us gallantly from hideous nightmares?" Realism, alas, is no match for fiction. And James Bond is an almost perfect photographic negative of the personal attributes that MI5 are looking for when they go recruiting.

SFRevu: Your site says you're working on Halting State, a thriller set in the software houses that write multiplayer games. Which raises a couple questions. How's it going, and what's it really about?

CS: It's finished, it's due for publication in the US on October 1st, and that's a fairly good description of what it's about. I'm half-afraid to say more, because it's near-future SF and chunks of it had a dismaying tendency to come true during the writing -- but let's just say it starts when the real world police are called in to investigate a bank robbery in a swords'n'sorcery universe, and goes downhill rapidly from there.

SFRevu: So, multiplayer games. Do you still? Which ones? And: how do you find time for them?

CS: I don't have the time, so I go to extreme lengths to avoid them. Like not owning a Windows PC, which is a good start. Sorry.

SFRevu: Way back in 2003 you said "British SF is currently fermenting like a weird yeast culture created by a deranged genetic engineer in search of the ultimate grey goo. It's positively scary this decade! ... I'm just the leading edge of a wave that's reaching the US publishing field relatively slowly because first it has to cross the Atlantic."

So, how's the surfing? Who's hanging on the beach with you and any other beach metaphors you can throw in.

CS: Um, let's see: Liz Williams. Tricia Sullivan. Paul McAuley. Iain M. Banks. Ken MacLeod. John Meaney. Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Stephen Baxter. Peter F. Hamilton. Eugene Byrne. Mike Cobley. Hal Duncan. Neal Asher. Richard Morgan. Geoff Ryman. Ian MacDonald. Alastair Reynolds. China Miéville. Do any of these names sound familiar?

They're all British writers who got going after 1985, in fact after 1983, when Interzone's editors scratched their heads, looked west, asked "why the hell don't we have some equivalent of this cyberpunk thing?" and issued an editorial call to arms.

Interestingly, about half of them really only caught fire after 1995, career-wise. And there's no manifesto and no movement and no anti-movement propaganda and no huge controversy; it's just that there are a lot of relatively young (young in this context means "under 50") SF/F writers pushing the envelope.

Back in 2005, 60% of the books on the Hugo shortlist were British. Now, the Worldcon was held in the UK back then, so some selection bias can be suspected .. but sixty percent?

SFRevu: You stopped writing the Linux column for Computer Shopper what, four years ago? Has technology gotten boring now that all the gadgets of the nineties have been commoditized?

CS: I have become jaded and cynical and annoyed that the tech industry stubbornly refuses to give me what I want. Which is probably the One Laptop Per Child hardware (with a slightly better keyboard) at the OLPC price. If we can give kids in developing nations a $150/GBP 80 laptop that runs for 8 hours on battery and can survive being drop- kicked across a playground, why can't they sell something like that in Currys?

Hint: capitalism is a wonderful system for hitching consumer demand to market forces ... then running off the road and getting stuck in the ditch of a local minimum.

SFRevu: Spam, I am. The day I've often feared arrived this morning. I was reading spam to find out how the story ended. Isn't it scary/interesting that the spamwars are likely to spin off AIs before benevolent wonks get to it?

CS: I nearly missed this interview due to a spam filter. Because I get over 500 spams a day, to me, personally, some of them in weird character sets that my computer doesn't have installed (and I have a lot on board).

Sooner or later I fear it's going to drive me off the net.

SFRevu: Why hasn't Linux taken over the world, and who's more evil...Apple or Microsoft. Do you own an iPod?

CS: Wrong question: it should be how many iPods do I own?

I use Linux. I use Mac OS/X. I mostly use Mac OS/X for work, but I'm trying to ensure I'm platform-agnostic. I refuse to use Windows on a point of principal, but it's a bit shop-worn these days given how generally evil most of the large corporations are when it comes to defending their turf. (For example, Apple's Fairplay DRM is in no way less evil than any of the intrusive nonsense like the Windows Genuine Advantage scam that Microsoft has tried to foist on us, and it's positively benign compared to Sony.)

SFRevu: World going to hell in a hand basket? Options?

CS: The world is not going to hell in a hand basket. Today, about 1 billion people have inadequate access to clean drinking water and enough food. This is an appalling figure ... until you realize that back in 1970, about 1 billion people had inadequate access to [ditto], and the world population has doubled since then.

The fact of the matter is, the proportion of people with too little food and no clean water has just about halved in little over a generation. The "population time bomb" has fizzled, and while we're going to be a bit crowded for a while, if we don't solve the aging problem soon our descendants are going to have lots of elbow room by 2107. We've had a green revolution that allowed us to feed everyone, and nobody seems to have noticed that Soylent Green just ain't needed.

Yes, we've got big problems -- global climate change, for starters, and the apparent tendency of our dominant political system (social democracies) to degenerate into closed semi-hereditary oligarchies with a free market obsession. Not to mention a backlash against change triggered by future shock and bad politics which is truly awesome in its scale, generating fundamentalist mobs worldwide. But these are probably still fixable, if we get working on them and make an effort to understand their causes rather than relying on tired ideologically loaded rhetoric.

Longer term ... in the long term, we are all dead. But that's not my problem, is it?

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